I came to Korea as an adult, speaking mostly in English. Naturally, I am more comfortable speaking English than Korean.
Although I still have some challenging moments when reading and writing in Korean, I don’t have any major problems communicating with people while conducting business in Korea.
When I come across an email or news article that I don’t understand, I ask my colleagues to read the lines to me out loud. Then, surprisingly, I understand the meaning and the context through their pronunciation, body language, and the tone and manner of voice.
My goal of proficiency in Korean is to be sufficiently able to use the language as a communication tool to connect with others, rather than earning a degree or getting a high score on a test.
In the past, I believed that most Koreans would think the same when it came to English. However, looking at Korea’s approach to English, I was amazed at the difference. With the goal of showing there is a different way to learn a foreign language, I set out to introduce Rosetta Stone ― a range of language-learning software ― to Korea.
What surprised me most about Korea’s English education was its focus on grammar. To me, grammar is a tool used to analyze a language, and should be taught in the later stages of learning a new language.
However, even before they understand the English language, Koreans are told to begin by studying grammar, constructing various sentences, and then memorizing those sentences. I felt that there was something odd with this sequence. To me it was like asking an elementary school student to write a college paper.
I am not arguing that students should stop learning grammar altogether. I believe it is important to understand one’s reason for studying English. If your goal is to take the TOEFL to go study abroad, or take the TOEIC to get a score for a job, then grammar is essential for your studies.
An effective way to study for such standardized exams is to buy test prep material that teaches specific elements, and answer selection techniques. However, this method of studying is for a specific goal, and not a long-term method of studying a language.
If you wish to improve your English proficiency, it is important to increase your exposure and immerse yourself in the language. Even if it’s a short time during the day, daily exposure can get you more comfortable with the language you are learning. I recommend reading an English newspaper or listening to the news every day.
It would be even better if the content is something you have already read in Korean media, since that will help you understand context and compare expressions between Korean and English more easily. If you like fashion or celebrity news, magazines are a good medium as well.
Persistence is key. It is important not to give up because of boredom or lack of interest. As you gradually increase your exposure and immersion, you will naturally begin reading, writing and speaking in your new language. During this process you will develop your own hidden grammar techniques and rules, and be able to use what you have learned.
Rather than learning through forced memorization and analysis, I feel that intuitive and natural learning through immersion and frequent exposure is the most effective way to learn a new language.
Grammar will come naturally through consistent reading, listening, and speaking. I would like to encourage you to think of English as a language to communicate with others, rather than a subject to pass. This way, the burden of learning English and the pressure of being perfectly right might become lighter.
Enjoy the learning journey!
By Steven Cho
Steven Cho is CEO of Rosetta Stone Korea, the global language software firm’s unit in Korea. Cho is also a racecar driver and the manager of Atlas BX racing team. ― Ed.