Striving for excellence in language learning

This post was going to be about how I’m preparing for the 55th TOPIK but it turned out being more about my insecurities instead. I’d normally scrap it but it’s been preying on my mind for a while now and I wonder if any of my fellow language learners have felt the same way.

It’s hard to describe my relationship with language, and with Korean in particular.

I don’t have a simple answer when people ask me why I’m learning Korean, or why I’m motivated to push myself, or why I want to pass TOPIK II. I don’t have any ethnic or relational ties to the language or culture. I’m not motivated by a love for Korean idol music or dramas. I have never studied abroad there. I have no particular interest in Korean brands nor do I aspire to work at Korean company. I developed a love for Korean literature and history only after I had achieved a certain degree of fluency.

Now with Hallyu reaching the West, so many people automatically assume I’m part of then new generation of Korean learners who are really into pop culture that I often don’t even reveal to people that I’m studying Korean. And when I do, it’s always the question of why. Why, why, why.

The only way I can describe it is how I’ve described it before: the language chose me, I didn’t choose it. There is something in the way the Korean sounds, the way that it works topologically and syntactically that just fits with the way my brain works.

For some reason, that’s not “enough” of an explanation for a lot of people.

I suppose language learning is an uncommon enough passion that everyone assumes that if you’re actively striving to improve your skill, you must have a practical reason for it. In my case, that’s simply not true.

I love the Korean language. And the reason I spend money on lessons and textbooks, and spend time revisiting old TOPIK exams is because I want to achieve a degree of excellence that’s commensurate with my love for it.

“We need to internalize this idea of excellence. Not many folks spend a lot of time trying to be excellent.”


I’ve written before about how I’ve struggled with my passion for the language waning. Taking advanced level classes have gone a long way toward restoring not only the sanity in my life, but also the 욕심 I thought I had lost for Korean. I’m glad that I’m even capable of being as passionate about the language now as I used to be when I first started.

It’s interesting, because I can’t say that I strive for the same degree of excellence in every new hobby or passion I develop. Like I said, the more I’m passionate about something, the more I want to get better and better at it. And I’m really quite passionate about language.

Header image by Kristopher Roller


  1. Panda says:

    It’s nice to see someone else who doesn’t have quite so clear cut goals when it comes to language learning.

    Technically I started learning Korean because I went to teach English there for a few years. I was pretty into K-pop around that time, but I never felt the urge to learn Korean because of my favourite groups. Most things were subtitled or translated into English anyway. Despite my best efforts, I really struggled to pick up more than the basics and a few slang words. Sure I could speak more Korean than many 원어민 English language teachers I knew, but it still wasn’t much. I usually say to people it’s because I lived in Korea that I’m still learning Korean now, but I know that’s not the whole reason. Especially as once I left I didn’t really have any need to know it.

    It was a year after leaving Korea before I finally joined a class, but it was the best thing I ever did and, through my combined efforts of attending class and self-study, I’ve made huge improvements. But, I’m still not sure what my main reason for learning Korean is, or at least not one I can really explain. I watch (and enjoy) a lot more K dramas than I used to, but this has been because of trying to improve my listening skills. I’m also more interested in non-popular Korean culture, but that’s only been a recent development. of the past few months. Yes, I have Korean friends, but most of them live in Korea and post updates online in English (or in English and Korean). The only thing I can think of is that it was initially a stubbornness to not be defeated by a language which I have really struggled to learn and to prove to myself that I could learn it. More recently it has become: the more I learn about Korean and Korean culture, the more interesting thing become. Although, I think it’s difficult to really understand that if you’re not a language learner. Thankfully most people who ask don’t question me further when I say I’m still learning because I lived out there and don’t want to forget what I learnt.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Archana says:

    Thanks for sharing your story! I’m glad you can relate. A lot of the interest I have in Korean music, history, and culture now is a result of getting better and better at the language, but at the end of the day, those interests will never supersede the sheer joy I get from learning the language itself! I wish I didn’t get insecure or defensive when people probe me to find a more “practical” reason for learning it. Ah well. As you said, I think it’s difficult to wrap your mind around it if you’re not a language learner who just loves language in general. :)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. korean1984 says:

    I must confess my interest in learning Korean did stem from my love of kdramas. However as you say all of these are available with subtitles, which I definitely still use. The language fascinated me. I love the sound of it, am intrigued by the politeness levels, and the nuances. I am not new to language learning, so becoming interested in learning Korean wasn’t a huge leap for me me. Kdramas led me to an interest in their culture, language and history. One day I would love to visit. Until then I shall let my interest in all things Korean simmer on. :)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mai says:

    I’m also at a bit of a loss when people ask me why since I don’t really have a practical reason. I haven’t studied it actively for a very long time, but it never really leaves me. I just cannot explain it… If people get “insistent” I will just say that it was a bet whether I was able to learn it and just kept going (which isn’t entirely wrong). Somehow it’s quirky enough that they don’t expect a super logical explanation after that but it’s practical “enough” for them to relate to exams.


  5. sadhanac says:

    I’m so glad I stumbled onto your blog through twitter! And, I can relate to this post _so_ much. Over the years, I have started and dropped languages, but since starting to learn Korean it has stuck, even though I don’t spend too much time studying it. It’s very fascinating to learn and when people ask me why, I can’t explain. I just tell them I watch dramas and they look at me weirdly and leave it.
    Dramas got me interested in Korean culture. I see many parallels between Korea’s rapid modernisation and this sort of a tussle between their roots and long dominant American influence, in my very particular experience in India. Also, korean somehow maps very well to my native language Telugu so it just feels natural learning/thinking in it. After reading through your blog, I’m inspired to maybe start blogging so that I can be more accountable in how I learn. Also, good luck on the book!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Archana says:

      Thanks so much for reading! Let me know if you start blogging; always happy to follow fellow language learners :)


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