By Liza, NSLI-Y Korea, Summer 2015
4주전에 저는 덴버, 콜로라도로 돌아 왔다.
I landed back in Denver, Colorado four weeks ago today. Based on discussions with other Seoul summer NSLI-Yians, most of us seem to share the same thought: 서울에 있을때 시간이 너무 빨리 지났다~! (Our time in Seoul flew by too quickly~!). With a tendency to be very harsh self-critics, some of us felt as if we had just begun to improve in our language skills (even if we had actually grown leaps and bounds). By the time the end of the sixth week came, we were definitely not ready to say goodbye to our new friends, especially one another. Because of this, the return home ran the emotional spectrum of bittersweet to downright sad and confusing, presenting yet another interesting transition to maneuver and little time to do so. Within days of my return, I had to check in at school and prepare to begin my junior year, where the rubber hits the road related to college prep—the time for SAT and ACT, college visits, beefing up the AP course load, and developing my elevator speech about my life goals. 어머! Long story short, I was swimming in my overwhelming first few weeks home. Fortunately, I joined my former Korean tutor for lunch one day, and my own personal goals became clear once again.
After our lunch together, I recognized that my challenge transitioning back home was less about looking back and more about looking forward. NSLI-Yians share a strong passion for language learning, and most of us have struggled to access ongoing and rigorous learning opportunities in our own schools or even broader communities. Although slowly more U.S. high schools are offering Mandarin and Arabic programs, very few offer courses in the other NSLI-Y critical languages, Korean included. We have the drive; we have the ability; but we rarely have the access. It is the reason I am so grateful for the NSLI-Y experience, yet NSLI-Y summer is short-term. It boosted my skills significantly, but I still have a long road to travel before I reach the fluency I desire. This reality nagged at my subconscious when I returned, and meeting with my tutor to catch up on life brought it to the surface. What is my next step, and how am I going to make it happen while juggling the must-dos of my junior year?
Instead of leaving lunch defeated after this realization, I left energized to answer these questions for myself. For the first time in almost three weeks, I spoke Korean non-stop for over an hour, and it felt almost like being back with my host family again. It was good for my mind and my heart. My tutor readily noticed how far my speaking skills had advanced, and I had the chance to show her the Level 3 workbooks I purchased before leaving Sookmyung Women’s University. Although I had not planned this before I arrived, I asked her if we could resume studies in January, when we both have some free time again. With a very warm smile, she said yes, almost as if she knew what I was going to say before I said it.
We have not finalized the details, but we will likely resume our previous routine, where we meet once or twice a month to check in on my self-study. As if lunch was not enough to pull me out of my post-NSLI-Y slump, several days later, I confirmed that I would begin as a volunteer at the 콜로라도 통합한국학교/Korean Academy of Colorado (KAOC), a non-profit, non-church affiliated Saturday school for Korean-language learners. Because of previous scheduling conflicts, I have never been a KAOC student myself, but my tutor teaches at the school and can now see a role for me working as a teaching assistant with beginner and intermediate classes. Grabbing this opportunity means completely overhauling what Saturday usually looks like in my life, but it is clear to me now that reaching my fluency goal will not come without sacrificing other extracurricular activities and altering my well-established routine. I have two years until I can return to university-level Korean studies; maintaining and growing my language skills in the meantime has to be a priority, or my progress of NSLI-Y 2015 could be lost.
How do I know this? I maxed out on Spanish language courses at the end of my freshman year of high school when I completed AP Spanish. This meant that I spent my sophomore year working hard to maintain my skills while waiting to resume studies as a concurrently enrolled student at CU Boulder my junior year. I essentially was treading water for 15 months, figuratively of course. I did what I could to keep my skills sharp, including peer tutoring other students, helping in the AP Spanish classroom on occasion, translating documents for the school and other organizations, self-assessing here and there with online Spanish tools, and, of course, just visiting with Spanish-speaking friends. Sometimes my treading water felt a bit more desperate than others, but for the most part, finding ways to use my skills was possible as long as I was on the lookout. As a result, when I started at CU Boulder last week in an upper division course, my brain, and more importantly my confidence, fired up, and I was ready to go. Unlike Spanish, maintaining my Korean skills pushes me into deeper water to tread, which is why connecting with my Korean tutor lifted my spirits. Unlike Spanish, the use of Korean language is not ubiquitous where I live, and I am not at the level of fluency with Korean that I was when I had a gap year in Spanish studies. I have close friends who are native speakers or heritage language learners, and I value our exchanges in Korean. My NSLI-Y studies advanced my ability and confidence to converse with them. I am also connecting with my NSLI-Y friends in other states who, like me, are desperate to maintain their skills. Still, I am at much greater risk of losing ground if I only rely on these casual encounters. Connecting as a KAOC volunteer and resuming work with my tutor is a must if my Korean language acquisition is to remain a priority.
So, what is the takeaway message here? Language acquisition takes loads of time, including just in maintaining skills. In many parts of the country, those of us with this drive are forced to be creative and resourceful in our pursuit, find ourselves sacrificing other activities that may have bolstered our college applications or helped us achieve different goals, and have to demonstrate self-discipline to keep our skill development from being pushed to the back-burner. It does not come without work, but if the NSLI-Y experience in Seoul proved one thing to me, it is that the prioritization is worth it! No matter what, I will continue studying Korean! 한국어 꼭 계속 공부할 거예요!