After more than a year of attending advanced Korean classes and regularly writing and reviewing 500-800 character essays with my teacher, I’ve accumulated a few useful tips for improving long-form writing that I thought I’d share here.
I’ll preface this by saying few people write well in any language, even among native speakers. I’m a writer and storyteller in both my professional and personal life and I know just how hard it is to build compelling rhetoric using effective, engaging language on any topic. So, following these “quick tips” won’t make you a good writer in Korean — that will take years of practice reading and writing, just as it would in English. But it may help you get started on the road to sounding more natural.
Caveat: This is only one language learner’s experience (mine) and one language instructor (my teacher)’s advice, so take with a grain of salt.
Confession time. I tend to get defensive when people ask me if I’m learning Korean because of K-pop. That’s because 1) K-pop was never a motivation for me to learn the language; it was a side-effect, and the better I got at Korean, the less I started to like idol music anyway. And 2) the stereotype of a typical K-pop fan these days is less than flattering.
That said, yes, I too had a rich, happy K-pop phase. I used to be a huge DB5K fan and then Big Bang, and had my phases with SHINee, Infinite, B.A.P., and B2ST (which UM WHAT apparently a lot has happened with them since I last checked).
Anyway I found my interest in K-pop rekindled when a friend of mine told me about YGE’s official rhythm game BeatEVO YG. The app has been absolute shit since its recent Android update so I can’t in good conscience recommend it, but I got addicted anyway and am now super nostalgic for 2006-2010-era Big Bang. All of a sudden, I’m back to listening to 하루 하루, 거짓말, 마자막 인사, 나만 바라봐 on repeat.
I think now, listening to those songs, a lot of the nostalgia I have has to do with how much those songs influenced my learning Korean. I really don’t think I give K-pop enough credit for the role it played in my early Korean learning days, but it was a critical source from which I absorbed tons of new grammar and vocabulary.
A few days ago, I was digging through some old notes from that “exponential” phase of my Korean learning days and found a three-ring binder full of K-pop lyrics and language notes.
I used to print out the lyrics to a song I liked and then painstakingly look up every single noun, verb, particle, connector, and sentence ending I didn’t know using either Talk To Me In Korean, Clare You & Eunsu Cho’s Online Intermediate College Korean, and/or Korean Wiki Project. I’d break up the lyrics into stanzas and under each stanza, type out all of my language notes, and then write up a rough translation of the lyrics in English. And then I’d compare it existing translations out there.
And then, I’d memorize.
It wasn’t a perfect or even efficient method, and there were definitely pitfalls I had to watch out for. I risked learning grammar incorrectly, or learning weird slang words/expressions and skewing my developing vocabulary to words related to love and heartbreak. English translations that existed online were mostly terrible, so using those to help me grasp word usage and nuance was probably a bad idea. The potential to learn something wrong and then struggle to unlearn it later on was very, very high.
This way of learning Korean through K-pop somehow made Korean feel like a more tangible and comprehensible language to me than reading about it in a textbook. Over the years, through reading a wide range of material and, yes, suffering through textbooks, I’ve managed to correct some of those things I learned incorrectly while gaining a deeper understanding of others I had oversimplified. But, for sure, if I hadn’t started out teaching myself like this, I don’t think I’d be at the level I am now.
I might be reluctant about admitting it these days, but I look back on my K-pop fandom days with a lot of fondness, both for how much I enjoyed the music itself and for how much it built my foundation for Korean. Those were good times.
Okay, so, a funny, unexpected side effect of playing so much BeatEVO YG — I’m really into Sechskies now???? Yep. The real reason I don’t listen to K-pop any more is actually just because my taste in idol music is stuck in the 90s-00s. 😂
In all honesty, I never liked setting personal goals because why bother when there’s good chance that I’ll just fail and make myself feel bad?
There are a few different things wrong with that attitude, yes, but one major reason for it is that my goals were always either 1) grossly unrealistic or 2) not concrete enough.
Re: #1, I used to live by that terribly tired quote, “Shoot for the Moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Why not pile up more on your plate than you can handle or make your to-do list infinitely long, when even just accomplishing some of those things is an achievement, right? Objectively, that’s true. But a glass half empty-type person like me dismisses all the things they have accomplished and are consumed by what they haven’t, maybe even so much so that it paralyzes them from moving any further. So. The trick is to aim lower, maybe even embarrassingly low, so you do manage to check off everything on your list, even if it’s just for your own ego and self-esteem. If you feel good about accomplishing stuff, chances are you’ll want to accomplish even more stuff.
As for #2, if there’s one thing being in analytics taught me, it’s that it’s impossible to measure success when you’re not metrics-driven. Setting a goal like “be better at X” isn’t helpful because “being better” isn’t something you can really measure when it comes time to evaluate yourself. Setting a number to your goal helps to make it more concrete, more measurable. Instead of “run more,” something like “run 10 miles a week” is better.
So, with that in mind, my realistic and measurable language goals for 2018 are:
1) Publish 2 blog posts a month
Maybe not every month, but at least 9 out of 12 months this year (hence my rush to get this post out before the end of January). Heck, if I can publish 1-3 blog posts a week for my job, I can do it for the thing I love.
2) Study 50 new words a week
I was proud of my TOPIK II score this time around but my biggest challenge was, hands-down, vocabulary. So. As much as I hate memorizing, I will be getting very intimate with my Quizlet decks this year. This isn’t my favorite way of studying vocabulary; I much prefer learning words through context but I concede that sometimes the best and fastest way to learning new words is memorization coupled with lots and lots of practice sentences.
3) Write 1 TOPIK essay a week
Through my classes, I’ve accumulated a lot of helpful notes on how to improve my writing score; now it’s just a matter of practicing so that I can write well in the allotted time. I plan on publishing and notes to this blog as well.
4) Improve my score in each TOPIK section
I’m not setting any hard goals on how much I want each section to improve by, but if the overall number increases, I’ll be thrilled.
5) Read at least two Korean news articles a week
Ahem. My weakness is reading Korean celebrity interviews, web comics, and historical novels; needless to say, my scope of relevant Korean vocabulary is limited. I want to improve my vocabulary rapidly but I don’t have the time or interest in immersing myself in Korean economics or politics to learn through context. But reading or even skimming a couple articles a week should be doable.
I really admire people who can maintain elaborate study logs, where they carve out exactly how many hours they’re going to put into reading, listening, writing, etc. Back when I first started learning Korean, I absorbed things so enthusiastically that every spare moment felt as though I was doing something language-related. Studying wasn’t even a thing I thought about separately setting aside time for.
I think I keep saying this over and over again here, but I’ve been feeling ‘lost’ with Korean for a long while now. I plateaued in terms of how much I could “absorb” effortlessly and didn’t know how to impart more discipline in my studying. Hopefully goal-setting like this will help me add more structure to my studies and help me further improve my Korean fluency.
It’s been a few years now since I stopped being excited about my birthday.
Every year, the weight of my disappointment in myself grows heavier; all of my numerous, unrealized goals come rushing painfully back at me. Responsibilities grow, conflicts become more convoluted, and meanwhile it gets harder and harder to stay true to my own sense of self.
Maybe that’s just growing up?
But maybe it’s a sign of personal growth that this year, I tried hard not to be moody and taciturn around my birthday. I know that the people who send their greetings or think to get me gifts do it because they care. So, I try to be kind to myself on my birthday and grateful for the love others have shown me.
I made a rare trip to Koreatown in Santa Clara to visit a bookstore that I haven’t been to in years, since my language partner moved away. If you’re in the South Bay, 서울 문고 종교 서관 has a limited quantity of new releases, all-time bestsellers, and Korean books on religion. But the real gem is the used books collection. I spent an unreasonable amount of time combing through the shelves until deciding on a couple birthday presents for myself.
Yes, that book on the left is a history book for elementary school kids about 사서 (四書), or the Four Books of Confucianism. Since Joseon-era scholarly study was almost entirely rooted in Confucian teachings, I learned some relevant Korean words on the topic while reading 성균관 유생들의 나날. I figured I might as well pick up this book to learn a bit more.
I haven’t really looked through the book, but I can say that while the writing is quite simple, and I’m surprised by just how much detail is packed in a book for elementary school children. There’s a separate section for each of the four books (논어, 맹자, 대학, 중용) and places where they break down Hanja.
The second book is a collection of essays by bestselling author 공지영. I don’t know if I can say I’m a fan of her work (too damn depressing), but I do admire her writing. I’ve been doing a lot of writing in Korean and I’m trying to improve not just my sentence structure and vocabulary, but overall composition; I figured I should get in the habit of reading good, creative nonfiction as a first step.
(This book’s table of contents is so weirdly cute.)
After books, I stopped for coffee and deliciousness at Cocohodo. Cocohodo is famous for pretty much one thing: 호두과자, or Korean walnut pastries.
호두과자 is a walnut-shaped pastry, with a bready outer shell made of dough containing pounded walnuts, and filled inside with red bean paste and walnut chunks. In its entirety, it tastes like I’m eating a soft, sweetened walnut… which was confusing for my brain because a walnut-shaped pastry, made of walnut dough, filled with walnut chunks, which tastes like a walnut but that isn’t a walnut….! Heh. Anyway, it was my first time trying it and it was quite incredible with black coffee.
This post is late. I’ve been 28 for a few days now. It’s still hard to shake the feeling that it’s not just this post, or this blog, but that I’m late at everything I set out to do. But I know that’s not true. I know I’ve accomplished a lot in the past year, both related to Korean and not. I know I’ve achieved things I never even had a goal post for in the first place. So I’ll continue to tell myself, at least until the birthday-ish feeling wears off, that there’s really no reason to be so melancholy.
It’s so strange to realize that 성균관 유생들의 나날 was one of the first Korean novels I ever bought, at a time when it was still wayyyy too difficult for me to comprehend.
Six years later (!!), I can finally read entire chapters without having to look up words and still understand what’s going on. Plus, I know an astounding number of words related to Confucian scholarship and education. (
Oh my god I found the blog post I wrote when I first bought the books.)
Anyway, that’s how I came across the word 먹칠하다.
So after many months of not really studying Korean (despite what it looks like on my blog, I rarely pick up a textbook and study. Almost everything I write about comes from random one-off things I read in Korean.) I decided what I really needed was external motivation to take my skill to the next level.
SO! I signed up for Advanced Korean classes at San Jose Language Center. I really feel like I struck gold here because it’s incredibly close to where I live and it’s a language school designed for adults – which means all classes are after working hours.
There are only two other students in the class and they’re both of Korean heritage. At first, the instructor said she was worried when she saw me (clearly not of Korean heritage) on her roster but we conversed for a bit, and then afterward, she said I might actually be too advanced for the class. Welp?
Either way, I was really nervous about taking an actual class for Korean that’s also completely taught in Korean. In my 7-ish years of learning the language, this was the first time I’d ever taken a class in a formal setting. I also hadn’t actually had a conversation in spoken Korean since my first trip to Seoul about 2.5 years ago.
I had my first class last Friday and… it was really, really great. Yes, I’m fairly familiar with all of the grammar we’re supposed to cover over the next seven weeks, but I’m getting so much more value than that out of this class.
- Speaking practice: This is a huge one. Since there are only two other students and the instructor, we get to converse a lot amongst ourselves. I’m finally getting some very much needed speaking practice.
- Proverbs: Yeah, I’m pretty terrible at learning proverbs. I’ll look them up and then immediately forget them. I think learning proverbs and idioms in a classroom – especially in one this small – will be really effective because of all the practice we do with each other.
- Nuance: In the first class, we covered three different ways to express reason or cause: -느라고, -는 바람에, -고 해서. Though I’m familiar with all three, the instructor provided a lot of insight into the nuances of each and the different types of situations each one would be appropriate for.
- New friends: Yay new IRL language friends!
- Expert knowledge: I’m so used to researching/looking up all the questions I have about Korean grammar or vocabulary on my own that it’s incredible to be able to just ask the teacher when I don’t know something.
- TOPIK prep: Because I hate reviewing TOPIK papers on my own. And (as with any kind of test prep) there are tricks that can help you master certain types of questions that are just not covered in textbooks.
- Accountability: This is really the main reason why I wanted to take a class – so I’d be forced to study, do homework, review… or else be forever shamed in front of my teacher and peers, heh. Already since my first class, I’ve spent more time reviewing grammar/vocab in the past several days than I have in months. And by the time the course ends, I’m hoping that I will have developed a daily cadence for studying Korean that I will continue to follow.
I’m a huge proponent of self-studying languages and I always will be. If you have the drive and you can find the right resources, I think you can go far studying on your own. But I’ve come to realize (not just regarding language learning, but also other things), if you feel stuck in some part of your life, figuring out a way to shake things up really helps. I realized that I just wasn’t motivating myself to study Korean even though I really want to get better in the language (yay for the 욕심 coming back); getting myself into a classroom setting was the right way to kick my brain in gear.
Jeannie asked: Omg why did you change your URL?
Astute readers of this blog might’ve noticed that my URL is no longer https://panjjakpanjjak.wordpress.com – gasp!
Five years ago when I first created this blog on WordPress, I decided to go with my favorite Korean word (at the time) as its site name/URL. I was one year into learning Korean and was fascinated with mimetic adverbs (의성어/의태어 like 두근두근, 찰찰, 말랑말랑, 졸졸, etc.). For some reason, I really liked the word 반짝반짝; there was also the small matter of 반짝반짝 also being the title of an old Big Bang song that I liked. Heh.
At the time, I didn’t really think about the URL from the perspective of the blog’s future readers. I didn’t consider whether the name/URL would difficult for people to remember or if people would have a hard time Googling the blog’s name in Korean or whether it would just be off-putting or unapproachable to have a non-English site name. Thinking about it now, I realized people can’t even really tell that this is a blog about language from just the URL. Despite the name, which I think may have harmed rather than helped grow my audience, I’ve managed to build up a small readership over the years.
Recently, though, I’ve had more and more people ask for a link to my language blog and they’re puzzled when I tell them the URL. If they don’t already know a bit of Korean, the URL is hard to remember, sounds kind of clunky. Plus I usually have to give some kind of explanation as why I went with it, which became kind of annoying to do over and over again.
That’s why I decided to change my blog URL to a loose English translation of 반짝반짝 한국어. The domain name was super cheap too. Never fear – the old URL still maps to shiningkorean.com and if I decide to give this new one up, I’ll still have panjjakpanjjak.wordpress.com, so no big concerns there.
Things have generally been looking up in terms of how I’m feeling about Korean lately. I’m starting to redefine where Korean falls in my list of priorities in life and what it means to be successful in a language. That’s taken a lot of pressure off me. I started listening to Korean music again and I’m still sufficiently entertained by 마녀보감. I’m reading again too! In a way, buying a shiny new domain name for this blog feels like turning over a new leaf… I’m a lot more motivated than I was a few months ago.
I’d love to know if any of you out there have a favorite Korean word. What is it, and why? Let me know in the comments.
Literal ‘did that just happen?!’ moment last week.
A friend of mine reached out to me last week, saying a coworker of hers needed help placing an order for 떡 for her child’s 백일 from a Korean bakery in Santa Clara.
I’m not sure what this person’s situation was–whether she was Korean(-American) or married to Korean(-American)–but I was more than a little baffled when my friend reached out to me.
Turns out this particular bakery (for fellow South Bay residents it’s 이화당 떡집 – Ehwa Dang Rice Bakery down in Korea Town Santa Clara, if you’re curious) isn’t English-friendly. It seems that they don’t have any English-speaking employees at all, in fact, which I found astounding–but I guess that just shows you what an arrogant American I am. Heh.
Anyway, said coworker’s dilemma was three-fold: her Korean wasn’t good enough to place a phone order with them, the owner’s Korean was too fast for her to understand, and her Korean relatives couldn’t help because they didn’t understand her English. So, I guess that’s where I came in.
She emailed me a bunch of specifics for her order–the date of the event, preferred pick up time, amount she required, questions about payment, etc. And I made the call to the bakery.
Making phone calls in English gives me anxiety, but making this phone call in Korean almost gave me a panic attack. There was a very real possibility I would ruin this complete stranger’s child’s 백일 forever, and that was terrifying.
But long story short, I was able to place the order according to all the specs I was given. And few days later, I heard back from my friend that her coworker’s party was a success!
The whole thing was kind of a small victory, but it made my week nonetheless. It also made me realize something.
The phone call in Korean was a challenge, but not so much as I feared it would be. The thing that helped me get through the anxiety was just staying humble while I was on the line. Instead of pretending like I was totally fluent in Korean and stretching myself to the max of my ability, I downplayed it and really made sure the bakery employee and I understood each other.
I started out in Korean, explaining my situation that I was trying to place an order on someone else’s behalf. And then I said the one phrase that has pretty much helped me in every challenging Korean speaking situation that I’ve been in:
저 한국말은 잘 못해요…
“I’m not that good at Korean….”
Nine times out of ten, if you’re in a situation where you have to speak Korean but you feel intimidated or overwhelmed, this phrase works wonders.
I was amazed how the bakery employee (who, indeed, spoke incredibly fast) just slowed down and listened a lot more carefully, let me finish my sentences without interrupting, and encouraged me when I stumbled, after I told her that I wasn’t that good at Korean but that I would try. She encouraged me to use the little Korean that I knew, instead of struggling to communicate in English. And she even used the opportunity to teach me some new words!
Admitting that you don’t know Korean that well often triggers one of two scenarios: 1) The individual you’re speaking with switches to English because they’re more confident in their English skills than your Korean skills or 2) The individual trusts your basic Korean ability and continues to speak Korean, but it’s less stressful and the interaction turns into a learning opportunity for the both of you.
That latter scenario was definitely what unfolded for me during the bakery phone call; I walked away from that conversation feeling so much more confident in my speaking abilities.
Ever since TOPIK II, I’ve been…. feeling really apathetic toward Korean. It scares me, because I used to be so invested in the language and culture. I still am, to some extent, but the 욕심 is gone.
Self-studying a language in a bubble is challenging because you’re not only expending energy studying on your own, you also have to actively pop the bubble you’re in and create an environment where you’re immersed. And lately, I’ve been redirecting that energy into other things.
Helping out this stranger with her bakery order was the first time in a long time that I did something related to Korean outside of books and the Internet. It reminded me of the ‘humanness’ of language, so to speak. And it made me really really want to go back to Korea. Maybe some day soon.
I almost didn’t even show up for the exam. Aside from a couple hours of reviewing grammar back in January, I didn’t prepare for TOPIK at all. I didn’t even spend time looking over old tests. But, as painful as I knew it was going to be, I knew there was still value in just taking it, regardless of whether I do well or not. I paid for the exam, might as well try to learn something from the experience. So… it happened, and these are the things I know I should work on for October.
- Spend more time studying for the listening section. I consider listening one of my strengths in Korean, but this section made me realize I need to diversify the topics I listen to. (Granted even our test proctor said she found some of the dialogues difficult to understand!) Listening to the news more would definitely help, for example. I need to make a serious, focused effort to study for the listening section. I have a lot more resources for studying grammar and vocabulary, so it’ll be hard to not spend all my time studying for the reading section. Speaking of which…
- Learn how to speed read. The reading section could have potentially gone worse–I had to guess on like 5 questions near the end because I didn’t have time to read the passages. I’m hoping this won’t happen once I’ve practiced more with past exams and once I’ve started reading more without looking up every single word I don’t know. I think my reading speed has actually gotten worse over the years since I started prioritizing learning vocabulary (i.e. looking up every single word I don’t know, writing it down, etc.) over overall comprehension. Speed reading would’ve also helped me a ton in the listening section, so I could have better scanned the answer choices while listening to the dialogues.
- Practice writing on 원고지. I think out of all the sections, I did best in writing. Time was the biggest challenge. I know I would have done much better (and written more) had I practiced ahead of time writing on 원고시. I also didn’t know that you use special pens for the TOPIK (yes… they actually say ‘TOPIK’ on them). I found them pretty easy to use, but it wouldn’t hurt to practice with the next closest thing–Sharpie pens, in my opinion–to really emulate the testing environment.
- Take more practice tests. Even though I have a couple of great books for reviewing TOPIK grammar, I think the number one way I can improve is simply by taking more tests. Pretty much every type of skills exam–SAT, GRE, etc.–has its own style and vocabulary and by focusing on that content, I can focus my studying. It’s tempting to spend hours and hours just studying everything I don’t know, but it’s just as important to study how to take the exam.
Overall, it was hard, as I expected it would be. But I’m glad that I decided to take it. As our test proctor said, regardless of what scores we get, just showing up to the exam was impressive enough.
I’ll preemptively say that I won’t publicly post my results for this exam or for future exams, but I will try to post tips and progress updates as I study (in earnest) for the October exam. Onwards!