Window to Seoul

Real life in the land of K-dramas

First impressions of the SNU language program

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Somehow, I’m already into my third week of classes at the Language Education Institute of Seoul National University. While the first couple of weeks are still fresh in my mind, I thought I’d give a rundown on what I think of the program so far, and how it compares to my experience at Ewha Womans University’s language institute last summer.

The SNU main gate.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am currently taking Level 5. There are 6 levels in the regular program, plus an additional “advanced academic class” (연구반) beyond Level 6. The placement test was on Wednesday the week before classes started. It mainly consisted of short 2-3 line dialogues, where we had to fill in logical-sounding responses with certain required grammar patterns. The test got more difficult the further we went, and on the latter pages there were also short answer and mini-essay questions, again with required grammar or vocabulary. We got 1.5 hrs to take the test. Afterwards, there was an interview component, where we met one-on-one with an instructor who also looked over our written test. The questions were very simple at first (like “How long have you been studying Korean”), but eventually moved on to testing specific areas of knowledge, like whether I knew any Korean proverbs. Sadly, while I had learned a number of proverbs during my sophomore year in the US, I totally blanked and couldn’t remember any on the spot…. Anyway, at the end of the interview, the instructor said she thought Level 4 would be best for me. I was a little disappointed because two of my friends who had taken the same level of Korean at our home university last year had been placed into Level 5 over the summer – but then again, both are much better speakers than I am, and unless you count watching Korean dramas, I hadn’t done much reviewing over the summer.

Two days after the placement test, I bought the Level 4 textbook from the school bookstore to see what I was getting into, and whether I might have a chance of moving up a level. It turned out that I already knew approximately half the grammar and vocabulary – so I would definitely learn some new material if I stayed in Level 4. On the other hand, I had come to SNU hoping I would make it to the level of the advanced academic class, which would mean I would have to start in Level 5 since I only have three semesters here. Thus commenced a frenzied self-study marathon over the weekend, as I attempted to teach myself all the grammar (and some of the vocab) I hadn’t learned before.

A view of the Language Education Institute building.

On the first day of class, I was actually very impressed – I was in a particularly small Level 4 class (only 9 students), my classmates were all around my age and mostly very friendly, and the teacher was excellent. She explained things clearly, was very dynamic and funny, and ran the class so efficiently that there was never a dull moment even though I knew all of the material in the first lesson. (She also spoke at lightning speed, way faster than the average Korean on the street. She later confirmed she has a reputation for speaking extremely fast.) In fact, at the end of the day, I was wondering whether it would really be a good idea to move up even if I could, in case the Level 5 class didn’t have such a great group of people. But I still asked my teacher about the possibility of switching levels, and she said that I could sit in a Level 5 class the next day to try it out, and also take another mini-placement test to check whether I knew enough Level 4 material.

The next day, I did sit in on a Level 5 class – and was a bit shocked to find that no one in the class seemed to be able to speak/read as well as most of the students in my Level 4 class. The class was also much older on average.  I had no trouble following the lesson, but came away from the experience hoping that if I could place into Level 5, I would be put into a different class. I was able to take the placement test the next morning. All the self-study over the weekend had definitely been a good idea, because most of what showed up on the test was material that had been new to me.  Anyway, I did well enough to move up, and luckily was placed into a Level 5 class with students around my own age.

I have nothing but positive impressions of the SNU language program so far, and I’m glad I chose to come here – I’ve experienced five different teachers between the three classes I’ve sat in on for Levels 4 and 5, and they’ve all been really great. So far, class never seems to drag on interminably, as it occasionally felt like at Ewha. I also think I’m learning loads more vocab and grammar than I would in any other program except perhaps Yonsei. (I’ve seen textbooks from all the major schools except Korea University, about which I know nothing at all.) But there is the caveat, mentioned by many people before, that SNU might not be the best choice if you really just want to improve your speaking ability above all else. I don’t know about Levels 1-3, but in Levels 4 and 5, there is not a lot of dedicated speaking practice in class (although there was more in the Level 4 class than in Level 5, and in such a way that it encouraged real internalization of the material rather than just robotically repeating a prescribed dialogue). On the other hand, I know a couple of students in Level 4 (not my classmates) who studied at SNU from Level 1, and I daresay they speak better than I do. So I don’t think the program is as unbalanced as some other reviews may make it seem. In both Level 4 and Level 5, you are expected to carry on a full-blown debate in Korean on social issues towards the end of the semester, which is a significant portion of your oral grade. There are also presentations, and in Level 4, one student introduces a 4-syllable Sino-Korean idiom or Korean proverb every morning.

Well, this post is already turning out much longer than I anticipated, so I think I’ll wrap it up here for now. At some point, I’ll be posting in more detail about what Level 5 entails specifically.

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