I am currently on my long awaited 10 day winter break and I reckon it is a good time for me to draft a post regarding to student life as a language year student since the application period for KGSP-G programme 2018 is on-going.
Before I came to Korea and start my life here as a scholar I tried searching for some information that could give me a glimpse of what is it to be like to be a KGSP scholar. But to my disappointment there weren’t any detailed information around so I basically came like a blank sheet of paper not knowing the possible challenges installed for me at all.
So for this post, I am going to be as honest and transparent as possible on my current life as a language student. No sugar coating, and no exaggerations either because what I am going to include in this post is VERY VERY REAL. I figured it would be important for potential applicants to know what they are getting themselves into because I have seen many of my friends who are having a really tough time. And it is because most, if not all of us had no clue on what to expect before coming here. I don’t want to be discouraging, but in my opinion it is important to think carefully before applying and committing to any scholarship because ultimately you are going to occupy a slot that someone else may want so badly. And it is never a good thing to throw the spot away if you reckon that you are not up for it.
In my opinion, I would say KGSP is a really awesome scholarship because not only it offers full sponsorship of tuition fees, it also provides us with a monthly allowance that enables us to survive well here in Korea. Coming from a family that is not financially well off, this scholarship gave me a chance to receive quality education abroad without having to worry about living expenses. On top of that, everyone of us are also required to study language for a year (those with TOPIK 5 during application will be exempted) and it is very beneficiary for us because aside from our masters degree, we also get a chance to learn and practice a new language.
But in everything there is pros and cons, which I will elaborate more in detail below. In this post I will be covering different aspects from day to day life and academic life.
Day to day life
Difficulty level: ★★☆☆☆
We are all given 900,000won per month plus an additional 200,000won (one off) settling allowance. The settlement allowance would be given together with the September allowance so I still had to depend on the money I brought from my country to settle down and buy food and necessities.
But other than that, 900,000won allowance per month is enough for living expenses here in Gwangju because a decent meal like fried rice or the likes cost around 5,000won to 6,000won. We can also get cheaper options like kimbab or convenience store sandwiches that cost around 2,000won to 3,000won too. Sometimes we decide to give ourselves a treat at a buffet place and it would cost around 14,000won to 20,000won. Food delivery for fried chicken will cost around 10,000won per pax whereas chinese food like fried rice and jajjangmyeon etc will cost around 5,000won-8,000won (but there is a minimum amount that you need to order for them to deliver).
My language institution is also located in a fairly good location. We are about 30mins walk away from downtown area and we have 2 on-campus cafeteria for cheaper food options and also a rather decent back gate area where they have more convenience stores and restaurants. In case of medical emergencies, the hospital is 5 minutes drive away via taxi and we also have a clinic inside the International Building as well.
The more expensive necessities/spending normally goes to books. For each semester, the textbooks (Ewha syllabus) cost 26,000won per set if bought new from the bookstore. There are also cases where we had to purchase additional books for TOPIK revision too. For my case, I was fortunate enough to be able to buy my books from my KGSP senior for a good price and borrowed the rest that I need from another senior. Other than books, I noticed that the laundry services here are also pretty pricey (given the limited budget we have per month and the amount of outer coats we would wear during cold seasons). Dry cleaning one piece of down feather clothing can cost up to 10,000won per piece and normal long coats (no padding, no fur) cost me 7,000won. And of course, medical bill here is also much more expensive. A trip to the normal clinic at International Building will cost around 8,000won (including medicine) whereas hospital bills can go up many more times higher than that. For my case, I was admitted to the ER once for food poisoning and it cost me around 350,000won. The insurance provided by NIIED will only cover 80% of the fee so we would have to bear the rest of the medical expenses at our end.
Important point to note is, depending on the language institute you are in, the allowance may or may not come on time every month. And the worse part is, we are never notified on any delay or postponement by our university. I have heard stories from seniors and friends from other universities that they occasionally have these cases happening. For us, we are fortunate that most of our allowance come in on the promised date EXCEPT for this coming March because apparently March is the end of the fiscal year for Korea so the allowance may or may not be delayed. And if you are leaving the country during official vacations, your allowance may be further delayed as well, which happened to all of my friends who were leaving the country this vacation. So to prevent any financial surprises it would be wise to save up a decent amount every month to be used in times like this.
Aside from that, for general help like renewal of ARC, visa issues or KGSP related queries like insurance claims and allowance, we are very fortunate to have staffs that would help us patiently even though they are busy. So far I have been hospitalised once but my insurance claim process was very easy and hassle free.
These are based on my experience while living here in Gwangju. In Seoul everything would be more expensive but I have so far secured the extra 100,000won allowance because I have gotten TOPIK 5. We’ll see how it goes for Seoul in the future.
Difficulty level (for me): ★★★☆☆
Fun and related facts about me: I have been watching K-dramas and listened to K-pop for almost 10 years to date. I got into K-pop when TVXQ was a big thing back then and my first drama was Full House by Rain and Song Hye Kyo. Since then I have been consistently been exposed to Korean language and further improved my Korean by watching more variety shows and attending a 6 months Korean language elective in my university. I also speak fluent Cantonese and Mandarin, in which I studied the latter formally from primary school to high school. Upon arrival, I am placed in Level 2 class.
Difficulty level (for my roommate): ★★★★★ (P/S that’s what she said. I am not making this up)
Fun and related facts about my roommate: She is from Mexico and she speaks fluent English, Spanish and she could comprehend some French (A2 level, which in layman terms equals to the middle of TOPIK 1 and 2, in which in more layman terms it means basic French LOL). She is super hardworking and studies ALOOOOOT more than me. In Mexico there isn’t much Korean influence and when she first came to Korea, she had 0 knowledge on Korean language so she basically was a white piece of paper and she learned everything from scratch here. Which explains the 5 star rating of difficulty because it is a whole new world to her. #salute Upon arrival, she was placed in Level 1 class.
So what is similar between us?
All KGSP students assigned to our language university have language classes every weekday from 9am to 1pm. We started officially in the beginning of September and by November our extra classes started. Depending on the lecturer, the day the extra classes would be held may be different. But all of us would have 2 days of extra 2 hours per week for extra classes. The time for extra classes would normally be 2pm-4pm, which gives us an hour break for lunch. All our classes are held at the International Building, which is next to the main library.
For every class, there would be 2 teachers assigned to us. One would teach grammar and listening whereas the other is in charged of writing and reading. Both lecturers would also cover speaking portions as well but generally speaking portions come a little later because we have to learn enough to be able to speak. Six months into the programme, the language school is switching out our current teachers so after our winter break we would welcome a new set of teachers~
For syllabus, we mainly use the Ewha Korean language textbook and workbook. For level 1 to 3, the levels are split to two sets of books (i.e. 1-1, 1-2, 2-1 and so on). For level 4 to 6, it is one set of books per level. However as the grammar got harder and more complicated, my lecturer also supplemented us with notes from other books like Korean Grammar in Use. My room mate has the book herself as well. For TOPIK preparation, we use HOT TOPIK for reading in class. On the side personally, I memorized some words from Link Korean TOPIK Voca 2500.
Despite being in different classes and levels, all our exams (midterms and finals) are held on the same time. On average we have an exam once every 5 weeks, excluding small quizzes and evaluation tests that we get from time to time. This also mean that we have to cover 1 whole book in 5 weeks (sometimes even more depending on the scope of exam) and it is NOT as easy as it seems. There is a lot of additional vocabulary that is taught in class aside from the ones that appear in the textbook or additional notes. There are also a separate set of TOPIK test related vocab that we all need to learn and memorize too.
Also, we are NOT notified on the exact exams dates until 2 weeks before the exam, and sometimes the exam dates are changed without prior heads up as well. Based on personal experience, my parents came to visit me last November and we matched the dates of my finals so they could come right after the finals and we can spend time together because we do not have classes for the week after finals is over. Turns out, two weeks before the exam we were notified that the exam dates has changed. It was pushed backwards a day later, which means I didn’t get to spend as much time as I intended with my parents because one whole day is burned for taking/preparing for exams.
What is different?
My roommate and I, and also most of the KGSP scholars here are multilingual. However, the difference lies between the amount of prior exposure to Korean and also the existing language that we knew before coming. The reason why I placed a 3 out of 5 star difficulty, and my roommate gave a 5 out of 5 is because it is easier for me to related Korean words to Mandarin and Cantonese. Vocabulary wise, it is easier for me to guess words when I am reading or listening and to learn new words (mostly in more advanced levels) because 70% of Korean language is derived from Mandarin. For my roommate, she finds it harder to related the words and grammar because the vocab and sentence structure is SO different from the languages that she knows. From what I have noticed, people who have had prior exposure to Korean (in dramas, songs, variety show, taking Korean lessons etc) could breathe a little easier compared to those who has absolutely no prior exposure at all.
What is difficult?
Writing off-hand without Google Translate and speaking are the most difficult aspects for me now, especially the latter. I recently tried to speak up more in class during speaking session and I also joined a weekly language exchange offered by GIC to improve on my speaking but it takes time to be fluent and find confidence in talking to Koreans. As for writing, we did a lot of TOPIK style writing and other essays as homework so I am definitely better now. But right off the start, it was so hard to write a good essay even with the help of Google Translate. But sooner or later, all of us are required to shake the bad habit of searching for every single word we are not sure of because we don’t have Google during exams (DUH!).
Another difficult aspect in learning any language is the vocabulary. It is difficult to learn new words but it is even harder to keep them in and use them off hand in speaking or writing. I quote one of my friend who said, “We are basically throwing all the words we learned out while putting new words into our brain”. What he said is very very true and I agree with him totally because despite knowing how to say something in Mandarin doesn’t mean I can say it in Korean all the time even though both languages being so similar. And the fact is, learning new vocabulary is a daily thing and there is no end to this at least until we finish our language year.
At first, it would be difficult for us to communicate with our own teachers because they speak in Korean 90% of the time (for beginners class they start with English but they switch to full Korean very quickly). But once we get a hang of the language and get used to our teacher’s voices, it would be easier to understand. I have a great respect to our teachers because they are all so patient and understanding. They would encourage us to speak up even though we take ages to come up with the right words and make proper sentences. Good teachers make learning a new language a lot more easier and this is why it also encourages us to do well in our exams because we don’t want to let them down.
What is easy? What is less difficult?
Korean language is a very complex language where they have different expressions used for a similar purpose but with many grammar rules that binds on them and they are used in different context. In my point of view, basic grammars are easier to catch on because they have lesser exceptions and conditions. These basic level grammars are ones that always appear in speech so if you have prior exposure to K-pop or K-dramas/variety shows, chances are you may have unconsciously been exposed to them already, which makes learning them formally easier.
Once we got used to the textbook contents and flow and how our teachers conduct their classes, from then on it would be easier to keep up during class because the class syllabus and structure is always repetitive.
Among the four aspects of language learning, to me listening was easiest, followed closely by reading and then followed by writing and speaking.
So how do I feel after experiencing this for half a year?
Accomplished but mentally tired. There are many reasons that contribute to this. But the main factor lies in not having a proper break after exams or in between semesters. Unlike Malaysia where we have many public holidays scattered throughout the year, in Korea the biggest holidays were Chuseok (beginning October last year) and Seolnal (February this year). We have 0 days of break before and after midterms and while we were supposed to have 2 days off after finals (excluding weekends), this break got cancelled entirely for our January finals and got cut short for our November finals too! The only “long” vacation that we are getting is a 10 day worth of winter vacation, including weekends before we head back to class again with no more vacation till end of July.
At some point, most of us felt the strain and it is mentally draining to be studying the same subject every single day without a small break in between. Throughout the past 6 months, everything from grammar to vocab to TOPIK studies were taught to us in a rush because there is so little time but so much to cover. We are all expected to digest all the information and do well not just for TOPIK, but also in the exams by the language institution. Bear in mind that even though our language programme is one year long, the period between class commencement and the first TOPIK exam is 5 months (Sept – Jan), the second chance at TOPIK for us is coming April, which is 8 months after class commencement and by April TOPIK test all of us are expected to score a TOPIK 3.
Negativity aside, currently I am feeling accomplished and more relaxed because I managed to score TOPIK 5 already. For now, I am just taking it easy and learning the language at my own pace and interest because there is no longer any pressure on me to score well in any test anymore~ I am glad I made it this far and with 6 more months to go I aim to polish my speaking skills so I can speak more fluently by the end of language year! Once I have let go of the pressure, I realised that new words stick in my mind fairly easier compared to when I was piled under the exam stress.
I hope this post was able to give a glimpse of my life here as a language student under KGSP programme. Even though there are many difficulties that I had to go through, I still feel it is a very good programme and it offers a lot of opportunities for us to be a better person than before. I may sound very pessimistic and negative most of the time in this post, but it is the real deal that all of us here are going through. Six month in, 2 of our friends have dropped out. A lot of us started out really optimistic but no matter how mentally ready we are to be a student again, it is never easy learning a new language in a foreign country away from the support system you have back home.
The best advice from me to any potential applicants out there, is to be mentally prepared and make sure you really have the passion for Korean language and your preferred masters degree before even applying for the programme. It is NOT nice to apply when you know you are not up for this and give it up when you have gotten it because there are so many people who desperately wants the spot. If, after serious consideration you have decided to apply, then the next thing you gotta do is to start brushing up on your Korean. If you have no basic in Korean at all, try taking some level 1 classes to at least learn how to read the characters (or you can self learn, it is not hard at all) and to learn basic words. If you have been long exposed to Korean like me, it would be great to start memorizing vocabulary. The smallest effort you put in before coming would be of great help to you when you arrive.
Good luck and all the best!