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Memories of Yonsei University Korean Language Institute Memories of Yonsei University Korean Language Institute
by Joseph Gatt
2019-04-07 06:40:41
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Yonsei University Korean Language Institute (YSKLI) is located near the back gate of Yonsei University. It is probably the most expensive intensive Korean language program for non-Korean speakers, and it also has the reputation of being one of the best.

At any given point, there are around 1,500 students at YSKLI, which is a big tribe. Way over half the students are Chinese, Vietnamese and Mongolian high school graduates who study Korean there with hopes of getting a Korean degree so they can stay in Korea and get a job. The Korean government is of two minds on this. On the one hand, the Korean government knows there are no jobs for Korean graduates, much less foreign graduates whose first language isn't Korean. On the other hand Korea has the world's lowest birth rate, and needs an influx of foreign students so universities can get tuition money as there aren't as many Korean students as there used to be. Korea eases restrictions on Chinese, Vietnamese and Mongolian students and they flock to Korea. Then Korea imposes restrictions and those students regret coming to Korea.

yonsdAbout 70 to 80% of the students are Chinese, Vietnamese and Mongolian students who hope they can learn Korean, attend a Korean university and get a job in Korea. Such students tend to be the children of China, Vietnam and Mongolia's middle class; they tend to focus on studies and tend to socialize very little. The rest of the students are ethnic Koreans who did not grow up speaking Korean at home and want to brush up on their Korean for various reasons, either to attend a university in Korea or as doing something useful during their holiday in Korea. The rest of the students are mostly scholarship students from around the world, countries in Africa or the Middle East, European countries, North American Christian missionaries or non-Koreans married to a Korean or engaged to a Korean.

This mix of students means you can more or less choose what crowd you hang out with. I first hung out with the Brazilian-Korean crowd to brush up on my Portuguese, but then they were single 19-year olds dating a different person like every week, and I was a 24 year-old in a stable relationship. I then hung out with the Korean adoptee crowd for a bit, but Korean adoptees don't like to discuss adoption in any form, and being an adoptee myself, I found that frustrating. I then hung out with the South American Spanish-speaking crowd for a bit, with the North American crowd for a bit, with the Chinese student crowd for a bit, then had a group of close friends made up of two Chinese guys and a Canadian girl, hung out with the Turkish crowd for a bit, with the Uzbek crowd for a bit, had a couple of Japanese friends, and the French crowd who always came to me even though the French crowd was not too friendly with me.

The thing is YSKLI has six levels, and each level lasts exactly 10 weeks and you get exactly 200 hours of class. Each level has a crowd reshuffle, and a lot of new members come in and others leave. There's a session from January to March, another from March to June, another from June to September, and the final session is from September to early December. There are no classes during the month of December, and December is when most students go home.

Teachers are 99% female, 99% in their 20s and 30s (OK perhaps 90%) and 60% of them are pretty enough to be actresses in any Korean soap opera or members of any Korean bubble gum K-pop girl band. All teachers have a Masters' degree, most in Korean language or Korean language education; all have additional certifications to teach Korean to foreigners, and all go through rigorous training to memorize the entire curriculum. Teachers have a guidebook that tells them exactly what they should be saying in class, although most teachers take a few liberties in class and ad lib a bit. Teachers are not allowed to discipline the students, and have to maintain a positive attitude to teaching at all times.

Most students, as I said, want to go to a Korean university, and eventually get a job in Korea because the job market in their home countries is dismal. But there are many quirky students. Some want to become singers or actors in Korea. Some want to learn Korean because they are K-pop or K-drama fans. Some want to learn Korean because they want to open a Korean restaurant or pub. Some are professional taekwondo athletes and want to learn Korean. Some Europeans and North American male students find Korean females very attractive, and want to learn Korean so they can date Korean girls back home. And some work for Samsung, LG, or Korean Air, and were sent by their company to learn Korean. Some are the adult children of diplomats posted in Korea and want to learn Korean. And some have degrees in their home country and want to learn Korean so they can work for a Korean company. Of course, many are married to Koreans and need to learn Korean to communicate with their in-laws. And some are Koreans who were adopted overseas and want to reconnect with their native language.

In terms of success rates, the Chinese, Mongolian and Vietnamese students are by far the most successful. Failure is not an option for them, and they spend all their free time studying. Surprisingly, ethnic Koreans and Korean adoptees tend not to be very successful with learning the language, and tend to repeat levels or drop out. Most if not 99.9% graduate speaking Korean with a very heavy foreign accent, and don't master Korean culture and Korean mannerisms when they learn the language.

Now I'll discuss what happens in the classroom in each level. First, in each of the six levels, learning is heavily ritualized. Classes start at 9 AM sharp (usually between 9 AM and 9:03 AM) and stop at 9:50 AM sharp. You then get a 10 minute break. Then 10 AM sharp to 10:50 AM sharp. 20 minute break. 11:10 AM sharp to 12 PM sharp. 10 minute break. 12:10 PM sharp the 1 PM sharp. The first hour of class is always vocabulary. You read a dialogue and learn the vocabulary. The second hour is always grammar. You learn two grammar patterns and do grammar exercises. The third hour is always either reading (you read a text and build vocabulary and grammar) or a special class. The fourth hour is always exercises and revision.

In the first level, you have no special classes. Dialogues tend to be short and there's a heavy focus on memorization. You will have memorized the entire book by the end of the level. But they don't force you to memorize, it's just that teachers repeat the same thing like 20 times and you end up memorizing it. Of course you start off by learning the alphabet for a couple of weeks, then move to learning the language. There's an easy mid-term and an easy final examination and you need to score 60% in each examination (reading, writing, speaking and listening) to pass the level. People who fail the level are either party animals who skip class (you need 80% attendance to pass the level) or people with low levels of formal education who can't get their head around a foreign language.

For students who can't get their head around a foreign language, there something called level 1 B, which means you cover the basics in 400 hours instead of 200 hours. The level is suggested for those who can't wrap their head around a foreign language, and level B students are notorious for failing anyway.

The second level, dialogues and vocabulary lists get longer, grammar gets more subtle and complex, and teachers have a more serious look on their face when they were more playful in the first level. Tests get more complex, and a few students who had stellar grades in level 1 fail level 2. While level 1 focuses on language itself, level 2 starts focusing more on the test, and too much material is covered in class to focus on language itself.

The third level things stabilize a bit. Your Korean starts improving to the point you can start discussing your personal life in class. Most questions will be along the lines of “in Korea a bus ticket costs 1,500 won. How much does it cost in your country?” or “in Korea you can take the subway, an express train, a slow train, the bus, the long-distance red bus, inter-city busses or taxis. What are transportation means in your country?” In levels 1, 2, 3, you tend to do practice exercises with a partner, so the person you sit next to will be very important. You want to sit next to someone who wants to study, rather than who is shy or who chats about unrelated things too much.

The fourth level is where the notion of test becomes crucial. In levels 1, 2 and 3 only materials covered in class show up at the test. But from level 4 onwards, test questions were not necessarily covered in class. Failure rates skyrocket from level 4, and teachers keep warning you about the difficulty of the test. The atmosphere in class becomes dark and somber, very studious, and students are advised to go home and study rather than party. A lot of material is covered in class, and you need to study everyday to pass the level. I used to go to the library every day, do my homework, and I still wasn't sure I was going to pass the exams.

The fifth level is called the level of death. This is part of the YSKLI business model: students who fail the fifth level tend to retake it so they can go to the sixth level and get their diploma. I didn't fail the fifth level, but got 60% in the listening test, had I got 59%, I would have failed. A lot of materials are covered in class, and so much vocabulary is covered you can't memorize every single word you encounter.

The sixth level things tend to relax a bit. Easier materials are covered, tests tend to be easier, and this is because students tend to be too busy preparing for the next chapter of their life. Some are preparing to move back home, others are preparing to move to college, others have family stuff to prepare. The sixth level is also the most anti-social level, as students tend to be too busy preparing the next chapter in their life.

In each level there are a few special events. In level one you get a special singing event, where we all learn the hit Korean song of the moment. Back when I was a student in 2008 the hit song was the Wonder Girls' “Tell Me.” We also learn Korean folk songs Arirang and Tangshineul Saranghamnida. At the end of the first level there's a speech contest, and I was the Master of Ceremonies for the contest. It was fun, I asked all the participants if they had boyfriends of girlfriends, and that made people laugh.

In the second level you get a song performance contest, kind of like the Eurovision. 20 classes each perform a song, and the best group wins. I didn't get along with my class, so skipped that one. In the third level there's a theater contest, where each class has to write a play and perform it. I was in the afternoon group, so we couldn't participate. In the fourth level there's a “radio contest” where you basically have to write a dialogue and perform it, without acting. Believe it or not, my group won first place and the grand prize, and it was a huge shock. Actually my group was eliminated in the preliminary round, but a team gave up and we were asked to replace them. That made the victory even sweeter, and the team members’ lifelong friends.

In the fifth level there's a game show contest, basically a knowledge quiz. There are 4 teams of 50 players each, so it's more for fun. I won my team something like 500 points, and my team had like 700 points in total, enough for second place. But it was more about fun than competition. In the last level we were supposed to have a school field trip to Seorak mountain, but it was cancelled because of the H1 N1 virus. This was in December 2009, when the virus hysteria peaked. Usually students go hiking on the mountain, then move to a hostel with lots of karaoke and lots and lots of drinking. The trip got cancelled because students usually get so drunk they don't watch their hygiene, which they thought could lead to viruses spreading.

Now to special exercises and classes. In levels 1 and 2 there are no special exercises or classes. In levels 3 and 4 you can choose between a special listening class, reading class, writing class or speaking class. In levels 5 and 6 you can choose a from a wide range of special classes, anywhere from politics to history to Chinese characters to Korean film to advanced newspaper reading to a news class.

In levels 2 and 3 you have to write and memorize a dialogue and recite it in class. You get assigned a partner, so this was a very tense moment for me, but it succeeded. In levels 4, 5 and 6 you have to do an oral report on a newspaper article you read, in some cases two reports. In level 6 you have to write a short thesis, something like 4 pages, not necessarily academic. You also have to give an oral presentation of your thesis.

Finally to some praise and criticism of the school. Criticism first. The main criticism I have is not related to the school, but to the fact that the diploma is not recognized by most Korean institutions, and that you need a TOPIK test score instead. Doesn't matter how far you went in the diploma, without a TOPIK test score, most institutions won't recognize your diploma. You can have level 6 at YSKLI and if you score level 4 on the TOPIK, you are considered level 4, not level 6.

The other main criticism I have is the heavy focus on the test. Most students and teachers are so obsessed about the test, classes can get very serious and have little room for jokes. Most of my jokes were censored, and I don't remember lots of hilarious moments, although I did make the class laugh a few times. But the overall atmosphere tends to be gloomy.

Finally, to praise; The school was effective for me and I managed to learn Korean, although I needed five or six more years of practice before I could sound like a native Korean. The school is very well organized and I never needed to go to administration, not once. So it's zero bureaucracy. The school also puts a lot of effort into who gets to be with who in class, so my classmates were mostly people married to Koreans (I had a Korean girlfriend I intended to marry) or people who had more motivation to speak rather than to take tests (I had very few Chinese students who wanted to go to Korean colleges in my class). So overall, a great experience.  

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