Korean is the language of 70-80 million people in mostly North and South Korea. There are, however, a big number of Koreans in China, Japan and the US as well. In the last few years, there's been a growing interest in the Korean language.
This might be due to politics to some degree, but more importantly the Korean K-pop music scene, Korean television and and food. These are all things that are starting to get noticed in the rest of the world and is one of the reasons why the interest in learning Korean is booming. Even so, it's difficult to find good information about learning the Korean language online, which is why I've decided to write this guide on how to learn Korean.
Learning Korean is not difficult, but it can take a long time. Start by learning the alphabet, then pick up a beginner's guide and follow it. Afterwards you need to focus on learning grammar and vocabulary through sentences and then it's time to start reading. The last stage of learning the Korean language is to focus on speaking and writing. And then you've reached your goal!
Check out my article called "Is Korean Hard To Learn?".
Learn Hangul, the Korean alphabet
When browsing a bookstore or a library for Korean language learning materials, you'll notice that the books that are written on the subject often tend to rely on transliteration. Instead of using the Korean alphabet to teach Korean, words are written up in the Latin script. This is really a shame!
The Korean alphabet is exceptionally simple, it is designed especially with the Korean language in mind, and it's easy to learn!
Hangul was created in the 15'th century by the Korean king Sejong the Great. It was made with the intention of being simple, easy to learn and to fit the Korean language. It has around 24 letters. Or up to 40 depending on how you count. The letters are pronounced exactly the way they're written. Hangul is written linearly from left to right like the Latin alphabet that we use for English.
One difference, however, is that individual letters are combined into blocks forming syllables. So you'll see the letters of an individual syllable stacked in top of each other in a block, with the blocks following one another. This is the reason that people sometimes imagine that the Korean language has a complicated script like Chinese Hanzi where you need to learn several hundred symbols by heart. Hangul looks difficult when you don't know what it is, but in reality it is really easy.
The word "Hangul" written out. Notice how this is 6 letters grouped in to two syllables. Not that scary, right?
Getting used to reading and writing Korean Hangul
Hangul is so simple that it can be learned in 15 minutes. Here's a fun comic that utilizes some great mnemonic techniques to help you learn the alphabet in no time.
As much as I admire the idea behind the above comic, however, I like to learn in a more structured and relaxed way. If you're anything like me, here's what I propose: Watch the below video as well as the one following it on the same YouTube channel.
In these two videos, you get a thorough walk-through of the Hangul writing system. Even though the system is simple, watching the two videos in one sitting is a lot of information. So don't worry about making all of the information stick.
Using Anki to drill the Korean alphabet with flashcards
For making it stick, I recommend that you try using flashcards. I recommend that you use the Iphone or Android app Anki for this. Anki is better than old fashioned paper-flashcards, mainly because you can add sound to your cards. You can either make your own "deck" of flashcards, or you can download one that someone else made. Anki is a tool that many use in language learning. It can actually be used in a huge amount of ways to study sentences. If you're going to dive deeper into using Anki, you'll want to make your own flashcards and customize them to your liking. For learning the Hangul characters, however, there's no need to get advanced.
How to learn Korean Hangul using Anki
When you study the Hangul characters with Anki, you're first shown the individual letter. Try to remember its pronunciation and say it out loud, while writing it neatly on a piece of paper. Then click "show answer". You'll hear an audio sound of the a word using the letter. Repeat out loud. And do try to mimic the rhythm as well as the pronunciation as well as you can. Now write out the complete word in Korean, spelling out loud as you write. Depending on how well you knew the pronunciation, you may choose between "again" "good" or "easy". Depending on which one you choose, the card will be scheduled for review later. I recommend that you don't choose "easy" if you just started learning the Korean alphabet. Spend your first day of using Anki doing reviews a few times now and then.
Getting a beginner's course for Korean - or two
In the same time as you're working on the Korean alphabet with Anki, you should also begin studying the language with a beginner's course. Surprisingly, there aren't as many good Korean language guides out there as you'd imagine. One that I do recommend is Teach Yourself Korean. Teach Yourself is a language learning series that presents the language through dialogues that gradually become more and more complicated. The disadvantage of the Korean edition is that it relies a lot of transliteration instead of just writing Korean in the Hangul script.
But you can still learn a significant amount of Korean from Teach Yourself. I recommend that you study with teach yourself every day. In the morning, for example!
How to study Korean using a beginner's book
First read the English text to get an idea about what's going on. Then read the Korean text while listening to the recording. Try reading out loud the Korean text again while listening to the sentences one by one. Repeat after the Korean speaker as well as you can and make sure to mimic the melody, intonation and pronunciation. The Korean language has another melody than English, so mimicry is very important! Then read the explanations and notes and have a go at the drills and exercises. The teach yourself series is focused quite a lot on grammar explanations and exercises. I find that the dialogues have the biggest value in terms of learning. So unless you enjoy the grammar drills - you can skim trough them a little less thoroughly.
For each new lesson, I always go through the 5-10 previous lessons that I've already studied. Listening to the phrases again and trying to mimic them helps with internalizing the content you've studied. You'll find, however, that you still forget a lot! Don't worry about it! You're only in the introductory phases of learning Korean, so the things that don't stick now will become easier later.
Adding a second beginner's course to your daily routine
When I study foreign languages, I find that it is extremely helpful to use two courses in parallel. This makes for a more varied learning experience and it's useful in making new information stick. Why? Because seeing something from another perspective or from another point of view helps create stronger bonds in your brain.
No matter how much you review things you've already studied, it remains the same content. Hearing another voice using the same word in another context allows you to recognize something that you know vaguely. This moment of "recognizing" something is extremely important in language learning. Your brain will suddenly realize that the information is important, and it will remember it with much more ease.
For a second beginner's course, I'd like to recommend one of my favorite beginner's series called Assimil. Assimil relies less on grammar and drills than Teach Yourself and its dialogues are of high quality. The only problem is that they don't have anything for learning Korean! At least not for English speakers. If you speak French, however, I warmly recommend Assimil Le Coréen.
Since there are so few good courses available out there for learning Korean, I suggest that your have a look on the one from FSI. The Foreign Service Institute is an American government institution. They're in charge of teaching US diplomats foreign languages. And their language learning materials are free online!
So please go have a look at Foreign Service Institute Korean. The content might seem a little dated, but it has a lot of useful dialogues along with audio recordings that you can use for your daily studies. If you make a habit of studying with Teach Yourself each morning, why not do your FSI lessons in the evening?
Take your Korean to the next step with Glossika
When you're about a third into your Teach Yourself Korean book and the FSI or Assimil course, it's time to start branching out. At this point, I really enjoy studying with the language learning program Glossika. Glossika is a great system for helping you with your listening comprehension, pronunciation and grammar.
Glossika has an archive of several thousand sentences in Korean. The idea is that you learn grammar through habitually seeing it in context. In a way, you learn Korean the way a Korean child would, only in a more effective way.
Think about how you learned your native language. You didn't do grammar drills and make exercises about correct conjugation, I'm sure. But you instinctively know how to speak correctly. And using the language incorrectly sounds like nails on a blackboard.
When you study through Glossika, you are taught sentences that gradually evolve in its grammar patterns, so you stay focused. Even though you're introduced to new sentences, they come in an order where each following sentence is related to the previous one in terms of grammar and vocabulary.
How to use Glossika to study Korean
The Glossika Korean study interface
This is how it works: When opening the Glossika study screen, you first get five new sentences to study. I recommend that you do 5-20 new sentences per day. It seems quite doable, but note that they will be scheduled for later review several times. So don't overdo it at first! In your first batch of 5 sentences, you'll see the English sentence as well as the Korean translation. You hear the English once, then the Korean twice. After first hearing the English sentence, try reading out loud the Korean sentence. Then after it has been played, try repeating. Do so in the same speed, and try mimicking the voice as well as you can. You don't have a lot of time!
While it is possible to slow down the speed of the recordings, I don't recommend that you do so. Get used to the speed of Korean from the start, and you'll have an advantage later.
Reps or reviews while studying Korean with Glossika
After doing your first 5-20 sentences, you've finished for the day. 12-24 hours later, however, you'll see that the sentences you've studied are now scheduled for review. Do these before adding any new sentences.
Doing reviews is one of the cornerstones of Glossika. It's through repeating again and again that you'll internalize the specific aspects of the Korean language. The system that Glossika uses is based on an algorithm that gradually schedules your reviews further and further into the future. The algorithm is a mathematical model used to try and predict when you're about to forget the sentence - and then it'll remind you just before that happens! If a sentence is difficult, you can mark it as such, and Glossika will schedule it a little sooner. If it's easy you can tag it to be scheduled a little more rarely. Read more about Glossika on my review of the program here.
Reading in Korean to improve your vocabulary
After you've been working with Glossika for a few weeks, it's time to add something new to your daily routine. Reading is an extremely important discipline in language learning. It permits you to gain a larger vocabulary quickly and improve your grammar. Yet reading is something that many consider a little difficult to approach at first when learning Korean. How do you approach reading, when you're still in the lower intermediate stages. Do you have to read only children's stories for months before being able to read interesting texts in Korean? No, definitely not. But you need to find the right approach to reading.
The most obvious approach to making difficult texts more approachable is to keep a dictionary at hand and look up everything you don't know. In reality, however, this is a bad idea. Constantly pausing, opening a dictionary, searching for a minute or two, and trying to make sense of a word does not make for a pleasurable experience. It drains motivation. And it doesn't even work that well. You loose track of the story line in no time, and you'll remember neither what the book is about, nor what you just looked up 5 minutes ago.
Reading Korean texts online with Google Dictionary
Using Google Dictionary to read a Korean article about rabbits and their love for carrots.
A better way to go about unknown words is using a tool like a pop-up dictionary. Google has made a really good browser extension for the Chrome browser called "Google Dictionary". This extension lets you click any word, anywhere on the internet and get an instant translation. This is much better than using a paper dictionary, because the amount of time you spend on the look-ups is much less significant. Even so - aim for relatively easy material. If you're not sure how to find articles on your topic of interest, try using Google Translate on your search query. Search for something you'd normally be interested in reading in English.
Using LingQ to study Korean texts and build your vocabulary
One of my favorite tools for language learning is LingQ. With LingQ, you import Korean texts into their system and study them through its interface. The Korean text will be analyzed by LingQ and the vocabulary in the text will be compared to texts you've previously studied. Words you haven't studied before will show up in blue. Words you've looked up earlier but are unsure about are yellow and known words are without color markings.
Looking up Korean words in LingQ
Using "hints" with LingQ
When you look up an unknown word, you'll get a few suggestions from LingQ as to what it might mean. These are the most common translations that other people have chosen. I suggest, however, that you create your own hint instead of just picking a translation. Try writing a synonym in Korean or explaining in Korean what the word is about. If this is too difficult, then try at least writing an English explanation in your own words.
This seems like a little thing, but it is actually extremely important for learning vocabulary. It's about creating connections in your brain. The more actions you do in relation to the new word, the tighter a network of information your brain will weave. So to speak! Looking up the word. Thinking about the word definition. Writing down your own take on it. These are all activities that help you create a relationship with that word rather than just look at an instant translation and carry on.
As you work your way through more and more texts with LingQ, you'll grow your vocabulary and gradually get a better understanding for how written Korean works. Choosing new texts to study will become easier, because LingQ analyzes texts for you before you start studying them. Does it have 40% unknown words? Then maybe you're not ready yet. 2%? Then try aiming for something a little more challenging. If you'd like to learn more about LingQ, please go read my review of LingQ.
Reading Korean with parallel texts
Another great way of making Korean texts accessible for the Korean learner, is to read a Korean text side by side with the English Translation. First, you read a sentence, a paragraph or perhaps a whole chapter in English. Then the corresponding text in Korean. When reading the English text, you get an idea about the plot, and what's "written between the lines". You'd normally understand all the English vocabulary, so when reading the Korean counter-part, everything makes sense. This method won't let you magically know all the words in Korean, but it allows you to focus on the story in Korean without missing out on important information.
I've read Harry Potter in quite a few languages by using this approach. But you could really pick anything. There are quite a few books out there that exist in both languages. Have a look at the Korean bestseller "Please look after mom" in English as well as Korean.
Rereading your favorite book in Korean translation
You probably have a favorite book that you've read over and over and never get tired of. Maybe you even have several. A great way to make Korean text transparent is to reread these books in Korean. You already know the story and you really love how it's written. This makes for really great language learning conditions, so try picking up the Korean translation of it and have a go at it. I've read "The stranger" by Albert Camus over a dozen times in 3-4 languages so far and I never get tired of it. If you like that kind of novel, it also has the advantage of being very simply written and using a minimal vocabulary. The same goes for Earnest Hemingway and many other great writers.
Start speaking and writing Korean
So you've finished your Teach Yourself Korean course and the FSI book. You've got a daily routine of reading with LingQ. And you're a few thousand reps into the Glossika sentences. Now's the time to start taking speaking and writing more seriously.
I recommend that you go look for a Korean tutor. On Italki you can find a great number of talented Korean tutors. Go have a look and pick one out you think you'd be able to work with.
Once you're in contact with your tutor, lay down a plan with him or her as to what kind of routine you'd like to establish. I recommend that you take charge of your tutoring sessions. You're the one who's paying for it, so you decide how it's going to work. And if it doesn't work out with one tutor, don't hesitate to go look for another one.
Some tutors have their own suggestions to exercises, learning materials, approaches and so on. I suggest that you request that the tutoring sessions be conversation only. You decide on a topic beforehand. Then you spend 30-45 minutes conversing about this topic in Korean. Try to keep corrections and explanations to a minimum. Your tutor can write up a little report for that afterwards. But for the sessions, stay focused on conversing in Korean.
After finishing the conversation, sit down and a write about the topic you just discussed. In the beginning, you might want to write 100-300 words, but as you get better and more comfortable, you can write longer texts. Send the text to your tutor and have him or her correct it. Once you get it back, make sure to take note of the corrections. But don't sweat it if it doesn't stick at first.
Language exchange and language partners
Tutoring can be costly. So make sure you get your money's worth when you decide to take this road. There are free alternatives that you might want to check out, though. Language exchange is when two language learners partner up and act as a tutor for one another.
It shouldn't be too difficult to find a Korean out there who wants your help learning English. It might, however, take some time finding someone who has the same ambitions and perseverance as you have. If your tutor isn't getting paid, he or she will need another kind of motivation to do a good job of it. You'll need to be an exellent English tutor yourself if you expect a lot from your language partner. This means that you'll need to spend a significant amount of time and energy on helping him or her with English. Time you would prefer spending on speaking Korean.
Wether you choose to hire a tutor, or you find a great language buddy, carry on with your tutoring sessions. Do them 2-3 times per week. And keep reading every day as well as doing your reps with Glossika. If you keep all of this up, you'll be guaranteed to become fluent in Korean. It takes work, discipline and patience. But once you get there, it's a fantastic feeling of achievement!