After the TOPIK II ~ Attempt #1

So the TOPIK is finished, for now.

The single best thing about the TOPIK is that they release the test questions almost immediately after the test, so you can attempt to self score while it’s still fresh. (Unless my writing was completely incomprehensible, I’m thinking 5).

That is they did until yesterday… If my reading skills are not too off, as of 2015, they are increasing the number of times the exam can be taken in a year (6 total, 4 outside Korea), but they are going to stop posting the exams online (my guess is with the increased test load they will start recycling questions). It did say they would continue to post one test per year, and they won’t remove the tests that are already there.

But anyway, as for my overall impressions of actually taking the new test in an official capacity…

1. My palms were sweating and I think my hand was literally shaking during the writing section, so I may have been nervous…

2. I’ve read a lot of complaints about how the timing is too short. But honestly, I don’t think it’s that bad. Short, yes. Unreasonably short, no.

The thing is if you’re prepared and really know your stuff, then there’s plenty of time. I at least finished reading/writing/answering all questions. Whether I understood them is a separate issue, but that’s my level, and I accept that.

If you’re only aiming for level 3 or 4… You don’t even need to attempt all questions. Take as much time as you need to answer the questions you know, and choose one answer for the rest.

The same goes for writing. Yes, there’s limited time, but for levels 3 and 4 focus on the first 3 questions, and do what you can on the last one if you have time. For levels 5 and 6 rush through the first three and focus the bulk of your time on the last question. You might not write a perfect essay, but if you get 85-90 points on listening and reading, you only need 50-60 points on writing for level 6.

Essentially NIIED is saying you should be able to do x in y amount of time to get each level. The timing is integral to the standard, so making it longer would essentially make it easier.

Or in other words, if you can’t finish the test in the allotted time (with a sufficient score), then you are not at the level they consider to be level 6.

Now, by saying this, I do not mean to imply that if you can’t pass level 6 of TOPIK, you are not fluent in Korean. That is a whole separate issue.

First of all, there are people who just don’t test well. This TOPIK exam certainly places a strict time restriction on examinees, which can make people who don’t test well very nervous. My only recommendation for such people is to study the test really well. While the content changes each time, the structure is very rigid. If you know what to expect, and make a plan, then it may help you improve your score. If not, and the TOPIK specifically is not necessary to you, consider other options for gauging and demonstrating your proficiency.

Second, there are people who can speak and interact on an everyday level with ease, who find the test very difficult. I would say the test is primarily a test of academic readiness. It’s asking whether you can read and accurately understand a variety of difficult texts, whether you can understand an academic lecture, and whether you can write an essay such as you would need for a final exam. It doesn’t test speaking. If having normal everyday conversations with your friends is your goal, then I wouldn’t worry about the TOPIK too much. If you plan to attend school in Korea, in Korean, then not passing level 6, does not necessarily mean you won’t be successful. It may mean that you have to work that much harder though. You’ll spend more time reading, have more questions after lectures, and spend more time writing and correcting your essays.

As I’ve written before, with proficiency tests, it is important to have a clear idea of what they are and what they aren’t. Passing the highest level of TOPIK doesn’t mean all of your skills are equally good, nor does it mean you are at the end of your learning. Likewise, not passing doesn’t mean that your Korean is terrible. If you feel pretty fluent and still don’t do well, it just means that the test isn’t testing for your particular skill set.

Set your own goals outside of passing TOPIK, and do your best to achieve them.

And if you are a KGSP student, or any foreign student in Korea, then the TOPIK may be a necessary evil. For you the best advice I can give is to study the test. Knowing what to expect, and finding a strategy that works for you can really help you to improve your score.

Textbook Review: Sogang Korean Writing 2 서강 한국어 쓰기 2 (학문 목적 과정)

Sogang Writing Books 2 & 3
Sogang Writing Books 2 & 3

In an earlier post I mentioned that I like the Sogang writing book we are using, so I thought I would talk a little more about that.

Sogang is generally well known for their heavy focus on speaking, but this book appears to be from their Korean for Academic Purposes course rather than their Korean for General Purposes course. I have never attended Sogang for Korean language, or anything else, and I can’t find exactly which textbooks they use for each, aside from their standard textbook. In any case, keep in mind that this is a review of the book, and not of how well Sogang actually teaches writing.

So, there are 4 books in the Writing series, and I have books two and three. We are using book two now in level 5 at KNU, but I would say that it would be useful and usable around level four (maybe three?). I bought book three by accident, but we’ll be using it next semester anyway.

Book 2 Chapter 3
Book 2 Chapter 3

Book Two is divided into 8 chapters with 4 extra appendices at the back. Each chapter talks about a different topic such as “Major and Future Plans” or “Studying a Foreign Language.” Each chapter also focuses on a specific goal of writing and the related grammatical expressions, such as “Comparison,” “Explanation,” and “Explaining Survey Results.”

20141112_185824 20141112_185833

On the one hand, the writing instruction is sometimes very basic. If you have learned how to write in your native language (or like me, have taught people to write in your native language) some things may seem like common sense (topic sentence, etc), and not worth learning again. Or it may not. Different languages do have different writing styles.

But, the grammar introduced, while not difficult, is useful to review because there are some things that you probably don’t use often in everyday conversation, and they are applicable to a variety of academic situations, including the dreaded TOPIK, and even academic presentations.

Each chapter includes several short essay samples demonstrating the style being introduced, explanations of the grammar/vocabulary points, practice writing sentences using the grammar, and a topic for writing an essay of your own. Self-study of writing is always hard because you don’t have anyone to check your mistakes, but the book does include an answer key for everything but the essays, so you can at least check your answers against their examples. It also includes notes about frequently made mistakes, so you can check yourself against those as well. BUT the explanations are all in Korean, so you should be comfortable enough with Korean that that is not a problem. There is, however, a vocab list for each chapter at the back, which does give definitions in English and Chinese.

I think no matter what book you try to use, if you are self-studying there will be limitations to how useful it is. When possible it is always best to have a native speaker who can check your work. But all things considered, I think this is one of the better books I’ve seen for academic writing in Korean, and of use even to self-studiers.

I would especially recommend it to people looking to improve their TOPIK writing score. It will give you a lot of practice and useful expressions for the essay questions in the TOPIK exam.

And then there are the appendices! These are about writing various parts of the application for applying to a Korean university. The first is general information about preparing documents for your application, the second is about writing your self-introduction, the third is about filling out the application forms, and the fourth is a sample set of application forms. If you are considering applying to a Korean university, or would like to write your KGSP application in Korean, then this will be very useful to look at.

Sogang may not be the first place you think of when you think of writing skills, but I do think they have done a good job on this one.

서강한국어 학문목적과정 쓰기 2

1과 진로와 전공
2과 대학 생활
3과 유행
4과 온라인 의사소통
5과 우리 생활의 변화
6과 여가 활용
7과 외국어 공부
8과 외모 지상주의

D-12: Countdown to the TOPIK test

As a KGSP student, or even as a regular Korean learner, the TOPIK test is an unavoidable obstacle.

As a KGSP student you are required to study Korean for 1 year, UNLESS:

  1. You have already passed TOPIK level 5 or 6 before arriving in Korea. In this case you are required to go straight into your graduate program from September. The April test is the last you can take to submit a score by the deadline. (I’m not sure if you can submit scores later from the July test and be exempted, but it’s only offered in Korea anyway, so that would only be an issue for a handful of people.)
  2. You pass TOPIK leve 5 or above during the first 6 months of language study. In this case you MUST start your graduate program in March (after studying for just 6 months). In Korea there are tests in October, November and January, but if you want to take the October test you need to consider applying even before you come to Korea.
  3. You DON’T pass TOPIK level 3 or above after one year of study. In this case you will be given an extra six months to pass level 3 and start your graduate program the following March. There are no extensions after one year and six months.

For some it is confusing that you need level 5 to start a graduate program early, but only level 3 to start after one year. On the face of it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but to me it seems like a good policy. On the one hand they want everyone to reach as high a level as possible, so for people with previous knowledge of Korean they want them to show that they are at an advanced level in order to skip all or part of the Korean language requirement. On the other hand, if they required that same standard of everyone, including those that start from zero, that would be a near impossible feat for just one year of study, and classes are intensive enough as it is. Plus many graduate programs only require level 3 or 4 for admission. Makes sense to me.

In any case, I am one of those people hoping to start my graduate program in March, so I now have two chances at passing level 5 (November and January), and the first is coming up in just 12 days.

Under normal circumstances I would be looking at past tests and trying to get an idea of strengths and weaknesses, and test day strategy, BUT in July they introduced a new TOPIK format, and only two exams have been administered so far in the new format. And I’ve looked at both of those…

This will be my first time taking the test in the new format, and that’s a little scary. BUT as part of the KGSP program KNU offers afternoon classes twice a week specifically geared toward the TOPIK exam, and I feel like those have been useful in developing test strategy, and also getting used to the new format. My reading score went up 10 points from the practice test we took at the beginning to the one we took on Monday (which was the actual test from this past October), so that puts me squarely in level 5 territory, assuming this test isn’t harder… or my guessing less accurate…

At the beginning of the term the TOPIK couldn’t be far enough away, but now I really just want to get it over with…

Some TOPIK hints that I’ve learned from my prep course:

  • In both reading and listening the test format is always the same, meaning that you will always find the same kinds of questions in exactly the same places, with only slight variations. Look at old tests to get used to what kinds of questions you will be asked.
  • In TOPIK II (which combines the old Intermediate and Advanced tests, and includes levels 3, 4, 5 and 6), the questions always go from easier to harder. The first 24 (ish) questions would be equivalent to the old Intermediate and 25-50 are Advanced. If your goal is level 3 or 4 take plenty of time on the first half, and through practice tests try to figure out which of the harder questions you’re best at answering. Also, for the grammar/vocab questions at the beginning of the reading section, you can usually eliminate any “hard” grammar or vocab answers because those are level 3/4 questions.
  • For writing, there are two passages with two free fill in the blank answers, and two essay questions. The first two questions are 10 points each (5 for each blank), the short essay (200-300 characters) is 30 points and the long essay (600-700 characters) is 50 points.
    • The short essay will be based on a graph or chart. All you need to do is explain it. Include all of the information included in the chart to answer the prompt question. Make sure to include some kind of topic sentence at the beginning and a conclusion at the end, and there’s your 200-300 characters. Very little thinking involved. Brush up on useful words to talk about statistics (more than, less than, rise, fall… easy stuff) and you should be good.
    • The longer essay will be more abstract, and usually about some issue in society. It will include three or four sub-questions, so make sure to answer all of those (in the form of one cohesive essay). More advanced vocabulary and grammar forms will gain you points, so choosing a couple things (grammar is most flexible) that you are comfortable with before the test may be helpful. If you run out of time make sure to at least finish the sentence you were writing because points are taken off for being incomplete.
    • I mention the fill-in-the-blank questions last (even though they come first) because for me they are a low priority. If you read them and can answer them right away, then do it. If you can’t, they are only 5 points for each blank so your time might be better spent on the essay questions. The first question will usually be some kind of invitation or advertisement. It will usually be in 습니다 form, so make sure you match your verb endings to the other sentences in the passage (and the same for the second question which will probably be plain 다 form). The second question is usually some kind of story or essay. If you are aiming for levels 3 or 4 then these first two questions are more important.
    • And speaking of the verb endings, ideally the two essay questions should be written in 다 form (like a book or newspaper in Korean). If you are in a Korean course that is more speaking focused and don’t have practice writing, you might want to brush up on this before the test.

That is a crash course in taking TOPIK II. I’m guessing that in terms of having the same kinds of questions in the same places, TOPIK I is similar, so definitely get hold of past tests, which you can do at the TOPIK website. TOPIK I does not have writing. Tests from the 35th test on are in the new format.

Nearing the end of term one

So we just started chapter nine… of ten…

It’s been a long eight weeks, and it also seems to have gone by in a flash.

I would say that my Korean has definitely improved… in some areas, but not so much in others.

One thing I think my language institute (Kangwon National University) does really well (at the higher levels) is writing. We use the Ewha University textbooks (level 5) plus Sogang University’s writing book (number 2), and we have afternoon TOPIK classes with one class each week devoted to TOPIK writing.

Sometimes I (we all) think “Oh my gosh, not more writing!” but in the end it is actually really useful, and really the only way to improve in writing is to do a lot of it, and get feedback.

I’m not a huge fan of the writing section of the Ewha textbooks though. I’ve used a fair selection of the major Korean language institutes’ textbooks: Yonsei’s at the summer school and for self study, Sogang for a conversation class I took in Japan, plus the writing book now, and Ewha’s for my current class. At some point, I will do a review of Yonsei and Sogang’s books as well, but for now here are some opinions on Ewha’s textbooks. (I have only seen levels 4 and 5, so my review will be based on those.)

Each chapter in Ewha’s books is divided into several sections:

  1. Preparation: Introduces three grammar points (in level 4 all three are introduced at the beginning, but in level 5 there is one at the beginning and two later on)
  2. Listening: Listen to a short conversation or speech
  3. Speaking: Introduces a situation and expressions that can be used in such a situation
  4. Reading: The readings vary from opinion to fiction to poetry
  5. Writing: In level 5 there is an additional reading demonstrating a particular form of writing, and a topic for practice writing. In level 4 the reading section is the example, and the writing section just has the topic for practice.
  6. Debate/Discussion: Some short reading introducing various viewpoints, and a topic for class discussion
  7. Idiomatic Expressions (level 4): Introduces three idiomatic expressions
  8. Vocabulary Expansion (level 5): Introduces a verb with mutiple meanings and 6 of the ways it can be used
  9. Proverbs (level 5): Introduces three proverbs (similar in form to the idiomatic expressions section in level 4)
  10. Culture and Life (level 4): A short reading on some aspect of Korean culture
  11. Literature (level 4): Introduces poems or short pieces of fiction

One thing I like about the Ewha books is that they are fairly balanced in their content. Whereas the main Yonsei books are very grammar focused and the main Sogang books are very conversation focused, the Ewha books have everything in one place, in a single B5 sized book (with an additional workbook available). I also like the extras at the end of each chapter (numbers 7-11 above). Proverbs and idioms are interesting and also useful, and some exposure to literature is a good change from the normally non-fiction contents of language textbooks.

The one thing I don’t like is the writing section. In level 4 you are still practicing the basics, so I feel like the writing topics are still fairly related to real life tasks that you might encounter. In level 5, however, it becomes more like a creative writing class, and less like a language class. How you feel about this depends on what your goal is in learning Korean, and what kind of writing practice you’ve had so far. For me, my experience writing was way behind my other skills, so I was looking for more basic advice about writing. I am also looking for a more expository approach to writing. If you’ve gone through Ewha’s books from level 1, then the level 5 writing assignments may seem less “out of the blue,” and if you enjoy creative writing then you will have fun with the Ewha topics. But again for me, I’m not really looking for creative writing skills in Korean.

The writing topics in book 5 include: a comparison of dialects in your native language, a speech about your personal technique for good health, a PR statement for an exhibition of historical artifacts, a newspaper article from 50 years in the future, a rewriting of a fable to represent current societal changes, an editorial about differences between Korean food culture and your own country, an essay about something you’ve felt or discovered about the environment, a movie review, a product user review, and a poem.

One of my big objections to the Ewha writing portion of the program here at KNU is more to do with how it is taught, and less to do with the assignments themselves. The primary focus here is in class work, with very little assigned homework. Some people would find that good, but with these writing topics I feel like they require more thinking time than just a 50-minute class period. I feel like time would be better spent discussing what we already wrote for homework and talking about how to improve it, rather than doing the actual writing in class.

I also am just not that interested in writing poetry in Korean… But practice is practice I suppose.

Choosing A Major for KGSP

This is a very important step in your application process.

First of all, I should say that in my personal opinion you should think very carefully about whether you really need a Master’s degree or not, and whether you are ready to do that Master’s degree or not before applying. If you already have a Master’s and are applying for a PhD, then I assume you know what you are getting into, but I feel like a lot of people choose to do Master’s degrees for the wrong reasons.

I should know… I did that once…

If you just want the chance to study in Korea and you’ve already finished university, a Master’s degree might not be the right thing for you.

If you want to study something completely unrelated to your university degree or anything you’ve ever done before then a Master’s degree might not be the right thing for you.

Or it might be, but you have to think long and hard about it.

The primary goal of a Master’s degree is to gain deeper knowledge in a field you already have knowledge in. A Master’s degree is a continuation of a Bachelor’s degree, not a second shorter Bachelor’s without the General Education requirements. This is why many universities will require that your Bachelor’s degree was in the same, or a very related subject. Look carefully at these requirements when you are choosing a university and a major because if you don’t fit the requirements your chances of getting into the school you choose will be very small, no matter how good your grades and test scores are.

The exception to this rule would be if you have extensive work experience in your field of choice. The reality is that businesses hire a wide variety of people, regardless of major, so if you have managed to gain real life work experience in the field you would like to get a Master’s in (like Investment Banking or Computer programming) then it might not matter that you majored in English Literature or History (or whatever).

Ultimately, a Master’s degree is a lot of work (especially if you are doing any part of it in a language that is not your native one), and it requires a vested interest in the field. It’s not something to do just because you want to go to Korea, or just because you want to put off looking for a job. It’s good to have a goal for what you plan to do after the Master’s degree is finished, and it’s best if the Master’s degree is an integral part of achieving that goal.

If choosing a major is difficult for you, then doing a Master’s degree might not be the right thing for you right now.

I should also note that once you have been selected for KGSP, you will not be able to change universities or majors without giving up the scholarship, or reapplying for the scholarship. When you apply to a Master’s program you are applying to a specific department within a university, so with or without a scholarship, switching to another department means submitting another application. The scholarship is not just yours to take with you wherever you decide to go. It is a specific agreement between NIIED, a university department, and yourself. Within a department at a university, you may be able to change the specific focus of your studies if the policy at your university allows that.

This was one of the points that NIIED emphasized at orientation, and is really something you should be aware of before you apply.

Think through your choices carefully, and choose the best path for you.