Learning a Fifth Language

For an hour, I forgot I was in America.
For an hour, I forgot the languages I knew: Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish, and English.
For an hour, I forgot I was Chinese.
For an hour, I felt somehow . . . Korean.

This week I finally had the chance to pounce on the Rosetta Stone TOTALe software, Korean Level 1. I’ve been craving to learn this language since middle school. No, I’m not a Korean-drama or K-pop fanatic (I prefer ridiculous, Japanese variety shows). I’m simply intrigued by the language.

first day at stanford xinshan

My first day at Stanford University

I was born in China, grew up in Japan, moved to the United States in fourth grade, and started Spanish in seventh grade. I thought that, for a middle school student, I was a mini-expert on languages. So, when I saw the Korean writing system, I thought, “Oh, it’s probably just another pictorial system, like the ones in Chinese and Japanese (Kanji).” I entertained myself with that arrogance until I discovered the characters were actually phonetic. “Wait, what? Those Chinese-looking strokes are phonetic like the English alphabet?” In a linguistically-nerdy way, I would say it’s East meets West in languages! Incredible.

Korean has inhabited my mind ever since, and I’ve yearned to understand how the language works. My friends tried to teach me the alphabet in high school, but I never remembered beyond the tenth letter. Even in the Learn a Language Club I started, I just couldn’t prioritize Korean. Now at Stanford, I finally decided to take a Korean class. We trudged through the language the traditional way—alphabets, pronouns, vocabulary, numbers, greetings, present tense, and so on. But I found that it really wasn’t the best way to learn a language.

After one quarter, I stopped the class due to scheduling issues. Two years later, I still remember how to read the alphabet and how to introduce myself. That seems to be all that survived. The rest of my knowledge is gone. All the particles that I spent time agonizing over are a blur. I know that, up to a point, language learning depends on your memory, but I’d hoped to retain a bit more than just information from the first week of class.

I decided to attack Korean again with Rosetta Stone. My motivation? Not to obtain technical fluency, but to know the language. Possess it, if you will. To understand Korean the way I understand English, Chinese, Japanese, and Spanish, and to be able to think in it without initial translations—that’s what I desire. Language learning is my hobby. As a multilingual, I can communicate with more people. I know ideas that one language can describe eloquently, while other languages fall short and don’t even contain terms for such concepts. I might even think differently in one language than another. I always wonder, if I knew all the languages in the world, would my creativity and thought processes be unsurpassable?

Now, back to the hour I just spent with TOTALe. Before then, I didn’t even know language learning without translation was still possible for adults. But, during those 60 minutes, I felt immersed in and engulfed by Korean. No English translations ran through my mind—only thoughts in Korean.

I’m excited to commit my energy to learning Korean with Rosetta Stone this summer. Actually, I’m already thinking about what other languages I want to learn with this software. The surreal experience reminded me of my childhood, when I tried to conquer both Mandarin and Japanese as I was learning how to speak, or when I tried to comprehend Spanish as I was learning English.

This time, though, I’ll go with just one language an hour.

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