Vat and I have reached the halfway point here in Korea, the final leg of our language-learning project. I’ve already written so much about language learning this year, and so most of it applies to Korean as well. Therefore, I’ll just share a few of the differences we’ve noted here and save a fuller analysis for later.
Learning Korean vs Learning Chinese
Korean is arguably easier than Chinese, but it’s still in the same ballpark (as opposed to clearly-much-easier languages like Spanish or French). The grammar is harder, but the vocabulary has more loanwords from English and the pronunciation is straightforward.
However, my Korean after three months will definitely be weaker than my Chinese, because I’ve been studying less .
One major difference between Korea and China is the level of English fluency amongst locals. A good proportion of Koreans speak English quite well. Combining that with our weak Korean and slow improvement, this has been the only country where the level of English has made not speaking English more difficult.
Standards for Language Learning
One factor that can make learning a language easier or harder is the standards people have for acquiring it. In southern Europe, I’ve generally felt that being able to speak the language is considered a requirement for people living in the country. If you live in France but don’t speak French, there will certainly be some negative social pressure on you to change that.
Asian countries have lower standards for Western foreigners learning languages. Part of that is a racial difference. People see a white face and the otherness of it automatically lowers their standards for linguistic ability. Part of it is simply that Asian languages are harder, so fewer foreigners acquire decent ability and therefore locals reduce their expectations.
Korea (I’m told Seoul, particularly) also suffers from the problem of the glut of English teachers who come to Korea with little intention of learning Korean. In China, the majority of my foreign friends were either studying Chinese or working in a company that uses Chinese. Fewer were full-time English teachers, but that appears to be the rule here in Korea, not the exception.
I don’t feel the issue of lower standards makes it more difficult for Vat or I to learn Korean. We came here with the resolved intention of learning the language, so social pressure isn’t going to change that. But I do think it makes it harder for other foreigners, particularly those without clear expectations to learn the language. If nobody else seems to learn the language, why seriously try?
Difficulty and Expectations
In China, I disagreed  with my friend Benny’s admonishment that focusing on difficulty doesn’t matter. Of course it does—Chinese is much harder than Spanish and pretending they’re the same is foolhardy.
In Korea, I’m beginning to change my mind. People see that the language is harder, so the rational response should be that it requires more time and patience (which is true). But instead, the response is that it is too difficult so it’s impossible to succeed in a reasonable timeframe (which isn’t true).
Vat and I, in contrast, have had extremely high expectations for every country. Spanish-like expectations for Chinese were too optimistic. But, three months into China, I could still hold a conversation in Chinese about nearly any topic and with only a minimal amount of fumbling for words.
I’ll be harsh: if it’s taken you several years with an Asian language and you can’t hold a brief conversation entirely in the language, you either haven’t really been working at it, or your method is faulty.
Progress in Korean
Arriving in Korea was the hardest country for the no-English rule thus far. Korean, from the beginning, is probably somewhat harder than Chinese, and neither Vat nor I did significant preparation. Much of the quoted 50 hours  of preparation I did do, had been forgotten in the intervening year plus three unrelated languages.
We didn’t handle the no-English rule perfectly, but we did mostly achieve it. Unfortunately, we “mostly achieved it” simply by not speaking much in the first month. That hardly seems like a fair victory, since the point of the rule was to encourage communication not adopt vows of silence.
Honestly, had I not had the experiences of success in the past, the first month certainly would have broken me. Learning Asian languages is slower than European ones, so you can do four weeks of conversations with a tutor and still feel like you can’t say anything. That combined with our enforced isolation and silence definitely made learning Korean the least pleasant part of the trip so far.
The beginning is always the hardest. Now, halfway through, Vat and I have resumed semi-normal communication, eating together and making friends. I’d put our current ability at the pre-intermediate level, since having a real conversation with a native at native-speed is at least a few weeks more work.
My expectation is to reach a somewhat low conversational level after three months. That would put it as the worst of all of the languages on this trip for me, but still at a level where I could hold a conversation with someone in the language and not have it be too arduous.
Why Learn all These Languages?
That’s certainly a question best saved for a bigger post, but it deserves attention to the case of Korean, which has been a more tiring process with less clear results than the other languages. However, even with Korean, where Vat and I are working under the fatigue of spending a year learning new languages, the painful part is short and the gain is (potentially) lifelong.
As long as I maintain a minimal amount of practice once this trip is done, all of these languages will be permanent abilities. I can return to any of these countries later, whenever I want, and the work is finished. I can make friends in Canada who speak those languages. If my practice is a little more, I may even improve so that reasonably watching movies without subtitles will be an eventual possibility.
As with the MIT Challenge , I believe the length of time it takes to learn something defines its viability for many people. Getting a computer science education with no degree probably wasn’t worth a four-year, full-time investment for me. But one year? Definitely.
Spending a handful of years to reach intermediate Chinese or Korean probably isn’t worth it for me, since I don’t plan on living in either of those countries. But a couple months of intense work and weekly maintenance practice? Even if it took Vat and I three times as long to reach the levels we did, I’d still say the lifetime payoff was worth the effort.