That Magic Moment

Having been an English teacher for so long, and before that a student of many languages to varying degrees of success, I have given a lot of thought to the process of learning a language.  Having lived in Korea for so long, I have given a lot of advice on the process of living a language, and to this day the only person who has taken any of my advice is my wife, and that’s because I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I think the reason that my advice, based as it is on years of hard-won experience, goes completely ignored is that the people who ask me “How should I study English?” or “What should I focus on?” or “What should I do to help my daughter learn English?” don’t really want to learn English.  They are not interested in the on-going life decision to learn and use a foreign language.  They would rather ‘know’ a language, whatever that means.

Actually what that means to them is that they would like to be able to read a language book the way one reads a history book, memorize a list of words the way one memorizes the citric acid cycle, and be able to make English sentences the way one does long division, except in their head.  This leads the following process to take place instead of the use of the English language:

1.Hear English
3.Translate each bit into Korean
4.Rearrange the word order
5. Think of a response in Korean
6.Translate each word into English
7.Say those words in a stilted halting slow roll
8.Giggle (optional)

A key part of the learning of the language and one of the concepts that I constantly drop on deaf ears is internalization.

Internalization is the key to learning a language.

This means that all linguistic information that makes up a language must be ‘learned’, in that it must be remembered and known, but it then must pass from the ‘knowing’ part of the brain that deals with historical facts and figures into the internal, subconsciously accessible part of your brain where things like languages, how to tie your shoes, and your parents’ phone number lay ready on hand whenever you need them.

How do you internalize these things?  I refer you to Zefrank’s excellent explanation of his memorization process, in which the subconscious brain is a recalcitrant, lazy partner whom you ‘break down slowly with love’ (transcript, video). Ze’s four step process is contamination, reinforcement, simmer and story time, with the end goal of putting information into the ‘knowledge lock box’.  My method, with its focus on learning language, is a bit different, but follows the same general low pressure approach.

The first step is to become familiar with a word’s basic sound and memorize it.  I’ll use the example of the Korean word saseol (사설), the reason being that I’ve already gotten through this first step.  I know this word exists, I can spell it and everything (not incredibly hard for Korean, but still . . .) and yet I haven’t a clue what it means.  I have probably studied it several times and yet it has failed to enter my active vocabulary.  I believe this is because it has a particularly indistinct sound to it.  There are plenty of Korean words that sound just like saseol (soseol, sinseol, sinsa, sisa, siseol, seolsa, sasa, etc).  This factor can have a huge effect on one’s ability to remember a word.  That is why I find the best method of attacking new vocabulary is to study large groups of words at the same time.  I would say fifty words is the perfect number for me.  The more you know of the language, the more associations between words you know and words you don’t know you’ll be able to make.  In a list of fifty brand new words that I’ve never studied before, I inevitably find at least two or three that, because they have strange sounds (bbyam (뺨) cheek), are similar to words I already know (mideumjikseureopda (믿음직스럽다) contains mid (believe) and seureopda (-ish) so it must mean believe-ish=trustworthy) or share similar sounds (the Korean verb ending –seo, which means ‘so . . . ‘) or structures (기회원가, literally ‘opportunity cost’, means ‘opportunity cost’) their English equivalents immediately stick in my mind.  That’s why I can’t stress the next tip enough.

Study a long list of words or grammar points with a triage mentality.

That means don’t expect to remember every single word on the list the first time around.  Learning a language is a long game, and there’s plenty of time to go back and fill in all the gaps in your knowledge.  I usually shoot for a mastery of 95% of any language information I study.  Some things I take one look at and know for a fact that, whether because they aren’t sticky or useful or whatever reason, I will not be memorizing any time soon.  That’s fine.  Go with the flow and focus on the things you can learn.  Otherwise you’ll end up running into the wall of diminishing returns, exerting tons of mental energy for linguistic knowledge that you’ll find you actually have little use for.  Unless you are studying for a test, anything that takes more than seven or eight passes to learn isn’t worth learning at that time, and sometimes there are things that you are simply not ready to learn.

So you’ve made your list of fifty words or ten grammatical structures or affixes or whatever, and you’ve familiarized yourself with the sounds of the words by just reading the list.  The key is to maximize the number of discrete times that you encounter a piece of information.  I consider a single discrete encounter one in which you are exposed to information about that word that wasn’t primed in your mind at the time.  Priming is a very real linguistic concept.  If I write cat, all the words related to the word  cat (litter, dog, catnip, meow, finicky, kitten, Garfield)get primed in your mind and are mobilized to the front line of your consciousness.  If I go and look up saseol, as I have just done, and see that it means ‘editorial’.  The all the links to and from the word ‘editorial’ in my brain are lit up, all the images of William Sapphire and J. Jonah Jameson are right there in the forefront of my consciousness.  Until the word ‘editorial’ ceases to be primed in my mind that is one discrete exposure to the meaning of the word saseol.  Any more attempts to link the English and the Korean once this priming has occurred is futile.  The ideal is to make this association,  bring up this link between saseol and ‘editorial’ and then get the priming to end as soon as possible so I can expose myself to the words fresh as soon as possible.  This is the significance of the long list: it allows your brain a chance to make connections but not dwell uselessly on them.  Thus my next tip

Have as many discrete encounters of as short a length as possible

Now it’s time to make two separate lists, one containing only Korean and one only with English.  These are the words from the earlier list, but it’s important that the order of both lists is different from that of the original list and each other.  This is because of the next tip

Make sure you’re remembering linguistic information only

The brain loves patterns.  In fact, the brain is designed to learn patterns, but the adult brain is not designed to learn languages.  That means that if there are any patterns in your lists, your brain will learn the patterns and you will find that you’ve learned more about the actual list itself than the words on it.

For example, I recently began studying a list of accounting related words in Korean.  I found the words on a website in Korean.  I jotted them all down into a list and started studying it without really noticing that the list was alphabetical.  I fount that I was learning the words incredibly fast.  The first run through the list yielded about 15% of words that required no study at all, but by the second run-through I was miles ahead of where I would usually be when reading the English and trying to remember the Korean.  I realized that the list was alphabetized and rewrote it randomly, only to find that my recognition of the words was largely a function of their being written alphabetically: randomizing the list brought me back to my regular pace.  You should be able to tell when you’re learning linguistic information and when you’re noticing patterns.  Some other common patterns that the brain would rather notice than learning words include when two words in a row sound similar and a series of unusually long or short words.  Placement of words is also liable to get a word remembered for the wrong reason, in particular the first and last words in a list or on a page.

Now you’ve built a body of words to study, written your lists in various orders and studied them by having discrete encounters made as brief as possible.  The next step is to run the words through the whole language system.  What I typically do is write the words out, again writing once per discrete encounter, because any more would be superfluous.  I remember in fourth grade my teacher Mr. Krapf used to assign writing assignments as punishments, for example ‘I will respect my fellow students’ fifty times.  I used to write my punishments one word at a time (fifty ‘I’s, fifty ‘will’s, fifty ‘respect’s, etc.) to make extra sure that I never learned any lesson.  When you sit and write some new vocabulary word ten times, you’re studying it once and then not studying nine other words.

The point of writing the words out (or speaking them aloud) is our next tip

Run the words all the way through the system

This rule applies for the learning of everything.  I recently started using PhraseExpress, a program which allows you to create shortcuts through which commonly written phrases can be written with just a few keystrokes.  Instead of writing ‘Joe Mondello’ I just type ‘jj’ followed by a space bar.  I kept catching myself having written Joe Monde” and instead of just finishing with an ‘llo’ and moving on I deleted the whole thing and typed ‘jj’, not because it was easy but because I knew that you have to drive down the road a number of times before you can get in the groove.

The more examples, the better

I get so mad with language books that give you three nearly identical examples.  You’ll be studying, say, the word ‘eat’ and the three examples given are ‘I eat a waffle’, ‘I eat a bagel’, ‘I eat a muffin’.  You’re ideally going to want an example of a question, a statement, a request, the past and future tenses, the singular and the plural.  The more varied the examples you study, the better grasp on a word’s use you’ll have.  Some books (especially Korean books for English study) try to teach patterns.  This is a guaranteed method for teaching people to never speak a foreign language well.  If your study materials aren’t full of good examples, google the words you’re studying and you will find about ten per page.

The final tip that I must say is probably the best is

Don’t use a word you’ve never used before until you’ve heard and understood it in context.  Go out and hear it in context

This serves two purposes.  It prevents you from making some really bad mistakes of the ‘The book consists three parts’ variety.  It also gives you a good landmark after which you can say honestly that you have some claim to knowing the word in question.  A recent example:  I was studying the word seuchida (스치다) ‘to graze’.  I knew it when I was looking at my lists but it hadn’t been internalized into my working knowledge of Korean yet.  Part of the problem is that in it’s most common form it’s an indistinct and usually mumbled ‘scho’ (스쳐), too short to be easily heard and quickly recognized.  Our dog Baduk had some kind of scratch on his belly.  My father and law was petting him when he suddenly leapt up and ran away, at which time my father in law said (in Korean) ‘All I did was graze his belly and he ran away’.  There it is, the eponymous ‘magic moment’.  Having heard and understood this word in the wild, so to speak, it crossed the line from ‘ one of my vocab words’ to ‘a word I know’.  That’s why after I study a word and I know it on paper, I go out into the real world, the world of TV shows, people, books and newspapers, and try ot hear it in context.  If you have a theme list this is particularly easy, if for example you’re studying real estate-related words, search the internet for articles about the real estate market and you’re very likely to see all your new words.  This also helps you see the words in context.

Once you know a word, in your conscious and unconscious mind, and you recognize it when you hear it, you’re ready to use it, with my blessing.

How to learn a language like a joshing gnome:

  1. Internalization is the key
  2. Study a long list of words with a triage mentality
  3. Have as many discrete encounters of as short a length as possible
  4. Make sure you’re remembering linguistic information only
  5. Run the words all the way through the system
  6. The more examples, the better
  7. Don’t use a word you’ve never used before until you’ve heard and understood it in context.  Go out and hear it in context

~ by Joshing on February 24, 2008.

8 Responses to “That Magic Moment”

  1. Excellent advice. I will be following all those steps, as soon as I start to learn Japanese.
    I just need some strong incentive to start and I think I’ll be OK eventually.

  2. Good advice. thnks.

  3. this seems like such common sense but yet, it needed to be organized in the way you’ve done here.

    i can personally attest to the validity of what you’re saying as I have very successfully studied Mandarin and Cantonese with some of the ideas you’ve described. Hope my Korean study goes as well now!

  4. I’m glad this posting is still up here a year after you wrote it… sound advice and lots of very good observations; neatly summarized into an enjoyable read. I’m currently studying French, and my approach has been similar, though I can see some ways I can improve on it because of your advice.

    I found your blog by a search for information on the show “Misuda”, as I had seen a video on YouTube where Dominique Noel demonstrated the difference between Quebecois and France french accents. At the same time I found your article, I saw another blog with a related observation. He was watching the show and thinking that his Korean language skills had suddenly improved. In fact, it was the show’s hosts that were speaking at a lower level: “I cringed in embarrassment in watching her string together words like she was flipping through the Lonely Planet Phrasebook.” (

    I realized that it’s fairly easy to remember a pattern, and completely avoid the meaning, context, and ‘mode d’emploi’ — how it’s used. I have seen that some of my classmates are really trying to, as you put it, “know” the language… you can guess at the results!

    Anyway, thanks for the good read. Will definitely refer it to some friends who are studying French with me.

  5. …hmmm, interesting:
    sab/p= tzapa(N)=dwarf, sapper/tzapotl.
    sil= sh/xilé(N)=sillín/silla(sp)/xlylo-(gk)/sylvan/silence.
    geos/t= ge/ce ot(li/N)=one ot/ther.
    gwan/lli= (na)gual/naualli(N)=own4, animal double(familiar).
    bal/ram= palani(N)=putrid(wind effect).
    gat/chi= gacho(J)=goose=choca(N/reversed)=cry, ch/ho(n)ca=
    bbyam= yamanqui(N)=tender, bland, (hammer/yammer).

    agree with all you say. (N)=Nauatl=PIEuro.

  6. …iki(J)=ik(maya)=ecatl(N)=wind, breath.
    you’re on the right path/patla(N).

  7. …glossing altai on, i find, asi(tungus-
    manchu)=elder relative/ancestor, a nauatl particle recognizable
    as citli/citin(N/plural), also, ciztli(N)=mother, connected to
    citli/cicitin(N/plural)=liebre(rabbit/hairy ears of age), and,
    citlalli(N)=star, as in, c(i)t/l a lli/rry(letra)=starry=star.
    the korean=acha?=asi(tungus-m). not sure i know korean sound
    value? the turkic=achaj/echej=asi(t-manchu)=citli(N), and,
    lodges in turkish as, yas=birthday/age limit/yasli(turk)=
    elderly, a parallel meaning of, yas=tear/wet, star as teardrop.
    the echej(turkic) variation appears in turkish, as,
    ecis bucus(turk)=wizened(person).

  8. …check out omotic post on tzopilotl wordpress.

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