How to Learn a Language

Don't worry; I'm not going to tell you how, partly because I can't claim authority.  I've never learned a language before.

Okay, I can speak enough French to make myself understood to a French person, as long as we're discussing train schedules and not l'existentialisme.  And I know a very, very little bit of Greek; basically, enough to get myself in trouble at a Greek restaurant (meaning: mired in a one-way conversation with no opportunity to gracefully bow out.)  But I've never really been fluent in another language, certainly not to the extent of The Korean, who makes far fewer grammatical errors in his posts than most American bloggers I know.

The Korean is the name of this anonymous blogger, who offers the following wisdom about learning English as a 16-year-old immigrant to Los Angeles:

English had to be learned. I tackled this problem like a good Korean student – rote memorization. It seemed obvious to me that without knowing words, my English would go nowhere. I decided that I should memorize every single word in my sight that I did not know. I bought many boxes of empty flashcards and wrote the words I did not know on one side, and the definition on the other side.



This was not an easy task. Finishing a simple homework would create a pile of cards, since I probably understood one out of ten words in my textbook. Working on one diagnostic SAT took weeks, because I was so terrible in the verbal section to the degree that it was comical. In a typical sentence completion question where I was supposed to choose the right word for an empty space in a sentence, I did not know all five of the possible choices, and two more words from the sentence itself. And there were a hundred questions like them.


I organized the cards into bundles of 50 cards. I memorized a set until I got everything right without regard to the order of the cards, then moved onto the next set. When I completed five bundles, I re-did the entire five bundles before moving onto the next. Within a year, I did not even need the flashcards for the initial bundles – I could recite them all by heart, backwards and forwards, with words matching the definition. Boxes upon boxes filled a wall in my room. By the time I graduated, I memorized more than 30,000 words.

Well!  It's good to know my favorite theory worked for someone.  Then, at the very end of a wonderful post that's really inspirational and worth the time to read, even with an occasional dusting of profanity here and there:
There are certain things about contemporary America drives the Korean crazy, and this is one of them: the idea that the process of learning is somehow supposed to be fun. Just drop it. Forget it. What is fun is the result of learning – the infinite amount of fun when you finally put the finished product to use. And truly, that applies to second language acquisition as well as anything else. Your horizon will expand beyond the limit of your imagination. You will gain perspectives that you couldn’t have even dreamed of . . . Your sacrifice will be worthwhile.

I happen to think the learning part is fun, too, but hey: I also like tests.