When I first came to Korea I was very excited to be here and learn the language. I had Korean-American friends in high school and they had taught me basic things, like “안녕하세요” and “밥을 먹었어요.” I was working at a hagwon and I didn’t have much free time. So I hired a Korean tutor and studied during my lunch breaks at work. I was very proud of myself and my Korean.
After a year, my parents came to visit for the first time. I had a week off of work and I spent the time showing them Seoul. My girlfriend (now my wife) was busy with school and many days she could not help guide us around the city. But, I am an independent guy and I was very proud of my knowledge of the city and Korean, so I was happy to show my parents around by myself.
This was back in 2001, before smartphones and Naver Maps, so of course I got lost often and had to ask for help on the street. But, again, that was fine. I knew Korean, right? Most of the conversations went something like this:
Me (in Korean): “Excuse me, where is Gyeongbokgung Palace?”
Korean person (in Korean with a blank stare): “What?”
Me (in Korean trying to pronounce clearly): “Gyeongbokgung Palace. Gyeongbokgung. Where is it?”
Korean person (shaking his head): “What? I don’t know what you are saying.”
Me (in Korean): “Really? You don’t know? Gyeongbokgung? Okay. Thank you. Good Bye.”
I would often just make my best guess about the location and eventually we would find the place. This happened again and again.
But, I never stopped trying and I never switched to English. < Copyright © The Gachon Herald All rights reserved >
My parents were so impressed. They went back to the United States and bragged to all their friends, “My son speaks Korean.” I learned later that my dad told a neighbor that I was FLUENT! I had not told my parents that most of the people I spoke with did not understand me. So, from their perspective, I was having a conversation in Korean with the people we met on the street. My parents didn’t know any better.
When I first learned this, I was quite embarrassed and very shy. I didn’t have the heart to tell my parents that most people didn’t understand me until years later. But, now I think they were right to be proud in a way. It’s true. By most standards, my Korean was very bad. I had been living in Korea, immersed in the language, studying for 5-10 hours a week for a year. I should have been able to reliably ask for directions on the street. If I was being graded for my ability, I surely would have gotten an “F”. But, I did have one important capacity. I was willing to fail… again and again.
I have come to realize the importance of the willingness to fail as I have spent more time in Korea and have watched my students in English class. So many students are crippled by their unwillingness to make a mistake; their fear of embarrassment; their self-abuse for routine errors. Failure is part of learning a language. I am a native speaker and I routinely make mistakes in English.
Most of my students’ knowledge of the English language is better than my knowledge of Korean. Their vocabulary, understanding of grammar, reading and writing in English is usually better than my comparable skills in Korean. This is clear when they take written exams. However, when it comes to speaking – the most important function of language – my Korean is often better than their English. It is more comfortable for us to speak in Korean even though my Korean still isn’t very good. How is this possible? Well, there are many factors, but I think the most important reason is many students’ unwillingness to try and fail.
Fear of failure is basically a desire to protect our ego, our self-image. We have an idea of ourselves in our head. We want to see ourselves and be seen as capable, worthy of respect, and lovable. Or, alternately, we have a negative self-image and we see ourselves as unworthy or unlovable. Either way, we don’t want to fail because we don’t want to threaten our image of ourselves – positive or negative.
I am not special in my willingness to fail. It came from American culture. Growing up, my parents, teachers, and the society in general taught me it was okay to fail. There are downsides to this of course. Anyone who has sat in an American classroom and watched an obviously unprepared, unskilled student fail spectacularly when giving a presentation and then celebrate his failure with his friends can attest to the problems. A willingness to fail can become an arrogant glorification of stupidity. But, a healthy willingness to fail can promote learning.
Likewise, Korean students’ general unwillingness to fail is cultural. Parents’, teachers’, and friends’ reactions to failure are often swift, harsh, and even cruel. A lifetime of growing up in such an environment is enough to make even the most self-confident person risk-averse. So what can you do about this? It’s easy for me to say, “Don’t worry about failure. Be happy to fail.” But, even if you agree, reading these words from a random English teacher is not enough to overcome a lifetime of training and habit.
Well, there are many solutions, but one place to start is with self-talk. Self-talk is the conversation you have with yourself in your head. It’s also called internal dialogue. We talk to ourselves unremittingly, all day. Most of the time it is unconscious, we are completely unaware of it. Often we only notice when we have a strong reaction to something: “This sucks!” or “Wow, that’s beautiful.” But, self-talk shapes the way we see the world and ourselves. If we slow down and take some time to listen to our internal dialogue, we can learn a lot. We can learn the repeated patterns of our thoughts, the stories we tell ourselves about the world, and how we feel about ourselves.
Listening to our self-talk honestly in quiet times can teach us a lot about our relationship to failure and how to deal with it. Are you overly focused on your shortcomings and mistakes? Do you repeat stories in your head about rejections, disappointments, and defeats? Or are you fixated on success? Do you enjoy telling yourself stories about your triumphs, accomplishments, and wins? Do you spend a lot of time thinking about other people’s successes and failures? Examining your self-talk can teach you a lot about how you relate it to failure.
Now, the real benefit in examining self-talk is when we take this one step further. Look at your ideas. Are they “true”? Do you actually know what makes something a success or a failure? It’s usually just a matter of perspective. An old Chinese parable about a famer and a horse illustrates this point well. One day, a famer’s horse ran away. All the villagers said, “Poor you. You are so unlucky!” The farmer simply said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” A few days later, the horse returned with two other wild horses. “Wow! You are so lucky. You now have three horses,” said the villagers. Again the farmer said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” The next day, the farmer’s son broke his arm while training one of the wild horses. “So unlucky,” said the villagers. “Maybe yes, maybe no,” said the farmer. A week later, the kingdom went to war and all the young men in the village had to join the Army to fight. But, the farmer’s son did not have to go because of his broken arm. “So lucky,” said the villagers. “Maybe yes, maybe no,” said the farmer.
The truth is we don’t know what makes success and failure for ourselves and the people around us. We simply make it in our mind. If we look at our thoughts clearly, we can see this. So, if that is the case, why not drop the idea all together and try? Engage with life. Whatever happens will be okay and you’ll be learning English.