For Whom the Midterm Tolls

I knew we were learning a lot at Ewha, but I didn’t know exactly how much we had learned until I was faced with about 800 vocabulary words and 34 grammar points to review for the midterm. Now, I could’ve done better by simply studying bit by bit over the one week break (for 추석) but I felt I had a good grasp on everything and didn’t need to start studying THAT early. Haha…

That changed several days before the exam, when I learned about the structure of Ewha’s exams. The midterm is split into 5 mini-tests: listening, speaking, reading, writing, and grammar/vocab. Listening and speaking are scheduled on the same day and reading, writing, and grammar/vocab are on another day (that’s right; two days of testing). My confidence was in grammar and vocab, so I was most prepared for the grammar/vocab section (naturally) and the reading section. However, I had no idea how to “study” for listening, writing, or speaking. So, I spent those several days before the exam listening to all the book dialogues over and over again; I also made sure to review all the mistakes I made in my writing homework and rewrite each writing assignment with the corrections. As for speaking, I just figured I should probably just wing it. I think speaking tests are almost impossible to prepare for unless you’ve been talking with a  native speaker all semester (*cough cough*) and/or you know exactly what topic(s) you’ll be asked to talk about.

On the first day of exams, we did the listening and speaking portions. Listening wasn’t too bad; all the questions are multiple choice and you’re given little time before each recording to read the questions, and they let you listen to the dialogues twice. It started out fine and then got progressively harder. The most challenging part was closer to the end, when the number of listening comprehension questions per section doubled or tripled in number (so, from 1-2 per dialogue to 4-6) and it was nearly impossible to read all the questions before the dialogue started. This resulted in me reading questions as I was listening which is a dangerous game because it’s easy to miss what’s being said. Only one dialogue really threw me for a loop, and that was because there were words in it we definitely hadn’t learned. And once you encounter one or two words in a dialogue you don’t know, you’re kind of screwed for the rest of it, so…that was that. But other than that, I felt it was a very fair test.

The speaking portion….went. Haha. You sit one-on-one with your teacher and do three things: read a paragraph, make a dialogue (based on one from the book), and free talking. Reading and free-talking went pretty smoothly for me, but the dialogue part was just awkward. You’re given a scenario (from the book) and supposed to have a smooth conversation with the teacher using key phrases and vocabulary from that specific chapter. The dialogue happened, but there were lot of awkward pauses as I tried to remember exactly which key phrases had been in that chapter (plus I tend to be awkward in general when it comes to speaking tests anyway, so….that wasn’t working in my favor either.) By the end, the teacher looked disappointed, I felt disappointed. I went home and sat in my own puddle of disappointment.

The second day was reading, writing, and grammar/vocab. I blazed through grammar/vocab and, to my surprise, I also blazed through the reading section. See, on the placement test, reading was my lowest score and they held me back from level 4 mostly because they didn’t think I could handle the reading. When I got the reading test and thought it was relatively easy, I was a bit shocked. And proud. (HA! I can read!) But that writing section was a blood bath. We had 80 minutes to write two essays. The first one, while it wasn’t the best, was all pretty and nice looking with long sentences. The second one, however, was a hot mess. I couldn’t decide what to write about, so I just scribbled something in the end. Pretty sad.

My test scores reflected exactly how I felt, for the most part. I did very well on grammar/vocab and reading, speaking and listening were decent….that writing score though….Well, let’s just say I passed. That’s what’s important, right? I PASSED.

I think I would’ve done better on the writing portion if I had also prepared an outline of a backup essay. The prompts on the writing test were the same as our previous writing assignments, so if I just come up with several ideas for the same prompt beforehand, I won’t spend so much time thinking about what to write on the test. It’s an easy fix (in theory)! I think I can also improve my speaking score if I group all the grammar and key phrases by chapter, so I know what “goes together.” Honestly, I find it rather frivolous to do that (because will that really make my Korean any better…?), but if they want me to use the key phrases from a specific chapter, fine.

At least I know what to expect for the final! Onward and upward.


I’m Here to Exchange Languages, not Saliva

In line with being a proper student of Korean, I’ve been on the hunt for a language partner. I guess by language partner, I mean a native Korean speaker I can meet once or twice a week, who will let me fumble through embarrassing stories in Korean, correcting me as I go… someone who will teach me how to not sound like a textbook. And, if such a person would like to use half of our time together to practice their English, this is completely fine with me as well. Even better if we like each other enough to look forward to our weekly meetings and–dare I say–even become friends.

I thought it would be relatively simple to find a language partner, but I’ve realized that this is might be a tall order because so far everyone I’ve encountered is looking to exchange saliva or other bodily fluids, not languages.

To be fair, I’m probably not looking in the best places. The first place I tried was an app called HelloTalk, which lets you connect with native speakers of the language you want to learn. They’ve had quite a presence on YouTube lately, having sponsored several of my favorite (black, female) YouTubers (living in/visiting Korea). Both KennieJD and Megan Bowen (used to be a big fan!) made some videos about their experiences on the app. Of course, they said you get some creepers, but not everyone is blatantly trying to get into your pants. So, I thought I’d try it out. (Am I just a sadist?)

As advertised, I was quickly able to connect with a lot of Korean speakers. Unfortunately, most of them only wanted to message me in English, so I was kind of put off. Also, all of them were men. I got some messages from people who said they were really interested in African culture and African dance, so they wanted to be friends with me (sorry, can’t help you there buddy….) some avidly expressed their love of “Black music” (Dear God, I hope they don’t actually call it that in Korean….) and some conversations just went like this:

Him: Hi

Me: Hi.

Him: U r prety

Me: Thank you.

Him: Kakao?

Me: …….

Him: Hi

Him: Hi

Him: Hi

Etcetera. But there were two people that really stood out to me on this app. One was a guy we’ll call Horseface (My roommate named him.) He lived in Australia for several years, so his English is quite good, but if I message him in Korean, he will happily answer me in Korean. All in all, seemed like a regular guy on the app. But, once we switched over to Kakao it become more and more apparent that he wasn’t exactly trying to keep up his English. (He was trying to get something else up, y’know what I mean?) He kept bugging me for pictures, for one, and being way over the top with the compliments when I did finally send him a picture (OF MY FACE). But the icing on the cake was when we finally agreed to meet on a Saturday evening. To me, 6 or 7pm is a decent time to meet in the evening. So I asked if we could meet around then. He said that was fine. Then, a little voice in the back of my head told me to also make up a curfew so he wouldn’t try to keep me out so late. So, I told him I had to be back by 10:30, to which he replied….

Horseface:  Heyyyy, why the rush?

Me: Oh, I haven’t really talked to my parents since I’ve been here, and they’re really missing me. It’s the only time that works for them (LIE LIE LIE)

Horseface: Oh, I see…Well, we can hang out when you have more time.

Me: What? But if we meet from 7-10, that’s three hours… isn’t that enough?

Horseface: I was hoping we could hang out longer.

Me: How long did you want to hang out, exactly?

Horseface: I dunno….just depends on how well he get along 😉

Me: I think 3 hours is more than enough if we’re meeting for the first time.

And then I didn’t hear from him for a while. GURL, these people think they’re slick. Puh-leaze. Anyone with two eyes could see straight through that “I just want to spend more time with you” cutesy act. And then he had the nerve to pull a classic f*ckboy move and text me at midnight two weeks later, saying “Heyyyy. It’s been a while. Wanna hang out tonight?”

What did I say to him? The world will never know. Because he was blocked and deleted. NEXT.

The other guy I met on HelloTalk seemed quite normal. We messaged once or twice per day in Korean, just talked about our hobbies or what we did that day. We ended up switching to Kakao after 3 weeks of using HelloTalk and then things got weird. (I feel like shit gets real on Kakao…)

He went from chill to desperate real fast, girl. He messaged me good morning and told me to eat breakfast everyday. He texted me mid-morning and said “good luck with school”, asked me what I would eat for lunch, what I planned to eat for dinner. It was kind of creepy, to be honest, so I just started lying about everything I did (It’s still language practice, so who cares?) If I said I was going to a cafe, he would say 그 카페에 가고십네~ If I said I ate soondubu jjigae for lunch he would say “Ah I wish we could eat together…”

I didn’t mind talking to him, or meeting him in person, honestly, but because he didn’t have a profile picture on Kakao and he later admitted to me that his profile picture on HelloTalk was a fake, I didn’t know if I was actually talking to a 29 year old Korean guy or some 60 year old ajusshi. I know you can’t always trust photos, but somehow it was even creeper that he had no pictures and absolutely refused to send me one when he’d seen my profile picture and asked me to send other pictures before. So I stopped answering him, hoping he would cool his jets.

When we started chatting again–about hiking, this time– I thought everything had gone back to normal. But when I mentioned that it’d be nice to go hiking again soon, he sent me: 같이 가요! 같이같이같이같이같이같이같이같이같이같이같이같이같이같이!!!

Sooo…that sat unread in my inbox for a long while….

Honestly, I’d like to have a female language partner so maybe I won’t run into these issues as often, but they don’t seem to be as responsive on HelloTalk, which is a shame. I think it might be better to go to language exchange events so I can get a read on people in person. But even then, events like those have a reputation for drawing people who are looking for dates… *sigh*

Surprisingly, the closest thing to a language partner is a guy I met on Tinder, who has a girlfriend and actually just wants to practice his English with me. He teaches me Korean slang and is actually really nice. No creepy vibes at all so far! One point for Tinder….? (It’s got a lot of strikes too though…!)





Well Butter My Butt and Call Me a Level 3 학생

If you recall, last time I studied in Korea, I was in Level 2 at Sogang. As much as I loved the conversation-focused instruction at that school (read my semester report here: ) I wanted more balanced instruction this time– listening, speaking, writing, reading, with vocabulary quizzes and cultural excursions, the whole nine yards.  The language school that best fit the bill happened to be Ewha, a women’s university famous for the sprawl of cheap clothing and accessory shops right before the main entrance (that had nothing to do with my decision….)

I’ll spare you the gory details of my placement test and the bit of placement drama afterwards and just tell you that I’m taking Level 3 this quarter. I was disappointed to say the least. The Level 3 teachers teach the class in slow, dumbed-down Korean, and my classmates speak in very slow, broken Korean, if they speak in class at all. Not to shade anyone’s speaking abilities, of course; my speaking is less than stellar, but my classmates in Level 2 at Sogang could talk circles around my current Ewha Level 3 classmates, so it’s hard to feel like I haven’t gone backwards.  Additionally, when I flipped through Ewha’s textbooks, I knew most if not all of the Level 3 grammar already. “What good is Level 3, then?” I thought.

The short answer is: Level 3 at Ewha is good for vocabulary and reading comprehension. Within the first 3 weeks of class, we had completed 4 chapters of the 3-1 textbook and learned approximately 400 new vocabulary words. (And they are very useful words. I’m surprised I’ve been bebopping around Korea without knowing them….)I can skim Korean websites about food, health, and travel, and usually understand at least half of what I’m reading. I’ve had the chance to write about the benefits of yoga and meditation and how to ease symptoms of insomnia (Things I’m actually interested in….!) I definitely see why the professors thought it would be best for my to stay in Level 3. There’s a lot to learn here. (Whaddaya know, Level 3 has MERIT!)

Though Ewha’s program is technically very “balanced”– as in, we don’t spend any more time reading/writing than we do listening/speaking– the methods for teaching reading/writing just produce rapid results. When we do the speaking portion of the chapter, it’s usually a very practiced conversation with set phrases that you have to use; there’s really no opportunity to express your own feelings or opinions, or talk about your own experiences. The professors will usually ask for people to share their own feelings after you practice the set conversation, but by then, I guess everyone is tired of talking and doesn’t want to say anything else…

It’s easy to follow my classmates and stay silent, but I know if I get into the habit of not talking in class, my speaking will never improve (and this is a crucial skill if you’re LIVING IN KOREA, y’know…?). So, I try to talk more in class, even if I don’t feel like it or don’t really have anything enlightening to say. Still, I can’t help but feel like it’s not enough speaking practice. Because I’m not living with a Korean family this time around, I really only speak Korean in school, or if I’m with my classmates, or if I go shopping or something (…’s for the language practice, okay?) If I really want my speaking to improve I know that I’ll inevitably have to find a language partner or a language exchange group or something….




So Long, Sogang

It’s difficult to believe that my 10 weeks at Sogang have come to an end when I feel like I just arrived in Korea yesterday. Final exams and interviews were held this past Monday and Tuesday and by Wednesday the culmination of all our (hard?) work was handed to us on a single sheet of paper. My test and interview scores were high enough to land me in Level 3 if I were to continue studying at Sogang, which I severely regret not doing. Each Korean program approved by Light Fellowship has its pros and cons: After seeing Ewha’s campus, and hearing about their classes’ cultural excursions, I regretting not going there; after envying the improved vocabularies of friends who had studied at Seoul National, I wish I’d chosen the university closer the the glitz and glamor of Gangnam. Sogang has its weak points, but I see why it would be perfect for those having finished L1 and L2 Korean at Yale.

The focus on listening comprehension and speaking quickly produced results outside of the classroom. As time went on, my ear steadily began to untangle the gibberish of my host family, Koreans on the bus, waiters and waitresses into long strings of distinct words, many of which I did not know the definition of, but I could parse sentences and identify grammar structures to look up on my own later. The grammar you learn in Level 2 at Sogang is very common “building-block” grammar, so whatever I learned in class naturally made its way into conversations at home as well. There’s a noticeable difference in the way I communicate with my family now. Actively listening, asking small clarifying questions about the meanings of words and of course inserting remarks like, “oh, that must’ve been tough” or “you must be relieved.” I certainly feel friendlier and more equipped to talk to native Koreans.

My conversation skills better have improved, considering 2 of the 4 class hours are dedicated to speaking. In this class we read and reread and reread the book dialogues before practicing them with our tablemates, classmates, and the teacher. We spent the other hour making our own sentences using the featured grammar points, usually aloud with a partner or as a class. Writing the sentences on paper was something we could do on our own time, but it wasn’t required. This class was more or less predictable and the example conversations very staged. I wish there had been more variety in the activities we did, like board games or other methods (besides repeating the dialogue) to help the vocabulary and grammar stick.

The other two classes were also repetitive, but the writing class more so than reading/listening. The entire writing class was basically spent using featured grammar to make longer descriptive sentences. We pretended to be journalists and wrote articles, we crafted stories and wrote about many unfortunate circumstances and memories, both real and imagined. Everyday it was the same pattern: practice sentences in class and brainstorm ideas for a specific topic, and then write on that topic for homework. Lather, rinse, repeat. The reading/listening class was slightly less repetitive only because it alternated between listening exercises and reading comprehension. This was also the class which introduced us to facets of Korean culture from superstitions, fairy-tales and traditional culture, to manners, food and the processions of Korean weddings and other major holidays. Occasionally aided by a powerpoint and other posters and pictures, the teacher of this class was the most lively and the hardest to understand because she didn’t dumb things down as much as the other two. It is a listening class, after all.

I would also say it’s true that Sogang’s program is less intensive than the others on Light’s list. Classes aren’t difficult. If you pay attention, you’ll be fine. There wasn’t much homework other than daily writing and completing the workbook, but again, this wasn’t absolutely required (aka: a very, very, very small percentage of your grade) However, doing the work certainly helped me feel better prepared for the exam (especially the writing one). I would also say the pace of the class is medium-slow. We spent way too much time practicing a fixed conversation with our partners instead of learning new things. But this is strictly my opinion; others in my class felt differently. Some thought we didn’t spend enough time on the grammar or that it wasn’t explained well. There was a lot of irritation and rants about potholes in the program that I had to grin and bear. I feel like a jerk for saying that it was actually a pretty smooth ride. I’d already learned a decent portion of the grammar from Yale’s Korean teachers, who threw in extra grammar just to keep things interesting. It was easier for me to remember the Sino-Korean words because of my background in Japanese; in fact I think we could’ve learned more vocabulary. By the end of the summer I felt my ability to use grammar had improved, but I didn’t have the words to put into the grammar structures.

Light Fellowship already knows this and had set up an individual class for over-ambitious students like me, who wouldn’t know how to shut up and take a gut class if lives were threatened. I met two hours a week with a Sogang instructor from Level 4 who tailored the individual class towards what I wanted to do. But she did it her way. I told her about wanting to learn more vocabulary, so she brought packets of vocabulary words from Level 3, explained them to me in Korean, made me memorize them and then tested me on them within the same hour. And then again the next time we met. It was a lot to do that I didn’t want to do. I could sit down and memorize vocabulary words myself, and it kind of bugged me to have to learn these words on her time and then watch her suck her teeth if I missed one on a quiz. I don’t mean to vilify her. She was actually a lovely and very funny woman who laughed with her whole body. Slap the table kind of laughter. She had to take off her comically-large glasses and wipe off her eyes kind of laughter. But I didn’t like being force-fed vocabulary when I’ve already spent all day repeating after teachers and reading from lists. The last thing I wanted was another hour of that with all the attention solely on me. I had to understand her Korean because I had to answer her because I was the only one there. On the plus side, I got one on one preparation for both my midterm and final interviews and if I had a clarifying question about something in class, I knew who I could go to. At our last class together, she patted me on the shoulder and gave me a cookie, so there’s that. It was nice to have a teacher who seemed personally invested in my improvement. Not saying my regular teachers weren’t, but students were kept at a very polite distance. Hell, even students kept other students at a polite (almost cold) arm’s length.

My restlessness towards the end of the Sogang program had nothing to do with the monotony of the classes, but everything to do with my classmates as they tried to cram three months of companionship into our final few hours at the graduation ceremony: selfies, videos, shoulder-patting, arm clinging, half-lies like ‘I’ll miss you’ and ‘Let’s keep in touch.’ Even our teacher, who had been plainly that– not a friend, confidant, or did anything more than strictly was necessary–smiled tightly throughout the whole affair. Maybe I’m just projecting my own feelings, but it looked like she wanted to end the madness and go home. Can’t blame her. The atmosphere of my particular class was a bit competitive and divided. Japanese students stick with Japanese students and somehow manage to make everyone else feel like a foreigner when technically they’re also foreigners. We’re a class of foreigners who should’ve bonded over our love for Korea, but instead it became more and more apparent that people in our class were looking for our differences rather than our similarities. Not all nine people in my class were like this, of course. Some formed loose, convenient bonds over K-pop and girl-talk and went out to lunch and Starbucks together. But to put it in a nutshell, we were a class of co-existing cliques.

Not to be deterred by silly things like classmate bonding (pfft, who needs that?) I still say my time at Sogang was overwhelmingly positive and productive. With my new ability to parse Korean, I could stand to study Korean for a little bit on my own. Watching Korean dramas and TV shows would actually serve as good listening practice and a source for useful new vocabulary. Since soil of my mind has been well-primed, I feel like I could soak up a whole book of Korean grammar right now. I still have a long way to go, but I’m excited about continuing my study of Korean. Unfortunately, since I have Japanese placement tests at Nanzan in about two weeks, I have to put Korean down and pick up Japanese once again. Oh how it has suffered! Korean words come to my mind faster now! How traitorous I am, how low!

I Can’t Parse Korean

can't korean

I didn’t pat myself on the back for being able to introduce myself to my classmates in Korean or tell my host mother that I like Korean food (read: I can handle my spice) because I know this is essentially the limit of my Korean. Things I learned in a classroom setting are useful in theory, but my survival Korean is lacking. The first night I had to look up “I’m thirsty” and “I’m full.” The very next day, I was scrambling for the words for “transfer,” “last bus/train.” Since learning how to talk about transportation in Korean, I feel decently comfortable telling my host sister where I’m going through text message. Ordering at restaurants or cafes is a completely different matter. There are times when the set phrases you’ve learned such as “(menu item) 주세요” (Please give me…) won’t cut it. You walk into a place you’ve never been before. You think you’re safe because you can read the menu. You’ve done your 저기요 (if it’s that kind of place). But then this happens:

Weak, weary and terrified foreigner: (menu item) 주세요

Waitress/waiter: 네.


Waitress/waiter: kfdjgbvsdfhrbcoedjxd 드릴까요?

Weak, weary and terrified foreigner: ……

And then what do you do? Say yes? Ah, but then you find out it wasn’t a yes or no question. At this point, the waitress flails to try to help you understand, making gestures at the menu you don’t fully understand anyway. You just agree to whatever she pointed at first.

Sometimes this is a vocabulary problem: if you don’t know the word for “bone” for instance, ordering fried chicken might become somewhat of an awkward encounter. I thought it’d be just a (menu item) 주세요 type of situation, but then he answered with the dreaded “kfdjgbvsdfhrbcoedjxd 드릴까요?” It only took half a second for him to understand that I didn’t get what he said. He shifted his weight, looked away to remember any English word in his vocabulary he could use to help me understand. Eventually he said, “Bone? No bone?” and all was good. I felt quite sorry for him, though. Especially because the next group that walked in spoke absolutely no Korean, and insisted on repeating their order to him in progressively slower Chinese. At that time I wanted to learn how to navigate that kind of situation in Korean so I don’t make the waiter do the “Lord help me” face. I looked up the phrase for “to remove bones” and stored it in my phone.

But guess what? It happened again. And again. I wondered, “Did I look up the wrong term? How do I not get this?” It’s not that I didn’t know, but the phrase was being said too quickly for me to catch it. Additionally, the way I (as the language learner) would read the written phrase is different from the native pronunciation (thanks consonant assimilation). These things in conjunction with each other make anything a native speaker says sound like complete gibberish to me, even if it’s something simple like, “뭐 타고 왔어?”

I had an inkling that listening comprehension would be something to prioritize if my Korean was going to improve, so I was adamant about attending Sogang University language program during my time here. It has the reputation of being the best program for improving conversational Korean (even students at other Korean language programs think so). The first hour of class is technically a writing class, but we always discuss our responses with our classmates before writing them down. The next two hours of class are dedicated completely to speaking and conversation: practicing the conversations in the textbook, role playing, using real life (kind of) situations. The last hour is a listening/reading class where we listen to the CD and/or read some text and answer some questions about what the material. In my opinion, the real listening comprehension exercise comes from trying to understand whatever the teacher says. My teacher talks at lightning speed (which is most likely slightly slower that natural speed) without checking to make sure we all understood. There’s always one or two people in class who can speak Korean way better than everyone else, so this creates a situation in which the teacher doesn’t have to slow down because someone gets it. It’s just my luck the golden ones don’t speak the same native language as I do. I just play follow the leader.

After a week and a half, I’ve started to catch on to what the teachers are saying because they essentially say the same thing from day to day, unless they decide to tell a story (in which case, I simply laugh in the appropriate places). Being constantly bombarded with Korean and hearing the textbook conversations come to life is starting to help a little. If I can get the gist of it the first time, the second time around, I can listen more carefully for the vocabulary I’m unfamiliar with. Right now this progress is limited to the very stable classroom environment, where the Korean is almost predictable. I still can’t quite parse what my host parents say, but I’m starting to get the gist of what they mean using context and body language. Until I get better at parsing Korean, this is the method I’ll have to use.