Language learning is a journey, not a destination

How to Learn Korean: A Complete Guide From A to Z

How to Learn Korean

Before I introduce you to my best kept secrets on how to learn Korean, I have a very quick announcement to make and a little favor to ask you! I’ve recently entered a Korean speaking contest organized by KBS World. After contestants from around the world submitted their videos, the Top 10 contestants were chosen and I’m one of them! Now the semi-finals are on, and if you vote for me, you won’t only be supporting Lingholic and give me the chance to go to Korea in September, but you’ll also have the chance to win souvenirs by draw!  All it takes is 1 minute of your time, and it’ll mean a lot to me! Just click here and vote for Samuel Gendreau (see picture below). Don’t forget, you’ll need to fill your details in too! Thanks!!



So, now let’s get down to business. I first started learning Korean back in 2008, and since then I’ve never looked back. Korean is not only a fantastic, beautiful and elegant language, but it’s also a door to a different, exciting world. In this article, I’m going to guide you through the exact steps to go through to begin learning Korean from scratch, and to eventually reach a high level of proficiency in it. I’m not going to tell you it’s easy, but it’s, without an ounce of a doubt, absolutely worth it. Enjoy the post, and if you find it useful or interesting in any way, please share it!

An overview of Korean: What, Why, and How?

Korean is the official language of South and North Korea, and it’s one of the two official languages in China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. It’s spoken by an approximate 80 million people around the world (including large overseas communities such as in Los Angeles and Toronto).

Korean dialectsIf you speak some Chinese, you’ll have a good starting advantage over other learners of Korean, since approximately 60% of Korean vocabulary is derived from Chinese (i.e. Sino-Korean words). If you speak Japanese, you’ll also have a considerably easier time learning Korean, since both languages—and up to a certain point, cultures—share many similarities, such as a similar order of words (subject-object-verb) and grammar. While many linguists classify Korean as a “language isolate” (i.e. not part of any other language family), some also consider it to be part of the Altaic language family.

So why would anyone want to learn Korean? Well, for starters, the language has gained a tremendous amount of popularity in the past decade, not least thanks to the so-called “Hallyu” (한류), or “Korean wave” as it is known in English.  The Korean Wave evolved from a regional development (mostly Southeast and East Asia) into a global phenomenon due to the proliferation of Korean dramas (TV series) and Korean pop (K-pop) music videos on YouTube, of which Gangnam Style is but one prominent example.

So, in earnest, let’s look at the steps you’ll need to take to effectively learn Korean.

1. Set clear goals, a timeline, and a schedule

Here’s the secret to a successful start, in 3 simple bullet points:

  • Your goals must be specific. Vague, sweeping goals are too broad to be acted upon.
  • Your goals must be believable. If you don’t believe you can reach them, you won’t.
  • Your goals must be challenging and demanding.

A lot of language learners fail to reach a respectable level of fluency because they lack any clear goals and direction, and they have no regular study schedule. Don’t fall into this trap. Even before purchasing any learning materials, set yourself some very clear goals and a roadmap to reach these goals. More importantly, strongly believe in them and do whatever it takes to reach them.

Having goals helps you to track your progress and gives you a sense of direction. This in turns helps to increase motivation, and reduces your chances of giving up. Make your goals ambitious but realistic. I wrote an entire post dedicated to the importance of goals a while ago, so have a look through it for a more in-depth look at the importance of setting goals.

2. Get a good textbook/method

Getting a good textbook with which you’ll be able to work with for the next couple of months is a crucial step is the long and interesting voyage that learning a language is. I’ve seen a LOT of Korean textbooks and learning materials out there, and I’ve tested more than my fair share. Below I’ve listed what, in my opinion, are easily some of the best ones out there. Pick one or two (but no more), and go through them in a consistent, regular manner. It’s as easy as that.

Top picks:

3. Learn Hangul

Now that you have your newly purchased, glossy shiny textbook, it’s time to learn Hangul (한글). Yep, it’s one of the very first things you should do before getting too absorbed in your studies.

Hangul written on wallSo what is Hangul? Very simply put, Hangul is the Korean alphabet and the official script of both South and North Korea (don’t confuse “Hangul” with the name for “Korean language” in Korean, Hangukeo (한국어)). For over a millennium and up until the first half of the 20th century, Korean was written with adapted Chinese characters called hanja. However, Koreans now almost exclusively use the Hangul alphabet. You can easily live in Korea without knowing a single Chinese character, although it’s always helpful to know a few (or many), especially if you wish to learn Korean up to an advanced level. For example, in many news headlines Chinese characters are still used for brevity’s sake, and characters are also often used in between parenthesis to help clarify the meaning of a word that has many different meanings.

Hangul is composed of fourteen consonants and ten vowels, in addition to having double consonants and “clustered” consonants. Because of this, Hangul is in fact really easy to learn. You should NOT learn Korean by reading the romanized script. It’s a bad habit and simply not a smart thing to do. If you put one or two hours learning Hangul for the next couple of days, I guarantee you that you’ll be able to read by the end of the week. Even if you’re planning a short trip to Korea no longer than a week or two, I would still highly encourage you to learn the script.

4. Find a bunch of awesome tools online

Computers-and-keyboardsThese days it’s amazing the amount of great language learning tools and resources that you can find online. One of the first things you’ll need along with your textbook and newly-equipped Hangul reading skills, is a good online dictionary. Here are three very good ones (the last is for beginners but in Korean only):

Here’s a bunch of awesome websites and podcasts:

Here are news websites that are available both in Korean and English (and/or other languages):

  • Korea Times (this resource is great because it often contains the English AND translated Korean version of the article)
  • Korea Joongang Daily (look for the “bilingual column” on the right)
  • Yonhap News (available in multiple languages)

5. Get exposed to as many sentences and dialogues as possible

Now that you’ve developed a solid and consistent daily study routine, you’ll need to get exposed to as many sentences and dialogues as possible. For example, if you’re working through a textbook such as the Living Language Korean series, you’ll get the chance to go through dialogues in every unit. Go through them repeatedly and ensure that you review each unit regularly.

It’s important, when working with learning materials, to repeat loudly the sentences that you read (unless you’re in a public place!). This will get your tongue and ear slowly used to pronouncing and hearing the language properly. Also, do bi-directional translation exercises in which you work with the Korean dialogue only during one day (and translate it into your native tongue), and do the opposite any other day.

6. Learn as much about the culture as possible

Gochujang JarsYou may well have the largest vocabulary in the world in any given language, but if you’re clueless about the culture, you won’t know which words to use in any given situation at any given time. Unless you’re from East Asia, chances are that Korean culture is significantly different from yours. From my point of view, that’s exciting news, and discovering an entirely new and different culture is an enriching experience that really adds a lot of spices to your life.

So how can you get to know about Korean culture? For starters, find a good history book and start learning a bit about the country’s history. One of my favorite book is by far Bruce Cumings’ Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History, but there are literally thousands of good books on Korea out there. Next, and I’ll come back to this at point #8, as you’ll watch Korean dramas and movies and listen to Korean music, you’ll inevitably get exposed to the culture. Pay attention and takes some notes!

7. Find a tutor or a language exchange partner

Wherever in the world you find yourself right now, you’re reading this because you have access to the internet. Whether at home or in a library or café, internet brings you an amazing array of wonderful resources and technologies to help you practice your target language.

Once you’ve learned a bit of Korean, you’ve gotten to know more about the culture, and you’re eager to practice your speaking skills with an actual human being, it’s time to make the great leap forward and start chatting with natives—the sooner the better. If you don’t live in Korea or in a place where many Koreans live, you’ll probably have to fall back on finding tutors or language exchange partners on the internet. Not to worry, though, because there are amazing websites that do just that. Here are two that I specifically recommend:

  • Italki: at the time of writing this article, 6 Professional Teachers and 24 Community Tutors are teaching Korean on italki. Prices vary, but for around 10 to 15$ an hour, you can have a private tutor who will help you practice and develop your speaking skills in the language. If you don’t feel like spending money, don’t worry, you can always find language partners for totally free and practice over Skype.
  • LiveMocha: Free online language learning with lessons, courses and other language-learning activities, on top of a large community of language learners with endless possibilities for language exchanges.

8. Get exposed to as many engaging materials as you possibly can

As you progress through your Korean learning adventure and reach a level that allows you to access and understand a wider array of materials, it’s time to give your textbook a break and get exposed to as many engaging materials as possible. I’ve written a nice article that introduces people to Korean Indie music, so if you’re eager to discover interesting Korean music, check it out.

These days it’s also easy to watch Korean movies and dramas online. YouTube is of course a very useful resource, but if you wish to actually download stuff, check out websites such as Dramaload. A quick search on your favorite search engine will yield hundreds of other good sites. Finally, use Amazon’s awesome “language” filter and look for popular books in Korean and get them mailed to you directly at your doorstep.

9. You’ll feel like you’ve reached a plateau. Don’t give up

Almost everybody, no matter how experienced they are at learning languages, feels like they stop making progress in their target language at one point or another in time. That’s normal. I’ve written a detailed post about reaching plateaus, so you might want to have a look at it.

Essentially, a lot of us feel like we reach plateaus at a certain point in time while in fact all what’s happening is that we simply learn at a slower pace. At the beginning when you start from a blank slate, you feel like you’re making a lot of progress quickly, since it’s easy to see how many new words you can now recognize compared to the previous day or week. However, as time goes by, the same amount of time invested in learning a language will yield smaller returns; in other words, our learning curve is not linear, but rather round-shaped (see the graph below). Don’t worry about it and remind yourself that it’s absolutely normal to feel this way. Just keep enjoying the language and don’t give up!


10. Make the language part of your life

Think about this for a moment: what are the things that you do every day in your native tongue? Just how many hours a day do you spend watching TV, reading the news, and talking with friends? Once you’ve reached a low intermediate level in the language, it’s time to really make it part of your life.

Whatever you enjoy doing in your native tongue can be enjoyed in a foreign language. Don’t see Korean as something you have to “study”, but rather something you can enjoy. Plus, make an effort to really immerse yourself in the language, by, for example, changing your language settings to Korean for things such as Facebook, YouTube, or even on your cellphone.

11. Plan a trip to Korea

Korean templeThat’s it, you’ve made it all the way up until here. You’ve kept your motivation high, consistently for a long period of time. You had clear goals when you started and you feel like you’ve reached a lot of them. In fact, maybe one of your goals was to visit Korea. Well now’s the time to actually do it!

If you want to work in Korea, you might want to consider teaching English there. Otherwise, why not travel around the peninsula for a few weeks and practice your newly-acquired Korean speaking skills? This will sure turn to be a memorable trip. If you’re interested, watch the recent interview I had with Brian Kwong, who cycled around Japan for over 10 weeks using his recently acquired Japanese skills. This might give you a couple of good ideas of what’s possible!

12. Find more engaging material, and keep going

Language learning is a lifelong journey with no clear destination. After all, you’ve begun this journey to enjoy the trip itself, didn’t you? Once you’ve reached an intermediate to high level of proficiency, just keep doing what’s worked for you up until now. Read interesting blogs, watch more movies, find literary gems, and, who knows, you might one day call Korea home!


That’s it. I’ve just shared with you what well over 6 years of experience learning Korean has taught me. Has this been useful to you in any kind of way? I sure do hope so! If you have any questions, remember that I always love to help others and I would be more than happy to respond to whatever you have in your mind. Let us know in the comments below why you’re interested in Korean, and if you’ve been learning it for some time, how your studies are going!

By Sam Gendreau

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