The Language School Bubble

When you go to a Korean-language immersion program, there are certain illusions to which you’re likely to fall prey, especially if you’re at something of an advanced level.

First, you might start to think that what you’re doing is normal. After all, everyone around you has also devoted years to learning your target language. You can lose sight of how uncommon it is — how downright weird it is — to spend hours upon hours trying to parse and retain this obscure and difficult language. And you can forget that not all people from Japan, England, Spain, France, Taiwan, and China have an interest in Korea, or even know where it is. You start to think that everyone everywhere cares who EXO is.

Second, you might come to believe that you’re actually pretty good at Korean. I’ve been hanging out with a group of Japanese women, communicating almost entirely in Korean, and we’ve been able to have a lot of fun and even some intelligent conversations about things like religion. But it’s an illusion created by the fact that we’re all at the same level: we know more or less the same grammar and vocabulary, so we don’t tend to use stuff that’s way beyond what our counterparts can understand.

But as soon as I get into a conversation with actual Koreans, I’m in trouble — especially if they’re talking to each other rather than just to me. I catch words, sentence endings here and there. I get general ideas, maybe, but miss important key points, like that the entire conversation was about someone’s boyfriend rather than about not having a boyfriend. In other words, I have no idea what’s going on most of the time, but now speak Korean well enough that I feel like I should be paying attention anyway.

Some of this is the midpoint letdown — I’m two weeks in, with two weeks left to go, and feeling frustrated by all the short trips I’ve had to Seoul these past few years, when what I really want is to live here, to settle in, to be able to commit myself to an extended period of learning. Two weeks is such a tiny span, but I feel like I’ve learned an enormous amount, met interesting people, started conversations that I want to continue. But I’ll be leaving again in two weeks. What I need here is time.

I’m excited for my upcoming travel in Southeast Asia, and I have no intention of giving that up. But this visit to Seoul has reaffirmed my desire to be here and stay here. And I know that when I come to stay, I will finally get an experience that right now feels tantalizingly just out of reach.