According to the Foreign Service Institute, the main training institution for U.S. diplomatic staff, it requires 2200 hours of study to become proficient in a language that is as linguistically and culturally different from one’s native language as English is from Korean. So given that most Korean university students do not have the time or the means to complete that many hours of formal language training, how is it possible for them to develop their English skills to the point where they feel confident in their proficiency? For most students, I believe that the key is for them to become autonomous language learners.
Autonomous learners are those who can guide and curate their own learning—in other words, become their own English teachers. At first blush this may seem to be a contradiction. How can you teach yourself something that you yourself don’t even know? But keep in mind that learning English is not about filling up your head with facts about English, but rather involves cultivating automatic intuitions about the language. After all, his is how most native speakers learn their native tongue.
This means that learning a language is more similar to learning how to swim or how to play the piano than it is to learning facts about, say, history or physics. If someone were to memorize all the facts in a book about playing the guitar, it wouldn’t mean that the person could pick a guitar up and play it skillfully. One still has to practice for hours upon hours over years in order to master it. Reading a book in Korean or listening to a lecture in Korean about the English language, likewise, will do very little to help a person learn English in the way that is likely to improve their competence in using it.
Thus, one decisive factor in becoming proficient in English is the amount of exposure one has to authentic English content, that is, content created principally for a native-speaking audience. With the massive amount of online content available nowadays, this type of material is readily accessible. Anyone can watch, listen, or read authentic English content with a few taps on a smartphone or clicks with a computer mouse. Good autonomous learners try to make time to do this; they can, for example, regularly listen to an American podcast while they are exercising or watch a British drama on their commute to school.
In order to be successful, this type of study should not be stressful or unpleasant. It shouldn’t like cramming for a difficult test, but rather like listening to music you are really into. If it is stressful or unpleasant, then it will probably only be a matter of time before you give up. To make learning more pleasurable and more effective, try to choose material that is personally engaging to you. If you enjoy comedies, choose an English language comedy to watch. If you are into yoga, read an English blog about yoga. Choose whatever interests you, and not something that is just the latest educational fad.
If at first you find authentic English content intimidating, try to do what good educators do and scaffold the material. This entails chunking up the content into manageable parts. For example, you could first watch a clip from an English TV show with Korean subtitles to understand it, then watch it again with English subtitles, make notes on any interesting new words or phrases, look them up, and finally watch it again without any subtitles while paying particular attention for those new words and phrases. If you practice this type of activity regularly, over time you will be able to understand without reading the Korean subtitles and then without requiring the English subtitles.
Lastly, language learning apps, such as Duolingo and Memrise, are great tools available to autonomous English learners these days. While most of these apps are not yet very good at teaching students how to converse in English, they can still be helpful for acquiring vocabulary and mastering English grammar. These apps are tireless teachers available at any time of the day, and many of them are free. Furthermore, as the technology improves, these types of apps are bound to become more and more effective.
As a university English instructor, I am humbled by the fact that that most of my students probably require so much more practice in English than I am able to give them in just one or two university semesters. At best I can only be of assistance to them for a small part of their long journey on the road to proficiency in English. However, I take heart that every one of my students with a true desire to learn is capable of becoming their own best teacher and that they can eventually succeed in achieving their goal.
▲ Dept. of
Prof. Anthony Bale
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