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 to 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 solution to this problem.
I would pick a book – usually an English one – that has already been translated into Korean. I would then attempt to translate it into Korean, with the help of Naver dictionary, and 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). I chose him as my role model because I would often 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 focused mostly on 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, 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 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 his local variant of the Gyeongsangdo dialect. 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 with 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!
8 thoughts on “ How I Study Korean These Days ”
I find it interesting that you chose a non-native speaker as your “role model” – I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anybody doing that. It makes sense, since there was as specific trait of his that you were striving for. Were you not nervous that you might be jotting down sentences that might sound slightly unnatural to native speakers?
I like the idea of listening to news broadcast speech coaches – I could probably use that for English lol. I tend to not enunciate well unless I’m actively trying to enunciate – I talk pretty fast, so sometimes my mouth can’t keep up with the sounds I want to produce.
Thankfully, one of my best friends has a pretty strong Daegu accent, so I’ve been primed to be able to pick up accents (at least from that region) probably better than most learners. He speaks pretty clearly, which helps. Still, when I met his dad in Korea, the generation gap + Daegu accent + not great enunciation made his dad’s speech SO difficult to understand. Always more to learn…
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I was fortunate enough to have a very patient language exchange partner, who would let me run those sentences I jotted down from his videos by her to make sure they were natural before I tried to use them elsewhere. But I think one of the things that drove me to keep doing that (instead of switching over to another role model) was how impressed the native speakers I knew were of him. They would often say that he was more well-spoken than themselves or the people around them and that always struck me as unusual because native speakers generally have this innate sense of what sounds natural/good and what doesn’t, so for them to say that seemed like the highest praise a non-native speaker could ever receive. It also made me more curious as to what exactly about him led them to make that conclusion – like is there a pattern in the way he talks? Does he structure his sentences a certain way? What constitutes ‘well-spoken’ or ‘말을 잘 한다’ for Korean people? I think I focused a lot on those questions/aspects, in whatever way I could.
I’m the same! I can speak quite fast in my native language and when I do that I tend to ‘squish’ certain sounds – I don’t think I’ve ever really worried about enunciation up until recently, with Korean.
That’s so cool that you’re exposed early to accents that are different from the standard 표준어! Exposure definitely helps, even for me someone like me who started quite late haha. After a while you do get used to it, but like you said there are other factors like age/generation that can produce variations even within the same dialect/region. There really is no ending to learning… (though that’s not necessarily a bad thing)
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I dream of the day that someone says I’m well-spoken in Korean.. if it ever happens. I get all the typical compliments (“oh cool you speak Korean? wow your Korean is better than mine!” LIES)
I can understand novels (mostly) and TV shows (easily, for most topics), but get me to try to express myself about a topic outside of everyday life stuff and I mumble and fumble haha. I’ve been trying to increase my range of high-level vocabulary through literature and news (not as often as I’d like, but still). It’s a slow process, especially since these days I’m not doing much speaking to practice the output side of things.. I really should get on that haha.
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That’s the dream… I would love to get to a level where people really mean it when they say “your Korean is better than mine”, but it’s probably never going to happen ㅎㅎㅎ
Haha I’m the same! My routines always end up becoming input-heavy if I don’t keep an eye on it (simply because I tend to listen and read more than I speak, even in my native language), but the only way to train output is to output so… T_T I don’t get a lot of opportunities to speak since I don’t live in Korea (and half an hour every week with my language exchange partner is never going to be enough on its own), so I try to fill my output quota by writing sometimes. It helps somewhat, but like you said if I have *talk* about stuff I end up mumbling and fumbling haha
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What do you mean by pitch control? Do you mean that your voice tends to be too high or too low?? I’d say my voice is lower in korean then in English. And if anything I want to make my voice in English lower haha
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Too high for my liking, haha. Right now it’s kinda similar to where I am in English, but I feel like there are a lot more ups and downs in Korean (mostly ups) and because I’m starting high-ish there are times where I can feel the pressure on my vocal cords (?) when I need to go higher while keeping the sound tense (mostly for the tense consonants), and it’s a bit uncomfortable. I feel like it wouldn’t happen if I just start lower generally, so I’ve been trying to lower my pitch in Korean so that it’s closer to how I sound in Mandarin. I find that more comfortable, the tricky part is remembering it every time because I’ve obviously gotten very used to speaking Korean in a certain way ;-;
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So many interesting methods here! Attempting to translate from a novel and comparing with the official translation is such a good idea but very intimidating for me.
I’m still searching for my “language parent” — someone with a voice pitch/tone and manner of speaking that I would want to emulate and model myself after. Very hard to find that perfect person!
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I must admit I also found the idea of attempting to translate a novel very daunting at first – putting down the first sentence was definitely the hardest. Just sitting there, staring at walls of texts… But once I made it past the first two paragraphs, it became a lot easier, because I realised there was no way I could write anything close to the ideal in my head, and the point was to get myself to just write anything, anything at all in the language. 😂
You’re right – it’s very hard to find someone who sounds exactly the way you want to. Even with Tyler Rasch I only did it halfway – I studied his sentences, but didn’t actually shadow him. Maybe we’ll just have to pick several language parents and try to combine different aspects of them? I wouldn’t know how that works since I’ve never actually attempted to do that haha, but I think it might be worth a try. 🤔
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