Korean Language Training

So I’ve been looking through the application guidelines for KGSP 2017. One thing that I noticed is that they eliminated this sentence that was in the 2014 guidelines (my year):

“Scholars who do not pass at least TOPIK Level 3 after one year of Korean language course must complete an additional six-month coursework in the Korean language.”

The current language in both the guidelines and the FAQ make it sound like this six-month extension will not be granted and you must pass TOPIK 3 in just one year. Now, in 2015, they didn’t mention the part about people being able to move on to graduate studies if they pass TOPIK levels 5 or 6 in the first six months, but that was still a policy. So, it may be that they just left it out of the guidelines. If this is the case, then there will likely be information about this in the information given to students who are finally selected in June.

But, it is also possible that they decided to limit the language training to just one year.

Each year, between 10 and 20% of language trainees do not pass TOPIK 3 and are required to take another six months of Korean language training. There are probably a variety of reasons for this. Some may just not take the training all that seriously. They know they have an extra six months if they need it. Some may be worried about their Korean abilities and doing graduate studies in Korean and throw the test on purpose. And some people might simply find the Korean language and Korean experience more difficult than they expected. If, indeed, they have eliminated the possibility of studying for an extra six months then you want to make sure you are not in any of these categories.

If you are serious about studying in Korea, I would recommend taking some time to familiarize yourself with the Korean language before you end up on a plane to spend 3-4 years of your life here. Hangul (the Korean writing system) may look difficult, but it is actually one of the easiest writing systems to learn, so with some help you should be able to learn it on your own.

Beyond the writing system, Korean is pretty much in a language family by itself. Some linguists have said that it belongs in a family with Turkish and Japanese, but many disagree. If you speak either Chinese or Japanese, you will find many cognates (words with similar sounds and roots). There is also some English influence, in terms of vocabulary, because English is such a widely used language. Otherwise, the grammar and vocabulary are likely to be completely different from whatever language it is you speak natively. This naturally makes Korean more difficult to learn, but it is certainly not impossible.

By doing some prep work before you leave, you can eliminate most of the possibility of failure. A leg up will mean that you are less likely to fail because you were unable to learn enough, and you will learn everything better once you arrive. Then you just need to remember that while Korean may not be what you came to Korea to do, it is not just an obstacle on the way to your real goal. It will be a means to achieve your real goal and you should give it as much attention as you do computer science or bio tech or psychology or history or art.

Fortunately, there are many online resources for starting to learn Korean:

How to study Korean

Talk to Me in Korean

Korean Class 101

The Study in Korea people, the ones who bring you the KGSP scholarship, even have their own list of online courses here.

Whether you start now, or after you reach a certain stage in the application process, is up to you. It is not even 100% necessary to do that much before you leave. One year should be enough to learn Korean to TOPIK 3, if that is your goal, and you put in the work, but I would recommend just looking through some lessons to figure out what it is you are getting yourself into and whether Korean really is for you. You don’t want to do all of this work applying, only to be sent home after a year because you were unable to pass a Korean test.

TOPIK II By Section ~ Writing

Writing is the hardest section to get a really high score in, except for particular types of people. (Apparently there were a couple of people, actually in the level below me in terms of class level, who got between 70-78 in writing, but I think most of them were Chinese.)

Ultimately, anywhere from 50-70 is a really decent score in writing, and as long as you make up for this lower score in the other sections, you will still be able to get level 5 or 6.

I think I’ve talked a little about writing before, but I’ll try to go into more detail.

Questions 51 and 52

These are fill in the blank questions. They have two blanks for each question, so each blank is worth 5 points. The points are further divided into grammar points and vocabulary points. In general, they are looking for specific words and grammar structures. If you combine these correctly, you’ll get full points, if the meaning is still conveyed with less ideal words or grammar, you’ll get fewer points. If your word choice or grammar is wrong you’ll get no points (for whatever is wrong, but you still might get partial points for the other elements).

Question 51 will be some sort of advertisement or invitation, etc. It will usually be written formally (습니다), so make sure you match your endings to the rest of the sentences. Watch out for question marks. Sometimes you will be asked to fill in questions. Reviewing how to make formal requests, suggestions, etc will help you with this question.

Questions 52 is usually some sort of short writing like you might find in the reading section. I’ve personally noticed that it is often comparing two different ideas, so usually it will express one side of the issue, and you have to fill in the opposite opinion or view. So generally you can mirror what they have already written from the opposite perspective. This may not always be the case, but it is one common type. Again, you want to match the verb endings to the rest of the passage, but it will most likely be in regular written form (다, ㄴ/는다).

If you are trying for levels 3 or 4, these two questions are very important, and I would spend more time on them. If you are trying for levels 5 or 6, leaving these questions entirely blank is probably not a good idea, but you also don’t want to spend too much time on them. Read them first, but if a good answer doesn’t come to you immediately then skip them and come back.

Question 53

This question is VERY important. It’s 30 points and requires very little original work. You need to write some sort of introduction (one sentence, two max), then organize the information from the graph or chart in some logical way (include everything), and then write one sentence as a conclusion. That’s 200-300 characters right there.

To practice this kind of question, I seriously recommend the Sogang Writing book (2). I’m sure there are other books out there that are good, but I haven’t used them. In any case, the question for TOPIK 35 was chapter 6 (graphs/data), TOPIK 36 was kind of chapter 3 (reasons) with some data, and TOPIK 37 was chapter 4 (definitions and characteristics). The practice question (published after they announced the new test structure) was also chapter 4 but good points/bad points. We may not have seen all of the possible types of questions, but I have a feeling they will all be based on the same basic structures found in this writing book. Remember, this is still just a level 3/4 question.

If you are going for level 5/6 spend 10-15 minutes max on this question, and copy, copy, copy. Yes, you do have to put the data/info from the graph/chart into full, logically flowing sentences, but don’t be afraid to include it word for word as is. In this question they do not take off for that. Also remember that this data/info will likely take up most of your 300 characters, so keep your introduction short, and leave room for a concluding sentence too.

*Make sure you finish your last sentence. If you run out of room then either think of a shorter way to say it, or ignore the boxes and cram it in there. The readers will not read anything outside the writing area, and you will get minus points if it is obviously incomplete (like you stop mid-sentence).

Question 54

This question is a little harder to strategize, but…

Leave enough time. If you only need level 3 or 4, then you may want to focus your energy on the first three questions, but for 5 or 6 you want to try to finish this one. You’ll probably want 20-30 minutes.

Unlike question 53, for this one you want to try not to copy from the prompt. Reword things as much as possible.

Include an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. I’ve heard that some teachers say you don’t need a conclusion, but it’s safer to have one. And my teacher, who has been a reader for the TOPIK writing said to include one, so I trust her.

Additionally, make sure your body is longer than either your introduction or conclusion. This is totally picky, but makes logical sense. This means you’ll probably want to keep the intro to about 150 characters, 300-400 in the middle, and another 150 at the end, give or take.

Avoid the first person. Unless it specifically asks about your experience, try to talk in generalities. Avoid things like 생각하다 or 것 같다.

Avoid very colloquial expressions. There are certain things that are only appropriate for conversational Korean, or very informal writing, so keep your tone more formal.

Try to include difficult words and grammar, but make sure you know how to use them correctly. This can be hard when you’re under a time limit, but if there are certain expressions or grammar points from your class that you feel comfortable with, you can try to choose some specific ones ahead of time that you can fit easily to a variety of topics.

Include answers to all of the questions that are asked in the writing prompt.

Again, make sure you finish your last sentence, even if it’s not the end of what you wanted to say, make it look like you’re done.

For maximum points, you want to cross the 600 character line. A combination of length and the overall “sophistication” of your essay will determine your starting point, and then they’ll mostly start taking points off from there. You want to start as close to the full 50 points as possible.

It should go without saying that both 53 and 54 should be written in literary style.

Personally my goal was to spend no more than 10 minutes on 51 and 52, about 12 minutes on 53, and about 28 minutes on 54. I think that I stayed pretty close to that goal, and did finish all four questions. If you are at a level where you decide to skip the last listening questions, then you can start writing earlier. And remember there is no break between listening and writing. I don’t remember if there is some announcement at the end of the listening to start writing, but either way as soon as you finish the last listening question move immediately to the writing.

Proficiency Tests

Today I took a break from moving preparations and goodbye meals to take the TOPIK exam.

The Test of Proficiency in Korean, Intermediate Level.  Three hours of vocab, writing, listening and reading.  Fun stuff, right?  A great way to spend an Easter Sunday…

To be perfectly honest though, I love tests.  That’s probably because I am a pretty good tester.  You name it I’ve taken it… or not really, but I’ve definitely done my fair share of language tests.

It all started in my year abroad when I first learned there were such things as language proficiency exams.  Take a test and get a pretty certificate if you pass?  Where do I sign up?  So as soon as I got home I signed up for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), level 2 (which at the time was the second highest of four tests).  And passed.

Then, when I arrived in Japan two years later, I signed up for level 1, and passed that too.  Then heard about the Business Japanese Proficiency Test (BJT), which at the time was run by JETRO, but is now run by the same people as the “Kanken” (Kanji Aptitude Test), and so I took that too.  And passed (but skipped the optional interview because while I thrive in written tests, interviews make me really nervous).

Then I got into Korean, and found that they have tests too (!!), so I took the TOPIK beginner level two years ago, and the intermediate test last year.

Then I decided I might want to go to Korea and that would mean looking for new jobs.  And when looking for new jobs what better thing to have on your resume than multilingualism (with more proficiency tests for proof)?  So, since it had been ten years since I first passed JLPT level one, and the test had since undergone a major overhaul, I decided to take N1 (now the highest level of five), and throw in the Nihongo Kentei (日本語検定) for good measure.  The Nihongo Kentei is actually a test theoretically designed for Japanese people, and tests knowledge of things like keigo, vocab, proper usage, etc.  In some ways it is similar to the English part of the SATs.

Almost took the BJT again, but I accidentally slept through it… or rather completely forgot I was signed up until the day after…

And of course one more intermediate TOPIK test (because the first time around I only passed level three and I want four).

There are a lot of people out there who like to devalue proficiency tests.  More so for JLPT than TOPIK (probably because JLPT has been around longer).

I personally think that you just have to understand the tests, and what they are and are not.

I cannot guarantee that having a level one JLPT has ever gotten me a job, but I can say that when we were looking for my replacement at work, we definitely filtered candidates based partially on language proficiency (as that is essential for my old job), and JLPT scores were one of the scales we used. (Of course we interviewed everyone who passed that first filter, and did language checks of our own as well.) If you don’t like proficiency tests, you are going to have to find some other way to demonstrate your proficiency in an easily understandable way.

I can also say that a JLPT score exempts one from the language test required by one of the master’s programs I have applied to, so being able to demonstrate that proficiency in the application stage has got to be some advantage (as it is a requirement of the program.)

If used correctly, proficiency tests are great for your resume.

Of course they have to be used correctly.

For example, in looking for my replacement we fairly quickly discounted anyone who wrote level 3 or below. For some it was an old result, so it is theoretically possible that they are much better now, but without any more recent indication of higher proficiency it wasn’t really worth our time. For some positions it is possible that even level 2 (N2), might have been cut, so you have to really understand the demands of the job. If it’s an old result that doesn’t really reflect your current level it might be better to leave it off.

On the other hand, proficiency tests are not necessarily great indications of your actual proficiency.

As the people evaluating the candidates, it was necessary for us to do checks of our own.

As someone taking the tests, you have to be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses.

For instance, in my case…

I studied Japanese for seven years before I’d even heard of language proficiency exams. I took formal classes, I studied abroad, and I did a lot of conversation practice. By the time I took my first test, I was functionally quite proficient (the only reason I didn’t go straight for the highest level was some insecurity about kanji and reading). As a result, the exam result was just confirmation of what I already new myself, and was a fairly accurate representation of what I actually knew and could control. I never really studied FOR the exam (other than familiarizing myself with the format.)

With Korean it was (and is) a whole different story. I knew about the existence of the tests almost from the very beginning, and took my first test after only six months of study. I was taking formal classes, but conversation practice was limited. I very much studied FOR that first test, and every test thereafter.

As a result, the scores may open some doors, but conversationally speaking I am still an infant. My comprehension is not terrible, so that’s something, but the test results are a very poor representation of my language production skills.

Anti-testing people largely cite cases like mine as reasons the tests are “worthless,” but I think you just need to be realistic about how much value to place on them.

As a learner, I am very happy with my pretty little certificates, and grateful for every door they have opened, but I also am aware of my own limitations, and that passing the highest level does not necessarily eliminate the need to progress.

And as someone looking at the tests to evaluate others, I realize that they do have limitations, and that it is fine to use them just as one clue to the bigger picture, but dangerous to assume they tell the whole truth.