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Freedom from English

Here's the transcript of my talk at the 세바시 on Freedom from English. This is an approximate transcript that I prepared for my talk, so that they could provide Korean subtitles for listeners. My delivery was kind of unnatural and sometimes not so fluid, because I had to give my speech from a memorized script.

Freedom from English

I remember several years ago, I was at a bus stop near 왕십리 [Wangshimni], when some high school boys came up to me, wanting to practice English. But as they opened their mouths, all they could say was, “Hi... I like kimchi... I love you” - and then walked away quickly, giggling, and embarrassed. Sadly, they studied English in school for many years, yet they could not say anything meaningful – just a few simple, awkward phrases, not knowing that it is not appropriate to say “I love you” to stranger.

I often hear of how Koreans spend so much time, so much effort and so much money on studying English, but with such poor results. In fact, English has become an unhealthy obsession here. And the problem is they are often not really learning English, but merely facts about English. This obsession has become a form of bondage, which actually discourages Koreans and prevents them from learning English well. English has become a bondage rather than a language.

So today I’m going to talk about finding freedom from English. First, I will discuss [1] some challenges, [2] some myths, and [3] some motivation problems, and finally, I’ll lay out some steps to freedom.


You face some real linguistic and psychological challenges with English. English is hard because the two languages are so different, and learning languages after childhood is hard. English is not commonly used in Korea, so your exposure to English is limited to less natural environments like classrooms. Reading, writing, or listening in English can be difficult due to what I will call mental efficiency. When you use your native language, your brain automatically understands most everything, without any effort. In a foreign language, this is not automatic, and your brain has to work much harder. So anything you do in English is less efficient, more tiring, and harder to understand. Your brain has to become more used to English and more comfortable with English. Training the brain to do this in another language takes a long time and a lot of work. Those are the challenges.


Now for some myths. You might think that intelligent people can learn languages easily. Not necessarily true. Intelligent people can have all kinds of fears, inhibitions, or motivation problems. People with the right kind of motivation, who are willing to practice, can learn languages well, even if they are not the smartest. Doing a lot of memorizing, and traditional classroom exercises, do not necessarily lead to real learning, but rather, merely learning facts about English. Nor do they help develop that mental efficiency. It is not helpful to just memorize words that you are not likely to use. You need to encounter words in natural, meaningful reading or listening contexts, and many times – maybe a few times, or maybe a dozen times – to really learn them, to understand how the words are used, and with a context to help you remember them. Otherwise, you will forget most of them.

Many have a wrong view of grammar – they think it’s a bunch of mechanical rules, a bunch of “do’s” and “don’t’s”. Grammar rules are actually patterns – patterns that convey meanings, though often abstract meanings, like ‘a/the’ or the perfect tense. Instead of memorizing rules, learn these patterns in meaningful contexts, where you can see how they are used.

Many like to focus intensively on English for tests like the 수능 [Suneung - Korean college entrance exam], TOEFL, TOEIC, or for good grades. But these can be poor sources of motivation, and lead to merely learning facts about English.


So let’s talk about motivation. People often think, “If I just had more motivation, I could learn better.” The truth is, it’s not just how much motivation, but it’s the type of motivation that matters. There are different kinds of motivation, and too much of the wrong kind can actually be harmful and self-defeating.
There are two basic psychological categories of motivation – internal and external.

Internal motivation is when you are fully self-motivated to do something, because you really like it, you enjoy it and you really want to do it. This happens when you have a real intellectual, personal or social interest in something. 

External motivation means that the motivation really, ultimately comes from somewhere else. Maybe you’ve adopted it, so to speak, but your heart is not really into it. This includes all kinds of feelings of obligation or pressure – feeling that you have to learn it; pressure to get good scores or grades, workplace pressure; pressure from school or parents; or social expectations – as well as perfectionism [완벽주의]. With these motivations, your focus is on how others see you, or how you see yourself, rather than practical English learning. These external motivators often lead to less efficient study habits, like mechanical, rote memorization, and just learning facts about English. They also make English boring, difficult, and stressful. English becomes a bondage rather than a language.

In contrast, internally motivated learners are driven by the following. The first is like a sense of free will – they learn because they want to, they enjoy it, and it is entirely their choice; there is no sense of pressure or obligation to learn. Second, they gain a sense of personal growth or satisfaction from it. They feel good about themselves because they are learning and growing, intellectually or personally, and this builds their self-esteem and confidence. Third, some may also gain motivation from a sense of social connection – from developing relationships while learning or by being able to communicate with others in English. Internally motivated people are the best language learners.

Now it may not be reasonable to expect you to fall in love with English. You may not love everything that you study. That’s okay – because there is a type of external motivation that is somewhat in between, somewhat like the internal kind, and better than the other external kinds. This is the personal utility motivation. This means you may not love it, but you don’t mind it, because you find it worthwhile. You view English as personally useful or important to your goals – your career or study goals – and you don’t mind learning it. There is no sense of obligation or pressure to learn English. So if you can shed the other external motivators and get to that point, that can be the first step – if you can forget about any sense of pressure or obligation to learn, that is the first step to freedom. For many people, this motivation may be enough to restart their learning; and for some, it may even evolve later into a genuine internal motivation.

Finding your freedom

So now let’s look at the steps to finding freedom. We’ll look at finding your goals, finding better strategies, and finding a sense of confidence.

1. Finding your goals

Examine yourself. Why are you learning English? What are your goals and motivations? Why are you having your kids learn English? What kind of goals and values are you communicating to them? Are you trying to turn them into little perfectionists? Do they know you love them regardless of their performance? Give up perfectionistic attitudes and goals. You shouldn’t do English to be “perfect,” but for practical purposes.

Renounce the pressures and obligations that others have imposed upon you. Declare – 선포하다 – declare that you do not care about those pressures. Declare that you do not care about other people’s expectations. Declare that you don’t care what others think of your English abilities. Embrace English as a positive tool, to learn for your own purposes, and as something that could be interesting or even enjoyable.

2. Finding better learning strategies

You need effective strategies - materials and methods to help you to enjoy learning, and to develop your mental efficiency with the language. It takes a lot of work for the brain to become more comfortable and efficient in a second language. There are no simple shortcuts. This takes many thousands of hours of exposure to the language. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you can do a lot of this on your own, and you don’t necessarily have to take hagwon classes to do this. One of the best methods can be doing a lot of reading on your own. It is important to find reading materials that you find interesting or at least informative and useful for you; otherwise, it will be hard to maintain your motivation.
One kind is intensive reading. This means carefully reading a passage several times for full comprehension, like what you would do in a reading class. But you can also do this on your own, without taking a class. Generally, you read through a text once simply for the main idea, ignoring words that you don’t know; then you read again, trying to guess the meanings of new words from context, and afterwards, looking up words you can’t guess; then you read again for full comprehension.

Another kind, extensive reading, is very important. This simply means reading a lot - many kinds of materials on your own, without trying to understand everything. This can be the best way to learn vocabulary, by encountering words in context. And it’s a great way to develop more mental efficiency and comfort with English. Find different materials that you enjoy, from popular to academic – comics, novels, popular books, news, and academic reading materials. Read as much as you can.

Likewise, use media materials, like the many free audio and video materials on the Internet – different kinds of things that you find interesting. Listen extensively, and sometimes do some intensive listening practice. You can also repeat after and imitate them for speaking practice.

As for vocabulary, don’t over-memorize. Learn words that you will likely use, or encounter in what you read or listen to. When you need to memorize, make your work more efficient. Take some time first to learn memory aids or memory tricks – what we call mnemonics. You can find resources out there that will teach you more effective and fun ways to learn vocabulary, such as word association methods – interesting visual and mental associations that will help you remember things easily.

Think in English. Your brain needs exposure and time in English to develop mental efficiency. A good way can be to make yourself think in English sometimes. That method has helped me learn other languages.

3. Confidence

You need to develop a sense of confidence. How? First, don’t go to so many hagwon classes. Teach yourself. Learn on your own. Empower yourself as a learner. Find materials that you like, and learn by yourself, or with friends.

Teach your kids English. Yes, that’s right. Teach your kids English. If you don’t have kids, find some. This is because you will learn from teaching. And from teaching, you can develop a sense of confidence. It’s okay if your English sounds like Konglish. You won’t mess up the kids. They can get accurate input from English media, and they will probably be okay.

You see, people have forgotten that language is for communication and social interaction. And your kids need certain things for their intellectual and social development. They need play and interaction with their peers. More importantly, they need love and social interaction from their parents. So instead of sending them off to hagwons, spend more quality time with them. Teach them English at home, instead of relying on hagwons so much. Read English books to them and teach them, even if you’re not the best teacher. Like I said, you learn from teaching. Years from now, your kids will appreciate it.

I know what it’s like. I am just now starting to find my freedom from Korean – which for us Westerners is a very hard language. For you, English doesn’t have to be such a burden or bondage. I hope can find a new motivation. I hope you can do well in English. I hope you can even enjoy it. I hope that you can find freedom from English.

Thank you.


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