I took a break from active Korean studies following my intense preparation for the TOPIK exam in mid-November. I thought I deserved to do so, and it felt great to just not focus on constantly learning new Korean. The thing is, though, that it’s been pretty difficult to get back on track with my studies. Granted, my talk at the National Assembly, my work deadlines, teaching and final exam preparations, plus an impromptu trip to the Philippines (check my Instagram for annoying show-off pics from a few days in the tropics) also did not make it any easier to stay motivated for actively studying Korean.

While preparing for the TOPIK exam, I was systematically cramming with standardized Korean test preparation books. I wasn’t really studying Korean, I was simply studying how to ace an exam in Korean. (It still remains to be seen if I did in fact ace it…)

So, when I was hanging out with my Korean best friend last week, for the first time after my exam, one of the first things he asked me was “how are you learning Korean these days?” I looked away and replied that I wasn’t really actively learning any Korean at the moment, which earned me his trademark dry response “I can hear that, that’s why I’m asking”. Okay, so admittedly there’s room for improvement.

So what’s wrong? I still consider myself to be an advanced Korean speaker. I read papers and novels relatively effortlessly, and I have a strong grasp of the Korean grammar, the Chinese origin words and proverbial expressions, the idioms, and slang, all that. I just don’t necessarily actively use this knowledge. In my daily routine, my spoken Korean can roughly be divided into two categories. The super basic, and the extremely advanced. The first is the type of Korean I use with my colleagues, the cleaning lady, my doorman the sales clerk at the convenience store, etc. Greetings, comments on the weather, polite small talk. Nothing fancy. The latter is what I use when I counsel my students in macroeconomic theory. I’m effortlessly throwing around words like 승수효과 (multiplier effect), 장기적 균형 (long-run equilibrium), 분모/분자 (denominator/numerator), 공식 (formula), 재정적자 (budget deficit) 접선의 기울기 (slope of the tangent line), and 총수요곡선 (aggregate demand curve). In other words, highly specialized vocabulary. So, as you may have guessed by now, my problem is that while my basic and advanced Korean is doing fine, I feel my intermediate Korean slowly deteriorating.

With that realization, I quickly came up with a strategy to remedy this imbalance in my language skills (and to avoid further comments from my best friend/tiger teacher from Hell). I have started to re-read my old textbooks from the intermediate/advanced level and forced myself to memorize and actively apply sentence patterns that occur in natural everyday conversation. I’ve also rediscovered my joy of listening to the Iyagi segment from Talk To Me in Korean, and I make a point of reading it all out loud to make sure that I maintain a solid pronunciation.

It actually feels really good to review all of my previously acquired skills. I feel that it’s so much easier the second (or third or fourth) time around and I enjoy how I’m once again feeling progress in my Korean learning. It also reminds me that my language skills are a constantly moving target, and I need to work actively to maintain and improve them.

Any other long-time Korean learners out there with the same experience? I’d love to hear how you cope with hitting the language learning plateau. Do share!

As a feel-good video, I’d like to share this short interview with my current favorite Korean boyband BTS. They are seeing tremendously growing popularity in the US and in Europe and recently appeared on several US talk shows. Here’s a clip where they talk to Ellen Degeneres and one where they perform their latest hit “DNA” in front of a screaming crowd on her show. Fun fact: I just made an econ problem for my students’ final exam featuring BTS! That ought to earn me a promotion in the BTS ARMY! Haha!


  1. I’m so relieved to read this hahah.
    When I was talking to one of my Korean friends recently, I was casually throwing around words like 부작용, 복용하다, 의존성, 마약 and 재발, but when I wanted to tell him that I passed my taekwondo graduation I completely blanked out and couldn’t even remember how to say yellow. Much to my friend’s amusement I might add!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know, right! Needless to say I’m constantly getting teased for my lacks of basic vocab. I mean how often do you really say “yellow”. Also, more than 3 years in, I’m still having trouble remembering the native Korean numbers for 50, 60, 70… Because they are used so rarely they just tend to escape my brain, haha!


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