Korean Study Tips: Interview with Tutor Cebin Jeong

Korean Study Tips

A few weeks ago I posted on Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter asking for your questions on learning Korean. Originally, I was going to ask these to a polyglot friend of mine. But then I also thought, who better to give Korean study tips than my old Korean language tutor. Cebin was the first tutor I learned from on the tutoring website Italki while I was still in Shanghai so naturally I reached out to see if she would give a bit of feedback on these questions. Kindly, she agreed!

Ben: Hi Cebin. Great to connect with you again! Thanks for doing this interview with me! I know you’re a bit busy with your newer projects (mentioned more below). But just to give people a bit of context, tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get into tutoring Korean?

Cebin: It all started with my second language, English, which has broadened my mind and changed my life in amazing ways so far; my career, my relationships, and even my personality. Now I’m helping others experience the same and break through language and cultural barriers and see more of what’s available to them in this world.

Then why tutoring Korean and not English? I was born and raised in Korea, and it seems that in that sense I have so much more to give. Thanks to Korea’s expanding economic and cultural impact these days, I have been lucky enough to meet talented people worldwide who have dreams of building
lives in Korea, and I’m in a position to help them.

My passion is not merely teaching a language. I want to help create real diversity in Korea, a society in which anyone can exchange their ideas and shape this country no matter where they’re from. Tutoring Korean has been an effective, powerful way to do it. In my sessions, my students learn relevant and precise language that they need to connect with Korean people and function in society better and in more meaningful ways. So in that sense, I act more like their coworker rather than their teacher. That’s how I build long-term connections with them. And I’m still a learner myself, though this time I’m learning Mandarin.

The common Korean learning journey

Ben: Having taught thousands of lessons now, what things do you see as common experiences among Korean language learners?

Cebin: Well, like with every other language, people seem to be the most excited in the beginning. Reading hangeul (한글) is fun and easy. But when they get to an upper beginner’s stage, it is easier to become frustrated by things like conjugation. After that stage, though, they feel more satisfied and eager to push ahead.

At first you can express yourself with basic phrases in Korean. You can tell me about your holiday plans or how amazing your first week went at your new job. That only takes simple sentences. But then you face a common barrier: precise vocabulary and advanced grammar. It is easy to feel stuck in your existing knowledge. It’s important to gain added fluency at this stage, and what frustrates many people is that fluency comes from making many mistakes and figuring out how to correct them.

When you get to an upper-intermediate or advanced stage, embarrassment comes from perfecting your pronunciation. Now you can hear what natives sound like…and how terrible you sound! But to be honest, if you focus on speaking accurately and avoiding verbal pauses (“Uh, um, er…”), you will definitely be able to harness your proficiency despite your foreign accent.

They key thing is that you have enough power to convey your message and inspire someone in the Korean language. And I don’t mean to say pronunciation doesn’t matter. When you sound like a native speaker but there’s no meaningful content, are you truly communicating? Let’s not be so tough on ourselves about our accents. I’m totally okay that I speak English with a slight Korean accent. What I care about most is having a great conversation and expressing myself fully. And please keep this in mind: The key to learning isn’t time or money. The key is curiosity, and that’s what makes your learning journey consistent and rewarding.

Effective Korean language study

Ben: Interesting. So in your experience, how do you suggest students approach learning the Korean language?

Cebin: For beginners, I often say, “Stay away from your textbook. Make your own instead.” Some argue with that and say they’ve learned a lot from their textbook. But when we consider my rationale, it’s not very unrealistic advice at all.

My point is simple: Make every content relevant or meaningful to you. Otherwise, what’s the point of learning a language? It could be your own dictionary of words and expressions or a video you record of your daily life in Korean. Don’t expect your teachers to build foundation for you. I started speaking Mandarin after creating my own foundation from scratch, and you can do the same if you just speak and make your target language a part of your daily life.

For intermediate and advanced students, watch a LOT of Korean shows. Get to know how Koreans really speak and behave. Some say it’s cheesy and you’ll end up learning a jokey, fake way of acting. Well, okay, then why you should do this? I’ve met a number of foreigners who speak decent Korean but only a very few who express themselves like a Korean. A student’s sentences might be perfect, but when the locals see that your body language and verbal reactions are still foreign, they won’t find you as culturally-involved as you might hope. After all, being proficient in a language requires that you are both linguistically and socially fluent.

*Hint: Koreans tend to speak with their facial expression and their tone of voice more than their hand gestures or volume.


Ben: A lot of students really struggle with Korean grammar, including myself. How do you go about helping students with this?

Cebin: For grammar, please feel free to make mistakes as much as necessary. Making technical errors is not your “fault”. It’s just something that happens naturally when you fully focus on your content. And doesn’t that
sound like a good thing? So first, I let my students finish sentences unless they want me to give them
immediate correction. Then we go through what, if anything, was wrong, and I give them a chance to correct themselves. Interestingly, I found that for half of the mistakes, they know how to correct themselves. For some reason their first try just didn’t come out right, maybe because they were focusing too much on what they wanted to say rather than what they were actually saying. But again, it’s a great sign.

For the mistakes they can’t solve, I tell them the best way to say what they were thinking. But it shouldn’t be merely a correction session. You should let them use the corrected version by producing their own sentences afterward. If they succeed, we can advance to how to say it in an even more natural way. Eventually, they get to enjoy or at least appreciate making mistakes. They look forward to finding how they can improve by doing so.

How to study Korean vocabulary

Ben: Here’s a question you probably get asked a lot: How do I learn vocabulary easily? How should people buff up their knowledge of Korean vocabulary?

Cebin: The best way to learn vocabulary is to speak. What do I mean? Listen… When you speak, you will sometimes have a moment when you can’t come up with the right word. We even do so while using our own native languages. When this happens, write that incomplete sentence down. After the conversation, go back to that incomplete sentence and figure out which word you could have used. I guarantee, those words won’t leave your mind easily again.

That’s how human mind works. It tends to focus on what it missed out on, far more than what it already knows.
Remember, vocabulary is all about context. It’s not something you get by memorizing the dictionary. It’s something you acquire by processing context.

Books, materials, and courses

Ben: Are there any particular study materials that you recommend? Sometimes I find that I get a little lost trying to decide which materials to use, if any.

Cebin: I’ll list a few materials that have really been useful for my students and clients.


1) Korean grammar dictionary

I admit, Korean grammar isn’t as simple as English. Search whatever grammar you’re confused about. It does the job.

2) Korean learning for correct pronunciation

PLEASE ignore romanization when you learn Korean. It’s addictive and difficult to stop referring to, even when your pronunciation sounds completely wrong…and it hardens into an unchangeable habit. Go to this site instead and fully immerse yourself in the right sounds!

Intermediate learners:

1) Korean-Korean dictionary

When you understand explanations of Korean words in Korean, you will get a better, deeper meaning of them. They also provide pronunciation and down-to- earth example sentences so you can absorb each word faster.

2) Natural conversation in Korean. I don’t usually promote specific courses from particular companies, but this Iyagi course from TTMIK is a must for every intermediate learner. At first, focus on the word usage and structure, then produce your own lines and mimic their intonation.

Advanced learners:

1) Sino-Korean word.

I found that many of advanced learners struggle with Sino-Korean words, which is unfortunate because they make up nearly 60% of Korean vocabulary. It’s not an option, though, especially if you work in
Korea. Refer to frequently-used resources selected by Samsung for their employees, Booli Korean to assuage
your “lexical pain”. And if you would like to approach by context, go to Huffington Post Korea. Their tone is hip and witty, and you become more familiar with those “Sinos” by reading topics you’re more interested in.

2) YouTube.

Ditch the subtitles. Type any keyword you want to explore and enjoy the Korean-language content you find. It’s the same way as advanced English speakers watching TED Talk videos and American TV shows. (Don’t
aim to understand them 100%.

And last but not least, Topikgeeks.com for every learner. [Ben: Side note, thanks for the shout out Cebin 😉 I hope to do more interviews with tutors and talented students in the future. Hopefully this will give you guys some useful tips and inspiration. I’ll link out from here as the posts come].

The dreaded language learning plateau

Ben: For some students, you often hear that they have hit a plateau. There is a point where it gets really hard to make progress, and it can be deeply discouraging. What has been your experience been?

Cebin: Haha. In Korean we call it “슬럼프” (slump). Well, for me, I had that slump when I faced judgment of my English. When you just keep judging yourself about how bad your Korean skill is and become afraid of talking to
your friends and coworkers in Korean… You know how much that sucks!

Whenever you face this stumbling block, focus on your purpose for learning. Ask yourself: Why did I start learning this? Is that reason still valid and motivating for you? If not, is there any other aspiration for you to learn this? Most of you will have found the answer by now. Make an “interesting” action list toward your goal. Don’t forget to include a development plan for you when you hit bottlenecks. That’s how I moved beyond the plateau.

But if you can’t find a reason to keep going, honestly, just quit and move on to something new that makes you feel curious and alive again!

Studying with language tutors

Ben: It’s interesting. The reason I started learning with you was because I needed someone to help me stay motivated and push me to learn more Korean. From your view, how are tutors helpful for students?

Cebin: If you think that just anyone can teach their native language, that’s simply not so. Outstanding language tutors will have these specific skills:

1) Quality knowledge.

They know what really matters for your improvement. They focus on what’s relevant to you, rather than delivering dead input. They are honest enough to give you the correction and feedback you’re missing.
They are not afraid of your questions and provide answers that help your development flower.

2) Creative environment.

Come on, it’s tough to create cheerful vibe when someone is not talkative or active enough. It’s not easy to keep the conversation flowing when our interests never match. We are human. But still, some of them know how to let you feel comfortable speaking in Korean. The right tutor will let you become more productive in the sessions.

And I’m practicing these things every time in my sessions.

What’s next?

Ben: I’ve seen your tutoring practice really grow over the years. So what’s next for you? And how can people contact you?

Cebin: At the moment, I’m fully committed to my business korean-it.com, a Korean language marketing service for foreigners.

You are welcome to contact me by email cebin {at} korean-it {dot} com or say hi on Twitter @cebinjeong. Any kind of discussion is welcome, as long as it’s related to your dreams in Korea ?.

For me personally, my next step is to create a playground where people can write and educate better. Stay tuned!

[Ben: Oh, and don’t forget! If you want to get lessons from Cebin, take a look at Cebin’s Italki profile here].

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