This is just about the 10th anniversary of this website.
But rather than celebrating this milestone with a BIG post, event, or announcement, I’d rather just whisper it into cyberspace. “Happy Birthday!”
Over the years, my work on this website has gone from highly active to highly inactive. There was a period of time when I was posting new content daily for over a year. And now, my posting comes in almost 2-year increments.
You could say I’ve gotten busy. There was a time toward the middle of this period where I was working two full-time jobs to help support my family. But you could also say that it didn’t matter to me as much. Yes, I have now been living in Korea for over 16 years, but it’s been a 16-year struggle in many ways (as all life is, when you come right down to it).
Living in Korea for such a long period of time may seem like a dream come true for fans of the language, food, and pop culture. But the reality of a situation often does not live up to one’s expectations of it.
Of course, I can also say that when I came here, I had zero expectations beyond earning money to pay down my student loans. So, in that way, Korea has far exceeded my expectations. I’ve gotten married, started a family, developed close relationships in this city, established somewhat of a career, bought a house and car, entered into Korean society in new and unique ways, become a “favorite” son-in-law.
But at the same time, if your expectation had been that living 16 years in a country should certainly be long enough to become fluent in its language, then you need look no further than some immigrants in the United States who never learn English. No, 16 years, 20 years, even 50 years is NOT a long enough time to merely live in a country and become fluent in its language – or even customs.
If, as is the case with many pockets of immigrants the world over, you merely live a “normal” life, remain enclosed in your immigrant community, and work in a capacity that requires little interaction in the other language, then you will never learn more language than is required in the limited capacity with which you use it. Therefore, fluency becomes only a pipe dream without a concerted effort and a long-term vision for the future.
Take my position in Korea, for example. Although I have certainly had many more opportunities and experiences that other ESL teachers never have, you can see that there is a common thread in how I’ve allowed myself to live my life.
- I teach ESL. In my first academy, speaking Korean in class was actively discouraged because they wanted to create an immersive English environment. However, this ultimately led many teachers, myself included, to actively avoid learning Korean altogether, apart from what was necessary for survival. This also meant that for 6 hours a day, it was my “job” to speak only my native language.
- I teach computers, also in English. I’ve had many opportunities to teach classes in my college major field. But, the opportunities always spring up in English. And these are on top of my regular ESL hours. At my peak, I was using English for an additional 5 hours per day for these classes.
- Korean friends want to practice English. I don’t actually mind helping people learn English, particularly when they are actively interested in it. I love teaching them cultural expressions, slang, idioms, and the like that enrich their understanding of the language. However, this ultimately means that I practice less Korean than I would have to in a more immersive environment for myself. And it means that even when I try to use only Korean, I often revert to English when I struggle with words.
- I design an English magazine. Again, all articles, and all communication with the committee is conducted in English, so this means that weekends, evenings, and some early mornings are English.
- I attend an English church. This was a big benefit to me for meeting people when I first came to the city. But now it means my whole Sunday is also in English.
- I speak English at home with my wife and kids. My wife and I built our relationship in English (we worked at the same academy). We also agree that using English in the house is important to help kids be immersed in it and reduce the need for them to attend an English academy later.
- I read in English, my hobbies are in English, my music and TV shows, entertainment, social media, messaging apps, phone, computer, and so on are all in English.
Do you see the problem?
Although I’m living in Korea, surrounded by the culture and language on a daily basis, my language-immersion environment is entirely in English!
There’s a reason people can spend half their lives in this country, and never learn more than how to order food and take public transportation. My life is a perfect example of this – and I’m the exception to the norm. I try to learn Korean.
A Bit of Computation
I entered Korea in July 2006. That was approximately 5,900 days ago, almost 16 years and 2 months. I’ve gone home only 5 times, and including my honeymoon, spent a total of almost 5 months out of the country. This means, I’ve spent a total of nearly 5,750 days, or 138,000 hours in the country. I can estimate that around 70% of that time has been spent awake. That’s around 100,000 hours (96,600 calculated, but let’s not forget the extra hours my children kept me awake when they were young, and the early morning hours I spent studying, so it’s rounded up).
Of 100,000 waking hours spent in Korea, I can estimate I’ve spent at least 90% of those hours exclusively using English. This still leaves 10,000 hours I could have used Korean, right? And shouldn’t I be an “expert” after 10,000 hours of practice? But, remember, that’s dedicated practice.
Getting more specific, let’s estimate how many hours I’ve spent actively studying or using Korean.
- 100ish hours in JBNU classes * 2 = 200
- 100ish hours for each level of the KIIP program * 6 (I retook one level twice) = 600
- 400-600 hours preparing content for this blog (a total of 372 posts as of today)
- Let’s estimate 13 years of holidays with my in-laws amounts to 1,000 hours together
- And for the past two years, I’ve been doing my PhD in Korean, but realistically have only used Korean for approximately 100 or so hours in total.
- I’ve also tried to get more involved in Korean social things like church and my kids’ school, but realistically that’s probably only amounted to around 100 hours as well.
So, in total, I can account for only about 2,600 hours of actual “immersion” in Korean (maybe as high as 3,000 total hours) out of a total of 100,000 hours! That’s only 2.6%! That averages out to just a little over 30 minutes per day. Human beings, on average, spend more than double that amount of time just eating. And according to the Foreign Service Institute, Korean is a “super-hard language” that requires 2,200 classroom hours to learn. Hmm, shouldn’t I be better at it by now than I am?
Three interesting quotes stood out to me from a message I saw from pastor Craig Groeschel today:
The greatest enemy to the life you want may be the life that you’re living.
This begs two questions:
- What is the life I want?
- What is the life I’m living?
The solution is not more time. The solution is more of what matters most.
- What matters most (to get the life I want)?
According to his research, people (on average) spend the following amounts of time on technology:
- 706 hours per year on social media
- 2,737 hours per year on TV, Netflix, and the like
- 10,000 hours until age 21 on video games
Imagine what you could do with that amount of time!
You have time for what you choose to have time for.
- What will I choose to have time for?
It’s time to take a deep dive on those questions, and then revisit my problem areas listed above.
What is the life I’m living?
As copied from above:
- I teach ESL – between 2 to 6 hours per day.
- I teach computers, also in English – between 1 to 3 hours per day.
- Korean friends want to practice English.
- I design an English magazine – between 40 to 80 hours quarterly (there are about 13 weeks per quarter, and this accounts for one or two full work weeks – or about 7.5 to 15% of each quarter).
- I attend an English church – between 2 to 4 hours per week.
- I speak English at home with my wife and kids – at least 5 hours per day.
- I read in English, my hobbies are in English, my music and TV shows, entertainment, social media, messaging apps, phone, computer, and so on are all in English – this accounts for the remainder of the 97.4% of my waking life.
What is the life I want?
So, how do we go about getting there? Let’s address each previous point one-by-one:
- I teach computers in Korean and/or English (this combines point one and two above). Actually, I’m currently working on my PhD in a tech field, and have already had a few opportunities to teach classes in Korean. I want to expand this and develop it further.
- My Korean friends speak no English and have no desire to. Of course, I will maintain friendships with Korean friends who can and want to speak English, but the main idea here is to remove from myself the easy cop out of reverting to English when communication gets difficult.
- I freelance in Korean (if necessary). I’ve been meaning to quit this English magazine job for a while anyway because it doesn’t pay according to the hours I put in. And jumping into the deep end with Korean-only jobs would certainly force me to learn and use Korean.
- I attend a Korean church. This is one step I’ve already taken, and though difficult, is one that I expect to pay off in the long run. The more social gatherings, organizations, clubs, and so on that I can join that are exclusively conducted in Korean, the better. This was also one of the main motivations behind beginning my PhD program. I knew I would be forced into a Korean immersion environment.
- I speak Korean with my wife, English with my kids. This is a goal mostly to help my kids continue learning English naturally, but force me to STOP exclusively using English with my wife, and force me into some difficult communication situations with someone who (in theory) should be patient and kind in helping me learn how to communicate in her native language.
- I read and write in Korean, my hobbies are in Korean, my music and TV shows, entertainment, social media, messaging apps, phone, computer, and so on are all in Korean. Now, this one is certainly much easier imagined than actually practiced. For one thing, I don’t yet KNOW all the music, movies, and TV shows I would enjoy in Korean – so I need to explore this. Additionally, at the end of the day, sometimes, I want to be able to relax, but if my life is “Korean only” it will be more difficult to relax as I can’t read or listen to the English books and podcasts I’ve come to love. Korean books and podcasts will be more difficult to understand, enjoy, and relax with.
What matters most (to get the life I want)?
- Korean fluency
- Create (as much of) a Korean-only immersive environment around me (as possible). This involves switching all my devices and accounts to use Korean (in Settings). Also, rather than getting sucked down English-dominated social media (Facebook, blogs), begin immersing myself in Korean-dominated social media (Naver blogs, KakaoStory, etc).
- Challenge myself. This would include establishing habits, and also certain Korean learning milestones tied to certain dates. One such milestone would be taking the TOPIK II before the end of the year (registration begins Sept. 6). Another would be setting a goal to complete and fully update the grammar lessons on Key To Korean – at least for the Intermediate level – before taking the TOPIK.
- Develop a Korean-only immersive mindset. This is perhaps the biggest key, and the most difficult. English is a habit that is easy to fall back on when I’m tired or at a loss for words. But if I can harden a Korean-only mindset (and possibly mantra), then I can fall back on that every time I’m tempted to drop into English (for example, with my wife). I’m currently working on a Language Learning Pledge that can be used as a daily affirmation to help with this.
- Non-ESL university teaching job
- First things first, finish the PhD. Without that, no serious university would consider me for a non-ESL job. This means I need to do research, publish papers, finish my coursework, and write my thesis – no small task. But the research and writing will be conducted in English.
- Proof of my non-ESL teaching qualifications. On paper, I have little non-ESL experience apart from being a high school technology teacher for a few years. But I have begun creating some online courses, and perhaps doing so in Korean would increase my standing among other qualified candidates. YouTube tutorials would be a good start.
What will I choose to have time for?
As things stand right now, I’m not in any big hurry to graduate with my PhD in the upcoming semester. Therefore, it would be better to simply get through this semester, its conferences and coursework, and then spend more time focused on publishing papers and doing thesis level research next year.
But Korean fluency isn’t something I’m willing to let slide any longer by allowing myself to spend only 2.6% of my time, 30 minutes per day, on. The very least I could do is double that investment. And if I’m truly serious about it, I could quadruple it to two solid hours of work per day.
In addition to this, if I can “flip” my life to a more Korean-only immersive environment (by changing Settings, entertainment choices, and hobbies), then that should add an additional 5% or more practical Korean practice time.
10 Years On
So, once again, “Happy Birthday!” (whispered) to Key to Korean.
I began this site in the Fall of 2012 when we were totally broke, with a newborn in the house, in desperate need of a new plan. At that time, I also dedicated myself to growing the site as a byproduct to my own learning Korean (everything on here is what I created for my own personal study).
Now, we continue 10 years on in the Fall of 2022, after the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down (and slowed things down), and I’m once again in need of a new plan. If things go well, the site (and my Korean ability) will grow once again. And another 10 years on, I may look back on this anniversary as the turning point when I finally got serious about Korean fluency. Or not. But hopefully, yes.
The key takeaway for today:
- Do more of the things that matter most
- And less of the things that matter least