This may sound like the title of a motivational seminar but I’ve actually wanted to talk to you guys about complacency and language learning arrogance for a while. At least since I saw a tweet that really resonated with me:

Most of 2022 I’ve been focusing on going from beginner to intermediate level in Japanese so that I may hopefully ace the JLPT N3 exam in December. While I hate to admit it, this has to some extent been at the expense of my Korean learning energy. While I have been consuming at least some Korean content on a daily basis, my active learning hours (where I read or write in Korean) had decreased dramatically. Especially since visiting Korea in the summer and realizing that I can still talk about whatever I want and make myself understood in any given situation. Moreover, I’ve passed the TOPIK level 6 twice, and consider myself fluent (although it’s a muddy term). That’s gotta be good enough, right? Wrong! I still have huge ambitions with Korean and there is still such a long way to go.

I like to compare my Korean skills to my English skills. I’m a native Danish speaker so English is my second language, and while I feel perfectly comfortable using English for almost any situation, there will inevitably be words I don’t know in English which come naturally to me in Danish. For example, I was today years old when I learned the word “tarp” in English. I simply just never encountered a situation where that word came up before.

That being said I occasionally have people take me for a native English speaker. I have a natural (albeit fake) North American accent that I can tune up or down depending on the situation. My vocabulary is likely better than that of many native speakers and I speak pretty much as freely as I do in Danish. While I’m certainly at a very advanced level with Korean and understand most things I’m nowhere near the level I’m at with English. Except for a few short phone conversations, I’ve never been mistaken for a native Korean speaker. My Korean accent is probably not the worst but there will always be cases where I express myself more clumsily than a native speaker would.

This brings me to the core of the matter. How do we keep pushing ourselves to reach an even higher level when we’re already at a very high level? I’ve thought long and hard about this and ended up making a list of things I want to improve so that my Korean level may gradually come closer to my English level.

  • Improve reading speed
  • Improve pronunciation
  • Build vocabulary
  • Improve listening

Since making up my mind to really level up my Korean, I’ve been reading a lot more. I’m almost done with the second volume of 죽고 싶지만 떡볶이는 먹고 싶어 and enjoying it greatly. Granted, because most of the book is in dialogue form it’s an easier read than most novels but I’m still trying to pace myself and read every chapter even faster than the previous one. I’ve found that the problem with my Korean reading speed is often poor concentration which prompts me to reread the same passage several times. I realized that when I really focus on the storyline my reading speed naturally picks up. I also try not to let unknown words cause me to pause or slow down. Most times I can infer the meaning from context and when I can’t I simply underline the word and look it up later.

Pronunciation is somewhat more tricky. I’ve been really into Korean pronunciation rules lately and paying extra attention to native speakers’ intonation and syllable stress. My best tip is to find one or two YouTubers whose speech style you like and then try to shadow their speech and emulate their speaking style.

I still struggle with some basic things like occasionally pronouncing double consonants too softly to the point where I’m actually misunderstood. As a test, I recently tried having my Italki teacher guess if I said 김밥을 쌌어요 or 김밥을 샀어요. It was an epic fail on my part, so at least I know where to focus. Am I the only one struggling with this?

Vocabulary has been one of the easier ones to target. I’ve recently started watching the Netflix show Extraordinary Attorney Woo (이상한 변호사 우영우) and since it’s a legal drama there are so many great words related to law, and I’m diligently scribbling them all into my notebook. It’s already paid off because during my Italki lesson this morning, we were talking about the upcoming Danish general election and I just casually slid the word 위헌 “unconstitutional” into a sentence. Yay, progress.

As for listening I’m not really doing anything new, rather I’m reintroducing old habits into my daily life. I really like the concept of habit pairing, which is combining one existing habit with a new habit to make it stick more easily. In this way, I listen to a Korean TED-style talk on 세바시 whenever I clean around the house and the ever-awsome podcast 듣다 보면 똑똑해지는 라이프 (듣똑라), while I’m cooking dinner. When I do this kind of habit pairing, listening doesn’t take up any extra time and at the same time exposes me to a variety of topics and speaking styles. I very often listen to the same episode twice in a row and find it to be an extremely helpful way to improve listening comprehension and word retention.

I’d love to hear how my fellow language learners are approaching their battle with the “high-level-but-not-quite-native” plateau. Feel free to share in the comments!

Happy weekend everyone!


  1. I definitely don’t feel arrogant about my high level — quite the opposite, actually — my shortcomings (especially in speaking situations where I have to explain long trains of thought) seem glaringly obvious to me despite my TOPIK level 6. But I definitely suffer because of complacency – not that I’m truly content with where I am, but since my level is good enough for me to set up bank accounts, speak with immigration, and watch TV shows in Korea without any communication breakdowns, it’s easy to be lazy and not keep pushing myself to improve further, even though I do have a lot of dissatisfaction when I analyze my abilities.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It depends on what you mean by “that level of fluency”. I’ve been learning Korean for 8 years now, but I could carry a conversation after one year and was fairly fluent after two years. In order to do it so fast you must commit to several hours of study every single day. In my case it was 2-4 hours every day.


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