When I meet other Koreans in the course of my work as a literary translator, I invariably get asked one burning question: “How can I improve my English?” My answer is always the same, no matter who asks. Read. Read a lot of English books.
This answer is often met with confusion and dissatisfaction, as many want concrete tools that would give them a leg up in conquering English. When I gave that advice to a student who approached me after a presentation I gave, he stared at me for a moment then said, “But is that it?”
What he really wanted to hear was what kind of learning regimen he should institute, how many new vocabulary words he should learn a day, whether he should do drills to test himself on grammar rules and exceptions, what type of text he should study, and even how to break down a text into components he could study.
Another time, someone asked whether my answer meant that she should read the English translation of Korean texts side by side with the original.
To me, these interactions reveal an anxiety that many Koreans have about the English language. We are told from a young age that English is a necessity to become competitive in a global market, that to know English is to gain an edge over others, that the acquisition of English or other foreign languages is a compulsory ingredient to success. All of this is, of course, true to a certain extent. But many people are so focused on learning English in a systematic way to reach these goals that too often they forget the fundamental reason one studies a foreign language: to learn about other cultures.
This is not to say that it isn’t important to memorize vocabulary and grammar rules, as they are the nuts and bolts of a language. But focusing on learning a language in such structured ways as many Koreans do does you a disservice.
Reading and immersing yourself in English books, magazines, newspapers, and other content shows you a side of that particular English-speaking culture, in ways that rote memorization or limiting yourself to reading English translations of Korean texts cannot.
My experience in learning English is different from that of many Koreans, as I learned the language in an immersive setting when I was very young and lived half of my formative years in English-speaking countries.
I have also spent my entire adult life in the United States, studying in American schools and working for American companies. But I can relate ― I too have studied foreign languages. I took French for a number of years and went on to major in French studies in college. As part of my coursework, I read French plays, novels, and poetry in their original form, and I studied abroad in France for a semester.
My French is nowhere near fluent as my Korean or English. But in France, I tried to read French newspapers with a dictionary by my side, gaining appreciation of the issues the French were interested in. I learned a lot about French politics (at least enough to understand that I was only scratching the surface), tried to decipher the slang used in gossip magazines, and bought a few bestselling novels that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to read in English or Korean.
I went to see French films and enjoyed watching movies that I wouldn’t get to see elsewhere, even though I didn’t fully understand what was being said. I enjoyed the experience of infiltrating this other world, and I like to think that I learned a lot about France and French culture, but just as importantly about myself.
I don’t mean to suggest that this is the only way you can learn a language, or that you can’t learn a language if you don’t visit or live in a country that speaks that language.
This was just my personal experience. I merely hope to remind some of you of the pleasures of learning a foreign language, which allows us to appreciate other people and cultures, acknowledge that there are other experiences and histories in the world, which in turn helps us understand something about our own cultures and selves.
I urge those of you who want to improve English to read books and other texts in English. This will help you see how English speakers express themselves, what words are used in what context, what values or priorities they find important, what fears and anxieties they may have. In essence, get a feeling for that other culture. And as your English gets better and better, hopefully you can gain more insight into English-speaking cultures as well as your own.
Chi-Young Kim is a literary translator based in Los Angeles. She has translated works by Shin Kyung-sook, Kim Young-ha, and Jo Kyung-ran. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website, chiyoungkim.com.