Category Language

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!

Making bilingualism and biliteracy the norm

Could we retool our primary education system to produce bilingual, biliterate children who outperform their monolingual counterparts, in both languages? Amazingly, it seems we can, and it doesn’t even sound difficult or expensive.

First, a little background. You probably already have a fixed image in your mind of how language education works at the primary level.

There is ESL, where kids are pulled away from their peers for half of the day to attend what are looked upon as remedial English classes. Since ESL students divide their attention between learning English and keeping up with what their peers are learning, it is inevitable that there will be a disparity.

At the same time, for the native English speakers in the class, foreign language exposure is minimal, consisting of learning to introduce yourself, say a few phrases, and sing a cute song or two. This despite the fact that their classmates may be native speakers of these languages.

While there is a vague sense that there are some untapped synergies, English is Priority 1, so the system is not often questioned.

Every child deserves a chance to succeed. But how can a child with seemingly so much more to learn ever be on equal footing with native English speakers? And as some English-speaking taxpayers like to complain, is it even worth spending extra tax dollars to meet these foreigners at their level?
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