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Steve and Alex discuss language learning and travel, including Alex’s recent trip to Korea, Steve’s recent trip to Europe and what it means to learn a foreign language in your own country.
Steve: Hi Alex.
Alex: Good afternoon, Steve.
Steve: Hey, good to have you back here.
Alex: Yes. I’ve been back now for a little over 24 hours.
Steve: My goodness. You are still jetlagged?
Alex: Yeah. I’m getting pretty tired now.
Steve: No doubt, no doubt.
Steve: So, tell us, how was your stay in Korea?
Alex: It was quite good.
My first couple of weeks there were a little slower.
I had a lot of time to relax and stuff and the biggest reason for that was most of my friends who are university students were busy preparing for their exam.
So a lot of my time was just spent chilling out and going to the park and reading books and so on and so forth, but the last week is where I did an extensive amount of traveling all over the place.
Lack of sleep…
Steve: So, let me back up a bit here.
Steve: So you went to where, to Seoul?
Alex: Yes. I primarily stayed in Seoul.
Steve: Okay. You stayed at a friend’s place?
Alex: No. I stayed at what’s called a “one-room-tel”.
Steve: Okay. Yeah.
Alex: And it’s like a motel but it’s half the size.
Alex: If not smaller.
Alex: And it’s primarily meant for, from what I understand, students who are studying overnight or something like that.
Alex: Like they’re studying until late and they stay here overnight and go somewhere else or go back home the next day or something like that.
Steve: So you slept on your suitcase more or less?
Alex: Yes. The room was very, very small.
Steve: And then when you traveled, where did you go?
Alex: When I traveled I went to an island in the west called Kanghwa.
I also went to Jeju, which I don’t know if you’re familiar with.
Steve: Yes, Jeju-do?
Alex: Yes, which is an island in the south so I had to take a plane to get there.
Alex: You can also take a boat, but it takes a bit longer.
I also traveled to the southeast to Busan and the surrounding areas.
Alex: And another city called Jeonju, which is about half way down; in the middle of Korea on the western side.
Steve: Now, the first question I would be curious to know is, do you feel that spending a month in Korea…that’s not the first time you’ve been to Korea.
Alex: No, it’s not.
This is the third time.
Steve: Third time.
Steve: Is that the longest time you’ve spent in Korea?
The first time I went was a little over three weeks, the second time was less than a week and this time was four weeks or a month, so.
Steve: Do you have the sense that your Korean improved?
I would say more than anything my fluidity in speaking improved and my ear for picking up conversations.
Understanding what people were saying also improved, specifically in a group dynamic.
I find that if you’re communicating with one person it’s a lot easier to understand what they’re saying.
Alex: But as soon as there’s three or four people talking at the same time it becomes very difficult.
Steve: Do you feel that if you were with a group of Koreans and they’re talking about something that you can sort of jump in there and hold your own?
Alex: It totally depends on the topic, but much more now so than say six months ago or a year ago.
And, yeah, I still…like, for instance, I went to a conference, an entrepreneurship conference, which was just like three days long.
Everything was in Korean, everyone was talking in Korean and I was very quiet because I was primarily focused on trying to understand what people were saying.
So, I didn’t have as much brain energy to put towards thinking of something to respond with but rather focusing on understanding what was being said.
Steve: But, having been in similar situations at various stages of my language learning, did you feel that you could have stood up and said something, commented, asked a question, and you probably could have done it, but you were afraid that you would sort of run out of gas halfway through and stumble and look foolish?
Alex: I think it was, yeah, definitely several factors involved in that, one of which is it’s very possible to misunderstand what someone says and so you ask a question that in fact isn’t related to what they’re saying or is something different.
So there is that sense of not wanting to be embarrassed, but for me more than anything it’s not wanting to derail the conversation.
Because if there’s a naturally-flowing conversation and I jump in and I’m talking really slow, to me it kind of…
Steve: Nobody understands what you’re saying?
Alex: Yeah, exactly.
Steve: Well that’s not true, you know?
Alex: Well, right, but to me it kind of introduces a different element that kind of may possibly kind of interrupt the flow of conversation.
One of the things I’m doing, I’m mentoring some immigrants here, you know, working with one of the local immigrant service organizations and, of course, for immigrants I mean it must be the same.
They work somewhere; it’s not their native language.
Until their English reaches a certain level, they’re probably not going to want to say very much for the reasons that you just explained.
But, I would say at the same time in a very social setting I’m very talkative.
There’s nothing that prevents me from talking, even if my ability is not as good as the people around me.
I think it depends on the atmosphere and because that was a more formal conference-type thing I was more hesitant to say stuff, but when I’m with my friends at the restaurant or whatever.
Steve: Do you find that your fluidity increases with the amount of beer that you consume up to a certain point where it then starts to decline again?
Alex: I don’t consume alcohol myself, but I’ve heard that that’s the case, yes.
Steve: Yes. You start to not make sense after awhile. Okay, so, yeah.
You know this whole issue of going to the country, living in the country, I mean it always comes up in a variety of ways.
Obviously, people who are studying a language at some point would like to go to the language.
Steve: There are even those who suggest that the only way you’re going to learn a language is if you go to the country.
And, yet, we see people who live here in Canada who have been here for 30 years and can’t speak English.
Steve: Not to harp on here. I mean I lived in Japan.
Alex: Right, exactly.
Steve: There are lots of expats who have lived in Japan or Korea for 30 years and don’t speak a word of Korean beyond hello, two beers please.
So, what is the role in your mind from a language-learning perspective?
How important is living in the country, visiting the country?
What’s the strategy there?
Alex: Interesting enough, I would say that in my case there’s no particular benefit to going to Korea and the reason why is that in Vancouver there are so many Korean people and so many Korean communities that I found no difference from two years ago when I was attending a Korean church to living in Korea.
Like I was surrounded by Korean people speaking in Korean…
Steve: Now, you happen to have some genuine acquaintances.
Alex: Yes, exactly.
Steve: Friends who are Koreans.
Alex: Yeah and that’s what I would say.
So, if you’re saying oh, gee, you know, I don’t really have any Korean friends.
I’m not really that interested in having Korean friends, but I just want to find some people to practice on.
Steve: That might be more difficult.
I think for me I’m very relationship oriented, so I don’t feel as comfortable just going up to some random person.
I like to have a relationship with that person and then build upon that.
I found like in my first two weeks where a lot of my friends were busy that I wasn’t really talking that much.
I wasn’t interacting with people that much and it wasn’t because I was afraid to say anything, but it’s just not as pleasant to have to go out there and put yourself out there every time, approach people and that kind of thing.
I think if you’re really motivated to practice your speaking you can do that, but to me more than anything it’s less about me practicing my speaking and more about building relationships with people and making friends and so and so forth.
Steve: Right, which you have been able to do here in Vancouver.
Steve: Now, I’ll tell you my experience with visiting countries.
I’ve found, for example, Portugal.
I went there the first time, we stayed for two weeks.
I had done a bit of listening.
This is before we had Portuguese at LingQ.
I had listened to I think Living Language, Teach Yourself, whatever I had found and listened to it.
I found I went to Portugal I was lost.
I couldn’t do anything.
I heard a lot of Portuguese.
I was listening to stuff when I was there, but really I didn’t get any traction whatsoever.
Steve: Then prior to my next trip to Portugal, I did a lot of working on Portuguese again at LingQ, going through all the stuff that we had in our library, listening a lot, reading a lot.
So, I was at a sufficient level that the two weeks that I spent in Portugal I was able now to talk to people; people that I was dealing with, people in the hotels.
I wasn’t talking a lot — I was there with my wife — but I was talking enough that I had reached that first rung of the ladder.
Being there for weeks really pushed me up.
In Italy I was there for a whole month.
I tell you, it had a major impact.
Not because of the amount of Italian that I was speaking.
I wasn’t speaking that much, again, because I was Carmen and we were visiting places and we were in the car and stuff.
We stayed at a lot of B&B’s and that kind of place and while some of those people spoke English, and some of them insisted on speaking English, but others were very happy to speak Italian.
You know that’s part of being a host.
You know, they probably spoke English better than I spoke Italian.
So, I had some opportunity to speak Italian, but it was the fact that I was surrounded by Italian.
It was real.
This is this environmental thing.
Steve: Italian is now no longer something in a book, in a CD, on LingQ.
Italian is life.
It’s the newspaper.
It’s the café.
Even if it’s just going on in the background, it’s real.
I’m fighting with the guy at the train station to get a refund for something.
Whatever it might be, it’s real.
Steve: So if something goes click, it’s real.
Steve: And I find that if you stay there like I did for a month, even though I didn’t spend that much time speaking Italian, but I always listened in the car and TV and whatever in the room, I found that made a big difference.