I’ve been studying Korean since 2015 and I’ve tried many different resources, felt many things about my progress including frustration, accomplishment, satisfaction, anger, etc. I’ve wondered many times along the way how did other people go about their learning journey. Did other people go through the same things as I did? How did other people study? Having gone through a long learning journey myself I decided to write down my own journey, my progress, and all the resources I used along the way. For bench marking, last October I sat the TOPIK test and got level 5.
I’ll break up my progress into beginner, low intermediate, intermediate, upper intermediate and advanced. In each section I include a progress benchmark. That is meant to be a reflection at the end of the period.
Beginner – 6 months
Progress benchmark: I could make basic sentences, and maybe occasionally a slightly fancier one by stringing some grammar constructs together. Definitely could not really talk to anyone.
– Talk to me in korean grammar lessons. I would have listened to two episode on average per day. They were really fun for me because I liked their voices and their chemistry together. There are 9 levels now each with 30 lessons so if you listen to two per day you would be done well by 6 months.
– Korean101.com. I used their audio lesson series on a regular basis
– Textbook. I think it’s hard to go past a textbook in the very beginning especially if you’re new to learning languages. I feel like it was easy to get lost without a handrail to guide you in the beginning.
– Howtostudykorean.com. I use this website as a reference tool to supplement grammatical explanations I learnt from TTMIK.
Low intermediate – 6 months
Progress benchmark: During this time I did the beginner TOPIK exam. I just administered it by myself since everything was multiple choice and I could mark it myself. I passed level 2 quite easily. I still basically couldn’t form anything but the most basic sentences even though I knew a lot of grammar. I had very poor vocabulary as I focused a lot more on grammar.
– Korean101.com. Continued their audio lessons. I stopped using my textbook at this stage so I began to rely heavily on Korean101 as the mainstay of my learning.
– Iyagi. When I first started this series it really kicked my ass. It will feel almost impossible when you first start and I believe it will take a good 6 months from this stage to feel like the pace is “slowing” down so to speak. I think it is one of the greatest available resources available and can be used from low intermediate up until the end of intermediate. Beyond that you won’t gain much new vocabulary, grammar and also you’ll probably be sick of it too.
– First foray into reading. One of the first things I read was the series of short stories from HowtostudyKorean.com. I strongly strongly recommend them.
– Intermediate grammar in use series. I didn’t use the beginner one because I felt I had pretty much covered everything at least twice over now through TTMIK and Korean101. I really endorse this as a reference book. It’s more detailed than TTMIK and explanations you’ll read online.
– Lang-8. It is a website where users can practise writing in their target language, and correct writing from learners in your own native language. This site is unfortunately no longer accepting new members. It is still very important to be practising output. No matter how much you learn, if you don’t output anything it will slow down your learning. Only when you actually try to write something will you realise you don’t actually know how to write it.
– Hellotalk. A mobile app kind of like Facebook. You have your own wall where you can create posts, upload pictures, and native speakers will correct your writing. There is also a chatting function as well. I’ve been using this app for nearly two years and I still use it. I don’t really have time to chat with people but I do regularly post questions and read other people’s posts.
Intermediate – 9 months
Progress benchmark: Around 7 or 8 months later (or towards the end of what I call my “intermediate level”) I sat my first TOPIK II exam. My result was a level 4, but it was only so marginally and I knew I got lucky. I would say I was a very strong level 3.
– Mastertopik lecture – I had changed my “mainstay” resource at this point to a lecture website called Mastertopik.com. It does cost about 100,000won for one level (there are 6 levels roughly corresponding to the TOPIK levels), and each level consists of 40-50 video lectures. I’m not going to get into the debate of whether learning a language should be free or not, but I think for $100 dollars, it is a very small investment compared to any other hobby you can have. The best thing is that the lectures are taught entirely in Korean, at a pace/level that is appropriate for the level you enrol in. I can’t stress how much this series helped my listening. They also explain grammar in a way that was different to other websites, and I know for sure you need multiple takes to really embed a grammar principle properly.
– Advanced series from Korean101. I did the Mastertopik course for about 6 months, and then switched to this. I wanted to change things up, hear something different, and bring something new to the table. The advanced series consists of two hosts talking about some topic for about 5-10 minutes, kind of like a slightly more advanced version of Iyagi. They provide the transcript as well so its great to practise your reading and vocabulary as well.
– Spongemind podcasts. Run by a Korean native and an English native person. They talk about language learning and many of their recordings come once in English and then again in Korean. It was a great resource for me to push my listening without a transcript, but instead relying on the context from listening to the English recording first.
– Language exchange. During this time I met two people for language exchange, to which I still meet regularly two years later. At first their English level was much higher than my Korean level so most of the benefit I got out was asking them questions about words or sentences I couldn’t understand. And occasionally asking them to speak in Korean to me. Over time I gradually started speaking more and more Korean. Note that it takes time to find the right partner. I’ve met several people who just didn’t work, whether due to bad chemistry or they just didn’t want to persevere meeting week after week.
– TTMIK Storytime. Similar to Iyagi except it is one of the staff members talking about something they experienced in the form of a short story. Comes with the transcript.
– Story books. A huge collection of short story books written with the exact intent of bridging the “intermediate” gap. I shipped them from Korean directly through an online retailer. If anyone is interested how to obtain, let me know and I can look it up.
– Other noteable mentions: TTMIK “Real life conversations” book, TTMIK “Idioms” book.
Upper intermediate – 9 months
Progress benchmark: A year later I sat the TOPIK II test again and scored a solid level 5, somewhere just below the midpoint of level 5 and 6.
– No primary resource. Up until now I always had a primary learning resource but now I found that I had gotten to a level where no single resource could really hold my attention on an every day basis. I started really diversifying the types of resources I had at my disposal and I would regularly switch between them whenever I felt like it.
– TTMIK news article series. TTMIK published a number of pretend newspapers, each with about mini articles, each article beyond a paragraph or two. The vocabulary was a lot harder and used a lot of grammar I hadn’t seen before.
– 세바시. This is like the Korean equivalent of TED videos. There are a large number of them that have both English and Korean subtitles and a great way to practise your listening and reading skills.
– Asian Boss youtube channel. They come up with questions to interview people in Korea. Such as “what do Korean girls think is the ideal weight”, “what do Korean people think of Donald trump”, “what do Korean people think about Apple vs Samsung”. You get to hear a lot of different voices, which was always a downside with listening to a fixed resources where you only ever heard one or two people talk. This channel is really interesting as well and you’ll learn a lot about how Korean people think.
– SK couple youtube channel. This won’t be for everyone. A Korean couple film their dates, and you get to hear colloquial language spoken between boyfriend/girlfriend. Up to now you wouldn’t get a lot of changes to listen to colloquial Korean.
– Other reading resources.
1) https://brunch.co.kr/. An online collection of articles that are similar to “Reader’s digest”. Lots of interesting articles like “why are cigarette packs stored at the counter”, “why am I a push over?” and many articles that address questions about society.
2) http://www.insight.co.kr/. I don’t actually goto the website but instead subscribe or like them on Facebook. They post a lot of “trashy” articles. One that comes to mind was about what happened to a Korean tourist who went to Thailand massage parlour. It may be a bit trashy but if I can learn Korean and indulge at the same time I don’t see a problem with that.
3) http://kids.donga.com/. Children news website. I tried reading real newspapers and didn’t stand a chance to I went with this instead. Vocabulary is a lot easier and as a bonus you get to keep up with certain trending topics in Korea.
– Dramas. A lot of people will recommend watching dramas earlier than I did but I disagree. You won’t understand much of what is going on, and I’m a firm believer in the “comprehensive input” theory. You only learn from sources where you can actually comprehend what you’re reading/listening. Dramas will be hard to understand no matter what level you are but I think I’ve found two that have the easiest dialogue I’ve seen so far. They are “The Producers” and “The Package”. I really recommend them because they are fun to watch and have relatively easier Korean than many other popular dramas around. Don’t even try something like 도깨비…
– Other notable mentions. TOPIK past papers.
Advanced – 6 months to date
Progress benchmark: I’ll be taking the TOPIK test again this October. I suspect I would be close to if not level 6 by now based on the increased uptake of vocabulary between now (April) and when I took the test last October. It is still very apparent how much I struggle to convey sometimes the simplest things. I may know the word I want to use, but I haven’t used it enough for it to be in my active vocabulary.
At this stage I have even less structure in the resources I was using. I knew at this point everything boiled down to two simple things. Consume as much language as possible, followed by embedding the consumed language into my conscious understanding and gradually bringing it out into my unconscious. I still read the articles from Olive Brunch and Insight above as well. I occasionally check out some news articles if they aren’t too difficult. But in general new articles are still not something I can read without spending too much time in a dictionary. I’m also not prioritising news vocabulary because it is not something I can use on a day to day basis.
I maintain dramas and youtube as my primary listening resources and decided to start getting into actual books. I still struggle too much with full on adult novels so instead I bought a combination of self development/novelty books/comics and books targeted at younger highschool children.
Based on my best guess now I am probably still a good year or two from reaching a stage where I can watch dramas comfortably without subtitles. I’m just using that as a general benchmark of Korean ability. If you can watch a drama series and actually hear what is going on most of the time I would consider that really fluent.
Some more resources I’ve been using lately
Bad boss – book about dealing with bad managers
Biography of 반기문
Biography of barack obama
More variety of dramas – watch with either English/korean subs or Kor subs only.
Reading drama scripts
Reading random stuff on Naver cafe
News articles (advanced +)
News podcasts (advanced +)