Learning Korean: Start With Why

I’ve recently been reading a book touted by entrepreneurs and business people as one of the most important books in the last decade. The book has also been followed up with a TED.com talk by the author that’s become the second most watched TED talk on their website (and was previously featured on the homepage). The book is called Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action and it focuses on an important distinction:

People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.

This distinction between the WHAT and the WHY of your actions is important not only in business, but also (especially so) in second language learning. WHAT you do isn’t inherently motivating, but WHY you do it can be.

In the book, author Simon Sinek provides readers with an idea called “The Golden Circle.” The Golden Circle looks like a target with three rings. The inner-most ring is called “WHY”; the second ring is “HOW”; and the outer-ring is called “WHAT.”

Simon Sinek's Golden Circle
Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle

Most often, conventional wisdom and conventional companies start with the outer-ring and move inward, from WHAT to HOW to WHY. On the other hand, innovative, inspiring, and remarkable companies and people reverse the order, beginning with WHY and moving through to WHAT.

Here are some examples of each process as it relates to second language learning. (Both of these are taken from my own personal experience. Consider them a “Before” and “After” look at how I became motivated to study Korean.)

WHAT – HOW – WHY (conventional – the “Before” picture)

  1. WHAT I do: I study Korean.
  2. HOW I do it: I buy a grammar book, go to class, and do my homework.
  3. WHY I do it: Because my significant other wants me to; so I can get a better job someday later; to be comfortable in another country; to make friends in Korean.

As you can see, starting with WHAT seems rather straightforward and the HOW follows along quite naturally. But following everything up with the WHY isn’t really inspired or inspiring. Is my purpose really just an afterthought? Am I truly learning Korean because I want to? Or because I think other people want me to?

On the other hand, when we start with WHY (even if it’s exactly the same WHY), we can create a very different type of motivation for ourselves.

WHY – HOW – WHAT (remarkable – the “After” picture)

  1. WHY I do it: Because my significant other wants me to; so I can get a better job someday later; to be comfortable in another country; to make friends in Korean.
  2. HOW I do it: I buy a grammar book, read it through cover-to-cover and fill it out completely, supplementing my practice with personal homework assignments; I practice Korean at every opportunity; I seek out fun cultural experiences and pop culture – everything that is “real life” for millions of Koreans.
  3. WHAT I do: I learn Korean.

This distinction between merely studying Korean and truly learning Korean is a difficult one to make at first. “Aren’t studying and learning basically the same things?” you may ask. Well, yes, and no, and this is a very subtle but profound distinction that I also personally struggled with at first.

In Korean, to study is 공부하다, and to learn is 배우다. When I first began studying Korean, I used these words absolutely interchangeably. When the teacher asked, “What are we doing now?” I would alternately say, “I’m studying Korean” or “I’m learning Korean” and both were acceptable descriptions of our activity. You see, we were learning Korean through study. Study is the action; learning is the experience. And while both of them are WHATs, they are vastly different WHATs and result from vastly different mindsets.

The “I study Korean” mindset implies hard work, discipline, thick textbooks, and no fun. It leaves much to be desired and drains you of motivation almost before you even start as you think, “Time to focus!”

The “I learn Korean” mindset on the other hand is more organic and opens you up to far more possibilities. You can see every new situation and experience within Korea as an opportunity to deepen your knowledge of the language and understanding of the culture. “I learn Korean” doesn’t confine you to a desk covered with textbooks. It opens you up to a much more “authentic” Korean life experience by way of the Korean language. It’s inspiring and motivating and it all starts with WHY.

But then, let’s return again to WHY. Surely we all can come up with a deeper, more inspiring WHY to study Korean than even what I’ve mentioned above. What are you passionate about? What do you love about Korea? What are you curious about and want to learn more of? What’s your personal Korean-studying WHY?

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