Learning another language is an unavoidably humbling experience. Either you find yourself humbled by how stupid you feel but push on with the dream of some day expressing yourself to the fullest – or the feeling of stupidity crowds out everything else until you give up. Luckily for me, even after six years of this, I have far more reasons to try to improve than I have to quit. My S.O. is Korean, and his family doesn’t really speak much (if any) English. One of my majors was Korean Studies, and I want to maintain the skills that won me that degree. My abiding passion remains in Korea – and I long for the day that I travel back there. Perhaps the day that I live there. Who knows?
The Korean language was a symbol of hope to me for years. Throughout family problems, financial problems, and the ever-broadening weight of depressive episodes that developed as a result, studying Korean was the breath of fresh air that kept me from drowning. Then I went to Korea to study abroad and then research not once, not twice, but three times in just two short years.
It was glorious. It was more than I ever imagined. And it was damn hard, too.
When various parts of my life went very poorly one fall, I found myself giving it all up. I quit studying, quit even thinking about Korean. Months passed, filled with emptiness. With the beginning of the new year, I decided to try again – one more time. I applied to go back to Korea a third time, this time as a researcher. I found an online language partner (I’ll call him Batman for undisclosed reasons). We hit it off immediately and started dating when we met in person nearly six months later. My language skills improved in leaps and bounds.
That was two years ago.
Batman has bigger dreams for me than I have for myself. He thinks far more highly of me and my abilities than I think of myself. He encourages me to try things I wouldn’t dare to try. And he never, ever makes fun of my struggles to express myself fully in Korean.
He’s working on his English, too. Neither of us is truly fluent in the other’s language. About 95% of our conversations are actually in Korean, which has been a boon to my speaking abilities while neglecting his, but language needs active study.
And in that regards, I have been on the same plateau for at least two years.
I’ve been on the plateau before. I hit a plateau before I went to Korea for the first time, then came back to the U.S. with nothing but fearlessness to speak the language that I was still a child in. But the fearlessness released something in me. I escaped the plateau. You don’t escape the plateau without risking something. There are cliffs to climb, sometimes rock faces that seem to loom straight up without a foot- or hand-hold to hint at a way up.
I’m not sure how to break the plateau I’m stuck on right now. Other than a long, slow slog through endless mountains and valleys of vocab.
I started a Korean-language blog with only three posts thus far, so I may move them over to this blog. I took TOPIK in April and haven’t been able to check my score yet because I stupidly lost my ID number (here’s to hoping it’s somewhere in my desk that I haven’t checked yet). I signed up to start subtitling King of Masked Singer on Viki. I’ve been a translator for Humans of Seoul for over two years, the English Editor for nearly a year. With the undying encouragement of Batman, I most recently started designing a Korean webtoon that I hope will introduce English terms and concepts in a fun and accessible way (and I forgot the Apple pencil at home so I’m writing this blog post instead of finishing the draft of episode one).
All of these things force me to use Korean, but none of them truly require active studying. Since I can’t go to Korea right now, there isn’t another way to simulate that total immersion, that challenging, plateau-breaking momentum that going to the actual country creates.
I kid you not – I have a solid 10+ textbooks at home that I’ve only studied in part, since my Korean courses never used the whole book. I have tons of online resources, people resources, language learning smarts. I know there’s no way I pulled a 6 on the April TOPIK (I went in without really studying), so the question is what do I have? What do I need to do to get that 6?
Does that 6 matter?
It does as a goal and as leverage for a job or further education. And I think using the TOPIK as a goal to help me break out of this plateau will help. I’m tired of the plateau and tired of feeling stupid. Vocabulary is my biggest issue; I simply don’t know the words that I want to use, and the more I talk my way in circles around them, the more I feel like I’m losing even my grasp of the English language.
Not something to be thrilled about, especially as a writer.
So, here’s to everyone stuck on a plateau, hesitating in front of the next cliff. There might not be any glory in the climb. There might only be another plateau after this one. But we won’t know until we find a way to push ourselves, onward and upward.
Onward and upward.