It occurred to me the other day that I’ve never really written an article like this. I’ve shared my Korean and French learning routines in an older article where I talked about how I balanced studying both languages at the same time, but routines are temporary (at least for me), and it was more like a list of learning activities that I was doing at that time than an actual overview of the methods I use and why I use them, which is what today’s article is going to be – hopefully.
For context, I’ve been learning Korean for close to 6 years now. In terms of proficiency, I would place myself at C1, which would make me a lower advanced learner. I can read novels, understand most things without subtitles, as well as write and talk about most topics comfortably, provided that they aren’t too complex or technical.
I don’t know if what I’ll be outlining in this article really counts as studying (at least in the traditional sense of the word), because a lot of it is really just using the language to do things instead of studying how it works. I think that’s generally how it gets once you reach the advanced levels – there isn’t much left to ‘study’ per se, especially in terms of grammar, and for the most part, you’re comfortable. You can understand what’s going on and express yourself, and the only thing left to do, if you want to keep progressing, is to push yourself to use the language in ways you haven’t before.
Not everyone keeps going at this point, and I think that’s fair. It depends on what your goal is for this particular language, and it just so happens that I’m still not satisfied with what I can do in Korean. It can feel a bit like you’re walking blind in uncharted territories, though, because there isn’t a lot of information out there on how to improve yourself beyond the upper intermediate level, probably due to the general consensus that most advanced learners are experienced enough with the language and the process of learning to be able to figure it out on their own somehow, which is true – to some extent.
Everyone talks about the infamous Intermediate Plateau, but advanced learners stagnate all the time, too. Here are all the things I’ve been doing recently, in order to overcome my own Advanced Plateau:
For me, writing has always been a huge part of language learning. It’s how I practice outputting in the language before I actually start speaking to native speakers, which usually doesn’t happen until I get to B1 – B2 (the ‘Speak from Day 1’ approach isn’t really for me). It’s also my preferred means of self-expression and communication with others, even in my native language.
These days, I can write about a lot of things in Korean quite comfortably. I can write about my day, talk about my stance on topics that I’m familiar with, or describe the plot of my favourite movies. But there are still little gaps here and there, which I call ‘blank spots’ – tiny holes in an otherwise familiar whole, things or concepts I have no idea how to express (at least not naturally) despite them falling under a topic or category that I’m supposed to be reasonably well-versed in.
It’s hard to identify them because most of the time, we don’t even realise they’re there until we stumble upon them by accident. The good news is that most of these holes will fill out naturally over time as we get exposed to more and more native input. But I want to speed up the process a little, so what I’ve been doing is that I make myself write about a different topic in Korean once a week. The key is depth – going as deep as I can without overwhelming myself, so as to push myself to write about things I’ve never had before, and then get my language exchange partner to check and see if everything sounds natural.
Just last week, for example, I tried to write about natural disasters and ended up learning how to write about earthquake-resistant architectural designs in Korean. Is it a topic that is likely to come up in everyday conversations? No. But then again, learning everyday Korean isn’t my goal anymore, so I don’t let that stop me. If something interests me, I’m going to learn how to write or talk about it, no matter how supposedly ‘unpractical’ it is.
Translating into Korean
When I say writing is important to me, I mean writing in all its forms, which includes creative writing. I do write essays in Korean from time to time, but there are days where I want to practice writing but cannot come up with a topic to write about, and translating (into Korean) was conceived as a workaround for this problem.
I would usually pick a book – usually an English one – that has already been translated into Korean. And then I would attempt to translate it into Korean, with the help of Naver dictionary, and then compare my translation to the official one to see where and how I could have done better. I really enjoy this exercise because not only does it challenge me to think and write in a whole new way, it’s also made me see the language in a different light.
I used to see the language as this vast machine whose inner workings are so intricate that not even in my wildest dreams would I stand a chance at unravelling and unpuzzling them. I figured that while I might learn how to use the language, I would probably never truly understand it on a deep, yet conscious level. But as I sat there, untangling words, breaking down sentences into a hundred pieces, and reassembling them into something at once new and familiar, I thought maybe I did stand a chance after all. Every sentence translated felt like a small stride towards the impossible dream, and perhaps that’s the real reason why I translate into Korean – to get to know the language better.
Finding a ‘Role Model’
More specifically, a ‘speech role model’. The idea is to find someone who speaks in a way or at a level that you aspire to achieve in your target language and try to emulate them. For a while, mine was Tyler Rasch, who’s learned Korean to an extremely advanced level and is well known for having appeared on many Korean variety shows, the most notable being Abnormal Summit (비정상 회담). The reason why I chose him as my role model was that I would always see Koreans marveling at how well-spoken he was. He has this incredible ability to express himself in an extremely clear, concise way, which is a difficult thing to do even in one’s mother tongue, never mind a foreign language acquired in adulthood.
Since I chose Tyler mainly for his capacity for self-expression (as opposed to pronunciation, which is something people – including myself – often base their choice on), I paid attention mostly to how he structured his sentences. I had a separate section in my notebook dedicated to jotting down whole sentences that he’s said in shows or Youtube videos. I would analyse these sentences to see what I could learn from them, and even memorise some of them so I could use them in actual conversations (but only if they were things I could see myself saying in my native language – after all, my goal was to speak like Tyler, not be Tyler).
I’ve recently moved on to a new role model – the creator of the Youtube channel 겨울서점. She’s a writer and an avid reader, so most of her videos are about book recommendations and her thoughts on the creative writing process, which I feel are more in line with my interests these days. Not only is she very articulate, but she also has great pronunciation, which is something I’m working on improving these days. I don’t actively analyse her sentences the way I did with Tyler’s, but I do watch her content regularly, and if I see a sentence I like, I write it down.
Refining My Pronunciation
I’m very fortunate in that pronunciation has always been one of the easier aspects of the Korean language for me, although I did start shadowing very early on in my studies, which I’m sure helped lay some very solid foundations. Save for the occasional hiccups, I don’t really struggle with pronunciation or intonation anymore these days, so my primary focus now is on ‘cleaning up my pronunciation’, which means striving for clearer enunciation as well better vocal resonance and pitch control, among other things.
To improve in these areas, I’ve been watching videos from Korean speech coaches whose target audience consists mainly of aspiring news anchors. I’ve had to change how I pronounce certain sounds (including certain habits I gained from mimicking native speakers) and rethink how I project my voice, which is something I’ve never considered in any of the other languages I speak. It’s fascinating to me that I can, in a sense, ‘choose’ my own voice or tone (although granted, it must fall within my natural range), which has added a layer of intent to the act of speaking that I never knew existed before.
Exposing Myself to Regional Dialects
This one came as a bit of a surprise. I was watching this video on Youtube where a guy from Daegu was trying to teach his viewers the Gyeongsangdo dialect (although strictly speaking, there are quite a lot of variations even within the region). The video had no subtitles, so I fully expected to not be able to follow along. But as I listened, I realised I could actually understand the gist of what he was saying. This was exciting for me because up until then, I’d always found regional dialects somewhat intimidating – fascinating, of course, but a bit out of reach for a foreigner who is still trying to learn the standard language.
After reading through the comments (which helped fill in some of the gaps in my understanding) and rewatching the video several times, I managed to catch most of what was being said. It gave me this sense of satisfaction that I had not felt in a really long time – at least not from Korean. I felt tired (the whole process took me nearly an hour), but it was the good kind of tired – the kind you feel after a nice workout.
I decided then that it was time for me to expose myself to more content where people were either speaking in regional dialects or with a regional accent – anything that’s different from the standard Korean that I’m used to, just to push myself out of my comfort zone and attune my ears to a wider range of sounds that exist in the Korean language. I’ve since started watching the Reply series with Korean subtitles. It’s a good challenge, and I get to learn a lot of new (albeit non-standard) vocabulary. But most importantly, it brings back that exciting feeling of stepping into unknown territory and helped breathe new life into a routine that was beginning to grow stale.
So that’s how I’ve been studying Korean, as an advanced learner. Like I said, it’s not so much studying but challenging myself to find new ways to use the language – to beef up my language muscles, so to speak. I would love to see how other advanced learners in Korean are approaching their studies, so don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments! We’re quiet enough as it is.
As always, I wish you all the best of luck with your studies. Happy learning!