Language learning sucks. It sort of sucks for kids, but it certainly sucks for adults. This is my journey trying to learn Korean, and slowly coming to the realization that our current learning tools are simply not adequate for the job.
I don’t have answers, although I certainly have ideas.
For the past five years or so, I have been studying the Korean language. I began in 2010 as I was preparing to be a Fulbright Researcher in South Korea. (technically, I started studying months before hearing back from the U.S. government that I was actually going — call it youthful confidence).
Since then, I have spent hundreds of hours studying Anki flash cards, reading books and articles, taking classes, getting tutored, watching movies, and more to try to improve my skill.
Like many, I love learning languages regardless of their specific utility — languages are windows into cultures that I can (usually) only enjoy from afar. Over the years, I have studied French, Arabic, and Chinese, but eventually ended up spending significant time with Korean due to my life overseas. Given all of my previous years of language training, I came into learning Korean with a lot of self-awareness about my learning style.
A Brief Aside on Adult Language Learners
Learning a language in your 20s is not like learning a language as a young kid. Child psychologists will tell you that the plasticity of the human brain declines by around 12 years old, making it significantly harder to learn a language later in life.
It’s hard for me to assess the truth of that (and frankly, they can take their pessimism and go f*** themselves). However, I can assess other difficulties. Adults are simply busier, and often have jobs. Memorizing a language is nearly impossible when you also have to remember the inordinate amount of details required in any knowledge economy job. As I have argued on TechCrunch, primacy is key in education and certainly for language learners, but almost no adults have the time to make language training their sole focus.
Beyond schedules though, I found one of the main blocks to learning languages has been my complete inhibition to making mistakes. I am what Thomas Frank might call “the well-graduated” - a Stanford undergrad and a one-time Harvard PhD student. I live my life in many ways by the motto, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” That is 100x in a foreign language, where asking to go to the bathroom can elicit sniggers from young kids due to a lack of proper idiom.
The third challenge is one I blame on the language learning industry. Most materials are terrible, and are not targeted at adults. While kids may be able to pick up idiom and words faster than I can (maybe), I also have intelligence and a cosmopolitan perspective. Why are all materials geared to eating food in restaurants or checking a book out at a library? Why not political debates, or economic debates, or something more substantial and sophisticated? More on this below.
In short, it’s really hard to learn languages as an adult, although the problems are much more solvable than your idiot psychologist might suggest.
Let’s jump back to the story. Back in 2010, I took a one-year introductory Korean language class at Stanford. This class provided the bedrock for further study, and was taught by one of the best teachers I have had in almost any subject in my entire education. I made quite a bit of progress in the language, albeit at the speed of a university education studying part-time. After the class, I probably had about 500 words in my vocabulary, two dozen grammar patterns, and a limited ability to listen and speak the language.
While working on Google+ Search during the summer of 2011, I was simultaneously trying to maintain and increase my Korean skill. I knew by then that I was going to be living there, so I bought a few books, most notably Elementary Korean. These books by and large didn’t work, since the topics were just incredibly uninteresting (no, I don’t give a flying rat’s f*** what the word for apple is — I don’t eat them in America and I’m certainly not eating them in Korea).
I left for Korea in August of 2011, and spent the next year in the country. I was the only researcher in a group of 27 who chose to live outside of Seoul, which ended up being an enormous positive — I made a number of Korean friends, and progressed quite a bit in Korean. One challenge was that I was at the only English speaking university in Korea at the time (there are now many more colleges that are English only), so students were much more comfortable in English than I was in Korean. I took one language class while in Korea, which was at the third year level, so I had made some progress.
I left Korea to head to Silicon Valley as a venture capitalist, and my Korean skills languished for a while.
My Anki Flashcard Experience
During this time, I learned about Anki. Anki is a spaced-repetition system for learning anything, from vocabulary to chemistry to facts about U.S. history. The point of these systems is that they try to bring up a card just as you are about to forget something. Powering Anki is an algorithm that is designed to match your brain’s ability to memorize new information. Ultimately, the goal is to learn a subject in as short a period as possible by emphasizing recall and reducing useless repetition of studying.
I have now used Anki almost daily for 2.5 years. Here is some data that Anki has compiled.
Since starting, I have completed 164,463 flash cards over 326 hours of study time, which is roughly 13.5 days of constant studying spread out over those years. Once I sort of got up to speed, my average time and average number of reviews per month has remained mostly constant over the years, with a bit more of a peak when I moved back to Seoul in 2014 to work for TechCrunch.
All that work has led to this graph:
This is the current status of my Anki deck. Anki separates the two sides of my cards into separate notes, so this chart shows that I now have 3,652 separate cards memorized. Not bad.
A Brief Aside on Morons Who Ask About “Fluency”
I know something on the order of 5,000 words in Korean, all from building and memorizing my Anki deck. What does this mean?
One way to think about it is this: a complete novice obviously knows no words. A starting intermediate learner has about 1000 words in their vocabulary, a mid-intermediate learner has 3,000 words, and a starting advanced learner has 7,000 words in their vocabulary. While there are many components to learning languages (grammar, etc.), vocabulary size is a pretty reliable indicator for ability level in a language.
That’s why Anki and flash cards are so important. Ultimately, they provide the raw ingredients (i.e. words) that allow you to construct more complex sentences.
So what’s the problem with fluency and the idiots who ask about it? Fluency is a weird concept, since it is domain-specific. I speak English “fluently” (natively, actually), and yet, when I walk into a surgical bay, I have no idea what the doctors are talking about. When flight control towers speak to pilots, I don’t understand their commands. The list goes on.
While there is certainly a base level of words needed in any language to function even slightly, that list is surprisingly short — maybe 2000-3000 words. Beyond that, almost all words end up being domain-specific in one way or another.
One of the best things I ever did in Korean was start to get more domain-specific. I love politics and economics, and that is what got me to study the language in the first place. Yet, language materials never touch on these topics lest you try to say something interesting in a foreign language! (sometimes I feel that North Korea produces all language materials in the world, and not just for Korean).
The biggest advance I ever made was getting a tutor to only talk about politics with me in Korean. After about 24 lessons, I was explaining the U.S. constitution and its provisions in a foreign language. And there were errors too! And you know how much I hate errors! But it was so exciting to explain American politics to an interested party who didn’t really know much about them.
I still barely know how to order food at a restaurant, but I can debate U.S. politics. Am I fluent?
What a dumb question to ask, because of course the answer depends on context, as it does for everyone in every language, including their mother tongue. There is no bar, but merely shades of understanding and meaning. So don’t be one of those people that ask such a question.
Back to Anki
Where the heck were we? Right, Anki. Flash cards seem so obvious when you first start. My cards started simply — one word on each side. The Korean word for hand is 손 (sohn), and so I would memorize hand means 손 and 손 means hand. Simple.
But things get more complicated. One of the challenges of learning languages is that words can have multiple meanings. Take the word 소수 (so-su) as an example. It has many meanings, among them: a minority, a decimal, and a prime number. These different meanings cannot be distinguished by looking at the word. Only context can tell us what the meaning is.
This posed a major problem with the Anki model. I can’t have three cards that all have 소수 on them, since I would have no idea what is going to be on the other side. So I combined them together onto one card. Three English meanings, one Korean word. Simple.
But of course, languages are complicated and the one-to-many rule can work in reverse. And also, there can be many words that are all very similar. Take a look at the following card:
or this one:
or this one:
The point, of course, is that all of these cards share a similar problem: all the words sound similar, in either English or Korean (or both). Take that last card about splitting up and distributing. All the words are two syllables in Korean, and all of them start with the syllable 분. How do you keep these separated in your head on separate cards?
I have many, many flash cards with multiple words on them. This increased the time it took to process each card, making my daily Anki session harder and harder to pull off. What was once 20 minutes a day is now 30 minutes or more, albeit I am studying more words each session.
The Anki Treadmill
The other problem is that Anki constantly pushes me to learn more words. Every day, an additional 180 cards show up to study. If I miss a day, I end up with something like 320 cards to study. When I go on a work trip for a week, I suddenly come home and have 700+ cards waiting for me. And while Anki has settings to limit total studying in one sitting, the feeling is that you are constantly falling behind in studying.
Psychologically, this has actually taken quite a toll. Anki is definitely not addictive in a Silicon Valley-esque gamification way, but I am definitely a headstrong learner who doesn’t like to fail. So for 2.5 years, I have forced myself to study every day, even when I don’t want to, in order to keep up with the deluge (I wish I could do that with my writing!)
The other issue is that the 30 minutes a day it took to keep up with Anki also meant not spending time with other language learning materials. I rarely get to hear Korean, or read it, simply because 30 minutes is really what I can reasonably spare to do this hobby.
Even though flash cards should be a supplement to other learning activities, the increasing size of my deck meant that I consumed greater and greater bandwidth just to stay on top of the pile. One reason every card in my deck has been memorized is simply because I haven’t had time to read new things and add new vocabulary words into Anki.
Quitting and What’s Next + Some Lessons
Today, I quit Anki, in that glorious 2016 style of furiously uninstalling the app. I have had enough. Anki has helped me move further into a language than any other app I have used, but I think it is time to take a deep break.
So where am I? I can read most Korean newspaper stories about politics and economics and understand basically what’s going on. If the topic is one I am particularly familiar with (elections, for instance), I can actually skim read and get most of the gist.
(fun side note: one way to say gist in Korean is 골자 (gol-cha) which is derived from Chinese and means bone + word/character - so the skeleton of text — cool!)
What’s next? I’m probably going to try to find a way to talk about politics again and have more debates again. That would help me with both spoken and listening fluency, and I already have sufficient vocabulary studied that it is probably worth simply reenforcing the words I already have rather than learning new ones.
What are the lessons for adult education? I do think Anki was super helpful, but it cannot be the sole activity spent learning a language. More language tools should dive adult learners into the deep end of the language, so that they can actually read and listen to something interesting, instead of “Kim’s Walk in the F***ing Park”). Seriously. Politics! Social issues! Economics! Business! Art! A little interest will keep adults engaged, since that is probably why they got started learning a language in the first place.
I would end this mini-rant for other language learners with this: learning a language is a humbling experience, in which most people you talk to are more willing to make fun of you than to actually help you succeed. People demand that you randomly come up with sentences on demand, or ask that you speak with a native speaker to “prove” that you can say something. “Are you fluent?” “Oh, you must speak with an accent then!” This seriously happens all the time, to the point that I don’t even bring up the fact that I know other languages anymore.
I have learned that this is derived from a deep insecurity, because learning a language is horrifically hard. The vast majority of people gave up years ago trying to learn, so anyone who gets ahead of them is a threat that must be stopped. One of the better parts of learning Asian languages (at least, Chinese and Korean) is that people in Asia were almost always supportive of it. People just say a compliment about how hard that is, rather than trying to prove how incompetent you are. It’s refreshing.
So, screw all the other people who aren’t supportive. And keep going. Learning a language doesn’t happen in a short period of time. It’s a marathon game. I’m probably halfway there with Korean, and it is approaching six years. But in the end, you get to experience something few people who grow up in their home countries enjoy: the ability to engage with a different society, to make new friends, and to learn and expand our viewpoints. In the end, that makes it all worth it.