볼장 다 보다

Sometimes there’s nothing harder than being honest with yourself.

As much as it pains me to say it, looking back on the past couple years or so, I’ve noticed my… 욕심..? for Korean deteriorating. I’m frustrated by my lack of improvement. I’m at a level where improvement doesn’t come in leaps and bounds anymore; it comes from dedicated, daily study, which I don’t make an effort to do. Korean dramas don’t hold my interest as they used to, I barely listen to Korean music or podcasts, and I can’t focus long enough to start and finish a novel in a decent period of time either.

Leaving Seoul after my first trip there, back in 2014, was far more depressing than I thought it would be. Immersing myself in the language was so effortless there… then coming back to the U.S. where I had to make an active effort to immerse myself everyday… Bleh.

So in an effort to stop whining and being lazy, I thought I’d kick myself into high-gear and sign up for TOPIK. The good news is, this year I actually submitted my application in time to be accepted for the April exam. The bad news? I studied for two consecutive days and then never picked up a book or looked at a practice exam since.

The actual exam is in less than a week.

I’m at a point where the following idiom has become sadly, hopelessly relevant to me.

볼장 다 보다

(사람이) 관계하던 일이 더이상 어떻게 해볼 수 없을 정도로 잘못되다.

Basically, everything that can possibly go wrong in a situation has gone wrong and you’re finished. Done. Ruined. Screwed. The jig is up.

This is kind of an interesting idiom because, when you consider the literal definition, you’re basically using it ironically. Literally, the phrase means ‘to be done with everything that needs to be done.’ Note: 볼장 is written together often enough that it’s found in the dictionary–it means ‘something that needs to get done’–but it’s easy to parse out the meaning if you write it with the correct 띄어쓰기, i.e. 볼 장.

So, literally, the phrase has a positive connotation. You’ve done everything that needs to be done. The idiomatic meaning comes from using this phrase ironically. When you’ve messed up something so bad, that there’s nothing else you can do to mess it up, that’s also 볼장 다 보다. You’ve done everything that can be done wrong, wrong.

So… that’s why this idiom struck a chord. Every place I could’ve fallen short in my preparation of TOPIK, I fell short. I didn’t do anything to prepare. Possibly the only thing I can do worse is spend hours cramming the night before the exam.

I’ll still take the exam, though. I’m hoping maybe that’ll be a wakeup call and get me to prepare for the October exam better. Meanwhile… I’m still in a slump. I don’t know how I can reconnect with the language. Maybe putting pressure on myself to do well on TOPIK is actually pushing me away from what I love about Korean? I don’t really know. What I do know is that I sorely miss this community of language learners and language bloggers! Thanks for sticking around while I’ve been MIA.

Studying Korean on Instagram

It’s hard to believe that just a decade ago we were limited to learning languages from instructors, textbooks, and the occasional audio recording.

Social media and the Internet as a whole has been such a central part of my own self-studying process that I can’t imagine getting to the level that I’m at with just textbooks. It all started with Twitter and Me2day (remember Me2day?!) about 5 years ago and since then, I think I’ve found useful Korean resources on all types of social media.

Back in December, I added Instagram to that repertoire. I can’t remember how I found @hangulove, but it’s now by far one of my favorite Instagram accounts.


Hangulove is an account for native Korean speakers looking to correct some bad habits they might’ve picked up while growing up with their language. The account covers correct grammar, spelling, spacing of words (띄어쓰기), and examples of pure Korean words (순우리말, as opposed to Sino-Korean words).

The admin posts once a day, with a simple image (like below) and an extended explanation of the lesson in the comments. All the explanations are in Korean, so you have to be at least an intermediate/upper intermediate level to get the most value out of it.

Korean spacing is so confusing.

It’s interesting to find out what constitutes “common mistakes” for native Korean speakers. I’m a stickler for spelling – both in English and Korean, so it always shocks me when I see misspelled words in webtoons or on Twitter. I used to think it was done on purpose, like some kind of text-speak (like writing ‘u’ instead of ‘you’ online), but now I have to wonder.

I don’t make this mistake.

This account reminds me a lot of 국립국어원’s offical Twitter account (@urimal365) which I wrote about a long time ago here. I actually thought @urimal365 was dead because I never saw them on my Twitter feed… but they’re apparently still alive and posting frequently! (My feed has become overrun with non-Korean related Tweets over the years).

It’s a lot less overwhelming though. The “lessons” are simple enough to digest, but still provide the detail you’d want to learn something. Plus it’s just one post a day, stuck in the middle of all the #catsofinstagram posts running down your feed. I do wish they would post more vocabulary in the future – 순우리말 has always fascinated me. And I could always do with a vocabulary boost.

Happens to me every morning after my alarm goes off at 6:00 AM.

Does anyone else use specific social media accounts to learn/study Korean (or any other language?). Share your thoughts below!


Organizing new vocab

Part of the reason I’ve never liked formal language classes (or even textbooks, for that matter) is because I like learning new grammar and vocabulary in the context of original (native) reading material.  I can’t deal with “themed” chapters (e.g. “Chapter 2: Weather”) that force me to memorize relevant words from a word list.

But my problem with reading original stuff is that I jump around between several different novels, webtoons, and news articles at a time.  A lot.  On top of that, because I make it a habit of jotting down words I don’t know, one page of my notebook can be a jumbled mess of words and definitions from five different sources.  This really really bothers me because I tend to learn words in clusters (e.g. learning the words ‘detective,’ ‘prosecutor,’ ‘murder’, ‘death penalty’ together because they’re often used in combination with each other).  So it throws me off when I’m looking over a page that’s half-filled with detective vocabulary that then switches to words about painting and geometry.  Then I don’t remember either sets of words effectively.

I puzzled over how to solve this problem of organizing my vocabulary for a long while.  It didn’t seem cost- (or space-)effective to start a new notebook for every Korean novel I owned.  I switched for some time to using a binder and writing on printer paper.  Then I could organize the pages of vocabulary notes according to different novels, articles, etc.  But the paper buildup started getting annoying and I didn’t want to fill up my shelves with binders upon binders of Korean vocabulary.  So  then, I came up with this solution.  For online articles, I simply copy and paste the text into a Word document and voila.


I use the “Comments” feature to highlight all the words I don’t know and type up the definitions.  This is an article about 나인: 아홉번의 시간여행 which appeared in Ceci a few months ago (side note: some of these words I’ve already committed to my long-term memory!)  This is really helpful when I’m practicing translation too; I can just type up the English portion below the Korean text and use the comments as a reference.  Also, it’s great for visualizing how much my vocabulary has improved over the past several years/months.  Provided that I read the same genre over time, the number of words I highlight in every article will be bound to decrease as my vocabulary builds up.  (Again, this depends on the type of thing I read.  If I suddenly started reading economic news instead of celebrity interviews, without a doubt I would have crazy highlights all over the article.)

Okay but what about hard copy stuff?  For now, this is what works for me.

2013-11-27 00.07.07This is a page from 바람의 화원 and, as you can see, I’ve used Post-It notes.  Personally, I hate marking up my books (unless it’s for an English Lit class) so this is a good alternative.  Plus the notes are stuck roughly in the same area as where the unfamiliar words are located in the text.  The only issue this poses is that it makes going back and reading kind of inconvenient because you have to move the notes aside – and then they lose their stickiness and falling out.  Urgh.  But thus far it’s working for me!

So much of how well you learn or retain something depends on knowing how you yourself learn best, which is why I decided to write this post.  I still suck at retaining new vocabulary but I’m definitely getting better now that I have these note-taking strategies in place.  There’s really no right or wrong way to learn or study.  Trying different things and figuring out what works for you is the hard part!




I thought 헐 was just about the greatest thing, until my LP 언니 taught me this gem.

뷁 is used on the internet when there is no appropriate exclamation or word to describe the extent of one’s dissatisfaction.  That is:

NOUN+은/는 좋지 않다 can become NOUN+은/는 뷁같다 or 뷁스럽다.

I imagine this is used kind of like “blehhhh” or “mehhhh” – general, noncommittal sounds of dissatisfaction in English.  It’s embarrassing how often I use ‘bleh’/’meh’ to express myself at the cost of using more intelligent adjectives, and now I can do it Korean too!  Not good.  Heh.

So I tried looking up a few other things about this word (can you call it a word, even?) and found out that it originated from a lyric that went “왜 날 브레이크” from Moon Heejun (of H.O.T)’s solo song “I.”  When said quickly, 브레이크 (‘break’) sounds a lot like 뷁.  The funny thing is that netizens made fun of the song and his pronunciation by pasting his face onto 100원 coins (백원 = 뷁원).  So mean!  Check out the original song here (and I apologize for your ears in advance heh).


잠귀가 밝다/어둡다

Yekyung has an incredible ability to know exactly which words and phrases I might not be familiar with when we’re conversing.  Like she’ll go on for a couple minutes in Korean and then suddenly stop and say, “Do you know 모모?”  That’s how I learned this phrase.

잠귀(가) 밝다:  to be a light sleeper
잠귀(가) 어둡다:  to be a deep sleeper

잠귀 is pretty easy to figure out.  It’s just a concatenation of 잠 (sleep) + 귀 (ear).

잠귀:  잠결에 소리를 듣는 귀의 감각.  Your ability to hear when you’re asleep.

밝다 and 어둡다 are kind of funny to me because 밝다 literally means “to be bright” and 어둡다 means “to be dark” – so the translation isn’t exactly literal.

I used to be a 잠귀 밝은 사람.  I had trouble falling asleep anywhere but my own bed and I woke up at the slightest noise – but then graduate school happened.  Unsurprisingly, I now have no trouble sleeping like a rock at any given time or place, including during seminars.  Or so I thought.  Yekyung has got to be the most 잠귀가 어두운 사람 I have ever met.  She needs to set six alarms to get up in the morning… and then she makes fun of me for being a sleepyhead!  XD

Ten Korean words I can never remember

As you guys might know already, I dislike memorizing vocabulary words.  Most of the Korean words I know are from reading articles and books, listening to podcasts and songs (especially rap – I’ve learned so many great words from Epik High), and watching variety shows and dramas.  I’d rather learn words slowly and naturally through context than force myself to study stacks of flashcards.  It might be slower but the retention rate is better, in my case.

There are some words that I hear once or twice and remember forever because of the particular context I read them in.  For example, I will forever remember 고구마 = sweet potato because of 우결 and I learned a lot of entertainment industry-related vocabulary by reading celebrity news.

But there are some words that I see over and over and over and over again in different contexts that I have to look up EVERY SINGLE TIME.  I don’t know why they refuse to stick.  I write them down over and over again, to no avail.  Some of these words stump me because they have so many definitions to them; others are just verbs or adjectives that I find difficult to learn through context.  Maybe jotting them down here will help?

1) 파악하다 (타동사)(사람이 어떤 대상의 내용이나 성질 따위를)충분히 이해하여 확실하게 알다.

2) 넘어가다 (자동사) = 쓰러지다; to set, sink, go down; 옮아가다; 속다; to be swallowed; to be turned over

3) 겪다 (타동사)to undergo, experience, suffer

4) 딱히 (부사) = (not) necessarily, (not) always, (not) exactly, (not) completely

5) 유쾌하다 (형용사) = (사람이나 그 기분이)즐겁고 상쾌하다.

6) 대상 (명사) = the subject, object, target (of study)

7) 살짝 (부사) = 남이 모를 정도로 재빠르게; 심하지 않게 약간; 힘을 들이지 않고 가볍게.

8) 개념 (명사) = 생각; 철학

9) 흩어지다/흐트러지다 (자동사) = (한곳에 모여 있던 무엇이)각각 떨어지거나 퍼지다.

10) 흥미 (명사) = 흥(fun, interest, merriment)을 느끼는 재미; 어떠한 사물에 대해 느끼는 특별한 관심.

Oh man, they look so simple now that I’ve listed them out!  (Of course the list itself isn’t exhaustive.)  Haha.  My vocabulary is so bad. :(

What are some words YOU find difficult to remember?


I get the sense that words in Korea come and go like fashion statements.  Obviously, since I don’t live in Korea and I don’t hear Korean around me all the time, it’s hard to pick up on current slang; when I do encounter one inadvertently in a variety show or drama, it usually requires a bit of sleuthing before I can piece together its meaning.

Let me tell you about this word though.  멘붕.

So graduate school and life has kept me really busy, but I do try to squeeze in a little bit of Korean exposure everyday.  Granted, I don’t read or listen to nearly as much Korean as  I used to a year ago, and yet – and yet – I managed to encounter this word about five times in the course of three days and twice in the same drama.

멘붕 is a 신조어 (newly-coined word) or, as my friend Yekyung likes to call it, a 외계어 (a meaningless, made-up word) which stands for 멘탈 붕괴.  Let’s break it down.

  1. 멘탈:  mental
  2. 붕괴:  무너짐 (collapse, breakdown)

Together, we have 멘붕 = mental breakdown.

You might also recognize it as being yet another example of 준말, or an abbreviated word, which I talked about in some detail over at selfstudykorean.

I think I first heard this word sometime around late 2011 but the fact that I heard it so many times in such a short duration made me sit up.  Words like these are merciless to the unwary language learner!  It doesn’t help that Korean youth seem to be using more and more such words in their daily language, to the extent that even some native speakers struggle to understand their meaning.

My advice if Korean slang has you stumped:  Google the word followed by “무슨 뜻.”  Chances are, if it’s a newly coined word, there are Koreans out there who are probably wondering what it means too.  I can certainly admit to not knowing all the English internet slang out there.  Good thing I have my resources.