Monday, January 16, 2012


4,000 Hours

A year ago someone told me that they’d read that it requires about 4,000 hours of studying to reach competency in the Korean language. I’d been struggling with finding the motivation to study in an increasingly busy life, and I seized upon this figure as a psychological tool which would give me a sense of there being an end point to my efforts to learn. To that end, I began posting a progress meter at the end of my posts to show my progress towards this fixed goal, fully knowing that any potential failure would be there for the world to see.

And I failed. With the year over, I’m just over 3% of the way towards that 4,000-hour target, which means that theoretically it will take me over 30 years to achieve competency in Korean at my current pace of studying.

Auribus teneo lupum

So what has gone wrong? I can give many reasons but when it comes down to it I believe that in this world you are either in control of your life, or your life is in control of you. Studying a language requires a commitment, mental focus, motivation and enough free time every day to make it happen, and these things are increasingly eluding me.

In retrospect what I believe I should have done when I quit trading for a living in August is taken a year off, and made studying Korean my primary goal with no compromises. Frankly, I’m getting too old to keep studying piecemeal here and there year after year, it doesn’t really work and it’s the road to becoming one of those foreigners who’s lived here ten years and who doesn’t speak the language and never will, but are living here with the delusion that they are still trying. It’s obvious though at this point that it’s the latter fate that awaits me. Perhaps I'm already there.

But with my wife not working after the birth of our first baby, taking a year off would have led to a substantial drain on our savings, even if we had stayed living at my mother-in-law’s place. Our living arrangements were becoming untenable for me though, so we bought our own place last year – in itself a project that took two months of our free time – and the upshot is that our costs have risen by 50% and now we have a mortgage bearing down on us. Despite all this I still could have afforded to take a year out to study, but watching my savings disappear is psychologically something it turns out I can’t easily accept.

So instead of studying Korean, I quickly found a part-time position working as a software engineer – my pre-trading career – and which officially takes 15 hours out of my week but is actually 22 hours with travelling. I was also offered more work at Busan e-FM and took that, I agreed to form a joint-venture business with a large Korean Internet company that approached me but ultimately didn’t manage to get their project off the ground, and I immersed myself in several side-projects which like a lot of things we ultimately do for our job prospects, were time-consuming and lacked any immediate return-on-investment.

My wife did an eight-week TESOL course around this time, which very much left me holding the baby – both figuratively and in reality – and combined with my 'dash-for-cash' efforts to put a liveable income together, this was how I didn’t study in September and October, following the two months I lost due to apartment hunting in July and August.

I began to realise that I used to complain about the long hours working as a trader was demanding, but while I certainly had to sit watching the screens, I did get a lot of other things done at the same time, which amongst other things included studying as well as writing my blog.

The final irony of my choices turned out to be that the financial chaos in August was a bad time to make life-changing decisions; by the year's end I'd still made 64.13% in my trading account, and while that didn't compare all that favourably with previous years, sticking with trading was still a better financial option than everything else I plunged myself into. But in my life I traded the uncertainty of trading for the certainty and greater respectability of salaried employment, and perhaps there's something to be said for stability.

The Maginot Line

Another wider question which has been on my mind in recent months is whether the greater goal should to be to learn Korean at all. In the last year I’ve met a lot of foreigners who have been in Korea for a long time. And one of them - who like the others is completely fluent right down to the body language - quietly told me that if he could live his time over again, he wasn’t sure he’d bother making the effort to learn the language. It’s a shocking revelation for an old Korea-hand, but one I increasingly understand as I reach the personal conclusion that more often than not Korea is a country that does not really reward you for your efforts as a foreigner. Of course, there are people who go native and find some contentment in their lives here - whether in reality or through wilful ignorance – but my own experiences are leaning me towards the idea that it might not be typical.

To wit, consider the case of an English-language radio station I’m aware of – I won’t say which one - that employs foreigners, or Koreans who speak English well enough to be hosts, and is officially run for the benefit of the foreign community in Korea (even though I’m sure the vast majority of the audience are Koreans learning English). There is no prospect of progression into production or management for fluent Korean speakers because that’s their Maginot Line through which the invaders must not cross. What’s more, those defensive fortifications do not just protect against physical incursions, but also the cultural – because one strongly gets the impression that foreign ideas are not really welcome in even this small corner of supposedly multicultural Korea.

Much like the Maginot Line though, I know these defences will eventually be swept away, but like a lot of things in Korea it’s a process which will take a lot of time, maybe even generations. But it’s 2012, and even in an organisation that is meant to be a beacon of multiculturalism I’m still left with the feeling that it's reflective of a multiculturalism that more often than not gravitates towards telling foreigners about your superior culture and trying to help them assimilate into Korea’s monoculture to become almost-Koreans. In fact I’ve long since lost track of the number of Koreans I’ve met who’ve told me they’d like to go abroad – not really to learn from other cultures but to tell everyone about bibimbap, Dokdo, Korea’s four seasons or some other repressed Korean secret they think the world should know and is going to be in awe of once it collectively realises, which it won't.

Now people of limited intellect who like to summarise entire articles in single words will say this is a rant, but I’m afraid it’s far more nuanced than that because personally I have mixed feelings about multiculturalism, and I think the Koreans are entitled to be Korean if they want to be. If part of being Korean means not really accepting foreigners for who they are and largely keeping us in our place so be it, but what it means is that learning Korean does not carry with it the rewards I might be hoping for, which is the prospect of a seat at the table one day, and maybe even a proper job.


I say this attitude doesn’t put me off, but deep down, it doesn’t motivate me either, and after working all day in an office or spending my time babysitting I need more positive rewards than I’m finding to learn the language.

Time is running out. Life is running out. I hope this year will be different while knowing in my heart that it won’t be. But without the hope for change, what is left?

"Koyaanisqatsi" is a Hopi Indian term for "life out of balance".


Talking to myself said...

Again, another riveting read. Please keep up the good work. I agree with some of your thoughts however I do wish I'd studied Korean more when I was there (back living in the UK. For now..).

Anonymous said...

"some other repressed Korean secret they think the world should know"

Fan death. It is imperative the world become educated about fan death!

If you are going to live the rest of your life in Korea, I say learn Korean for no other reason than your son and future grandchildren. I see Koreans here in the US assuming they will always be able to communicate in Korean with their American-raised children. As their kids' English abilities quickly suprass their Korean, the child/parent gap becomes more than generational., it is linguistic and cultural as well. Communication between grandparents who first came here and grandchildren raised here is often reduced to gestures and basic words.

The workplace is one thing; I can't imagine not having a seat at my own family table.

Mike said...

Thanks Talking to myself - hope things are going well in the UK.

Mike said...

Hello Anonymous - you're absolutely right and good points made. Intellectually I'm still committed to learning Korean and I know I have to. Emotionally I'm wavering, I'll admit. Logistically, as people have probably noticed(!), since our baby arrived (an entirely new human species I think - 'homo interruptus') I barely have time to update this blog let alone sit down with my books. I'm now trying to learn from listening to spoken Korean materials while on the subway and finding other ways of squeezing it in...

Simon Davey said...

Hello Mike! I'm in a similar situation as you. I've been here 3 years and my Korean is basic to say the least. My wife and I speak 99% english at home so an easy way to practice Korean is often not utilised. Which is stupid because I advance a lot when we 한국말하자!
Our first baby is on the way so part of me always thinks of the back up plan that I'll learn Korean as he learns Korean.
At work my Korean is kitchencentric but also gives me chance to try out new words..... though working with Busanites is tricky due to their semi-idiotic accent (some think it's charming..... I don't)
Through speaking practice what I DO know sounds clear and understandable. I just hit the books long enough to find some new words or expressions to work on and to dazzle my workmates...... inbetween them being dazzled by my chopstick skills!

Also I think Korean driving would be a great repressed secret to share with the world :)

Mike said...

Hello Simon. Your experience may be different, but I can't express strongly enough how much I wish I'd done everything I could to study Korean more before our baby arrived, because I look back now and see that it was my last best chance to really learn in a concentrated way. I knew I would lose a lot of my spare time after our son was born, but in fact I lost almost all of it, and the energy that goes into taking care of a baby has meant that in the late hours these days after he goes to bed - and stays asleep - I'm too tired to learn effectively or have the motivation to study at all.

I did try and study more back then, but things that don't seem as important now kept getting in the way, and I wanted my own relaxation time as well which everyone else seemed to get, and I didn't see why my life had to be constant work and study for every waking hour of the day. But in the end I've concluded it has to be and nobody is going to cut me enough slack for it either.

Which is all to say, if your experience turns out to be anything like mine, do whatever you can now ! :-)

I think concentrating on functional language you can use - in your case in a kitchen environment - is good because it gives you an immediate reward when you try it out.

Those are some great looking cakes on your blog by the way!

Anonymous said...

Oh dear, I've been here for almost ten years, and am beginning to recognise myself in your analysis. I keep trying to learn Korean and make progress but it is really slow. And I even wear a hanbok in my pointless attempts to assimilate Korean culture.

Now you've got me reconsidering - but it sure beats the hell out of teaching back in 'Broken Britain!'

Great post!

VikingRaider said...

I stumbled on your blog by accident, but replace the word "Korean" for "Danish" and you could be describing me. Us Brits are never much good at languages. I blame my school French teacher for scarring me forever...

Jake in Korea said...

I came here eight years ago. I didn't figure I'd stay. One year turned into the next and I didn't bother to touch a Korean textbook. I finally learned to read and write in my third year. I'm fluent in three languages but I have still failed to pick up Korean. My second language, I learned out of necessity, as it was required in school and also spoken in my home. My third language I learned out of genuine interest and curiosity.

When it comes to studying Korean, I am hemorrhaging money every month, going to classes, reading the books, practicing the writing, doing the homework - but it's just not sticking. I put it largely down to lack of genuine interest and lack of measurable reward.

Measurable reward exists for other expats in that they can make local friends, communicate with local colleagues and talk to strangers. I don't find myself wanting these things and thus they aren't significant motivation for me. Communicating with my wife's family without a translator is also sadly not enough motivation, because while it would be nice, I have to measure out much time I dedicate to learning Korean, versus how much time I invest in the things I need to do (to earn money and support us) and the things I want to do (which don't include studying, or talking to strangers in Korean).

The personal feeling of working towards some type of reward simply doesn't exist for me when it comes to learning Korean. I learn Korean because I'm scared not to learn Korean. I learn Korean because it's what everyone expects me to do. I halfway go to Korean class just as an excuse to get out of my house and do something that isn't related to my work. And if I were fluent in Korean, I don't think I'd make any more friends because most of what I'd have to say, the locals don't really want to hear anyway.

And so I continue going to class and making baby-step progress. Every time I take a month off and go abroad, I feel like I lose about a year of Korean language learning progress because when I'm not studying it, I don't even think about it.

Mike said...

Thanks for the comments VikingRaider and Jake - I'm sorry I haven't responded to them sooner but I haven't been visiting this blog much for reasons which might eventually become apparent and while Blogger still lets me most it no longer lets me post comments in most of the time because while Google aren't evil they've got benign neglect down to a fine art.

Jake - you echoed my thoughts and provided one of the reasons why I've never actually got around to taking up a Korean class. I really feel I have to immerse myself in the language rather than doing bits here and there which end up feeling like wastes of time because I don't seem to benefit from them. How do I immerse myself in Korean when life in Korea for me involves putting in what are effectively 60-70 hour work weeks (and I am not joking) on top of my other responsibilities? I can't so I am at an impasse.

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