Thinking back on past language exams

In April I sat the TOPIK, but it was not the first language exam I ever sat. Here is a brief overview of how I learned languages previously.
In grade school I studied both English, German and French, while I continued only English and French in highschool. Thinking back, we had to have a fairly extensive knowledge of the languages we were studying.

Officially I started learning English in school when I was 9 years old, but due to having family abroad I was so keen to learn that my parents had introduced a few things before then. By the time I reached highschool, I joined the advanced 2-year course where we basically started out with Chaucer and then worked our way up through history to Virginia Wolf. We were only five studens in that class and for some odd reason we were all mathematics/science majors rather than linguistics majors…

Every week we had to do a translation of one page from English to Danish in class without dictionaries. At home we had to do a longer translation the other way around and for that we could use dictionaries, but it was actually more important to be able to translate so the language didn’t seem stilted. Besides the translation exercises, we had to hand in weekly essays.
Having a rather extensive vocabulary was key to survive the translation exercises and there was no way around just looking up every new word we came across and read a lot.

I never became great friends with German grammar. I did try, but never quite came to fully appreciate it. I studied German from 6th-9th grade. To prepare for my 9th grade oral exam, my father called in a favour with a German friend whose wife happened to be a German teacher. We had a one day 학원 style session going over the syllabus.
Honestly, I was more frightened by her than by the actual exam. Her goal with that single day was fluency, fluency, fluency! Or as fluent as possible given my level. I did have a fair grasp of the vocabulary, the hurdle was getting me to use it. We (deliberately chosen over ‘I’ since that woman could make vocabulary and grammar run from the pages of a book deep into the creases of your brain) succeeded and I got an A at the exam, which I was soooo proud of.

Since that exam 10 years ago I think I have spoken German roughly 15 minutes in total. And they were all within the last year so it did not sound pretty.

I started learning French in 7th grade and decided to keep it as an A-level in highschool. In highschool we had to write weekly essays, read articles and quirky French literature. Again the main focus was to get us to speak comfortably as well as write somewhat eloquently. There were odd tips for the written exam such as “remember to use subjonctif” since certain things were really considered grade boosters by the examiners.
From the very beginning of my French journey, I started hanging out in a French book café close to my school. I invested in some French Harry Potter books, and generally just soaked up the French atmosphere. I loved going there, and it became “my place” for several years. French became a daily part of my life, watching French movies and reading French books in my spare time. Unfortunately the owner has passed away and while the store remains, I realised how much my feelings for the language also depended on coming into the café, having a chat with her about my studies, drinking coffee, browsing through books and DVDs with no subtitles. When I saw the notice in the newspaper that she had passed away, I cried. I did not learn French for anybody but myself, but the set-up around my joy of French took a very serious hit. Maybe my francofile joy of the language itself will return at some point. For now I stick to reading the occasional French website.

Common features:
I remember that drilling was just considered a necessity for certain things all the way back in upper elementary school. Learning irregular verbs was one of them. In English, we were given a lot of sheets to memorise and then we had a test to see if it stuck. There was no “you’ll pick it up eventually”, we just had to get it over with. I suppose it’s also “low-hanging fruit” in terms of exam points and general fluency. If you consistently conjugate verbs incorrectly, everything you say will sound off or even worse, not be understood at all.

I got a Korean verb book for Christmas from my brother and his family. There are soooo many verbs I simply don’t know, and yet they are crucial verbs. It annoys me, it is a serious issue from a learning perspective, and it is something I must deal with. There is no way around it but following the butt-to-bench advice my brother always throws at me.

Have you studied other languages besides Korean? Did you follow a particular “method”? Is it different from what you do now? What motivated you? Please leave a comment.


5 thoughts on “Thinking back on past language exams

  1. Nina

    I took spanish for 7 years from middle school to high school. I remember it was a lot of drilling and i did fairly well with the class. But before my last year of spanish classes i forgot all of my grammar during summer break. I could go from spanish ro english but not english to spanish.

    When I went to college, I chose Japanese as my major and studied it for a year and a half before switiching to anthropology. It was a lot of book work, quizzes, and memorization. The teacher recommended studying Japanese three hours a day. I didn’t devote enough time to the language and as always particles were eluded me. I’ve never been good at them.

    Currently I am self-studying Korean but i dont have good discipline habits to keep concentrated on studying for a long time. I find reading outloud helps with listening, pronunciation and reading. A lor of it is drilling the information over and over. And the old saying ‘practice makes perfect’ fits well with studying a language. I think you have to find a method that works for you unfortunately sometimes it isn’t always fun but necessary!

    1. koreanlearner Post author

      Thanks for the comment 🙂
      Interesting about your Spanish experience. Did something happen to make you dislike the language or was it just a result of not using it so it became a “passive language”?

      I think that many students end up not spending as much time on a course as the prof recommends. However, I think it’s quite an accomplishment that you actually conclude that yourself.

      Reading out loud is probably a very under-utilised method; people worrying about others hearing it, sounding “stupid”, stuttering, getting the intonation wrong and so on.

      In school settings, the method is pretty set without one having any control over it as a student. I think it takes a lot more discipline as a self-learner, because you cannot just follow the schedule that someone else has made for you. It gives a lot more room for experimenting with “formats”, but at the end of the day no-one will check if you worked or if you are progressing at the best possible pace that you can achieve personally. I’m still looking for that balance…

      1. Nina

        It was over summer vacation and it wasn’t utilized which was a shame, though I aced a beginner Spanish class in college during a winter session to boost my GPA without the book. I felt like an asshole in the class since I had studied the language the longest but it was a refresher and I hadn’t studied in two years so it was nice to know most of it was still in my head.

        I haven’t found the balance yet that works for me as a self-learner for Korean. It is one of my goals for next year to figure that out.

  2. koreannotebook

    So interesting reading all the languages you have studied. I personally took up French for almost a year when I was in 5th grade I loved it and all but things changed and I had other stuff to focus on ^^ and then I studied Spanish for 2 years ( I know nothing now….expect hombre and hola ;;) and when I was a child I think probably as soon as I could talk I could speak Shona (language spoken by the Shona people) because my maid was Shona so naturally being around her all the time while my parents were at work it became like my second language. Was multi-lingual for a long time, till I she left work as my maid when I was 11yrs and weirdly I actually have forgot the language today (19) I probably can only pick up a few sentences but back then I would watch the news in Shona and understand it all. When I was in grade 1 to grade 2 I was also taught Shona in school (its a compulsory second language in schools based on region in the country) then when I moved to a different city I also had the displeasure of being taught another language that is compulsory (Ndebele) for 4 years and I hate to say this but I failed every exam I ever took on that language and I know not even how to say ‘Hello” T__T somehow that makes me sad but it was a horrible language and the teaching was dumb.

    Methods? For me sometimes I don’t know what I can say about methods because I kind of believe the method of ‘you can learn as you go along’ because at 6years old I could speak Shona fluently and it was just because I was around my maid no formal teaching no one giving me a verb book! Nothing. Same with English (can that be counted seeing as its my native language?!) But when I studied French that short time it was word drills and silly pictures used to remember words, nonsensical songs that made you laugh and remember the words and I learnt a lot during that time. Guess everything needs to be done when learning a language not just one method.

    Fulfilling my dream is the only thing that motivates me to learn Korean 🙂 I know I wanna do it and that is all the motivation I need, plus the pleasure of reading a book like I do in English would make me so darn happy (cloud nine) 😀

    OHMYWORD. I left you an essay not a comment, sorry, hope you don’t mind XD

    1. koreanlearner Post author

      Hehe no I don’t mind at all 😀

      Wow, so many languages. I used to know two girls who had a zulu nanny and she completely ignored them if they spoke to her in any other language. Once she left, they never used Zulu again so they forgot. While growing up they spoke Afrikaans, Zulu, and English. Their lives only got complicated once they added German to the mix, since it didn’t blend easily with them speaking Afrikaans and their father speaking Dutch. Major confusion ensued because the languages resembled each other so much.

      I cannot imagine sitting through language classes being taught a language I didn’t want to learn :-S

      Oh God, rhymes… I still remember “durch, für, gegen, ohne, wieder, um; kannst du nicht dein Akkusativ, dann bist du wirklich dumm”. As you can see, my time in German class was well spent 😉

      I also look forward to the day when I can read a book without looking up every other word 🙂


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