Can a non-native speaker achieve native proficiency later in life?

This is a question to which I am dedicating a significant portion of this lifetime.

I’ve been studying Korean for well over 7 years now, but as any English native attempting to learn Japanese or Korean quickly discovers, these languages are as different from English as one could imagine.

Admittedly, in those 7+ years, I still haven’t taken a single class. That is, I’ve been largely studying on my own, off and on, in my spare time. I’ve used a mix of books, podcasts, iPhone apps, web sites, language exchanges, and three trips to Korea. Additionally, for the past 6 months (!) I’ve been living in Seoul, and the daily exposure to new words, concepts and situations has accelerated my learning and has provided a constant source of motivation.

Still, I feel like I should be further than I am. It’s a struggle, and I’ve discovered there’s much more to it than just vocabulary and grammar.
Native speakers are distinguished not only by their language, but also the culture and customs in which they have been steeped since birth, as well as the events that shaped their lives. I do my best to pick up on the various cultural elements that Koreans allude to in everyday speech, I try to read up on past events, and I am even trying to learn a little Chinese (Chinese is to Korean as Latin is to English) but there may well be limits to how much I can absorb and imitate.

Koreans, in particular, use simple words in their everyday speech and writing, instead preferring to color their language with a dazzling array of idioms. I am thankful that I can get by using the tiny set of words I have memorized, but in order to understand what the heck other people are talking about, I bought a book a couple years ago containing nothing but idioms. I have mastered some of them (such as, “May you have a son like a fat toad,” encouraging words for pregnant women), but it’s still going to be a few more years before I can get through all of them.

Still, I am encouraged somewhat by Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. In essence, he says 10,000 hours (20 hours/week for 10 years) can be sufficient to put you at the top of any given field. I am hoping this applies to me as well, since I am essentially attempting to become an expert in Korean language and culture.

I don’t have 20 hours a week, but I do have 1 hour a day. To achieve 10,000 hours at that rate, it will take me 27 years. And that is okay by me.

So, can I achieve my goal of being indistinguishable from a native Korean speaker? I don’t know, and I hope my goal is not “a rice cake in a painting” (something I can never have), but ask me again in 20 years and I should have an answer for you then. Hopefully in fluent Korean. And if you’ve also been studying an hour a day, you’ll understand!

  • Ryan Namba

    Ouch. I recall reading that 10,000-hour figure in “Outliers,” but I hadn’t done the math to translate that into 1-hour chunks. 27+ years is pretty brutal.Then again, I suspect language/culture/anything involving immersion may be an exception to the rule. At the very least, constant passive exposure (or consistent exposure outside that 1-hour-per-day window) would help with acquisition. Or so I would assume.

  • msortijas

    Interesting to read your thoughts on this subject. I was born and raised in Hawaii, but spent the last 5 years working and traveling in Asia.I’ve studied Chinese through 2 years of 1-on-1 tutoring, in Shanghai and Taipei. At my peak, I could understand 50% or more of what my Chinese-speaking colleagues were saying around the office.Since returning to Hawaii, my proficiency has dropped. To combat this, I’ve volunteered to teach Chinese to a local Mandarin group. By creating lesson plans and worksheets, I’m forcing myself to study the language again.In case you’re wondering, I found your blog via the excellent YMCA Honolulu website built by Bigger Bird. I was looking for cheap, clean, central accommodation for a friend visiting from China. Good luck with your Korean!

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