Preparing For TOPIK and Reflecting On a Tough Year in Korea

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
    Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot
    🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW
    🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW

    Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
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Preparing For TOPIK and Reflecting On a Tough Year in Korea


This is a Korean fitness blogger at my gym who has been one of the many people I’ve practised Korean with over the last 9 months. When I’m not at work or learning Korean this is usually where I am – social risk-taking by chatting to the local lads and lasses ;).

When I first joined that gym I couldn’t communicate AT ALL with any of these guys but man how things have changed! 🙂

It’s hard to believe that I’ve only got about 8 weeks left of my contract here in South Korea (my contract has been shortened by a few weeks).

Actually, I prefer to think of it as weekends remaining – I have 8 weekends to fill up with as many amazing activities and speaking opportunities as I can before I jet off somewhere else.

I’m not sure if or when I’ll come back to Korea yet.

It’s a good time to find university work here but I’m in desperate need of a long holiday and change of scenery I think before I do that (plus I’d like to pick up another language for a while).

If I do leave Korea in 8 weeks then it looks like my next destination will be somewhere in Europe. 🙂

Lately I’ve been as active as possible, soaking up the sun (although monsoon season just got here which is a bummer) and I’m booking in every physically adventurous, outdoor activity that I can. On top of learning Korean I’ve been serious about my fitness goals, spending a few hours every day pushing myself to new limits (and inspired even more lately by the results of Henry Cavill aka Superman’s insane regimen :)).

I’ve saved gigs and gigs of video and photos of my time in Korea that I just simply have not been able to put together and post so far because of time and other distractions.

When I finally do get a long break, I hope to plonk my arse near a beach somewhere and get everything properly updated!

UPDATE: Long story short – I left Korea, headed back to Australia briefly and then ended up in Russia where I learned fluent Russian. Read about it here.

Preparing for my Korean TOPIK Intermediate Test

It’s booked in.

So I had originally planned to take the Intermediate TOPIK test after September but I realised that with my shortened work contract and the possibility that I might not be here for the last 2013 exam, I had to book it in for July – very unprepared.

That means that after only 9 months of learning Korean (and 1 month of actual study) I’m giving it a shot.

Now there are three TOPIK tests (Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced) and each test’s results are divided into two tiers. For example, if you pass the Beginner test but get under a 70% average then you’re level 1 but if you get over 70% then you’re level 2, and so on.

I decided not to take the Beginner test for a few reasons:

  • Firstly, from looking at previous papers I think the Beginner test is far below my current level. Of course everything is different in a test and I’ve been learning Korean with hardly any actual “study” so my written level is definitely much lower than my conversational level.
  • When applying for things like university study (or work), usually Intermediate Level 4 is the minimum requirement. Anything below that, while still impressive, isn’t worth much on paper.
  • Most importantly I’ve decided to take the Intermediate test to challenge myself harder than ever. The next month will be a massive challenge to learn quite a bit of a vocab, grammar and practise writing essays (which I’ve never done).

The toughest part of this test by far is the writing section which requires a 400-600 word essay in Korean.

The only times I write are when I send SMS or Facebook messages to my friends in Korean and it’s very casual!

I’m making heavy use of Memrise for vocab (there are some great TOPIK courses on there), going over previous tests and writing as much as I can for my Korean friends to proofread.

Of course, italki has been a massive help as well.

Now here’s the thing:

I don’t actually expect to pass this time.

I’m shooting for an Intermediate Level 4 (I suppose you could loosely compare it to a B2 on the CEFR scale minus the speaking component) but given the fact that I have 1 month to prepare for it (while working and looking for a new job), I think it’ll be extremely tough to do.

If it was purely a speaking and listening test then I’m sure I could do very well but the writing part is my biggest concern this time.

I’m viewing this as a first attempt and in the event that I stay in Korea (if I score a university job soon or meet a nice Korean girl ;)) then I’ll make a second attempt in October.

That’s if I don’t pass this one of course! 🙂

The truth about my time in Korea: It’s been tough

This is a touch personal and I was reluctant to mention it but here goes.

The first 6 months or so in Korea for me were a rough ride.

I don’t like to share too much of my personal life on here (unless it’s about languages) but I feel that I’ve learned some really valuable life lessons lately and it relates a lot to overseas immersion and travel.

Even though I’ve had some amazing experiences, met some wonderful people and learned some fluent Korean in the time I’ve been here, this time has forced me to be mentally and emotionally challenged like no other time in my entire life.

It’s been a struggle.

In fact the last 2 years will probably go down as the biggest period of loss and grief I’ve ever been through (much of which has happened while I’ve been overseas).

The short version is that just after I left Georgia for Turkey, I lost two family members suddenly at around the same time to suicide and aggressive cancer (which is why I had to give up on Turkey and learning Turkish to race home for my family and an insane year of legal battles).

Not only did I lose the woman who raised me for much of my life but I ended up having to sell our family home to developers for a penny and see a lifetime of memories literally bulldozed to the ground.

I wouldn’t wish such a shitty experience on anyone!

Coming to Korea was my idea of a long holiday from the emotional arse-kicking that I took and even though I was going to be working in Korea, I welcomed the idea of a refreshing change in a new place.

On top of this, putting all my focus into learning Korean has been a great way to keep myself distracted and keep looking forward rather than back.

Unfortunately, just after I got here I went through a vicious and cruel break-up of a long-term relationship that I should never have let happen to me for so many months. It spoiled a lot of my time here so I’m now making sure the last few months are nothing but positive and fun.

The dust is just starting to settle and for the first time in a few years I’ll be heading to my next destination as a solo adventurer with a positive, new lease on life!

MAJOR UPDATE: I ended up marrying a girl I met briefly in Korea and we now have a one year old son based in California. 🙂

Now I’m proud to say that despite being tempted a few times through all this to give up and head home it made me even more resolute about my mission to learn this language.

The best way to forget loss is to make new gains.

So I figured that I could leave Korea prematurely and not finish what I started or I could push through and have something positive to take away from this (on top of all my new friends of course).

I can now look at the past few years as a closed chapter and be excited about the freedom and opportunities ahead. 🙂

What I’m learning is that going through some emotional beatings while living immersed abroad can be tough but it also brings you a lot closer to the people and language you’re trying to connect with.

One of the most memorable and unforgettable experiences I’ve had in Korea so far was one night when I was really down in the dumps – a bit of a sobbing mess in fact – and I went to my favorite little family-run restaurant where I’ve gotten to know the family really well.

The mother who owns the place sat down with me and we had a big D&M about life, family and relationships which really strengthened me at the time – and it was all in Korean.

Peeling back the language barriers shows you just how human – how alike – we all are.

The weird thing is you start to forget that you’re speaking another language because your focus shifts from the language itself to the person and the issue that you’re talking about.

It’s these small, seemingly insignificant encounters with people that are the memories I always look back on and cherish.

Wish me luck on this test! 🙂

This was written by Donovan Nagel.

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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화이팅 bro.. 힘내요.. All the Best..

Benny Lewis

Benny Lewis

Sorry to hear you had to deal with such grief and sadness Donovan, sincerely. I hope things look up for you in the future and that you have a more positive experience when you make it to Europe.

Good for you for sitting this exam, and I’d also definitely go for it if I was as confident as you in speaking and listening and be proud of passing that even if writing/reading were less confident aspects.

I wish you the best of luck in the exam, and hope you are otherwise having fun in your final weeks in Korea, and that happy times await you in Europe!



Thanks, mate. That means a lot. Really looking forward to getting back over to Europe for a break!

Hope things are well for you.



Congratulations for fighting through grief and making the best out of a shitty situation. Whatever happens with your Korean exam you’ve made great progress in such a short time.



Thanks Scott.

William Peregoy

William Peregoy

Ahh man. Sounds like a tough year. Part of life is making through the times and coming out on the other side shining brighter, props for doing that and finding a worthwhile outlet to aim your focus at during these times. (I think learning Korean is more than worthwhile outlet - its quite an achievement).

Good job mate. Keep your head up.



Yea. These things happen but I’ve always been a fighter. :)

Thanks very much, mate.



힘내! 한국은 의외로 중독적인 나라니까 한 번 나가면 또 다시 오고 싶을거예요 분명히. 한국에 살면서 중국어 일본어 등 배우고 싶으면 언제든지 할 수가 있고 중국 일본 대만 등 한번 비행기 타면 금방 갈 수 있어요. 특히 칭다우 같은 도시가 가깝고 언제든지 갈 수 있어 좋아요.

도노반씨 요즘 비디오를 안 올렸는데도 왠지 이번 TOPIK이 잘 될 것 같애요. 나도 이런 시험을 보기전에 기대를 안 하고 떨어지겠지 떨어지겠지 하면서 보면 오히려 잘 되는 경우가 많아요.



정말 고마워.

응, 많은 짤막한 비디오들을 만글었는데 난 지난 몇 달에 아주 바빴어 아무것도 못 올렸어. 게다가 너무 우울했어 여친 떼문에!
알다시피 특히 문법하고 쓰기실력이 연습 피료해는데 충분한 시간이 없어.

진짜 이름 머야? ^^



Donovan, I’m so sorry to hear of the sadness in your life. I can sympathise at how difficult it can be to continue studies when your world turns upside-down. I’m impressed at how you’ve plugged away, regardless.

Good luck on your coming test - and cheers to your exciting new life, whatever is is!



Thanks for your kind words and well wishes, Catherine. :)

Sherbet and Sparkles

Sherbet and Sparkles

I’m so sorry to hear about how hard this year has been for you. I’m an expat in Germany and actually coming out of an abusive relationship pushed me forward into being extra motivated in learning German. Sometimes out of the burning embers a beautiful linguistic bird can come flying.

Korean is a lovely language I think (as a Japanese and Chinese speaker). I wish you all the best with your test.



Very true. Sorry to hear about your own situation too.

Thanks for the encouragement :)

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