A Realistic Answer to “How Did You Get So Fluent in Korean?” (Part 1 of 5)

I'm Not Fluent!

The only proper first answer to this question is, "I'm not fluent." Fluency implies a level of comfort in the language that I don't ever expect to achieve. The word I've used for at least the last ten years or so is "proficient" and even that is a pretty generous assessment of my ability, particularly when I'm trying to put together a complex thought.

But this is a question I get a lot from non-Koreans who are frustrated with their progress in learning the language (as well as Koreans that just want to compliment me… such kind folks, really). In fact, I was contacted just a couple weeks ago by the CEO of a US company in Korea who is trying to improve his Korean skills and wanted some pointers. I've put together a few posts here to reflect on my thinking and experience, hoping it can be helpful to others.

I should point out that much/most of what I'll share is not unique to learning Korean; it is equally applicable to learning any language… I am constantly amazed at the level of fluency reached by a few people, particularly in English, and especially those from Europe. I have no idea how they do it. Thus, these articles will likely be more relevant for the "rest of us" who lack those superhuman language-learning skills.

Evolving Thinking

When I first arrived in Korea in late 1993, I planned to learn Korean (completely, no less) in about two years. Then I wanted to go to Japan and learn Japanese… and finally head to China to learn Chinese. I figured I'd be a pretty smart guy after all that. As ridiculous as it seems when written down like this, I don't think my expectations were unusual as I get the feeling this is the kind of unrealistic goal many people have when they come to Korea and start learning Korean.

6a011279704a5b28a40134828ca4e9970c  And the delusions don't end once the first lessons are over. I had a friend from Bangladesh tell me that after a year of studying Korean back home before arriving in Korea, he felt he'd reached a 50% level on the language. I was contacted a few months ago by someone who had apparently done most of his Korean-language study outside Korea and told me he'd gotten to 70% proficiency; he wanted to know how he could knock out the last 30%. 

If I were to put a number on how much of the Korean language I know, I'd estimate it at around 15%. Fortunately, a lot of communication can take place within this small range, but to think I'll ever get past 20% is unrealistic.

My experience with learning Korean has often reminded me of some wise words first shared with me by my high school chemistry teacher Mr. Kastrop: "I finished college knowing less than when I started." As I study Korean, I realize just how much more there is to learn and how little of that I know… and can even hope to learn. 

It's Harder Than I Ever Expected

Kids are a different story, of course, but anyone coming to Korea for the first time after finishing university back home (I was 23 when I got to Korea) should have a realistic view of how much work it's going to take to learn Korean and how far they will ever get. In fact, it often seems that every expat in Korea and his brother is studying the language at various levels but those who reach proficiency are a very small number. 

I've also rarely, if ever, met a non-Korean who spent a year or two in Korea before getting serious about language study and then buckled down to make huge improvements. Everybody I know who got good in Korean hit the ground running right from the beginning.

5 Responses

  1. Dear Steven
    I cannot begin to comprehend how you are able to be a proficient Korean translator whilst claiming to know only about 15% of the language. How is it that you are able to translate Korean documents with such a low level of proficiency?
    I would be interested to hear you speak Korean because I suspect that you are better than you believe you are.
    As I understand the concept of fluency it means to be able to speak in a language smoothly. You can be a fluent speaker of a language whilst not knowing a lot of vocabulary – if you are able to speak about the topics that matter in your everyday life. I consider myself to be a fluent speaker of Korean yet I doubt I could pass the fifth level of the TOPIK test because I do not have that vocabulary.
    I also think that you are exagerating the difficulties of learning languages such as Korean. Learning a langauge is only difficult if you set yourself unrealistic goals within certain timeframes. It would perhaps be better to stress that learning Korean takes time, but a very communicative and even fluent level of Korean can be achieved if the correct methods and time is put into it whilst maintaining a positive attitude.
    Please let me know your thoughts on these points.

  2. James,
    Thanks for the questions. They are very reasonable ones.
    I’ve just posted a clarification of the 15% comment here: https://nojeokhill.koreanconsulting.com/2010/09/clarifying-my-controversial-15-statement-about-learning-korean.html
    You are right that if one’s goal is to be “functional” in Korean, then reaching that level of proficiency does not take years and years. Indeed, the most noticeable improvements in my Korean came within the first two years.
    Perhaps it’s just a matter of definitions, but your understanding of the word “fluency” is what I would describe as “functional” or perhaps “proficient”.
    If one is aiming for true fluency, then the first thing to realize is that fluency is an unrealistic goal.

  3. Dear Steven,
    are there also Part 2-5 available? Can you link to the follow-up articles / series here?
    Thanks in advance!

  4. Philipp – Check out the links next to my photo on this page – http://www.koreabusinesscentral.com/page/topic-central-learn-korean

  5. J. Michael Olds says:

    Most English speakers know only 60 to 70 thousand words, 20 actively, yet, if the English language was every compiled in its entirety, it would contain, by estimate, almost a million words, the unabridged oxford dictionary claiming around three fourths of a million. So yeah, 15% is pretty huge. I have been studying Korean for three years, and I wouldn’t even consider myself “proficient;” so I can totally foresee this future.

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