Or more specifically, growing up in your target language.
The other day, I was watching a video on one of my favourite Korean learning channel. It was an interview with Lindie Botes, a polyglot content creator I really enjoy watching. They talked about various aspects of the language learning process, but what stood out to me the most was the host’s story on how differently he feels about English, a foreign language he speaks fluently, and German, the language he’s actively studying at the moment.
He said that despite being able to converse fluently and even make content in English, he still feels somewhat insecure about his abilities. Whereas with German, he’s able to find joy even in the tiniest of triumphs, like pulling off a sentence as simple as ‘the sky is blue’.
What he said really resonated with me, because it’s exactly how I feel about English and French, and to some extent, Korean. That simple joy that he described – I used to experience it a lot with English. It’s a wonderful feeling – light and pleasant and brilliant. For me, it’s joy in its purest form.
A Blissful Beginning
I started studying English when I was around 13. I was extremely motivated, and I had a lot of fun in the first few years. I sometimes still marvel at the progress that I was able to make, given the circumstances. No textbooks, no tutors, not even a dictionary – I dove headfirst into the language armed with nothing but a very rudimentary foundation in grammar (I knew the pronouns and exactly three tenses, which I struggled to conjugate properly).
I still remember the first book that I’ve ever read in English. It was a short story adapted from the first episode of Lizzie McGuire. Reading comprehension was near impossible because my vocabulary was extremely limited, but still, I pressed on determinedly, stringing together the few words that I could recognise hoping it would give me some idea of what was going on. I read like that for a few years. It was pure guesswork.
I had a lot of fun, despite barely understanding anything. I went on to try all sorts of things, and everything felt like a milestone, a victory – understanding a joke from a sitcom and being to laugh along, writing a post on an online forum, making a new friend on Neopets. I don’t think I was even thinking about progress at all. All I cared about what finding new things to do in English, discovering new content, and meeting new people.
And then I left the bubble. I went to college.
See, up until I went to college, I had no real use for English in real life. Sure, there were tests at school, but I gave no more than the minimal effort because I didn’t really care about them. Learning English was a hobby – in fact, I don’t think I was even consciously learning it. I never really studied it. It was just a tool – I wanted to read stories, write some of my own, watch movies and meet people from the other side of the globe, and English helped open doors for that.
Since I treated it as a hobby, I was able to mostly stay in the immersion bubble that I had created for myself. But as soon as real-life expectations came into the picture, things changed.
I started using the language for studies, and eventually, for work, which turned it from a casual hobby into an asset that I must now continuously grow and hone. People also started commenting on my accent, and for the first time ever, I started worrying about my pronunciation, which, up until then, was something I’d never even given a thought to. I went from thinking ‘I love English’ to ‘Is my English good enough?’ and little by little, my relationship with the language soured.
Finding New Love
Around this time, I started studying Korean. I dove in with the same ferocity I had when I first started learning English, spending about 8 to 10 hours a day (every waking moment, basically) on studying it, and I kept it up for over a year. In hindsight, I think my ‘fall-out’ with English was partly why I’d studied Korean so intensively in the first year – it was filling some sort of vacuum, providing me the joy that I wasn’t able to find in English anymore.
It took a lot to recover my interest in English, and while I still love the language, I don’t think I ever found that joy again. I’m still using it on a daily basis. Reading and writing in it feel almost as natural as breathing to me now, but it’s not the same. The spark is gone.
Fast forward to now, four years after I started learning Korean. I’ve made a lot of progress in the language. I can now read novels, understand news and various native content without subtitles. I can express my thoughts somewhat comfortably in writing, and translate my own articles into Korean. I can even teach beginners who are just starting out, and lower intermediate learners struggling to overcome the Great Plateau.
But I don’t feel the same excitement anymore. The joy of just learning the language is slowly diminishing as I find myself feeling more and more self-conscious about my abilities. Nothing feels enough, and when I think about the language, I think of not the things I have accomplished, but the things I have yet to, and unlike at the start, it no longer fills me with a sense of hope and excitement.
Instead, I feel sad, insecure and anxious. Am I good enough to be teaching someone? When will I be able to express myself fully in Korean, with ease? Why do I always mess up that ㄱ -> ㄲ pronunciation when I’m nervous? Why am I even nervous?
Is it because I’m not learning new things? No, far from it. I still come across words I don’t know sometimes. But instead of getting excited about all these new words that I’m learning (like I used to), I find myself wondering how many more I have to learn before I stop finding new ones in everything I read, which is silly because there is no end to the words there are in this world. Even native speakers don’t know every word in their language.
But how much longer do I have to go, to become ‘good’? Will I ever be ‘good’ enough?
Just how ‘good’ is ‘good enough’?
Even compliments feel like pressure to live up to the expectations of others. I feel like a fraud – one tiny mistake and I’ll be exposed, and people will realise that I’m not as good as they seem to think I am. Which is, again, pretty silly, because like a wise friend of mine once told me, “We’re rarely – almost never – as good as people think we are.”
And of course, it should come as no surprise that I started learning French earlier this year, right about when my imposter syndrome with Korean kicked in (in full force). I’m having a lot of fun with it, just as I did with English and Korean. Same story, different time.
Is it inevitable, then? I’m not sure.
I think it would help a lot, though, if we tried to focus a little more on the language itself, or the simple act of using it to do something. To do anything we like, anything at all. Looking back, I feel like I made the most progress with English when I wasn’t thinking about how to get better, or whether I was getting better, but how to use it and what to use it for.
Language is a tool, but it is also a living thing. The moment we adopt it, it becomes a part of us, and the more we feed it, the more it grows, like a plant, or a child. Come to think of it, the simple joy and curiosity that we feel in the earlier days of our studies aren’t unlike that of a child.
In that sense, I’m a child in French (who finds everything new and exciting), an adult in English (who’s constantly worrying about adult stuff, like meeting expectations, being productive and making sure everything I do brings me ‘value’), and in Korean, a teen just graduating high school, about to head off to college (hopeful but stressed out, and missing the carefree days of my childhood just a little bit).
Is growing up and becoming an adult an inherently bad thing? I don’t think so. As an ‘adult’, I’m able to understand and do a lot more than I used to. I can understand native content on really interesting subjects and concepts, and have in-depth discussions on complex topics. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, not even for the chance to return to ‘simpler’ times.
But the joy of discovery and learning isn’t (and shouldn’t be) exclusive to children. Maybe, just maybe, the key is giving ourselves the permission to be a child again, every now and then.