How to Succeed at Languages without Really Trying

From 1966 to 2006, except for the three years I tried to be a studio potter, I taught foreign languages—either German to Americans or English to Chinese and Koreans. During that time there was one student whose language proficiency was a really remarkable achievement. By the time I met Byoung-ok, he’d made himself bilingual and bicultural. I thought at first that he’d gone to elementary and middle school in the United States–his polite and deferential manner made an American high school seem unlikely. He told me he’d spent only four or five weeks in an English-speaking country. He majored in film, which at Dongguk University was particularly good.

In December 2009, we had this interview about his experience. He said there was no doubt but that his motivation to learn English came to a great extent from his admiration for American culture. He is currently writing subtitles for English-lanugage movies and television shows, and he’s not out of work for very long. The Korean economy may be down, as he says, but people still watch television.

Byoung-ok’s story

My first memory connected with English is of audiotapes my parents bought me when I was in elementary school. One was a tape of children’s songs about farms and animals, and the other a tape by Bonny M. I played them, and I often tried to repeat the words. Then when I was in the fifth or sixth grade, English classes for elementary school students were offered in the basement of our apartment house complex. Like most Korean parents, my mother wanted me to do well in school, and so she enrolled me. The teacher was a Korean, and we had a book which I think was printed by one of the American companies. We had tapes for listen-and-repeat. We learned the basic expressions and the alphabet. I think I was quite well-prepared when my formal English instruction stared in middle school in 1992. During that time the focus was mostly on grammar. I think that was before the Scholastic Aptitude Test was introduced. There was no listening comprehension or reading comprehension. But I liked learning grammar too because it was still English. My scores were quite good, but I don’t know whether it was because I had talent for learning languages or because I had a head start. Actually, I would say more than half of the kids who started middle school with me already knew the alphabet and basic expressions—how are you doing? fine, thank you—and all that stuff. In the third year of middle school there was a listening comprehension contest in English.  I got very good scores, and my English teacher recommended sending me to a regional competition as a representative of my school. But I was quite shy back then, and I didn’t want to go to places with a lot of people.

In Korea there are a lot of English words—they might actually be Konglish [Korean-English mix]. There’s enough so you can use what you learned almost instantly. Like television ads or the advertisements for cosmetics that you see on the subway, which are half in English, even though they’re it’s written in the Korean alphabet. So I could actually understand them. Then with a lot of the problems for English studies you have a little reading passage and then questions to answer. So it was like reading bits of newspaper articles. I thought it was fun learning about new things. I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Starting in either the first or second year of middle school, I went to an institute [a for-profit after-school school] that taught English, Korean and math, a sort of supplementary school. English was mostly grammar. The teacher was quite funny, one of those who act like an entertainer to grab students’ attention—he played, he made jokes. So it was like watching a show, rather than taking a class. It was fun.

The first time I spoke to a foreigner was the first year of high school—not in the regular school, but at the institute, which was called Wonderland because it was mainly for kids. It was a new school opening near our house. On weekends they also had classes for middle and high school students. My mother brought me a brochure.

“Are you interested in taking this class?”

“Why not?”

I was either fifteen or sixteen, and this was during summer vacation. Now, Korean high schools have classes during the vacation. They’re called supplementary classes, but they’re actually mandatory. So it’s not really a vacation. I don’t know why, but for that one year you had a choice whether to go to summer school or not. So of course I chose not to. I didn’t have a lot to do.

Because it was during vacation, the first class I went to was on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for one hour or two hours. I was really quite frightened. I’d never met a foreigner before—well, actually, a white person. I remember my mother went to check on how I was doing because it was my first experience with a school of that type. My teacher said I was doing really great. My mother was quite surprised, given that I’d never been outside of Korea. After one or two months, I was sent up to a weekend class with students who had experience studying abroad. All the teachers were native speakers.

We didn’t have cable television back then. There was no concept of it in Korea. So the only thing on TV during the daytime was AFKN, the network for the American military stationed in Korea. So I started watching it. During those two months of vacation, I stumbled on a TV show called Friends. When I started watching it I didn’t know it was quite popular in the States. I could understand some of it, because even during middle school I did listening comprehension stuff. I found it quite funny. It was my first experience watching an American sitcom—I mean, other than one on Korean TV with dubbing by Korean actors. I was immediately hooked. “Oh my God, this is funny. I have to watch this.”

Since I was going to those classes, my English was improving daily. So I started watching AFKN intensively. I had the whole week’s schedule in my head. If I couldn’t watch something, I’d record it on my VCR. That also meant I wouldn’t interfere with what my father wanted to watch. Also during that time I started listening to Eagle FM, a radio station for the American Forces in Korea. After I started watching Friends, I branched out to all the other sitcoms on AFKN.

I learned expressions from those shows, and then I would try to use them at my weekend classes, which was quite interesting and exciting. For example, in the movie Clueless, a character referred to the menstrual period as “riding the crimson wave.” Even though I knew what it meant, I asked my female teacher because I wanted to see her reaction.

Another factor was the Internet. Because Friends was huge in the States, there were a lot of fans who would transcribe the show. Since there weren’t any subtitles, there were a lot of things I didn’t understand, especially the jokes and cultural references. So finding these transcripts was like hitting the jackpot. There was one for every single episode from the first to the current one. So I downloaded them, and I had almost all the episodes on tape. If I didn’t understand something, I would look it up in the dictionary. If it was a joke or it wasn’t available in the dictionary, I would ask the teachers on weekends. It was study material for me, even though I didn’t think of it as studying because I was just trying to figure out why they were laughing and I wasn’t—even though I knew that it was canned laughter. The other show I watched intensely was Seinfeld. Now when people ask me how to study English I say, “TV was my best teacher.”

The institute helped quite a bit. I mean, where else do you have the chance to talk to native speakers? The main reason I liked it was that those teachers treated me like a friend, like an individual and a human being. It was very strange in a way to be treated like that by the teachers. None of the Korean teachers I knew did that. In the Korean school that I went to you were treated as a subordinate, like in the military. The teachers were higher-ranking officers, and you were a foot soldier who had to do everything they said.

Basically, we hung out. They would invite me to their parties and take me along when they went out sightseeing, partly because they could use me as a translator. I installed computer games in their computers [the software directions were probably in Korean], and I would go to their houses. So they became friends, not teachers. I didn’t see any other students doing that, although there were students who spoke English better than I did. I don’t know, maybe it was because I was eager to hang out with them. Back then, 90% of the teachers were from America. They were both men and women in their twenties. The oldest one I knew turned thirty in Korea. At that time most of the teachers were fresh out of college, not professionals, but people who wanted to go abroad for a year or two before starting a real job back home. They were also on vacation. Now things have changed some.

Some of those teachers I still communicate with on Facebook, which I do with none of the other teachers I had. I’m not trying to criticize Korean teachers. It’s probably because they didn’t have any choice. The system is built that way. You have to force the students to get high scores on tests. To me it felt like the sole reason for the existence of the Korean schools was to get good grades and go to good schools—or schools which were well-regarded and highly respected by Koreans.

Starting with my first year in high school, I also started watching movies intensively. Most of the movies I watched were American movies, half from Hollywood and half independent films—those were low-budget, quirky films. One I liked which wasn’t quirky, but one that comes to mind is Gregg Araki’s The Doom Generation from his Gen-X trilogy. There was a time when I went to every single movie that was available in theaters. Then there was nothing else available, I watched videos.

I was really into pop songs—like in high school I probably bought between 100 and 200 CDs. And I would say 99% of them are American musicians. So I was immersed in an English-speaking environment.

Because I was watching TV and movies, I was really interested in entertainment magazines like Premiere and Entertainment Weekly. At one time I read a business magazine for the entertainment industry even though I didn’t know half of the business people featured in the articles. Back then we had Tower Records, which had a whole section of magazine stands. The current issues were expensive, but the back issues were very, very cheap. I liked Interview and New York. When I found The New Yorker, I was thrilled. “Oh, this is it!” I’d always heard it mentioned in movies and stuff, like it was regarded as an upbeat, classy magazine for well-educated people who were pompous and pretentious. I bought it, and I thought, “Wow, this is why it’s referred to like that.” Because it rarely had photos, and I couldn’t understand the cartoons, and half of the words in the articles I didn’t understand. I was really frustrated trying to read The New Yorker in high school. But I liked the fiction.

Naturally, from those books of reading problems with excerpts from magazines and news articles, I moved on to reading novels. I think the first ones were The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton and A Time to Kill by John Grisham. Once during a break at school, the English teacher came over and was very surprised that I was reading a novel in English. Once I started reading novels in English, I would never, ever read an English-language novel in Korean. No matter how good the translator is, something’s bound to get lost. Also, when the characters’ names and the setting are American and you’re reading it in Korean, it just feels different.

I learned a lot about American culture because comedy has a lot of cultural references. Movies do too. And also yes, the nighttime talk shows, David Letterman and Jay Leno. There was a time when I would just get news from their monologues because they made fun of all the current events. Oh, really? I didn’t know that was typical American behavior. When I started college as a film major, my father was kind enough to buy me a big projection TV for my room, with a sound system and a VCR. Naturally, as a university student I had more free time than I did in high school, so I watched TV and movies more. I don’t think I missed an episode of a nighttime talk show in 1998 and 1999. At one time I was thinking about becoming a standup comedian. It helped my English a lot because it was real conversation, not like scripted like the sitcoms, and it wasn’t prim and proper English like on the news. It was like real people talking.

Oh, and also Saturday Night Live. That was the show that I would hate to miss. I didn’t know that SNL had become lesss funny during the 90s because that was when I started watching it.  A lot of people who started watching it during the 60s and 70s they said it was the best time for the show, but I didn’t know that so I kept on watching it. I thought it was hilarious.

It all had to stop in 2000 when I went to the military, but thankfully my TOEIC [Test of English for International Communication] score was high enough so that I was selected as a translator. The first year I was stationed on the American Army post at Yongsan, where I worked in the Korean general’s office. It was more like a regular office job. You know, taking care of the schedule, making sure the general’s office was clean, and all that kind of stuff. I didn’t speak English a lot unless there was something that had to be worked out. The second year I was stationed in Pyeongtaek in the Intel Collection Unit, where they were actually doing ground work. I worked intensively with the American side, and I had daily briefings for the colonel in the mornings. If I hadn’t been selected as a translator I wouldn’t have been able to speak English for two years. So I was fortunate. I learned a lot of military lingo, so when I was watching Saving Private Ryan and Blackhawk Down I understood what they were saying—like the military ranks. Like for example, I know that a captain in the navy is an O-6, the army equivalent of a full-bird colonel, while an army captain in the navy is an O-3. This comes in quite handy even now when I’m writing the subtitles for documentaries on military history. I did a series on that.

When I was in the military and I had nothing else to do, I read dictionaries. I hadn’t quite reached the Z’s by the end of my service. I found it quite fun. That was probably the first time I realized I really liked English. Not too many people read dictionaries, right? I would find words that I thought I knew, but they had different meanings. Or I’d stumble upon a word I’d heard a lot but didn’t know the meaning of, and I finally understood what it meant. I’d find useful meanings and useful expressions, so that was really fun. I certainly couldn’t have been reading novels or magazines at work because the officers wouldn’t have liked it. But if they saw me reading a dictionary, they’d think I was trying to be a better translator. The Department of Defense put out a military dictionary, which was all about howitzers and tanks and explosives. It was really fun.

It was a shame that I didn’t have more of a chance to hang out with American soldiers. As a KATUSA [Korean Augmentation To the United States Army, a Korean assigned to the US Army] I would have the chance. But I was in the Korean army I lived in the Korean barracks and the Korean army rules applied to me. I couldn’t go out on weekends, and I had to go right back to the barracks after work. However, I did make a friend, and we exchanged emails even when he was sent to Iraq, where he served for two years. The last I heard he was starting college in Miami.

You do have fun sometimes in the Korean army with your fellow soldiers even though you see them every day. But the atmosphere is very different. Because of the rank system, the hierarchy is a lot stricter. You don’t treat each other as friends even though you’re in the same situation since you’ve been dragged into military service. I didn’t meet a single person who wanted to be there. Those people applied to be NCOs or officers. They weren’t in the enlisted section. Being in the Korean military was quite a shock actually, like a culture shock, although I didn’t realize it back then. I missed the environment with the American teachers where everybody treated each other as individuals and friends even though there might be a ten or fifteen-year age difference. When I was in the army I asked my sister to subscribe to some magazines for me. They were shipped over by air, but I had no access to them because the military mail service is different. She’d get them to me so I could still read Premiere and Interview. I even read Gourmet. I didn’t like the food at the mess hall, and it would help me fantasize about food.

During college, I took every available English speaking class for non-majors, and then I ventured into the English department, which is where I met you, thankfully. So I continued taking those classes and continued watching more TV and more movies. In college I started reading The Korea Herald. I was so immersed in English that I was practically living my life in English. Anything I could do in English I would do.