Fluency Frustration Part 2 – A Balancing Act

by Yaska Sahara

Ancient Language pain aside, I feel envy. As I mentioned in Part 1, modern language students have so many more resources. I have spoken to numerous people in Japan and Korea Studies, as well as a few others, like a Hindi student I know. They’ve told me about how they can watch anime, dramas, movies, listen to K-pop, Japanese rock or Bollywood and have the pleasure of recognising a word they learnt in class. It gives them a childlike joy. I know the joy because I had similar experiments while learning Japanese, French and Spanish. You can read more about it in my ‘How I learnt Japanese’ and ‘Spanish in Barcelona’ posts.

While I see my fellow students get better and more familiar with the help of modern media, it makes me envious. I love my programme but I wish I could learn five languages at once. Though, the skills I’ll develop learning Sanskrit will help me with learning modern languages in the future.

This envy is particularly hard for Korean. I have been known to enjoy some k-pop and I love the occasional K-drama binge watch. Whether it is ironic shit-watching or genuine love for soap opera drama, I don’t know. The lines get blurry. I think it’s a bit of both, to be honest. Anyway, I also really love the Korean language, a lot of it is quite unique and its simple, yet thorough. The alphabet is genius. It was invented to increase literacy, to cover all the sounds accurately and easily. Many symbols represent the shapes your mouth makes when the sound for it is made. I have loved Korean for a few years. So much so that I learnt the alphabet in a few days when I was 15, even though I didn’t and still don’t know what most of the words mean.

I have picked up bits and bobs over time. But recently, I’m getting more and more into Korean media. The main example being a Korean variety show called Aneun Hyungnim, or Knowing Brother in English. (Also Men on a Mission on Netflix) It is so hilarious. It is a show where they bring on celebrity guests and chat to them, play games etc. Even if I don’t know the celebrities, I still find it funny. There are some cultural references I don’t get but that is part of what makes it so fun. The recurring cast is most of what makes the show actually. They are known for making fun of guests, themselves and each other.

Through watching this and a few other things in Korean, I’m picking up more than ever. I must emphasise, I cannot speak Korean! I absorb random things, mostly colloquial words and slang but also just odd words: ‘school’, ‘man’, ‘food’, names of countries, one, two, three etc. I cannot hold a basic conversation because my knowledge is quite sporadic. But there are times when I hear Koreans talking and I can guess what they’re talking about with a few words. This is a fairly recent occurrence and it is extremely enticing to my language nerd brain. There is a large part of me that is annoyed I don’t have the time, energy and willpower to study Korean so I could tap into my absorbed knowledge of it. I’m sure I will get to it at some point in the future but sadly the human brain isn’t always rational like that. It keeps bugging me.

Untapped passive Korean knowledge isn’t all that is bugging me. I feel inadequate with languages in which I already have a fair level of proficiency. I’ve recently been mingling with Japanese exchange students in my university. It’s great because I get to meet new people from other programs and departments and I get a chance to practice my Japanese. I went to a casual meet of Japanese people and Japanese speakers at one of the many student-friendly bars in Leiden and found myself happy that I could follow the conversations and casually chat with everyone. I’ve been to Japan and done as much but the thrill doesn’t vanish. So that’s great. But then there are moments when I want to punch myself because I take a second too long to think of word I want to say, or I confuse two words, or something doesn’t sound as good as it did in my head or I don’t know a random, very trivial word, like ‘crumb’.

I want to practice and get better at French too. But it isn’t always easy. The French students have often had much of their education in English and have almost no trace of a French accent. Their English is better than my French. I recently practised with a friend of mine and my French wasn’t bad. She complimented my accent and language in general. But I was annoyed with myself because I know I’m quite easily capable of doing better. I really want to go to France, plunge myself in. But again, I will have the time. That time isn’t now.

Learning a language and maintaining it is hard. On the one hand, if you expose yourself to it, you are practising passively. But on the other hand, speaking at the level you want is a bit different. I, and all languages lovers I assume are constantly working to find a balance; between never being satisfied and striving to do better and not to be too hard on yourself, between practising intensively and accepting that you will get rusty but that can be rectified… Not to mention balancing multiple languages. I’m always trying to pick up more. 

And thus concludes my learning languages frustration rant!  

Thank you.

Oh and, I know I don’t talk about Italian in this post even though it is in the picture. I just wanted a good picture. But the fact that I have so many phrasebooks just further shows my frustration and constant balancing. 


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