Learning Korean Online For People Who Knew It Once But Forgot It

A couple of Korean-speaking millennials tackled their lack of knowledge of the language on Reddit.

Nine-year-old Nikki Cuervo dropped by a Google Hangout yesterday, to find support and direction in her blog, Soya Now. The bilingual (and multilingual) Asian-American girl is a recent immigrant to Los Angeles. But, she said, it took her a long time to learn to speak English. Now, she has memorized at least forty “words,” and can use them to navigate around the Google Hangout.

It’s remarkable because Nikki’s picture is not an anomaly. She is part of a growing, and much broader, community of native-born Americans learning an Asian tongue, whether it’s Korean, Vietnamese, or Russian. What does all this mean for the digital ecosystem? What will our digital habit change to? And what other languages are emerging in technology’s spotlight?

Basic Yodelling and the Web

These are the questions at the heart of A the Language: Memories and Treasures of People Learning, a major new study of Koreans learning English online. It’s primarily based on the conversations that have flowed since the late 2000s, over forty-five long conversations conducted over a year by two global NGOs who publish a project called Memoirs of Language Interfaces.

It is the most comprehensive and expansive U.S. research project in record history about people learning Korean. It has collected research data on more than 600 people, nearly all of whom self-identified as Americans, and was made possible by almost two decades of follow-up research.

In this latest phase, an interdisciplinary team of experts from UCLA, Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon, and Cornell Universities has used modern social media tools to follow and expand on the work that Memoirs already was doing. They created a unique set of tools that capture a long-running and classic way of expressing and recording lessons, in the form of daily posts to an online community site called Linguespace.

As our presenters described, it was the only serious online community in North America where Koreans could learn the language and collaborate on shared projects at the same time. (Linguespace was co-founded by a Korean digital music industry expert in 2012, and its programming is run by Koreans.) That was the reason Memoirs translated into English such an exceptional community of people, but also the key to their usefulness as a research site. By simply posting daily updates about the challenges they were facing in their Korean classes, the rest of the Memoirs community began taking notice.

Starting in 2010, when Memoirs was still only a year old, America’s latest and largest speakers of a new language started reaching out to Linguespace’s founder, Jack Kim, as Kim herself began to learn Korean, and to see if he might help them in their linguistic challenges, as Kim had used Linguespace in his Korean classes. Today, almost all Memoirs participants had started using Linguespace when they started learning English, and almost all began using Linguespace when they began learning Korean.

Learning from an online community may seem obvious, but the sheer number of us who have engaged in this online learning community, and done our communities a favor by sharing, has had an impact far beyond research and work. Linguespace is now among the most popular “virtual classrooms” of any language learner in the U.S., each month attracting between 15,000 and 30,000 learners, who all apply to join the community through posting questions, giving answers to other speakers’ problems, and posting to a collective discussion board. Many users are professional linguists who could benefit from the kind of transparency that Linguespace provides.

Determined to Build a 2.0 Linguespace

This study gives us a glimpse of what can happen when a community feeds off of that community itself, and is shared with the rest of the web. It’s a transformational platform, as “age of internet” Internet research means we’re seeing the expansion of new, and indeed more complex, ways of learning languages and cultures. As we’ve seen with translation experiments and sharing sites and virtual classrooms and social media, the use of these platforms is a major driver of language change. Linguespace would not exist today if it were not for its core community, and its amazing scope as an online learning community.

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