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30-Day Challenge

30-Day Challenge: Day #10 – What Lee Byung-Hun can teach you about second language learning

Inspiration: Lee Byung-Hun

From the intro in the above video:

He’s dominated his country’s film industry for more than two decades, starring in some 20 soap operas and more than a dozen films. From the villain in the kimchi-Western drama “The Good, the Bad, and the Weird” to a mob member seeking revenge in “A Bittersweet Life,” Lee Byung-Hun is admired for his method acting.

His appeal transcends borders and he’s even been transformed into a video game character. Last year (2008), he became the first Korean actor to break into mainstream Hollywood with his role as Storm Shadow in G.I. Joe.

I wondered why CNN said Lee Byung-Hun was the first Korean to break out in Hollywood when I also know that Korean singer/actor Rain starred in his own Hollywood movie. Turns out G.I. Joe came out 1 month before Ninja Assassin, so yes, Lee Byung-Hun is the first – and he also might just be the best. The more I read about him and watched his acting, the more I came to respect him as an actor and as a man.

Lee Byung-Hun has gone on to co-star in the 2nd G.I. Joe movie and more recently the 2nd R.E.D. movie.

There’s actually not a lot on the Internet about how he learned English, but there is much we can learn about second language learning from what little I found.

1. Have a to reason to use the language

The Straits Times: 

South Korean actor Lee Byung Hun wishes he had studied English more when he was younger, because he now has to read movie scripts in both English and Korean…

“Yeah, I should’ve learnt more English, but I was lazy, I guess,” he tells Life! in Beverly Hills.

During the entire one-on-one interview, he speaks in English, turning to the interpreter sitting next to him only once. His conversational fluency comes from attending a language centre in Seoul for two years when he was 18, and having English-speaking relatives who live in Los Angeles and Seattle.

It seems that initially, Lee Byung-Hun studied English because of his relatives in America. That’s a pretty good reason to study, but it’s unlikely to provide the driving motivation he’d need to really get good at it.

In fact, except for this short stint in that academy, English doesn’t seem to have really been on his radar until the G.I. Joe script came along (he majored in French Literature in Hanyang university). But, when G.I. Joe came along, he finally had the driving motivation he needed to use the language (and not merely study it).

If you want to get good at a second language:

Figure out how to put that language to use alongside your passions.

2. (Humbly) accept help from a (pronunciation) coach (or three)

World News Korean

이병헌은 “영어를 배운 것은 18살 때부터 2년 동안이 전부다”라며 “운이 좋게도 그때 배운 것을 어느 정도 기억하고 있는 편”이라고 밝혔다.

이어 “촬영 전에 전문 보이스 트레이너가 따라 붙는다는 말을 듣고 안심했다”며 “하지만 현장에서 트레이너가 나에게 할애된 시간은 단 2시간이었다”고 말해 주위를 놀라게 했다. 짧은 시간이었지만 이병헌은 발음 등 집중 교정을 받았고 큰 도움을 받아 어려움 없이 대사를 소화했다는 후문이다.

The above excerpt basically says that although Lee Byung-Hun hadn’t studied English since he was 18, he was fortunate enough to be able to remember a good deal of it.

Before shooting G.I. Joe, he met with a professional voice trainer. The trainer worked with him for only 2 hours before shooting and was impressed with his quick wits.

However, as the following quote indicates, quick wits weren’t always enough:

The Korea Times: (and

Frankly speaking, it’s hard. Casual speech and delivering lines in English belong to two different dimensions. Because you use a foreign language, you’ve got to be sure you could recite lines without a mistake even if someone woke you up from a nap.

On the set, someone from the crew told me after I read my line that my pronunciation was off for one of the words. Right after my head became completely blank, busy thinking about that one line. Sometimes I felt I was back in the earliest days of my career.

What’s interesting about Lee Byung-Hun’s reaction to pronunciation help is that it was humble, which is often quite the opposite of our own when learning a second language. As adults, it’s much harder to accept help like this than when we were children, but it’s also an important step toward learning proper technique.

But Lee Byung-Hun’s ability to humbly accept constructive criticism enabled him to correct his mistakes quickly and speak more fluently in the long run.

In fact, if you want to speak well:

Invite people to correct your pronunciation, grammar, and word choice mistakes.

3. Use it often, everywhere, in everything

Prestige Hong Kong:

At the time…it was so hard to communicate with the crew, with the director. I’m the kind of person who wants to talk a lot with the director so that we think the same and I can express what the director wants. So I’m always asking [director] Stephen Sommers what he wants. But it was very hard for me because whenever I tried to communicate with him, he talked so fast.

Someone told me that you learned English very fast.

Yeah, but I couldn’t do both acting and learning English while we were making the film. I didn’t have time to learn English at the time. Mentally I was so busy because I had a lot of pressure. That’s why I thought, “I don’t have enough time to do something else.” I had to train, I had to work out, I had to study the lines, so I didn’t give time to learn English. Yeah, that was one of the hardest things, communicating with the director and the crew. It was still the same I guess on the second GI Joe, but much better than the first one.

It’s unlikely that Lee Byung-Hun trained, worked out, and studied his lines all the time with other Koreans. Likely he did all of it in US facilities, surrounded by English-speakers. Even though he wasn’t “studying” English, he was continually practicing it – and that’s one of the best ways to learn any skill.

Want to learn a new language?

Turn off your English brain. Perform in Korean.

4. Stay calm and ignore the onlookers

If you watched Lee Byung-Hun’s CNN interview, you probably noticed two things:

  1. He continually looked cool and collected.
  2. He spoke English like a high school English learner (with noticeable pauses in speech and occasionally unusual word choice).

Yet he didn’t let that trouble him. The best second language learners:

  1. Speak
  2. Pause to think when necessary
  3. Are patient
  4. Expect patient listeners
  5. Ignore naysayers
  6. Deliver what they can

In fact, one of the best things you can do when trying to use a second language is:

Ask your listeners to be patient – but also, don’t keep them waiting too long.

Use vocab you know even if it feels a little odd. (Your listeners will help you out afterward.)


So, today’s Challenge will follow along these lines:

#10: Ask a native speaker you know to coach your pronunciation, especially through phrases.

Practice free speaking, reading a book aloud, or using phrases you’ve previously memorized and get someone to help your pronunciation to flow fluently (this is a big help – I’ve met plenty an expat with terrible pronunciation but lots of memorized phrases).

Take a picture or record a video of you practicing phrases with excellent pronunciation.

Hashtags are:

#ktk3010 #perfectpronunciation


CNN Interview Part 2

CNN Interview Part 3

G.I. Joe 2

R.E.D. 2 Trailer

How’s your pronunciation? Have you ever had anyone comment on it?

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3 thoughts

  1. You are right about Lee Byung-Hun’s (이병헌) English having a good accent. I have admired him as an actor for a long time. And both his acting and English are at par excellence. Hands down to your posts. Reading more of it.

    1. Thanks for reading – glad to be of help. I personally struggled with Korean language-learning motivation for YEARS before I started this blog. I just hope other people can benefit from my new-found passion and studies.

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