When I first moved to Korea, I instantly set out to learn the language. Being immersed in the the culture, I assumed that I would naturally absorb the language and become fluent. To be honest, it started off well. I bought a few books, learned Hangul (the Korean alphabet), found a few TV shows with subtitles, and I fell in love with K-pop. Long story short, I had a treasure trove of content at my disposal to help me become a fluent speaker. Not only that, I had made the always crucial step of making Korean friends. Basically, I was set for language learning success. At least so I had thought.
Months into my first year in Korea, I hit a roadblock in my learning. My self-study had brought me to a level of proficiency in Korean which allowed me to survive. I was better than the average tourist, but I still felt like my language learning had plateaued. I was still hanging out with my Korean friends, but they would either let me get away with speaking broken-Korean, or they would carry on a conversation using vocabulary and grammar well above my level. The former made me feel limited, and the latter left me feeling stupid – all I would do is listen and nod when I heard a word I knew.
Around the same time, I was developing a bit of a bromance with one of the coworkers, Chris. Although he had started around the same time, we had never really hung out. The World Cup was going on, and we connected over our love of soccer (football to the rest of the world). He told me that three months earlier he had joined a group class at a Korean language centre near our place of work. He said that it had helped him far more than just learning on his own. I instantly replied with, “Yes, but I want to learn real Korean.” He chuckled and went on to explain that he started learning Korean like me, but like me had reached a learning plateau. He joined the group class so that he could become more fluent expressing what he already knew yet learn from the guidance of a trained instructor and others who were of a slighter higher level. He challenged me to attend a session for a month and test it out. I signed up and instantly started to see improvement in all four skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking).
What I experienced was Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The ZPD means that there is only so much a learner can do on their own. Once they reach a certain level, they need to receive guidance from someone who is a little more proficient than they are in the skill they are trying to learn. In other words, they need to expand their zone of knowledge. However, the jump to the next level cannot be too large. It must be within the grasp of the learner. In my case, the Korean used by my Korean friends was too high for me. However, the Korean used by my classmates in my Korean language class was just high enough. Also, the teacher very appropriately selected materials just within our proximity (range) of understanding. As a result, I began learning faster.
At LYE we encourage you to find your own ZPD. It could be with language circles, or it could be formal instruction. What is important is that the ZPD is a good example of how theory meets real life. And, it is our job as learners to use every tool available. So, think carefully and creatively about how you can get into YOUR own zone.