I Gave Up on Korean

Here comes a tale of woe from Rocky.


One of my classmates finishes up his presentation on 동의보감과 사상의학 (An ‘oriental’ medicine book series and four-type constitutional medicine, it makes more sense in Korean, trust me). He appears confident as he takes questions from our small audience and I dare not ask anything.

His presentation was the final blow for me. I sit in the classroom with the walls that are worn yellow with age and constant use. I appear attentive, but inside, I’m melting into a puddle of self-pity. His presentation was the last of all of the non-Koreans in the class. During each of those presentations, I held a secret hope that one of them would be just as bad at Korean as I am. Each time, however, they flew effortlessly ahead of me. For the past two months, I had been hoping to find someone in my class that I was equal to, but I guess there has to be that one terrible person in every class. This time around, that person is me.

The teacher calls on me to give the first of the feedback on this student’s presentation. I, of course, scramble to find any suitable words, and at the end of my jagged speech, the teacher has to sum up what I said in more coherent terms. The feedback continues around the room and I try to listen, but I can’t understand what my classmates are saying. Their speech is too advanced for me.

Finally, the class is over. As I step into the warm sunshine, I let myself realize the decrepit state my Korean has settled into. I silently laugh when I realize that the Korean class I had cried in last semester was so much more comforting than the one I’m currently in. I try to think back on how I had come to this point.

What Brought Me to This Point?

Last semester, in the breezy study room of my dormitory, where rainbows or sunsets always lit the sky outside the window, I had language exchange. I spent so many hours with my old language exchange partner in that bright, happy room, laughing about the British-English textbook he was studying. But despite the wonderful view and enjoyable moments, I didn’t feel wonderful when we practiced Korean. In truth, he was a good person, but I couldn’t handle the way he taught me Korean. He tried in the only way he knew how, but I couldn’t keep myself together. I would sit there with him, my face flushed red, while he made me repeat sentences more than 10 times or listen to the same dialogue until I feigned understanding. When I showed him my writing in Korean, he would laugh and say, “You’re joking, right?” I was too ashamed to speak in front of him because everything I said was flawed. Too afraid to ask him for revisions on my presentations because my writing was a joke. So I stopped using Korean with him.

Late into the night, I would spend hours memorizing vocabulary, practicing grammar, writing in Korean, and trying to read the articles in my textbook. But nothing helped. I would forget nearly every vocabulary word I worked to memorize. The articles never became easier. I dared not show anyone my writing.

During winter break, I pushed Korean into a far corner in my mind. A dark void I didn’t want to visit.

Spring semester came, and my new Korean class was filled with Korean-Americans who didn’t need to learn more Korean and other students who were set to study abroad in Korea next year. I quickly found two language exchange partners, and one still truly makes an effort to help me with Korean.

Walking back from my Korean class, under the beating sun, I discovered what had brought me to this point. It was all my own doing. I allowed myself to be swallowed in my own insecurities. I let my Korean become stagnant and depreciate and I suppose somewhere along the way I gave up. I didn’t know it, but I had given up.  And now I don’t know what to do to get back on track. Continue on with the same results as last semester? Trudge through class, texts and tests with little understanding of what I’m reading or saying? It’s like I know I’m drowning, but I’m only half-heartedly trying to swim. I’m the second language studies major; I should know how to learn languages.

I want to believe that this is only a phase. If I continue on with valiant effort, I will improve. According to second language acquisition theory and research, what I am currently doing should bring results.

Looking to the Future

A part of me doesn’t see the point in continuing, but a larger part of me can’t fathom the idea of giving up learning Korean. I’ve been doing it for three years. It’s been a staple in my life. I’ve made friends and had so many memorable experiences because of my fervor to learn Korean. So I’m going to try and renew my efforts in learning Korean. I’m currently testing a few language resources online and through mobile applications, and I’m also trying to reschedule my life. To be honest, I’m not really positive about any of it, but I don't know what the results will be unless I try. I couldn’t live with myself if I gave up without trying.

I invite you to come with me on this journey and monitor my progress. Let’s see what happens.



Raquel “Rocky” Reinagel is a MA candidate and graduate assistant in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa; former president of Hanwoori Hawaiʻi; and Co-President of the Second Language Studies Student Association (SLSSA) at UHM.