Here’s How Language Learning Can Be More Meaningful


For the longest time, I’ve been trying to live as others do, being out, doing things, relying on people’s experiences for excitement in my own boring life, depending on the amount of interaction with people or the lack thereof that made me feel unappreciated and unaccomplished compared to my peers. People were my gauge of how I should be living my life. I looked at people’s methods and mimic them and wonder why they didn’t work for me. I never came full satisfaction or understood fully what I was doing and what for.

Despite an immature understanding of myself, I was naturally drawn to certain things I was often hungry and curious about. Among other things like art, photography, colours, nature and landscapes, animals, one was languages. I first picked Japanese up, started learning it off media, videos and music (like almost everyone) and began my interest from there. Not having a clear sense of which learning style best suited me, I started copying what I saw. I enrolled into classes where teachers kindly implemented their well-intentioned studying methods onto their students, and while it’s dry and a tad painful for my taste, it worked because I had the constant push and kick I needed to drag myself through rote memorizing, writing in workbooks with scenarios that served little to interest me. I had little appreciation for what I learnt at that time because I was fed what I was ‘supposed’ to learn.

It took me a while to re-appreciate Japanese and the efforts of my teachers. It truly, was ‘for my own good’. Even now, holding a JLPT N2 cert but not feeling very adequate (compared to N1 certificate holding peers), I could still remember phrases that I thought I’d forgotten for sure. Though left and right, my classmates got into jobs that made use of their newly learnt skill, I remained on the border, not quite fully submerging myself into that environment.

When I started learning Korean, it took me several tries. Firstly, the course materials at school really didn’t slide down well with me. Secondly, I was impatient and full headed. Imagine my shock when I found out I didn’t do so well for my Korean language classes. I decided I would self study instead.

Honestly, self studying is hard, especially at the start. Building a base, and foundation to work from took lots of self questioning. ‘Why am I doing this? Is this really worth it? It’s too hard. I should give up. No, I shouldn’t.’ What I often told people when they asked me was that I study a language just so I can watch shows without subtitles. Something simple, easy and nothing to be intrusive or pry about. But perhaps, right at the core, I am naturally drawn to languages because of my interest in studying people as a race. Language is a communication tool, a product of human society, where individuals gather together and built something for themselves, including a system of communication.

Language probably began when people needed to communicate basic ideas where team effort is required, where it evolved from basic body language and gestures to audible, spoken, arbitrary terms that also evolved in complexity and variety and became meaningful and contains value. People can track their physical growth based on the words they learn at different stages of their lives like how music can mark significant periods of one’s life, and listening to these songs can allow someone to relive their cherished moments. Why not languages?

I remember the time I gleefully told my mom who threw a pillowcase at me and I promptly ducked and avoided the cloth “I dodged it”. I was probably really young and had learnt the word ‘dodge’ from my Enid Blyton books. It was a proud and yet rather insignificant moment in the history of moments, and yet it carried a special place in my heart. In later years, I would continue learning even more complicated terms, including the above used term ‘arbitrary’ as part of my university studies in Anthropology, I understood what that word meant, and how it is used, the value of said word in its context.

In guessing words that I have yet to fully learn, it’s basically like a 50/50 game. Since I’m a feeler (meanings come in terms of a positive or negative feeling after having internalized it) I associate words with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘neutral’. Again, it’s all subjective, good or bad can mean different things, but in trying to understand, I place emotive meanings onto words to help me understand them better. A word like 신나다 (be elated, to be excited) would have positive emotions, and this feedback links me back to a certain point in a drama I once watched, played by this guy who had lost his memory and went back to a childish state of mind, and he found going out to play totally “신난다!”

At a later stage of my unguided freestyle self studying, I took apart the lyrics of Zico, who was apparently in an angsty stage of his life, and wrote a song about competition and his tough period in training as a celebrity in South Korea, I could literally jump into his skin, and ‘partake’ (another word learnt at a point where I was feeling spiritual and regularly went to the church to listen to spiritual goodness) in his misery of a routine, monotonous life where nobody is a friend and all are foes.

아군은 없다 동료 적이래
와 같은 참혹한 흔적이 된
연습실 못 견딜화장실
몰래 질질 짜 가능한 협소하게 처리해

There are no allies, they say colleagues will soon be enemies
Blood-like sweat became horrific traces
When I can’t bear the practice room, I go to the bathroom
I secretly sob, taking care of it as quickly as possible

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In spending extra time, digesting language in contexts of drama and rap music may seem frivolous, but it carries special meaning to me. And I mean it when I say values can be subjective. Thinking about language, thinking about thinking, thinking about language and thoughts and placing it on a timeline, and newly learnt words are like a collection of useful gems that only serve to increase your store of knowledge and ability for expression. How else can one express wise thoughts if there weren’t a word invented for it?

Words are beautiful, and value on choice words can be decided upon by the masses; most of the ‘-isms’ and ‘ations’ are pretty important (Nationalism, Individualism, Confucianism, Democratization, Authoritarianism) – these are huge words that many people have agreed to decide that it is important. You could decide on smaller words to carry that same depth. Though it may not cost as much, words are free to use, and your usage defines you, it carries meaning. Your thoughts are realized through speech and action, significant along a timeline. The things people are saying changes all the time, and like twitter ‘trending hashtag terms’, you have your own trends. In self learning or general learning of languages, the words you choose to learn out of the array of new words to learn can be meaningful to you. And since thinking is free, words are free, meaning is personal and subjective and free, and people do retain value placed memories and events better than insignificant ones, what else can come out of this other than a lot of benefit?

Think about it.


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