Monday, December 14, 2009

Full Immersion.

We're talking 99% Korean input here and that's 100% scary.

It's no joke - Americans are among the few countries that typically prefer an assisted-approach to language learning. Meaning we generally like to use L1 (our first language - English) to help explicitly learn L2 (the target language - in KC101's case - Korean). Most people who support this teaching model claim that the stress levels of the students are decidedly lower and that learning can take place in a comfortable L1-rich environment. Koreans are not the only ones who prefer full immersion (the exclusive use of L2 in the classroom) but since we are all students of Korean, let's focus on that for the moment being. However, I eagerly wait to hear from fellow KC101 students about other countries and their approach to language learning!

Koreans adopt the immersion teaching model out of the thinking that it just works - when you are surrounded by a language, you have an opportunity to learn it. When you have a rich amount of input (i.e. listening) mixed with opportunities to have meaningful output (i.e. speaking) hey! You got yourself a language! Score!

But what about the ones who don't get past the learning curve? What about culture shock? What about adaptability? What about learning preferences? What about learning differences? What about exceptional learners? What about everything?
Korean Language Learning Immersion
No dice. With full immersion, you get it or you don't. You are either motivated to learn or you aren't. You either want to speak Korean or you don't. You either make meaning from the input or you don't. It's like Yoda said "Do or do not; there is no try". Hey, we've all heard of this method - it's the sink or swim model! (Note: the next paragraph is best read with three servings of sarcasm and one gallon of Hatorade to wash it down). 

Yea! Sink or swim! What an awesome way to feel unique and special, isn't it? Man, I love hearing about my friends who "couldn't hack it"! Or how about the ones who do "make it" but never studied? Oh, I love hearing about those too. Man it sure is cheap too - full immersion doesn't require an interpreter - cause I understand everything! Sure am glad I spent a month's salary on that plane ticket and left all my friends and family and life as I know it to live in a strange new environment where up is down and I am finally a minority. Sweet! Oh this is awesome! Gosh, I love waking up all alone in the morning and staring at myself in mirror wondering if today will be the today that I don't feel like an idiot. Carpe Diem FTW! (Wow - that there's enough sarcasm to last me a week)

Of course there are obvious pluses to learning a language in an immersion setting. Unfortunately, that doesn't always work for everyone. Some are either unable or unwilling to leave their home life to live abroad. Some cannot get over the feeling of helplessness. In the states, you are your own person - independent and free. But in Korea, you are an imbecile - a foreigner who gets by either by the color of your skin or the sound of your accent. Even still, you are dependent on public transportation and privacy is a privilege that most don't get. All that "me" time? Gone.

And of course, even though immersion does indeed provide a chance to "speed up" the learning process, we oftentimes are let down by our expectations set by other learners and (of course) movies. Anyone remember Dances with Wolves? Didn't it take him like a week to be fluent in Sioux? What a jerk.

Perhaps it is fair to point out the cultural expectations of students and how that plays a role in this debate. Typically, American students are expected to "do their best" (which is of course subjective) and become socially competent. Shyness is considered somewhat undesirable while self-confidence is nurtured. We like our students to be well-rounded individuals who can balance responsibilities at home, part-time work, and satisfactory academic achievement. We also instill at a young age that individuality and uniqueness are celebrated and worthwhile. We also like to focus on the process over the product.

Korean students have different expectations. Responsibilities at home take a much smaller role (sometimes non-existent) while their academic workload practically doubles. It is quite common to go to school in the morning, study in the afternoon, go to a 학원 in the evening, and study some more at night. Performance is more important than the process in which you studied or applied yourself. Shyness is oftentimes equated to humbleness while self-confidence can be interpreted as arrogance. Fitting in is a subtle yet powerful undertone that can motivate many outside thinkers to think "inside the box" early on in their academic career.

Having pointed out some of the macro-level differences, immersion-type classrooms seem like not that big of deal now. Seems that life as a Korean student is pretty stressful with quite a lot of responsibilities. Throw in that homogeneity is the norm in Korea and you have a recipe for comparing apples to oranges: immersion in the West is taken in a different context than the East. Here's a little illustration to how I see two common occurrences in schools.
Stress Levels
It's not that all American students are outgoing, it's just that doing outgoing things such as initiating conversation, being brash when asking for a date, putting yourself out there - all things are more common in the states and aren't nearly as stressful as an environment where you can't understand what's being said. It's not a hard and fast rule, but I typically see more tears coming from my American friends in an immersion setting than say, a Korean classmate.

And yet, there's hordes of foreigners coming to Korea to teach at countless numbers of jobs that require only a college diploma in any field and citizenship from an English speaking country. These thrill seekers and educators alike come to teach in various environments with the full English immersion model being the most common in the schools and academies.

I'd like to tell you a question a love to ask my classmates when learning Korean "Hey, How much did you just get?" (meaning, how much of what he/she said did you understand?) Then I measure it in percentages. When I attended a newcomer's orientation at 이화여대, I couldn't help but score myself just at the 30% mark. That's 30% of the conversation I understood. Here and there I picked up a word or two - maybe a verb ending or a suffix or whatnot. It's fun to see what your friends got out of it, too. "Oh so what was she saying about this?" or "Did you catch what she said about tomorrow?" It's funny to see how one person caught one part of the conversation while another caught the part you missed.

To wrap things up, either way, immersion definitely is one of many ways to successfully learn a language. It certainly isn't the only or "best" method as there simply is no convincing research evidence that points to one method as the best (although plenty of edutainers will swear by their method). However, it is enough to say that certain methods work with a certain amount of success. Immersion does work in Korea; however, it's not the only way to learn English. Hey, look at the approach that KC101 takes - it works too - given the right attitude, work ethic, and setting, KC101 can teach you some serious Korean. Having said that, if you get a chance to learn Korean in an immersion environment, I say take it - just bring a box of tissues for the tears - you'll have plenty to shed over the stress.