TBV goes back to school: Why I’m taking a Korean course this winter


This winter university vacation I have found myself with a lot of free time. Given that my pasty complexion means parking my corporation on a Balinese beach for the winter poses a serious health risk, I decided to instead take a busman’s holiday by doing a three week intensive Korean course at a university language center in Seoul. And further given that Michael Griffin put pressure on me to do so in front of the ENTIRE INTERNET, I will try to share some of my experiences and try to find some relevance to teaching and learning that might enhance my own practice.

I realise that I am not alone in this kind of endeavour, and in fact I am in some esteemed company: Scott Thornbury’s (De-) Fossilization Diaries rather set the bar for blog-based accounts of language learning, although I intend this to be less an overall picture of SLA and much more a few pieces focused on the experience of a teacher/learner on the other side of the desk  – a bit like Ken Wilson’s Diary of a Language Learner without the catty comments about my classmates’ dress sense.

My (Adult) Language Learning Background and Goals

Leaving aside my smattering of school French and German, I have learned two languages to some degree during my adult life. During a year working in Guatemala, I took free Spanish classes at my school in very small groups twice a week for about eight or nine months, and had a reasonable grasp of tense and aspect (we focused A LOT on verbs) but not much vocabulary and fairly little fluency due to limited chances to use it in real communicative situations. This bothers me as an English L1 speaker living abroad; you often find yourself working and living in English speaking environments, and inhabitants of your domiciled country tend to initiate conversations in English owing to their own desire to learn. In short, as an English teacher, you often have to swim down a long way to get truly immersed in the language, if you ever do.

While it could hardly be called immersion, life in Korea has afforded me some opportunities to use the language to do some things and be someone. After six months of not getting much past the language of restaurants and taxis, I joined the football club in my tiny mountain town. Suddenly, I had friends – albeit ones that I had very little shared language with. This provided the drive to put some time into self-studying Korean through the excellent and ever cheery Talk To Me in Korean, with weekly fried chicken and beer sessions in which my newly learned language could be experimented with. These were a lot of fun. The self-study, as I recall, was not. I tried to put whichever grammar point I’d learned into sentences that I could imagine saying, and did a lot of mechanical drilling using Anki, but it felt like a hard slog and the only way I could force myself to do it was to set myself a timer and sit studying for an hour, giving up as soon as the beeps sounded. Nevertheless, it gave me enough of a basis to start having real conversations with my football team-mates.

Now, on a hard-hitting language blog like this one there’s little room for mushiness or romanticism, but the second big influence on my Korean has been my girlfriend. We first met as a language exchange, which I think was influential in building a relationship in both languages. Since we became a couple about 30 months ago, I have done almost no formal study of Korean but again I’ve had the chance to practice conversation in a comfortable setting for at least 30 minutes each day. The result is that in general I am deemed to speak Korean reasonably well by people around me – both Korean and non-Korean. I would put this down to the fact that I have a good grasp of word class, basic syntax and grammar and can mark tense/aspect in a few different ways and can handle the basics of conditionals, embedded clauses and complex sentences. Additionally, I’d put my vocabulary somewhere just above the 3,000 or so word families suggested for everyday conversation* (Adolphs and Schmitt 2003), but the amount of practice I’ve had has given me a decent amount of (what I just read on Scott’s blog) is called “semiotic agility” by Thorne (2013). However, this agility seemingly is not effortless – as the owner of a guesthouse remarked recently: “you look so much more relaxed when you’re speaking English.” This is one problem that I have – things become cognitively tough when conversations begin to push the edges of my comfort zone.

So what do I want out of this course in language learning terms? I feel like the problems described above probably spring from a lack of vocabulary and lexical phrases that allow to succinctly express deeper concepts – I am some way below the 5-,000 word families required for 95% coverage of a reading texts* (Na and Nation 1985) and would like to work towards that. This brings me to the second problem: I generally don’t read anything longer than a text message and if I try, I get bored and often give up. Just being able to read some texts that are (hopefully) graded would be great in terms of giving me a boost in confidence and getting used to reading in Korean. The bulk of my audial input also comes from girlfriend-ese, which has adapted over the course of our relationship into a language that is 98% understandable to me, but when other people speak understanding becomes much harder. A greater exposure to other idiolects and accents would be very helpful. Finally, there are some grammatical things that I would like the chance to sit down and get a handle on. Things like the subtle difference between topic and subject markers, especially over stretches of discourse, and sentence endings (for example -거든) that I’m aware of in input, feel like I could use from time to time, but don’t really have the confidence that I’m really making meaning with them. One problem with learning almost entirely through speaking and listening is that the language just won’t stay still for long enough to really grab hold of the meaning. I’m looking forward to the chance to spend a bit more time with the workings of Korean, I hope with the result that mine also becomes a little more complex and subtle. If I can do these four things, I’ll be pretty happy.

* Note that both of these figures are for English – I have no idea if they apply to Korean.

What I hope to get out of this as a teacher

It strikes me that with my Korean learning, I’ve got a fairly long way without having to attend a class, and that most of the goals I just listed could be achieved at considerably less expense by buying a textbook (and probably a bleeping timer) and sitting down and studying. It also strikes me that in my adult language learning career, I have spent relatively little time in formal language classrooms, and none in situations like the one I teach in, where I meet up to 20 students three times a week for 100 minutes. Therefore the larger part of my decision to take the Korean course was teacher development.

The students that I get have studied English for about ten years before they get to be, often in and out of school, and so I get very few true beginners to work with. Mostly I’m dealing with lower intermediate or false beginners, and this is not a level at which much of my formal study took place, so looking at it from a students point of view should be illuminating, especially as while I tend to see big gains in fluency in my classes, I feel like I see much less uptake of discrete items that I teach (in terms of verb forms, lexical chunks or error corrections). This for me is one of the big reasons to take the course – to examine if this kind of learning is even helpful, and if so how I can help students to do it better. There is also, of course, a kind of general voyeuristic desire to get a look inside another teacher’s classroom, but specifically some things I will try to think about are:

  • How do materials help or hinder my learning? How does the teacher make best use of them? How do I try to use them as a learner?
  • What kind of practice opportunities are given in class? What kind of practice can I do out of class to help learning?
  • How is language presented by the teacher? Is this helpful?
  • If I prove to be a successful learner, what kind of habits, beliefs and attitudes do I take into class that help me to be successful? How can I encourage students to develop similar ones? Do the teachers try to get me to develop any meta-strategies?
  • How do I feel as a student? What kind of activities make me feel comfortable or uncomfortable? What kind of relationship does this have to my perception of their value for learning?
  • What features of language taught appear in my Korean? Do they stay there? Why?
  • How do the teacher and learner tackle pronunciation?

I hope to be able to report back on some or all of these over the course of the, err, course. If you’re interested in how all of this pans out, there’ll be a subscribe button around somewhere.




Adolphs, S. and Schmitt, N. 2003. Lexical coverage of spoken discourse.
Applied Linguistics 24: 425–38.

Na, L. and Nation, I.S.P. 1985. Factors affecting guessing vocabulary in context. RELC Journal 16, 1: 33-42.

Thorne, S.L. 2013. Plenary: Awareness, appropriacy and living language use in T. Pattison (ed.) IATEFL 2012: Glasgow Conference Selections, Canterbury: IATEFL.



10 responses to “TBV goes back to school: Why I’m taking a Korean course this winter

  1. Good luck, Alex! This reminds me of me taking Spanish classes couple of years ago. Back then I remember that I was surprised that I noticed things I hadn’t before (compared to when I was a young learner of English.) With the Spanish class, I noticed how the teacher intentionally presented the vocabularies so they are linked and how she paired us up to practice in dialogue multiple times in multiple different ways. It was more than ‘repeat after me’ type of drilling and I wondered whether my middle and high school teachers did the same but only me not noticing it. Overall, I took it for the same reason; to go back and remember what it was like to learn a foreign language. Can’t wait to read your follow-up story.


    • Hi Bora. Thanks for the comment. Even a day where we didn’t do much has been really eye-opening already, and the word MENTAL (in all caps) featured early on in my reflections. That’s all I’ll say for now, but more posts are certainly coming.

  2. Hi Alex, happy new year! Great to read something on your blog again. I am also starting language classes this year but as a complete beginner

  3. ….sorry posted too soon! … And I’ve decided to try one-one classes so it’ll be interesting to compare experiences.

    Good luck and I look forward to reading more abiut your experiences.

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