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

How to Learn Korean

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!

imagined-and-actual-learning-curve

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!

Conclusion

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! 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!

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  • Show Comments (21)

  • Sergio

    Some people say we can learn a languague from the very begining just by acquiring a lot of input through reading and listening, whithout relying on textbooks, even with no previous knowledge of the target language.
    Is that possible? I really have doubts about it!

    • Sergio, that’s a very good question. My personal opinion is that a (good) textbook is, while not absolutely necessary, a very good investment.For languages that are *very* similar to your mother tongue (say Italian and Spanish), technically you could probably get by through a lot of input and natural exposure to the language.

      But I think that for languages that are quite different from your native tongue, it’s definitely not the best way to go right from the beginning.

      Hope this helps!

      Sam

    • dannyR

      I depends on what you mean by ‘learn’, also on ‘some people’. Also on what language we’re talking about. To make a long story short, Korean, for anglophones has been identified consistently as one of the hardest of the, say, top 20. NSA (unclassified evaluation) and State Dept. have Korean and Japanese tied as the hardest, and given that they include the script among factors, Japanese is probably easier than Korean when strictly the spoken element is considered.

      Now ‘learn’ to me, if it has any relevant linguistic meaning, refers to the acquisition of a conversational level of a language. Certainly children do this strictly by listening, but children have a privileged position in the household while they are acquiring their native tongue: nobody expects too much of them! As an adult, I cannot hang around some Korean person’s home for 3 years. They are not going to patiently put up with me at the table and gear their questions toward me simply all the time.

      ‘bap?’ (=rice)
      ‘ne/ye.’ (=yes)

      Oh yeahhh…. Maybe for a few days, unless I can pay huge money to make it seem worth their while.

      Even worse for hanging out in the cafés and streets. Ain’t gonna happen. Street Korean is not the sort of thing…

      All that said, it is theoretically possible, if someone were to put together a great big all-video course that eschewed English and massively illustrated every phonetic, syntactic, grammatical, and pragmatic element of the language in a way that could be heard and seen. But that would only be the first/second stage booster. To get into conversational orbit, you have to take that material and start talking to people. Depending on natural ability that would take 1 month to a year.

      Although it would not be cheap to produce or buy,   in a sense so many of the courses I’ve seen, such as Talk To Me In Korean, et al. put forth such a massive (and often unscripted/undisciplined [TTMIK, eg., although they sound pseudo-spontaneously scripted, are almost completely spontaneous, except for the grammar point(s) in a given lesson] ) output it would actually be better to do so.

  • Thank you for having posted this. On a general context, I believe a bulk of the learning curve can be applied to a myriad of target languages with a few creative tweaks; consistency, among the top approach. – Saïd

  • Rob Reyes

    I lived in Korea for about 3 months this past year and picked up very little as I was staying with native english speakers. I did however make many friends who are completely bilingual. I am curious how to go about getting to a point in which I can have evan mini convorsations. As of right now I can only muster up, “hello and how are you” then my knowlege starts to fall off. I have the Living Language: Korean program, should I just keep working through that before I even start trying to talk to people, when do you reccomend starting to actually attempt real convorsations?

    • Hi Rob.

      Good question. Personally, I prefer to have a period of passive learning before starting to speak with natives, usually anywhere from 3 to 6 months. During this period, I go through one or two good textbooks (such as Living Language, as you mentioned, or Assimil), and I also listen to things such as podcasts in the native language, on top of regularly going through flashcards on a program such as Anki.

      That being said, while this is mostly a “passive” phase of learning for me, I still repeat words and sentences out loud. I also recommend having a private tutor or a language exchange partner (such as on italki http://bit.ly/1rLGNCJ), which can help you to get the language on your tongue.

      Ultimately, you are the one deciding when you feel comfortable starting having conversations with natives. If you have Korean friends for example, you could simply start by saying a few words in Korean here and then, and as you start to gradually feel more comfortable using the language and formulating entire sentences and thoughts, you can practice more and more with them.

      Finally, I recommend this awesome Anki deck, it’s really good! https://ankiweb.net/shared/info/1553971401

      Good luck!

  • Wilmer

    What would be a good next step after finishing an Assimil course?

    • Hi Wilmer. I listed quite a number of good books in this article. I would encourage you to look at the list. Some of the books I’ve listed come in series and have ”intermediate” books that build on the beginner ones. Assimil doesn’t have an advanced book for Korean, I believe, so you’d have to look for something else. Ross King’s book, entitled ”Continuing Korean”, is very thorough and professional. You can find it on Amazon here: http://amzn.to/1DXti3b

  • Bayne

    Isn’t Chinese subject-verb-object?
    i am studying it now and thats what i gathered….

    • Yes, I believe Chinese is mostly subject-verb-object (although often the order of words in Chinese is fairly flexible). Have I or someone else said otherwise?

  • kozushi

    I’d be interested to compare my skill level with the author of this article. I only lived in Korea for about a year back in the late 90s but Korean and Koreans have been a big part of my life for the past 18 years due to my family situation and frequent visits going both ways. I have had next to no opportunities to take any kind of formal class (of any worth) and I only had the chance to hire a good tutor once for a few weeks. Having said that, I have spent days on end with a few particular friends speaking lots of Korean, and recently, with more study and with a good tutor (who unfortunately had to go back to Korea a short while ago) I have improved a lot. I attend a Korean language church on Sundays which helps me learn the language as much as it spurs me to study harder due to the frustration of not understanding everything.

    I took the beginner level TOPIK test a few years back and scored an 87.5% therefore garnering me the beginner-advanced level certificate (effectively level 2 of 6 levels.)

    I agree wholeheartedly with the author of this article on every point. I will add a few things to help even more.

    1. Copy out lots of stuff in your textbooks in Hangeul. Learn to write through this method.
    2. Memorize new words by writing them out across the page in Hangeul.
    3. Read out loud sometimes to practice oral skills – not all the time though. I think I learn faster while reading silently as I can constantly reread harder parts with my eyes.

    4. Most importantly keep your enthusiasm high. One of my main problems is that it takes so much of my precious little free time that I wonder if I could be getting more out of life by reading English books. No, I won’t. I’ll get more out of life with Korean study. I have to keep thinking this!
    5. I think these books have been especially helpful amongst many for me:

    College Korean
    Intermediate College Korean
    Intermediate Korean Grammar (by Andrew Sangpil Byeon) – VERY precious! Your grammar worries are DONE!

    Intermediate Korean Reader
    but especially my Korean-English Bible

    Koreans use a huge number of words. Luckily they are based on a limited number of roots, for the most part. However, the language is no joke. The grammar is easy though, thank GOD!

    Like always, the problem is vocabulary acquisition.

    How am I ever going to fully master it so I can read novels and news stories fluently??? I want to know!

    • Thanks for your message and for sharing your experience, kozushi! I’ve recently won the KBS World Korean Speaking Contest. If you’d like to see me speaking Korean, have a look at the following link: http://world.kbs.co.kr/english/event/koreancontest_2014/visit/special.htm

      Thanks again for commenting, and don’t give up learning Korean! It’s a hard language to learn, but it’s a truly enriching experience. Good luck!

      • kozushi

        Okay, wow! Congratulations! You’re definitely better than I am. I could understand everything you and the other folks said in the video (including the French parts – I’m Canadian, so I speak French and English.) You definitely should stay there, and you should marry a Korean and have a good life! I really enjoy my life with my Korean wife and I love the links I have with Korea through her and through others I have made myself.

        Having a tutor is critical to learning the language. I’d say the most effective method is with a tutor (who also assigns readings, writings and such), followed by a taking a live human class, followed by some kind of online class, followed by self study only. My method has really just been self study (mainly I’d say reading the Korean-English Bible since I don’t have to use a dictionary), along with listening to people talking to my wife or each other, attending Korean language church, and chatting with people where possible.

        The biggest problem in language acquisition, I think, is looking up words in the dictionary. If you have a daily class you attend, then you can devote time to it, and that’s fine. Sure, look up 20 words a day and learn to read a new passage every day, and memorize the words. Sure. That’s fine and it can work. The problem is for us who work all day and are tired at night. In this case I can’t see anything being better than having a real live tutor, maybe twice or more a week. To my knowledge that is what all the best non native speakers of the language have. There is nothing as effective as human to human speaking and explanation in the target language, accompanied with some kind of textual focus to develop literary skills too.

        I’ve gotten to the point where I am perfectly comfortable in any kind of every day situation in Korean. The problem is how to get past this to where I can read novels and understand the news! Whenever I try, the number of words I have to look up is astounding!

        I am honestly at an impasse right now in regards to learning the language. Any advice you might have I would quite receptively attend to!

        Korea has a fascinating civilization. It is one of a very few nations that based itself on the classical Chinese model, yet remained independent and culturally completely distinct from China. The Korean people are a very fine looking people and very healthy. They hold study and learning in high regard and are very diligent. They hold gentility and respect also in high regard. On the whole, in spite of finding the country quite unique and fascinating, in terms of its values and maybe due to participating in the same modern first world international culture, it is so extremely similar to Canada that I feel right at home. The similar climate helps of course too! Very weird! I’ve bounced this idea off other people I know, both Korean and Canadian, who have lived in both countries, and they all think as I do. It’s a very eerie similarity in terms of values and aspirations. Really, really strange! Maybe neither country being a major world power, historically or economically, plays into that. Maybe both having had to deal with much larger and more powerful foreign cultures, empires, and powers also plays into that. Anyways, it’s a very nice congruence!

  • kozushi

    Possibly the most effective solo method is to read out loud to yourself, practicing reading, speaking, and listening at once.

  • dannyR

    Forget about Elementary Korean, King & Yeon. This is a hard textbook, even for the university courses it’s intended for. Pedagogically obtuse, its magisterial reputation doesn’t make up for the trouble and hard work that even elite students—often polyglottish high-level L2 learners who are getting heavy assistance online and in-class and in-office—must do their homework on. This was never intended for autodidacts anyway. Believe me; I was in Korean class at King’s own university.

    I’ll even step out and recommend this:

     Top picks:

        Elementary Korean, Second Edition, by Ross King and Jaehoon Yeon
        Korean Made Easy for Beginners, by Seung-eun Oh
        Korean Made Simple: A beginner’s guide to learning the Korean language, by BillyGo
        .
        .

    Living Language’s Korean, by Roh, is a better bet; Routledge’s is a close second.

  • Saylem1000

    I just wanted to point out that KBS World TV has hundreds of hours of shows posted on their Youtube. I’ve been enjoying my listening practice since their variety shows are engaging…

    • Yes, that’s true! They have a great YouTube channel, and of course the website is great too, with lots of articles, radio shows, and more.

  • Noura Abushamleh

    Hey great article! I was just wondering how long it took you to become comfortable speaking Korean?

  • BTS

    Exceptional article! I really learned a lot. I was wondering how you would be able to talk to people in Korea if you didn’t look like them and they wouldn’t give you a chance. Especially if you wanted to be in a relationship with them, how would that work?

  • Pony Kick

    I have found a blog that has koren drama transcript for some kdramas.
    Here is the link, maybe it can be helpful for korean learners:
    http://practicekorean dot weebly dot com/

  • Angelo tindoc

    I want to know korean language couze I want to work to that country..

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