Mistakes are Made
Last week, I cried in my Korean language class.
The class started off as usual. We went over the plans for the next week as well as updates. The part I dreaded, which was going over our lesson exercise, came next.
The weekly lesson exercise, based on the most recent chapter studied, consists of 6 pages of vocabulary, grammar, translation, comprehension questions, and a short essay. The first time we received this assignment, it took 5 hours to complete. The vocabulary, grammar, and translation sections aren’t too bad; they’re just a bit tedious and require Naver’s English dictionary. The real trouble comes with doing the comprehension questions. The questions which were based on the text in the book were required to be written in Korean.
This particular lesson was focused on professional baseball’s effect on the growth of consumerism in South Korea. Since I’m not a particularly knowledgeable person when it comes to baseball or politics, reading the piece was a daunting task, along with trying to find what the hell the deeper implications were in Korean. I typed up the answers with unsteady hands, and came to class with a feeling of failure hanging over me.
I entered the classroom to the light conversation of my peers. The teacher strictly minimized English in the classroom, in order to expose us to as much Korean as possible. Students cautiously spoke in whispers, so that when the teacher came in they wouldn’t be admonished for not using Korean in the classroom. The desks were formed into a U-shape and I went to sit in my usual spot, two seats away from the door. In that spot, however, was the new Korean American student. In a way, I was both happy and sad at this. Happy because now I didn’t have to sit beside the best Korean speaker in our class, but sad because now I had to sit beside the second best, and prettiest, Korean speaker in the class. I smiled though, thanking her for taking my daunting seat.
We went through the first part of the homework, and I wasn’t doing so bad. There were a few spelling mistakes and a few particle usage mistakes, but this was usual. Then came the comprehension questions. The teacher, an understanding but strict woman, called on students to read the question and answer. The first question was answered by a Korean American girl who, of course, knew the answer. Then the teacher called on me to answer the second question. I looked down at my paper to read over my answer, only to realize that I had written the exact same answer that was correct for the first question. I knew my answer was completely wrong.
Suddenly the pressure of my peers pushed into my mind. The Korean American students who were fluent, or nearly fluent, in Korean were most prominent. I wished one of the two sitting to my right had been called on. It is one thing to be wrong and silent. It’s another thing to shakily read your wrong answer in front of the entire class. The heat rose in my face and I took in a breath to read out my answer. After five or six words into reading my answer, my voice stopped. The paper became blurry. I blinked and tried to reorient myself, but my failure had already won over my mind. The knot that grew in my throat stopped any pride and confidence, and only allowed words that spoke of defeat.
I choked out “할 수 없어요”(I can’t do it), to the teacher before sobbing, and let my head drop forward.
The whole room seemed to turn even more silent than it already was. The teacher, momentarily shocked and perhaps at a loss for words in both Korean and English, paused before asking someone else to answer the question. I was so ashamed that I was actually sobbing in class, which didn’t add to my effort to compose myself. I felt debased back to the era of childhood, where I would cry everyday at school for my failures. I was like a child again, trying to learn a language that 7 year olds knew better than me. The lesson exercise on the small, white desk stared back at me, showing off my failures in plain text. The Korean-American girl sitting to my right firmly squeezed my shoulder, but that didn’t help much. I knew she meant to console me, but I could barely bring myself to look at her.
Rummaging through her bag, the teacher pulled out a small pack of tissues, quickly walked over to my seat, and placed the packet on my desk. Another question was answered as I took time to take out a tissue to wipe my eyes. I noticed that the tissue packet was Japanese, and I tried to distract myself from tearing up again. I focused on trying to decipher the kanji written on it, using my basic knowledge of the characters I had been learning in a Korean Chinese characters class. Looking at the complex strokes just reminded me of how I had memorized so many of them, only to forget their meanings. I couldn’t even read the label on tissue packets.
The teacher then switched to English, and tried to lighten the mood by playing a game-like activity for another part of the lesson exercise. I decided to try focusing again. I didn’t really feel any better, due to the failure before. I tried to smile, or at least look pleasant for the other students; I didn’t want to keep bringing down their mood. For the game we were all given paddles with Xs on one side and Os on the other. Someone had drawn a smiling sun with the O on my paddle and I quickly erased its happy face and rays. I couldn’t bear see it smile in the hands of such a sad owner as me. The rest of class didn’t go any smoother. A listening activity followed, and I only understood 3 sentences.
I quickly tried to pack my backpack when class was over, but nothing wanted to go into my bag the right way, so I was left as one of the last people in the classroom. As I slid my paper onto the professor’s desk she looked me straight in the eyes with real concern that I had not seen from a teacher in years.
I explained the fear of failure I carried with me, also mentioning the pressure I felt by learning alongside students whose Korean was so good they should not have been placed in that class.
“For a non-Flagship student, your Korean is surprisingly high,” she told me, “and mistakes are common at this level. Have you ever heard of a learner bell curve?” she asked. I nodded, vaguely remembering something I had learned in a second language theory class.
She began to draw a diagram. “At the beginning, students are learning so much that mistakes aren’t so pronounced, but as their language level increases, their mistakes increase greatly.” She had finished drawing the bell curve and circled the top portion of it.
“You and the other students in this class are at the top of this curve. You all are making a lot of mistakes, but it’s common and something that you have to get used to,” she explained. I nodded, telling her not to feel bad about making me cry, and thanked her before leaving with assurances that it would get better.
I suppose what my Korean teacher said is right; mistakes are common. However, coming to accept them when you’re learning a language is easier said than done. It hurts to be made a fool in front of people who are better than me. It’s not fun at all to think that others are judging my Korean ability and comparing it to their own. But at the same time, I’m learning Korean for myself and not for anyone else. I shouldn’t be trying to measure myself against others. Every language learner goes at their own pace. In truth, I have been feeling bad about my Korean skills for a few weeks now, fearing that I’m not improving. This fear has crept into my class, my homework, my language exchange, and even my motivation to learn Korean. It’s haunting. To lose all motivation to learn Korean would be like losing a pet that I had cared for since infancy. For three years I’ve nurtured my Korean abilities, only to have my confidence be knocked down by a single class.
Fortunately, it’ll take more than a class to knock me down. I’m a language learner that is currently facing a point whereupon I can push through a grueling slump or let it swallow me whole with insecurities. As cliche as it sounds, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. If I continue to push on, I may even exceed my present day goals. I’ll never know if I never try.