After the Placement Test

So classes have finally started and the first week is done.

On the first day of class, a list was printed with the results of the placement test and the class assignments for levels with enough people for more than one class. (At most schools you will find that an individual class has no more than about 15 people, which is more conducive to language learning. Here I think it is about 12 people per class.)

If you took the placement test (ie have studied some Korean before) then you may find yourself unsatisfied with the level you placed into. As I mentioned before, if you think you should actually be in a higher level try looking through the whole textbook for your assigned level. While it may seem repetitive in the beginning, it will probably get harder as you move farther into the term, but if you feel that most of the book is review then talk to your teacher as soon as possible to see if you will be able to move up to the next level.

I found myself in the opposite situation. I placed far higher than I expected (into level 5). I thought a lot about the situation and eventually decided to stay where I was, but here are some of the things I considered. If your Korean is pretty strong, you may find yourself in a similar situation.

  1. I looked at the level 4 books. Honestly there is a lot in them that I haven’t studied in detail, but I am working on them on my own along with the level 5 class because other considerations won out in the end.
  2. I considered where I want to be in six months. If I stay in level 5 then I will have finished this level in time for the November TOPIK test, and I will be half-way through level 6 for the January TOPIK test. This, hopefully, gives me a fairly good chance of getting at least a level 5 at one of those tests, which would mean I get to start my master’s program in March. If I went down to level 4 I would be less prepared in both November and January, and have a slightly smaller chance of passing. The end result would be either staying in the language program until September, and likely finishing level 6 in the third quarter, and being bored in the last quarter, or barely passing TOPIK 5 in January, and not being able to do the level 6 class (because once you’ve passed TOPIK level 5 you have to go on to the Master’s program). Of course if I bomb both tests anyway then I’ll be stuck repeating stuff for 6 months instead of just three… but I’ll take my chances.
  3. I went to the first class to scope out the competition. Which is not to say I feel any sense of competition with my lovely classmates, but I didn’t want to be way behind everyone else. As it stands, I’m probably somewhere in the middle – stronger in some areas and weaker in others. Even if it is difficult, I figure we’re all in it together, so we can get through it.

Your thought process will be different depending on where it is you end up. For example, if I had been placed in level 4, but felt that that was a little too difficult, then I probably would have decided to go back a level because I would have been more concerned with getting a good foundation rather than passing the TOPIK in January. Honestly, I think level 3 is the perfect starting point if you haven’t studied intensively in Korea already. Starting in level three means that as long as you pass all of your classes you will be able to finish level 6 by the end of the year, and at the same time you’re getting an intensive, well-rounded study opportunity. I think that the students in my level 5 class who studied in Korea before are much stronger in speaking than those of us who spent most of our study time abroad. That is one thing I am jealous of.

No matter what level you end up in, my advice to you is to focus on the 예습 (preparation/preview, the opposite of review). We got a detailed syllabus, so I know exactly what is coming the next day. Rather than focusing on reviewing what you did in class that day, focus on previewing what you will do the next day. Look up words you don’t know. Try to work out the meaning a usage of new grammar. Get a general feel for everything, and figure out what you don’t understand. I think this helps you to get a lot more out of the class.

For example, if you look up vocabulary words in a dictionary, some of them will make sense right away, but others may have multiple possible definitions, or it may be an idiomatic expression, or it might just not be in the dictionary at all. If you know which ones really require a teacher’s help then you can focus on those rather than finding you need help after the class has moved on. The same can be said of grammar. If you know which parts are explained well in the book, and which parts you don’t understand, then you can ask better questions. Of course most teachers will be happy to help you outside of class, but discussing things in class can be a help to everyone.

Of course review is also important. Don’t just move on to the next thing without reviewing the others. This is probably my biggest weakness, just looking forward and not back. It means that I can follow class very well, but forget everything right after… It’s important to find a good balance time-wise between previewing and reviewing.

And don’t worry if you are just starting from zero. Of the 80 something KGSP people here at KNU only about 30 of us even sat the placement test. The rest all started from the beginning. While you may find things difficult at first because the teachers tend to only use Korean no matter how little you know, in the long run studying everything intensively in Korea has its advantages. Your course will be continuous without gaps that come from studying in different curriculums. You’ll have much more access to the language early on, which may help to prevent you from developing bad habits, so if you work at it you may end up stronger than those of us who started higher.

Language Proficiency Tests ~ Part 2

Earlier, I talked about language proficiency tests in general, and the benefits or limitations of them.

Now, I want to talk a little bit about language proficiency tests in the context of KGSP. In my post on required documents for the KGSP application, I did touch briefly on my general opinion, but there are some other considerations as well.

First of all, I would reiterate that if you are not a native speaker of either English or Korean, then I would submit either an English or a Korean proficiency test result. Except in exceptional circumstances, you will be doing your graduate study in some combination of English and Korean, so it is a good idea to show that you are up to that challenge.

You can show English proficiency by taking the TOEFL or IELTS exams, or by showing that you completed your undergraduate or Master’s degree in English (obviously being a native speaker counts too). My knowledge of these tests is limited because I’ve never had to take them. I can say the for TOEFL between 100-120 is considered very high, and 80-100 is high. (80 is the minimum requirement to be admitted to Harvard Graduate School, though of course their actual cutoff may be higher.) As with any test, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the format of the test, and the kinds of questions you will see. Particularly with the TOEFL, you should get used to structuring written and spoken answers within a limited amount of time.

To show Korean proficiency you should take the TOPIK test. NIIED is the organization in charge of administering the TOPIK test, so it’s the only one they accept for KGSP.

First, a brief introduction to TOPIK.

The TOPIK exam was recently restructured, so keep that in mind when searching for information online. The current TOPIK system has two tests – TOPIK I and TOPIK II. TOPIK I is for beginners and includes a reading and a listening section (100 points each). If you score more than 80 of the total 200 points, then you pass level 1. If you score more than 140, then you pass level 2. The TOPIK II is for intermediate and advanced learners (prior to restructuring it was two separate tests, but now it is one test). The TOPIK II includes reading, listening and writing sections (100 points each). You need to score more than 120 points to pass level 3, more than 150 for level 4, more than 190 for level 5, and more than 230 for level 6.

Whereas with an English exam you are trying to show a strong overall proficiency because you will have limited opportunities to improve it formally in Korea, with a Korean exam even a pass at the lowest level (1 or 2) can have value for KGSP. With the TOPIK exam, you are mostly trying to show an interest and an effort in learning Korean.

There are exceptions to that rule though. There are some programs that will require you to speak Korean at the time you apply. If you do already have Korean proficiency, and you would like to apply to one of these programs, then it is a good idea to take the TOPIK and try for at least level 4 (level 5 or 6 would be preferable). Otherwise, you might want to avoid applying to these programs because they may reject you despite the year of language study you would get through KGSP. (When in doubt contact the department about language requirements.)

Also, if you personally would like to start your degree program right away and skip the language study, then you will need to get TOPIK 5 or 6. This is regardless of the language requirements of your degree program. Even if your program is 100% in English, in order to start early (in September of the year you apply, or March of the following year) you need to have TOPIK 5 or 6. (Although to successfully move on from the language program after one full year, you only need to pass level 3.)

So, what should you do if TOPIK is not available in your country?

TOPIK is available in quite a few countries (68 plus Korea), so you should check (and recheck) the official website to find out when and where you can take it. (Right now on the English page the list of testing sites is called “Experiment Station,” which sounds a little scary. The info is also only in Korean, but if you are ready to take TOPIK at any level then you should be able to read it. You can narrow your search by region and country.)

But if it really isn’t available in your country and you are highly proficient, I would recommend one of the following:

  1. Write your application in Korean. The application can be written either in Korean or in English. If you are applying to a program that requires Korean and you are proficient already, but cannot take a test, then show them through your application essays. As with any time you are writing in a non-native language have someone check them if you can, but don’t have someone write them for you – they will find out eventually that you are not that good at Korean, and you will be the one to suffer.
  2. Ask a Korean teacher for a recommendation. Unless your major was/is Korean language, or you just happen to have a Korean person as a professor for another major course, I would not recommend submitting this as your only recommendation. While language ability is important, it is more important to establish your knowledge and ability in your own field. But it doesn’t hurt to submit some proof of language ability as an extra recommendation, if you can’t take TOPIK.
  3. Travel to another country. This can be an expensive option, depending on how far you should go. I would really only recommend this option if it is important to you to start your degree program right away. You should weigh the options carefully. Which is more costly to you (in terms of time and money), going to another country to take the test, or spending your first 6 months in a language program instead of a degree program. If the later is more costly to you, then consider traveling to take the test. You should, of course, check with the organization in charge of running the test in that country to make sure you are allowed to register to take it from another country. You also need to be reasonably certain of passing at least level 5, or your effort will be for naught. If you are on the edge then you would probably benefit from at least 6 more months of study in Korea anyway.

And that last sentence brings me to my final point – it is possible to show too much proficiency. If you are the opposite of the person who wants to start their degree program right away, and you actually do want to spend some time focusing full time on improving your Korean language skills, then you may not want to submit the level 5 score. The unfortunate thing about the new TOPIK test is that the intermediate and advanced tests are now combined. Before if you took the intermediate test, then there was no way to pass level 5, but now the difference between level 4 and level 5 can be just a few points on the same test. Of course, I would always recommend doing your best and achieving the best possible score, but remember, as soon as you submit a level 5 or 6 score, you will be REQUIRED to start your degree program right away without doing the language program. Think for yourself about what that means to you.

Overall, I would say that unless you are a bad tester and you think your scores significantly under-represent your actual language skills, I think it is always a good idea to include a test score when available and applicable. Both English and Korean test scores are, officially speaking, optional, but without them schools can assume the worst rather than the best. If you do choose not to submit them, or have no choice, be sure to make up for it in other ways, such as essays and recommendations.

Placement Exam

It’s raining so much here in Chuncheon!

On such a lovely day, what better thing to do than to sit inside and take a Korean placement test, right?

If it is your first time coming to Korea, or starting at a new language school, you may be curious about what this experience will be like.

I’ve now done it twice. The first time was at Yonsei’s 3-week summer program 2-years ago. The second time was obviously this afternoon at Kangwon National University. The two experiences were pretty similar, so I would guess you will experience something similar no matter where you go.

First of all, if you have never studied Korean before, or your study has been quite limited and you yourself think that you belong in the first beginner level of Korean, then you don’t have to sit the test. The test is only for people who want to start at a higher level. (This seems pretty logical, but people still worry if they have to sit the test.)

Next, the written tests are usually written from very basic stuff at the beginning to very difficult stuff at the end. Obviously a placement test should be able to show the teachers if a student is level 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc, so it should have a lot of different stuff on it. The nice thing though is that they put the stuff in order. (Both Yonsei and KNU did this, and I think it is pretty standard.) What this means is that you can start at the beginning, do as many questions as you can, and then just stop when you stop understanding. (You might want to look at the next few pages/questions to make sure.) I feel like the Yonsei test was much longer than the KNU one, but that might just be because I was less proficient, so there was more I left unfinished. In any case, the length of the test will probably vary depending on the school, but you will probably be able to stop and/or leave when you finish what you can.

As for the types of questions asked… Yonsei was too long ago to remember exactly. KNU started with basic particles, conjugations, some fill in the blank, some multiple choice, and at the end some harder reading comprehension. The KNU test also had a free writing self introduction section on the back. Some people who only answered the first few pages didn’t notice this section, so make sure you do at least flip through the whole test to see if you’re missing anything else you can do. (Self introductions are usually one of the first things you learn, so write what you can!)

Both Yonsei and KNU also had an interview part to the test. At Yonsei we took turns going outside in the middle of doing the written test. At KNU we went for the interview after finishing as much as we could of the written test. Listen to the teachers’ instructions to find out how that works. The questions will vary depending on the interviewer. They may ask you to introduce yourself (again) and work off that. If you speak well the questions will be harder. If you are more of a beginner they may ask more simple things. At Yonsei, I remember the interviewer asking me to name things in the room around me, or what my plans were for the weekend. Here at KNU it was more like a regular conversation.

In the end just remember that this is just a placement test. There is no pass or fail. There is no shame in not understanding some (or many) questions. Don’t be nervous and do your best.

Also, if you feel like you really weren’t yourself and didn’t place as highly as you should, or the opposite, if you placed more highly than you think you should, there will usually be a period of time in the beginning where they will allow you to change. Speak up within the first day or two of class, and remember that the teachers will ultimately have the final say about it.

As someone who has jumped around from school to school both in Japanese and in Korean, I can say that repeating some information is not a bad thing if it means not skipping other important information. A strong foundation is really important for language learning. It is possible that you will find yourself repeating some information at the beginning of your class, but it is likely that you will find newer, harder things as it progresses. Before asking to switch to a higher class, take a look through your textbook and see what you might be missing.

Good luck!

FAQ ~ Where will I study Korean?

If you are selected for KGSP, and do not yet have TOPIK 5 or 6, you may be curious about where you will study Korean for your language year.

The answer is not so easy.

The first thing that I can say is that you will not study Korean in the same region as your degree school. This is definite. They do this on purpose so that you can experience different parts of Korea.

Personally, I think this is a good thing. Different parts of Korea have different dialects and cuisine etc, so getting to know them is enriching for you as a Korean traveler. Another advantage, especially for those ending up in Seoul, is that whatever region you end up in is likely to be cheaper to live in than Seoul. A year to save up is not a bad thing.

Of course if you already have a home someplace in Korea (like me), or you have a spouse somewhere in Korea (like me) this may not be the most convenient arrangement. I was lucky in that I am still close to where my husband is, so I can go home for weekends if I choose, but I may just be lucky (or they may have done it on purpose. I don’t know.)

The next thing I can say is that you cannot choose where you will study Korean, nor can you change schools once they have decided for you. You can’t do it, it doesn’t happen, end of story.

So then what are the possible places you could be sent?

The answer to this question varies by year.

This year (2014 selectees) there are ten schools, but last year (2013 selectees) there were twelve schools. In addition to a reduction of the number of schools, there were also some changes to the schools.

They can be broken down roughly into 5 regions. Seoul, Northern Region, Central (West) Region, South Western Region, and South Eastern Region. (The colors below refer to the map at the bottom.)

  • Seoul/Red – These three universities were used for 2013 selectees, but for 2014 there are no schools in Seoul proper.
    • Kyunghee University (2013)
    • Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS) (2013)
    • Sungkyunkwan* (There are Seoul and Suwon campuses. Suwon is just south of Seoul.) (2013)
  • Northern Region/Blue
    • Inha University, Incheon (2013/2014)
    • Kangwon National University, Chuncheon (2014)
    • Hallym University, Chuncheon (2013)
  • Central (West) Region/Green
    • Sunmoon University, Asan (2013/2014)
    • Chungnam National University, Daejeon (2013/2014)
    • Pai Chai University, Daejeon (2014)
  • South Western Region/Orange
    • Jeonju University, Jeonju (2013/2014)
    • Chonnam University, Gwangju (2013/2014)
  • South Eastern Region/Purple
    • Keimyung University, Daegu (2013/2014)
    • Yeungnam University, Gyeongsan (2014)
    • Dongseo University, Busan (2014)
    • Silla University, Busan (2013)
    • Pusan National University (2013)

On the map below you can see approximately where everything is. The highlighted areas are special designated metropolitan areas. These are Korea’s bigger cities (Seoul is pink, Incheon is blue, Daejeon is green, Gwangju is yellow/orange, Daegu is the inland purple, and Busan is the coastal purple). The stars are smaller cities.

You’ll notice that even when they’ve changed schools, they’ve generally added a school in the same general area, for every school they’ve taken away (with the exception of Seoul).

South_Korea_location_map
Map courtesy of Wikipedia http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b2/South_Korea_location_map.svg

As for how they choose which schools to send people to, that is a mystery. One thing you will notice is that none of the old, well established schools are on the list; such as Yonsei, Korea U, SNU, Sogang, Ehwa, etc. Part of the goal of KGSP is not only to raise the level of Korean among foreigners, but to also raise the level of Korean language education in Korea. Well established language programs have little trouble filling spots, and can constantly work on improving their programs with student feedback and results. Smaller programs like the ones KGSP uses need more help. Beyond that, I’m not sure what motivates NIIED to drop one school, keep another, and add yet another. The group of schools for 2015 and beyond may be similar, or totally different, but they will probably be in the vicinity of existing schools.

Learning Korean ~ General Info

First I should tell you how I learned Korean.

I started with self-study, then took a weekly class for a year to increase conversation practice (but continued with the self-study), then went to Yonsei KLI’s three week summer course, then started doing classes twice a week (with self study) for about 9 months, and then went back to only self-study. In September 2014 I will be starting full time language study at a Korean university.

The one important constant through all of this is that all of my textbooks were (are) in Japanese (except for the Yonsei one, which was all Korean), and my teachers were all Korean/Japanese bilinguals (except at Yonsei, where they only used Korean).

So, if you want to know what English language resources I used, the answer is basically zero. I do have one English book I bought early on, “Korean For Beginners” from Tuttle. It has a good appendix about grammar terms in Korean (although I feel like it has too many terms that you’d only need to talk about English grammar. Useful I guess if you are learning Korean because you are teaching English in Korea.) It also has some interesting stories and culture facts, and is humorously written. Other than that, I haven’t really used it. I think I bought it in the beginning for an English speaker’s perspective on pronunciation (the one limitation of Japanese when learning Korean is pronunciation).

Why did I do this despite the fact that English is my native language?

Because I am also fluent in Japanese, and the parallels between Japanese and Korean are significantly greater than between English and Korean. It’s just easier to think of Korean in terms of what I already know about Japanese, than to try to understand it in terms of English.

So, if you also speak Japanese and would like some good Japanese resources for Korean, then please ask away!

For a great run down of Korean language resources (both internet and hardcopy) look at Hangukdrama and Korean. It’s all out there just waiting to be discovered!

If you are planning on coming to Korea to study Korean for whatever reason, I do recommend getting a headstart. One of the major reasons (aside from the already stated ones for KGSP people) is that in Korea, you will find that the instruction is primarily in Korean. Your classmates will be from a lot of countries and not all fluent in English. Depending on the school, however, you may find that they do provide beginner textbooks with versions for several languages (English, Chinese and Japanese with possible others). Still, it will probably be helpful in following the classes at the beginning if you have some background. And you can use the resources above (at Hangukdrama) to supplement your classes even in Korea.

Some random facts about the Korean language…

  1. It’s most commonly considered an Altaic language, which means it most closely resembles languages such as Japanese, Mongolian and Turkish (yes, Turkish). If you already speak one of these then it could be easier for you to learn.
  2. The other major influence on the Korean language is Chinese. About 60% of Korean vocabulary is considered “Sino-Korean,” or in other words it comes from Chinese (though with “Koreanization” of the pronunciation). Sino-Korean vocabulary is more prevalent in writing and formal speech, than in everyday conversation. Japanese also includes a similar percentage of words from Chinese. This means that speaking a dialect of Chinese or Japanese will give you a leg up on vocabulary. The nice thing about Korean, for those who already speak Japanese, is that every kanji character (or hanja as they are called in Korean) only has one pronunciation to remember in Korean (sometimes two for syllables starting with certain sounds). The disadvantage for Chinese or Japanese speakers, is that Korea doesn’t use many of the actual hanja characters in modern writing, so you have to figure out the connections on your own. But once you do catch on you’ll be able to work out more and more vocabulary on your own.
  3. Korean is considered a “Class 3” language by the US Foreign Service Institute, which means that it theoretically is one of the most difficult to master for native speakers of English (and presumably for native speakers of languages closely related to English). Difficulty is measured in the typical time it takes for US foreign service members to achieve “general proficiency” in the language. Class 3 means the estimate is about 88 weeks at 25 hours a week (about 2200 hours total, with half being in the country). Of course there will always be individual variation, and difficult doesn’t mean impossible. Other C3 languages include Japanese, the many dialects of “Chinese” and Arabic. (Just because Arabic is also dfficult fr English speakers doesn’t mean Korean is easy for Arabic speakers
  4. That said, Korean has one of the most logical writing systems in the world. Hangeul, as it is usually called in South Korea today, was deliberately and carefully constructed to make it easy for the general population to learn. At first glance it may look similar to Chinese or Japanese, but the characters are not pictographs, they are phonetic (sound based) like English. Unlike English, there aren’t as many spelling rules and exceptions. And the best part, the letters are actually modeled after the way your mouth moves to pronounce them.

I will do another post about Hangeul, phonetics, and my system for remembering them later.

Language Issues and KGSP

The native language in Korea is Korean.

I know that is pretty obvious to most, but I think it cannot be emphasized enough.

According to worlduniversitynews.com about 20 to 40 percent of courses at all Korean universities are taught in English. I take course in this context to mean class not major subject, but I could be wrong. That means the rest are taught in a language other than English (probably primarily Korean, with some language and area studies courses taught in another foreign language).

This article does not give a breakdown for undergraduate versus graduate level courses. I would guess that the percentage of English classes in undergraduate programs is slightly lower and the percentage in graduate programs slightly higher (for any given university).

So what does this mean for you as a potential scholar in Korea?

First, it means that you have a decent chance of selecting a course that is either entirely or partially in Korean.

Next, this article, indirectly, brings up an interesting issue. While some of the programs taught exclusively in English are taught by Korean professors educated abroad, or foreign professors proficient in English, there are also some programs (or courses) taught by native Korean professors who are not as proficient in English, and only using English as a medium of instruction with reluctance.

One of the consequences of this is that while classroom instruction in English may be mandatory, the professors still may prefer Korean outside the classroom. This can affect things such as a professor’s willingness to advise you.

From the letter sent to all students selected for a KGSP scholarship:

“Though a few grantees will take their classes mostly in English throughout their degree course, each one must possess adequate Korean proficiency to join various meetings and seminars, to participate in various research projects, and to live a fulfilling academic and social life in Korea.”

Korean will most likely be necessary or useful at some point in your academic career in Korea, and for those who don’t find an all English program (or aren’t confident in English either) it will be an absolute neccessity.

So NIIED provides a whole year of language study for exactly that purpose, right?

Well yes, that’s true.

BUT, by NIIED’s own admission, prior to 2012 only 60% of participants passed TOPIK level 3 after one year and were able to start their degree programs on time. Of the 40% forced to do an extra six months “a lot” were still unable to achieve level 3 and ultimately had to give up the scholarship.

Now as these language schools get more experience in teaching, and with NIIED’s encouragement making people take the language courses more seriously hopefully the percentage moving on after one year (or less) is increasing, as is the overall level achieved. Hopefully.

Still, I can say from personal experience that TOPIK level 3 is a bare minimum of what you will need to hold a (semi-intelligent) conversation, let alone study for an advanced degree. Even with a level of 5 or 6 (depending on how you got there) you will be at a disadvantage compared to native Korean classmates (in the Korean classes anyway). Things will just take longer and more effort. And, given the curriculum at most language schools, if you start from zero you won’t get as high as 5, unless you put in some serious self study.

So what am I saying?

I’m certainly not saying not to apply for the scholarship, not definitively anyway.

I am saying to consider it very carefully, and take the language issue seriously.

As I have mentioned before, know what you are getting into. Research the language of instruction for your program, but more than that research the professors. Where did they study? How comfortable are they likely to be with English? Pay specific attention to professors you might want to ask to advise you.

And, whether you have decided to take a gamble on a program with courses in Korean or not, don’t wait until you arrive in Korea to start learning the language. If you have found this blog then you have the resources to start learning Korean (the internet). Make use of them! More on that another time…