The Korean language is an East Asian language spoken by some 77 million people in North and South Korea. It's a language isolate, meaning that it isn't really related to any other languages even though it's got some influences from Japanese and Chinese. It's got it's own, exotic looking alphabet, called Hangul and it's pretty complicated in terms of grammar and vocabulary.
But you probably already know that! You know Korean is a challenge, but you're going to learn it anyway! Good for you!
The reason you clicked on this article is that you have a question:
How long does it take to learn Korean?
The time it takes to learn the Korean language depends on many things, and in all honesty, it's almost impossible to take anything into consideration. However, if you're an English speaker, wanting to learn Korean at an lower intermediate (B1) level, you've got experience with learning languages, you're reasonable highly motivated, and you study 1½ hours every day: I believe that it would take you about 3 years to reach your goals.
The number might seem high, and it is! But Korean quite different from English, which means that it'll take quite a lot of time getting used to. If the above description doesn't fit you, I encourage you to go and try my language study time calculator, which is a tool that I've developed in order to figure out how long languages take to learn. (Or you can scroll down to see a few different examples).
Or you can read on in order to get a better idea about the different factors that play a role when figuring out how long Korean takes to learn.
First, there are some aspects of the Korean language specifically that play an important role in deciding how long you need to spend to become fluent:
The Korean Alphabet, Hangul Can Be Learned Surprisingly Quickly!
The Korean alphabet is called Hangul, and when you first see it, it might remind you of other exotic scripts from East Asia like the Chinese Hanzi characters or the writing systems used in Japanese.
Chinese is known for its insane amount of characters. To learn to correctly read or write Chinese, you need to master 3-5.000 unique symbols which in itself is quite daunting.
With Korean, however, you're in luck.
While the Korean alphabet looks like the same kind of script that's used in Chinese, it's noting like it!
Instead of 5.000 characters, the Korean Hangul alphabet has:
Add to that, that the Korean alphabet was designed specifically to be easy to learn. It's actually an alphabet that you can learn in an afternoon.
So in other words, the Korean Hangul alphabet is not one of the factors making the language time consuming.
What About Korean Pronunciation? How Long Does It Take To Master It?
What about the pronunciation then?
Korean pronunciation isn't as easy as learning the alphabet, and it might add a little to the total time needed in order to learn the language.
Let me start by saying that the pronunciation isn't the worst in the world. For one thing, the alphabet is phonetic, meaning that Korean words are pronounced exactly the way they're spelled. This might not be a huge help at first, but once you've mastered Korean pronunciation, you can pronounce any word just from reading how it's written.
Compare this to English, which have 7 different ways of pronouncing the letter combination "ough" and you'll realize how advantageous this is!
I've discussed the difficulties in pronouncing Korean before, but generally, it's the small differences that make it challenging. Korean has a lot of sounds that are subtly different from English - and it takes some time to get used to not pronouncing them like in English. An example of these could be the aspirated vs un-aspirated letters, or simply the sounds to which there are no equivalents in English.
For an example of some of those sounds, watch the below video.
Korean Grammar Will Take Some Time To Get Used To
In Korean, you will have to deal with the fact that the word order is subject-object-verb, which is quite different from the English language's subject-verb-object word order. While it isn't terrible complicated to wrap your head around a sentence like "I to the bank go" it becomes quite a lot more complicated when the sentences get longer.
Korean is also known for its honorifics. There are separate noun and word endings as well as specific words that are used depending on the "level of politeness" you're using. One challenge is to learn all the correct words and endings, whereas another is to figure out when they apply.
7 different "classes" of honorifics exist depending on who you're speaking to, and while you're unlikely to end up using or needing all of them, there are a great deal of different word forms and specifically adapted words that you need to know in order to speak correctly (and not insult someone).
Other aspects of Korean grammar are very simple and won't take a lot of time to learn, such as verb conjugation. But generally, I'd say that things such as the honorific system and the word order will demand a lot more study time than it's the case with languages that are related to English.
OK, that was a little bit about the Korean language, but there are a lot of other important variables that don't have anything to do the the specific language, but are more about you and your study regimen.
Your Background (Linguistically And Educationally) Plays An Important Role In Determining How Fast You Can Learn Korean
One of the most important factors to take into consideration when figuring out how long it'll take you to learn Korean is you.
You, or your background plays an important role when judging your capacities for learning a new language.
If you've already taught yourself a language (or two? or three?) you'll have a clear advantage. Even if you've just studied French in high school you'll be one step ahead.
Because you'll have an idea about what to expect from a foreign language. Even if Swahili (or French, or Uzbek) isn't at all related to Korean, having some notions about how another language works will make you aware of other ways of expressing yourself than English, and that's the important thing:
Being monolingual is the biggest obstacle, because it'll be hard to accept the Korean language. Having already surpassed that, will make things easier. You'll have broken through the glass ceiling.
This doesn't mean, however, that you can't learn Korean if you only speak English. It just might take a little longer.
Your general educational background, too, plays a role. If you're used to being disciplined with studying on your own, taking notes, setting goals and meeting them, and accepting that mastery is a long-time project you'll be better off than someone who's not that experienced when it comes to bookish learning.
The Level Of Korean You're Aiming For Is An Obvious Factor
Most people who set out to learn a foreign language don't really consider what kind of level they're aiming for. They're going to learn the language to fluency, and that's pretty much it!
But what is fluency actually?
People have different definitions of the term "fluency" and while some consider it "to be able to pass as a native speaker", others are satisfied with simply getting by in the language, ordering train-tickets without having to rely on English and being able to strike up conversations with cashiers - and so on.
Which level you aim for is up to you, but you need to be aware that there is a huge difference in the time and effort needed in order to reach these different levels.
The language proficiency levels that most people use as a reference are the CEFR-levels (The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages).
The CEFR-levels are A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2, the latter being the highest level where you're professionally and academically proficient in the language in ways that may even surpass naive speakers.
In the other level of the spectrum is A1, which is the "beginner" stage in a language. A0 is sometimes used for referring to complete beginners, or people who have no knowledge of the language. (Yet).
The upper levels, C1 and especially C2 will take a long time to reach in any language. In Korean it's even worse. But you need to ask yourself if you really need to aim for an advanced level on the get-go.
Can't, if not only, your initial goal be just just be conversational in Korean? You'll archive this by going for the B1 level, or perhaps the B2 level if you're ambitious. Once you've reached that, you can continue on and reach for new heights, but in my opinion, the intermediate, or upper intermediate level is a good level to aim for when studying Korean.
Aiming for B1 instead of C1 might save you several years in your Korean-learning journey. And that's something!
How Motivated Are You For Learning Korean?
To really get anywhere in Korean, you need to be highly motivated. Motivation not only keeps you going, it also makes learning more pleasurable which in itself makes you more receptacle to foreign language input. (And that might make you more motivated!)
And someone who's absolutely crazy about the Korean language and the world and culture that it unveils will have a clear and strong advantage over someone who's merely learning Korean in order to add something impressive to his or her CV.
If you watch Korean movies for fun and listen to Korean music in your spare-time, the Korean language will seem appealing and enticing to you when you're studying it.
But if, on the other hand, your Korean studies is just something that you need to get out of the way each day - it's going to take much longer and frankly, be a struggle.
How Consistently You Study Korean Is Important
If you want to learn Korean as fast as possible, you need to study regularly and consistently.
In fact, the more often you study, the more efficient your efforts will be. This is all about keeping the Korean language fresh in your mind. Studying at least once per day is a must, and if you can squeeze in more than one daily study session you'll be better off.
In my experience, studying 20 minutes, 3 times a day will be better than studying for one hour, once a day. And a single, one-hour session per day is much better than studying 7 hours during the weekend.
I'd actually argue that the very long study sessions would be worth a lot less, because you won't be able to stay focused and get the full benefit out of your studies when you do it for a very long time.
Several short study sessions has the opposite effect. They'll be short enough for you to be fully focused for the whole 20 minutes and the fact that you'll be getting back to the language several times per day will keep your mind working on learning Korean throughout the day when you're doing other things.
If you're not consistent with your Korean studies, on the other hand, learning the language will take longer. Skipping a day here and there might not represent a serious set-back, but if you don't study for a week, or if you go on a longer hiatus, you'll need to spend a lot of time revising once you get back to studying - and if you want to reach your goals, you've lost time that you need to make up for.
Add to that, that pauses, breaks and hiatuses can be hard on your motivation. You run the risk of getting lazy and loosing your language learning habit, and this way, a break can actually be the end of your project of learning Korean. (It happens more often than you think!)
A Few Scenarios For How Long It Might Take To Learn Korean
As you might have been able to gather from the above, figuring out how long it'll take you to learn Korean depends on a lot of factors.
I have, however, tried to come up with 3 scenarios for different learners and used my study time calculator to get a ball-park estimate.
Please do keep in mind that the below estimates are very rough, and that reaching your goals in Korean could go both ways depending on you and your situation.
For the sake of this example, I am going to assume that you're aiming for the lower intermediate level of Korean, or B1.
And now to the examples:
A very experienced language learner who's already self-taught him- or herself one or multiple languages, who's very highly motivated, who studies several times a day, for a total of 3 hours a day, should be able to reach the B1 level of Korean in 9 months. (But mind you, this is a rare situation!)
Someone who's got some experience with languages, who's highly motivated, who studies once every day for 1½ hours, could reach the B1 level in Korean in 2 years and 9 months.
If you're inexperienced with language learning, but have some experience studying in general, moderately motivated, study once a day for 1 hour, you can reach the B1 level of Korean in 6 years.
For a language like Korean, putting in less than an hour a day, being inconsistent and demotivated almost certainly equals you not reaching your goals.
When you try and calculate the total study time based on these kinds of variables, the numbers end up very imprecise and the number of years needed to reach your goals will probably mean that you will give up before getting there, especially if your motivation and drive isn't at a high level.
That being said, if you're not very motivated and if you cannot consistently put in the time that it takes to learn Korean, it might still be worth starting now rather than later if only you are sure to be able to dedicate more time and effort to learning Korean at a later stage.
Conclusion: How Long Does It Take To Learn Korean?
It's not an easy question. It depends. And it depends on a lot of things.
An English speaker studying Korean on his or her own could reach an intermediate level in the language in under a year, in 3 years, in 6 years or maybe never.
There's no doubt that Korean is one of the most time consuming languages to learn for an English speaker.
I say "time consuming" and not "difficult" because I don't really believe in language "difficulty" as such. Children learn all sorts of languages all the time, as you know, and that's not because they're little geniuses, but because they stay surrounded by the language for an extended period of time.
Learning languages is a question of time, but in order to make it work, you also need to be motivated, disciplined, consistent and you have to really want it. (In this regard, children have no choice!) If you can only put in 30 minutes a day, so be it. Reaching an intermediate level in Korean might take 10 years, but if you keep at it without giving up, you will, one day, get there.
My advice to you, however, is to preferably spend at least 1,5 hours a day, break your study time up into short study sessions, be consistent and try being critical of your method without sticking with something ineffective for too long.
If you take this seriously, you're set for becoming conversationally fluent in Korean.. (Eventually).
Go read my article entitled "How To Learn Korean By Yourself".