What it’s like to learn one of the most difficult languages for English speakers

A journey towards fluency


Erika Lee

By Kimberlee Roy, Collegian contributor

Learning a second language is a growing interest for people these days, whether it’s for business communication, traveling, making friends, a career interest or even just for fun. But learning a second or even a third language opens us up to opportunities to view the world in new ways and there are a lot of words in languages other than English that encapsulate certain emotions or situations in a syllable or two that cannot be expressed fully in English.

I started learning Korean out of personal interest and I found it to be incredibly fun. As I continued to learn Korean, I realized just how much I enjoyed the language and wanted to use it in my everyday life. This, coupled with my draw to the medical field, threw me into the path of a career in medical interpretation and translation.

When I first started learning Korean, I watched YouTube videos to learn how to read and write which took about a week. It is probably the easiest thing about learning Korean, but I felt very accomplished when I was able to finally read Korean even if I didn’t understand the context of the passages.

I then moved onto finding every single resource I could use like Memrise, Duolingo, Mondly, Talk to Me in Korean and language exchange websites just to strengthen my language learning as quickly as I could. I taught myself Korean through videos, applications and various grammar books for a little over a year before I transferred to the University of Massachusetts  in order to take Korean language classes and study Linguistics and Anthropology. But I didn’t have any idea how difficult my language learning path would be as I moved further into the language.

Since I had studied Korean for a year on my own and transferred during the spring semester, I felt like I was capable enough to jump into the Korean Beginner II class. I knew how to read, write, understand and speak in simple sentences, but I didn’t realize just how out of place I was until class started. I wasn’t very good at listening to native Korean speakers unless they spoke slowly, I didn’t know a lot of the vocabulary that was previously taught in the Beginner I class and I froze every time I was called on to answer a question even if I knew how to answer it. I became discouraged.

However, I gained more confidence when I took Korean Intermediate I and bonded with the instructor, but by the time I took Intermediate II, I started to question what I was doing. Am I capable of becoming fluent? Can I even become conversational? Is this really the right field I should be going into? I started panicking and in turn stopped studying as much as I used to. I did my best to get by in class and explored other careers when I was at home.

But at the same time I didn’t want to be like so many other people who gave up on learning another language just because it got tough. I have heard from classmates, friends and co-workers how they’d like to become fluent, but found it not worth the trouble. Afraid of falling into this same conclusion of questioning if I’m capable, I began to ask myself why I started learning Korean in the first place. I decided to deeply reflect into what motivated me, how it made me feel when I learned something new and understood it and what methods truly worked for my personal learning style. I stopped panicking. I stopped beating myself up for getting answers wrong and I stopped putting myself on a deadline. Of course, I want to become fluent in Korean as fast as possible, but fear and stress are not helpful to memory.

I have now been learning Korean for over three years and although I’m not where I feel I should be linguistically, I am still just as passionate about my chosen career path and learning Korean. I had the opportunity to study abroad in Seoul which only further encouraged my aspirations and I will be going back to teach English until I become fluent in Korean.

It has not been a simple or easy road to learn a second language and it’s far from over, but it has been the most fun and rewarding experience I’ve ever had. I have made so many friends, been able to order food, shop and navigate around South Korea while seeing the world in a different perspective. Much like learning to swim, drive or ride a bike, language is a skill that can be developed and practiced. If there is one thing I could tell language learners, especially those learning Korean, I would tell them that getting discouraged is a normal part of the process, but language learning is not impossible and be sure to remind yourself often of why you started in the first place.

저는 Kimberlee Roy입니다. 저는 3년 동안 한국어를 배우고 있는데 저는 의학 통역이 되고 싶어요. 저는 모든 사람들이 제2외국어를 배울 수 있다고 믿습니다.

Kimberlee Roy is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at [email protected]