Studying Korean in Seoul: 2 Tips and 2 Regrets

Earlier this week I disembarked a plane in Seoul, returning from a weekend in Jeju-- a graduation trip with the teachers, assistants and peers in my Korean language flagship program. This trip was not only the culmination of our overseas component here in Korea, but of the two years I’ve spent with my cohort studying Korean in Hawai’i and this capstone year abroad in Seoul. As I stepped off that plane, I was stepping into the last two months of my Korean flagship degree, the final stretch of this academic endeavor.

It’s a sobering return to the reality that one final test of my Korean ability remains-- the OPI. The Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) is a standardized, global assessment of functional speaking ability. Taking the form of a conversation between the tester and test-taker, the test measures how well a person speaks a language by assessing their performance of a range of language tasks against specified criteria. As the test day draws closer, I’ve reflected on the 10 months I’ve been living here in Seoul. There are some things I’ve done which helped improve my Korean proficiency and some things I wish I did in retrospect. Here are a few of them.

Things that helped:

1. Making close Korean friends (that will speak to you in Korean)

I had a handful of Korean friends that I knew before coming to Seoul for this one year abroad, but I also made a lot of new Korean friends while living here. Spending time with these friends helped me to improve my fluency and pick up on useful phrases and vocabulary in a “real life” situation rather than through books and flashcards. One of the many benefits of having a close group of Korean friends is being put into a 단톡 (dantok, a Kakao Talk group chatroom) where the Koreans converse with each other throughout the day. This is honestly where I learned majority of the slang expressions I know and stayed up to date on everything Koreans my age were talking about.

2. Drinking with Koreans

Let's be honest, drinking with Koreans can improve your Korean fluency. As long as they're speaking in Korean, that is. It removed inhibitions and insecurities I had about my speaking skills. As adults, we’re so mindful of what others think of us and it can easily hinder language acquisition. A few shots of soju, and we’re back to adolescence, communicating with confidence regardless of our subtle mistakes. I’m sure it works both ways, because by the end of the night I’m speaking in Korean and the Koreans are all speaking in English. (Take care of your liver and drink responsibly!)

Things I wish I did:

1. Consume Korean while on the go

This is something that I only realized toward the end of my stay here in Seoul. I spend about 1.5 hours commuting to and from my internship twice a week and an average of 30 minutes commuting on other days. If I actually used that time to listen to podcasts in Korean or read Korean news articles on my phone, it could have potentially helped me improve my proficiency. In the same way, ifI had only watched Korean news rather than CNN coverage of Trump rallies while on the treadmill at my gym, I’m sure my Korean would be much better.

2. Homestay experience

Even if it was just for a few weeks, I really wish I had the opportunity to do a homestay while living in Korea. I’ve heard from other friends that have done a homestay and they say that the full immersion experience is invaluable. Coming home to Korean siblings and parents is definitely a bit odd in the beginning, but I can only imagine how much my Korean would improve when I’m forced to function day-to-day in that kind of setting. Of course I would probably encounter some cultural differences, but even those kinds of lessons would be very beneficial.

Well, now I’m in the final stretch. With two months left, it’s down to a last-ditch effort to get my Korean proficiency as high as possible at hopefully get a superior score on the OPI. Although reflecting on the progress of my Korean ability over the last 10 months allowed me to pick myself up and find motivation for my remaining time here, I hope these points would serve as a resource to others studying a language as well.

All of these language acquisition methods and tips really just boil down to a sincere eagerness to learn a language. Once I no longer feel that eagerness, things can easily become dry and I start to drag my feet. One thing that always picks me back up is reflecting on how far I’ve come and the progress I’ve made. To the reader who will eventually board their own plane heading to Seoul or any other city for that matter, I hope that you will periodically take time to reflect on how far you’ve come, and that each time you do, you’ll rediscover the passion that led you to begin your journey. FIGHTING!