Can You Self-Study Your Way to TOPIK Success?

I had always thought that learning a second language was something you either had be taught in a formal class (think university or at least secondary school) or by immersing yourself in the environment, completely surrounding yourself with it 100% of the time. The idea of self-studying a foreign language was a notion that I had toyed around with a few times, typically only getting so far as essential words like “bathroom” and “thank you” among an assortment of curse words. Typical stuff.

After visiting Korea in December 2015, spending roughly two months living and working in the country, I was prepared to challenge that entire mindset. After being taught the basics of Hangeul by an associate in Korea, I returned to the United States with a resolve to teach myself Korean. However, I quickly realized that this would be a daunting task. At the time I was living in Texas, which isn’t known for its large Korean populations like Los Angeles or New York. So how was I going to teach myself a language with only a cursory knowledge of Korean phonics and a decent grasp of how the writing system works?

I turned to the internet for guidance. One of the most prominent suggestions was to watch Korean dramas. I had never been much of a television watcher, preferring movies to TV shows, but I decided to give it a shot. At that time, Descendents of the Sun was wrapping up its meteoric run as one of the most popular Korean dramas of all time (to date, I’ve watched that drama at least six times). I was surprising entranced by the stories woven by these writers, and quickly found that, with the help of English subtitles of course, I was able to pick out short phrases or words with relative ease. I still contend that dramas are a great way to practice your listening, but in my head, I needed more structure. I needed to bring order in my mind to how the grammar was put together. I decided to call on the same friend who had taught me the writing system and phonics.

Without a moment’s pause, my friend ordered several books for me and sent them to me in the United States. Among those books was Korean Grammar in Use: Beginner. Little did I know how important this book would become, but I was touched by the gesture of a friend who I wouldn’t see in person for almost two years. I quickly grew bored of the textbook style learning, finding that the basic grammar at the beginning of the book was good enough for the moment. Around this time I was also introduced to arguably the most comprehensive Korean language learning site: Talk To Me In Korean (TTMIK). That website opened up an entire world and was the first time I had heard about the language exam known as the TOPIK. At that time, I wasn’t interested in proving myself, only in becoming conversational. Although I would frequently visit the TTMIK website, I wanted to find another outlet to learn. Another popular method that the internet led me to was language exchange apps. With a premise similar to dating apps, they match you with someone based on the language you are trying to learn. One of the most common apps for this is HelloTalk. To this day, I still keep in touch with one person I had met on an app, though we’ve never met in person. I quickly found that this method was the best way to turbocharge my learning when you can’t expose yourself to the language in real life all the time.

In August 2017, I quit my job and decided to become and English teacher in Korea. I had known shortly after returning to the United States that returning to Korea was in the cards, it was only a matter of how I would make a living. Up to that point, roughly eighteen months after returning from Korea, I had been casually studying vocabulary, grammar, and conversation through communication on language exchange apps. I felt confident in my ability as I boarded the long flight from Dallas, Texas to Incheon. Almost immediately upon landing I realized that my Korean ability was paltry at best. My illusions about my proficiency were quickly shattered, leaving me somewhat lost with what my next steps should be. As I mentioned above, I firmly believe that immersion is one of the best ways to learn a language. Fortunately for me, I was now almost completely immersed in a country that utilized my target language. Now, the fun would begin.

After realizing that my Korean ability was nowhere near as strong as I had believed, I once again searched for methods to learn Korean. I quickly found the world of language exchange groups that people can attend to practice their target language, whether in English or Korean. Of the many language exchange groups in Korea, my experience with Friends in Korea and Global Seoul Mates are easily the most structured and fun groups that I’ve attended. Global Seoul Mates in particular offers Korean language classes before their exchange every week, so I quickly pounced on the opportunity to get something resembling a formal class. At first, the classes seemed mundane, and I considered quitting the classes in favor of self-study again. However, one language exchange session changed my whole perspective and motivated me to absorb any and all methods of learning possible.

On that particular (fateful?) day, I met a girl who had been in Korea for five years. She was attending the language exchange not to learn Korean, but because she was friends with the owner before the exchange existed. When she spoke Korean, I couldn’t help but notice the astounded looks on every Korean person’s face. They were amazed that she spoke so naturally, as if she was Korean herself! I couldn’t let this opportunity pass me by, and asked her how she had become so fluent. Aside from the obvious advice of practicing as much as possible, she told me about a book that she had used for her own self-study when she was starting out. Oddly enough, it turned out to be the Korean Grammar in Use book that I’d had for the better part of two years! Upon speaking to some other foreigners at the exchange, the consensus was clear that this book was the first piece in conversation puzzle. In addition, these foreigners were the first to encourage me to take the TOPIK, if only as a self assessment. The idea seemed logical, so I buckled down and immersed myself in my books, while continuing to attend language exchanges and shifting my vocabulary work to a free online language learning website.

These initial suggestions to take the TOPIK came after living in Korea for about one month. I checked the 2017 TOPIK schedule and noticed that the registration deadline for the next exam had already passed. I would have to wait for four months to take my first TOPIK exam. While at the time this seemed like an annoyance that I would have to wait so long, it turned out to being a blessing in disguise as I increased my emphasis on studying.

The registration period for my exam came, and a new challenge revealed itself: the TOPIK website. For those who are unaware, the entire website is in Korean, posing a significant challenge to those whose Korean is less than completely conversational. After struggling through the registration process and confirming my payment, I was officially signed up to take the TOPIK I. All that was left to do was wait…and continue studying. There are several old exams publicly available for use as practice or simply to familiarize yourself with the types of questions on the exam. After taking a mock test every few days, and scoring quite well, I felt I was ready. But nothing could prepare me for the pressure felt on exam day.

For those unfamiliar with the specifics of the TOPIK I, there is a listening section and a reading section (the TOPIK II adds a writing section as well). When you register for the exam, there are numerous locations within Seoul (usually universities), let alone within Korea for taking the exam. After waking up quite early and catching the subway to my test location, I found it difficult to find the specific building where my test was going to take place. Finally finding the testing center and sitting in my assigned seat for the exam, another challenge presented itself. In addition to the exam being conducted completely in Korean, the proctors also speak Korean with little exception. Finding it a little hard to follow what the proctors were saying, the exam finally began. Although difficult to know exactly what the proctors were saying, it was easy enough to follow generally what was supposed to happen, and in the worst case scenario, the proctors can speak English to try and explain. At this point the pressure of the real exam had taken over, and after completing the exam, I left the building feeling slightly defeated. Now I would have to wait three weeks to find out how well (or badly) I had performed.

The weeks (slowly) went by, and finally the hour of judgement was upon me. After practicing how to get to the TOPIK scores page during those three weeks, I feverishly refreshed the page to find my score. When the scores finally populated, I was pleasantly surprised by the results. I had performed admirably, and it had paid off. For someone like myself who had largely been a self-study student for two years, this was the first form of validation that self-study can indeed work as a method for learning a foreign language.

Throughout the experience thus far, I stand by my opinion that formal classes and immersion are the most effective ways to learn a language. However, my opinion on self-study has been transformed from that of skeptic at best, to a true believer that it can work if you have the dedication and motivation to continue to learn on your own, whatever those motivations may be. Perhaps you simply want to understand what they are saying in those Korean dramas without the use of subtitles. Or perhaps you have loftier goals and plan to use such a exam score to apply for a permanent residency visa in Korea. Whatever it may be, constantly remind yourself of WHY you are doing this. Without a goal in mind, it becomes too easy to become distracted and leave the language behind. When it comes to taking the TOPIK in particular, I can offer the following advice:

  • Use the Korean Grammar in Use series of books for grammar points directly related to the TOPIK exam. The beginner book is rather easy to understand, but as I dive deeper into the intermediate book, it becomes more difficult to understand the concepts the book is trying to convey.
  • Vocabulary will come most easily through use. However, there are some words that you simply aren’t going to use on a daily basis to cement in your memory. I highly recommend any website that can be used for learning vocabulary in a flashcard manner. My personal favorite is memrise.com. There are countless Korean vocabulary decks for any subject you could possibly imagine, from most frequently seen TOPIK words to Korean slang. Unfortunately, in my experience, rote memorization is the way to solidify those words that you don’t use often enough in real life.
  • Listening is a subject that I continue to struggle with, so my only advice is exposure. Listen to music. Watch Dramas or variety shows. Anything you can do to expose yourself to Koreans speaking in a natural way. When it comes to music, I would suggest ballads. Although not quite as flashy or catchy as the more upbeat tunes, ballads allow you to actually hear the words they are saying as well as how they are SUPPOSED to be pronounced. The audio on the exam is (sometimes painfully) slow, but that’s no excuse to be complacent.
  • Explore the TOPIK website. Google Translate does a relatively good job for navigating around, but research the registration process well in advance, as test spots fill rather quickly.
  • Familiarize yourself with your test location BEFORE test day! The added stress of trying to find the exact building and room for my exam is unneeded stress on such an important day.
  • Lastly, but unrelated to the TOPIK exam, use Talk To Me In Korean. Their website is completely free and is loaded with useful materials. They also sell books on more advanced topics for intermediate learners, so there is no excuse to not use this excellent resource.

As an American expat living in Korea, I find that life becomes easier when you are able to communicate in the natural language. In addition, you gain a deeper understanding of the culture of Korea through the language, so in a way you are learning far more than vocabulary and grammar when you set out on this quest!

Best of Luck!

Many thanks to Chad for sharing his journey to taking the TOPIK test and what he’s learned. If you’d like to connect with Chad, you can find him on Instagram at @thisischadmiller.

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