Language Acquisition, A Response to “Ask A Korean”

It's all too true, as you'll see below...

It’s probably a bit early to be posting responses to other blogs, seeing as I’ve been posting here for about 10 days, but my thoughts on “Ask A Korean”s post on learning a foreign language have been stewing for a while, so here goes. First off, if you haven’t read the post, go read it now!

Have you read it? Good. Now a few comments. First off, I’d like to say that I’ve read dozens of A Korean’s posts, I think he’s a great writer and really enjoy his blog. It’s a great source of information for foreigners moving to Korea, people with Korean friends, or people who are just curious about Korean culture. I think his posts are insightful and well-thought out.

Ok, of course you can tell with all this diplomatic lead-in that I intend to disagree with the aforementioned post–but I really do mean everything I said in that last paragraph! Nonetheless, I did find a lot of questionable conclusions in his post on language acquisition, and feel a need to engage in a bit of constructive criticism. So here goes. I’m going to assume you’ve read the article, so seriously, if you haven’t, do so now. I’ll summarize his ideas but I’m not going to be giving a full-fledged review here.

A Korean begins with a quick personal introduction, explaining how he came over to the US as a teenager with only limited English education–but nonetheless, by the age of 18, was fully fluent in English, even being capable of gaining entrance into prestigious US universities. And let me say, this is no easy achievement. I’ve met plenty of Americans here in Korea who’ve lived here for years and can’t speak one full sentence in Korean. He definitely has my respect for gaining fluency so fast.

But he goes on to claim that the best, perhaps even the only way to really learn a language, is through rote memorization:

English had to be learned. I tackled this problem like a good Korean student – rote memorization. It seemed obvious to me that without knowing words, my English would go nowhere. I decided that I should memorize every single word in my sight that I did not know. I bought many boxes of empty flashcards and wrote the words I did not know on one side, and the definition on the other side.

Ok, so far, so good. You definitely have to memorize words to learn a language. I’ve been memorizing about 10 Korean words a day here, and I can already see dividends, identifying pharmacies and bookstores by their signs, and I was even able to ask some basic questions today when buying shoes. Anyone claiming that you can learn a language (as an adult) without studying is someone you shouldn’t be getting language acquisition advice from. However, A Korean goes on:

The second factor that set the Korean apart was this – not for one second did he buy into the myth of “fun, immersive language learning.” Instead, the Korean structured his language learning entirely around rote memorization and repetition – the methods that are often renounced by many language teachers and students.

Here’s where A Korean’s claims begin to run off the rails. He argues that language can be claimed “entirely [by] rote memorization”, and claims that immersive learning, where a language learner acquires language through direct exposure to it, is completely unimportant. He states that his (truly) impressively rapid acquisition of English was due completely to his committed study through rote memorization. He ends the article by completely bashing any other approach to learning a language and exhorting those wishing to learn a second language to get out those flash cards.

Now, again, I’m not debating the usefulness of memorization, so let me be clear–you can’t learn a language as an adult without studying hard and memorizing new words every day. Period. He’s absolutely right about this. However, you can’t actually learn a language only through memorization either. And this is where I began to get frustrated with his account. He clearly states that he went to an English-only high school, had English-speaking friends, and even watched American TV for 3 hours a day–and yet he claims that immersion is totally unimportant to learning a language! It doesn’t seem to occur to him that his memorization succeeded only in the context of intense immersion. And this seems to me to be a glaring oversight in his account.

Now, his own view of his experience really isn’t any of my business. I don’t know him, and I have no right to post some 1,000 word post on the internet just railing against someone who views his past through memorization-tinted glasses. But, considering how many readers he has, I’m concerned that many who read his blog will be misled by his program, as it were, for language acquisition. Of course, considering how many (read: few) people read my blog, it’s unlikely that this post will have any effect on his readers. But hey, I’m trying, ok?

So I would just ask that those who read his post consider how much immersion A Korean had while he was learning English. He lived in an English-speaking country, with English-speaking friends, English-speaking teachers, English-speaking TV, radio, newspapers, and books available everywhere, and an incredibly strong need to learn English due to all of the above. One cannot assess his memorization outside of that context. His claims that immersion and fluency-centered approaches are totally ineffectual flies in the face of more than 100 years of research and teacher experience. And it’s totally unsupported by his own experience.

I told you so. I took this picture in Chungju. It's the window of a Hagwon here exhorting students to study all night instead of sleeping.

When considering the best approach to language learning, we need to move past false binaries. The choice isn’t between memorization on the one hand and “fun immersive learning” on the other. It’s bringing both approaches together, building an education structure that rests firmly on the advantages of each. There are thousands of Koreans who studied English intently here in Korea but who can’t actually speak the language to anyone. They know the grammar rules, they have a solid vocabulary, they can write and read the Latin alphabet. But they can’t produce the language to express their ideas nor understand others when they express themselves in English. Memorization is crucial–but it’s not sufficient.

I’d like to end this post with just another reminder that I have deep respect for A Korean, both for his blog and for his achievement in learning English. I can only hope that in two years I’m as fluent in Korean as he became in English. But I do believe he should rethink his language acquisition, and reflect on the advice he’s giving to others on the subject.

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2 Responses to Language Acquisition, A Response to “Ask A Korean”

  1. Carly says:

    I’ve found that I’m one of those language learners who absolutely needs a strong memorization foundation before immersion can have any affect on me. I’m extremely visual, and learning cases and conjugations through charts and flash cards is really necessary for me.

    I kind of feel like I’m missing out on that romanticized idea of learning a language while in a country dining and conversing and going to football games. Even though I’m pretty immersed in French culture, I still feel the effects of my poor foundation of grammar and vocabulary (due to immature study skills in high school, and a non-native speaking teacher, I think). As opposed to when I studied Russian, where I was constantly keeping up with verb charts and memorizing dialogues, and reviewing end-of-chapter vocab words.

    I totally agree with you that there needs to be a balance (or at least use of both methods) when teaching. I just wish I were a more “natural” language learner, but I just really depend on the textbook!

  2. The Korean says:

    Thanks for the comment. Perhaps you will find this follow-up post a little bit clarifying:

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