So you’ve decided to start learning Korean. Welcome to the club! We meet on Tuesdays and Susan’s mom usually makes us snacks. Just kidding. (We actually meet on Wednesdays and it’s BYOB.)
In all seriousness though, I’m glad your interested in beginning to study Korean. Whether it’s just out of curiosity or you’ve moved to Korea (or are about to), studying the language can be a really rewarding experience. But you’re probably asking yourself “Where the hell do I start?”
Good news! Today’s post is filled to the brim with my tips on getting started on your language learning journey.
Step 1: Know your motivation and goals
Quick, go grab some paper and a pen (or use the notes app on your phone if you’re too lazy to get up. No judgement, sometimes the couch is just too comfy to leave). Now what I want you to do is any and all reasons you might want to learn Korean (or any other language you might want to learn). This is an important step because you need to know that you are properly motivated to start this language learning process.
Some of you may think you don’t need this step, but it can still be helpful to at least think about. Do you want to learn Korean because you like Kpop and Kdramas? Or because you want to talk to your significant other’s (or your own) family? Or because your an ESL teacher that got placed in a small Korean village where no one speaks English and you’re the only foreigner?
Each of these is a perfectly valid reason to start learning Korean, and there are tons more reasons than I could possibly think of because each person is unique and what motivates me might not be what motivates you. The reason I (and so many other language bloggers as well) think it’s important to know your motivations is it will keep you from wasting time.
And if one of my steps below doesn’t match up with your personal goals? Then ignore it! It’s your language learning journey, you do you. Only want to understand what your favorite Kpop song is saying? Or maybe you only want to read Korean comic books? Then you can decide how much speaking or listening practice you feel you need. I personally believe that the more well-rounded your studies are (as in reading, writing, speaking, and listening) the better you will understand the language overall.
Step 2: Start learning Hangul
This is one of the most important steps you can take as you start to study Korean. Yes, there are usually romanization/pronunciation guides written into study materials, but you want to get away from them as fast as possible. It’s nearly impossible to perfectly translate the sounds of Korean into the Latin alphabet, and I personally found it much easier to learn the sounds of the letters rather than trust the romanization. You want to teach your brain that “ㅓ” makes a sound like the “o” in “computer” rather than reading the “eo” that is written in the romanization and thinking it makes an “e-oh” sound (which I totally did when I started learning the language. Please tell me some of you made the same mistake?).
I first started learning Hangul using a video series from Busy Atom (which it no longer seems to offer, unfortunately). As an alternative, I recommend this YouTube video, which does a good job of introducing you to the basic sounds as well as the stroke order for writing the letters. There is also a course available through Memrise, a flashcard-style system of learning (available as an app for Apple and Android), which will help you learn all the possible sounds the letters can make in all of their combinations. I will say that I think the Memrise course is best started after you’ve already been introduced to Hangul through another source, but that’s just because I believe a walk-though of the letters is helpful before you start to study flashcards.
But if pre-made courses like Memrise don’t work for you (I’m the same way), see below for my other tips on memorizing new information.
Step 3: Find a textbook, podcast, or class that will work for you
The next important step is finding some resources that work for you. This will take some trial and error, but I recommend trying to find two or three solid sources of learning material. You want to have a variety of things (podcasts, texts, classes, websites, etc) so that way you learn the material in different ways. I’ve found that if you don’t understand the way something is explained in one source, it can be helpful to have another book or podcast to turn to.
But maybe you’ve decided to take a class instead of just studying on your own. That’s great too! I’m actually about to start my first Korean class (and I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes!), but I plan on keeping my other resources around to help supplement what I learn in class.
I’ve personally been using the following resources to teach myself Korean:
- Talk to Me in Korean, which is a great series of podcasts available for free. They also provide free PDFs with every lesson (so you could print them off yourself if you wanted) or you can purchase one of their numerous books. I’ve not personally used any of their books, but I have always heard good things abut them.
- My Korean 1 & 2 by Young-A Cho, In-Jung Cho, and Douglas Ling. This is a textbook created for Australian universities, and I received a PDF copy from a friend. I don’t do a lot with this particular book, but I find it’s explanations to be helpful to make sure I actually understand something
- 열린 한국어 한글을 배워요! (Open Korean: Let’s Learn Hangul!) English Version Beginner’s Book. This is my textbook for my Korean class that I’m about to start (you can see a picture of it above). It’s the first in the series (there are multiple levels) and this particular one seems to cover the basics of learning to read Hangul. I’ll possibly be posting a review after I’ve used it for a while.
The important thing here is that you find some resources that you like. It’s perfectly fine if you try one out and it doesn’t work for you. You don’t have to run out and buy the expensive Rosetta Stone sets or any other “fancy” language program. Just experiment and enjoy the process of finding your learning style
Step 4: Flashcards
Or literally any method that helps you memorize new information and word. Once you start learning all that new vocabulary your podcasts and books are going to teach you, you want a way to remember it.
I use Anki, which is a Spaced Repetition System (SRS) style flashcard program. This basically means that you will be shown a word before you have a chance to forget it. It’s available as a free download computer program for Mac and Windows (scroll down to the bottom of the link above to find the right version for your computer), a web version (just click the “sign up” or “log in” buttons at the top to get started), or as an app for Apple (which costs money) or Android (which is free). There are tons of decks on Anki that you can just download and study from, or you can make your own.
I personally do better when I make my own flashcards (either digital or physical) rather than use premade decks. I just find that I’m able to remember the information better when I force myself to make my study materials. But if flashcards aren’t your style, I recommend creating a language journal. Ron over at Language Surfer does a fantastic job explaining what a language journal is and how you can make one for yourself. I also use this method: I write down the words I plan on making flashcards out of into my little notebook so I have it all together. This way, I can “batch” making flashcards (because even digitally, I find it a tedious chore and I don’t want to do it more often that I have to) by making a bunch of cards all at once, but I won’t have to go digging through all of my sources again.
Regardless of how you study your new vocabulary words, make sure it’s something that you’ll want to do every day. Because the more you review your words, the more likely they are to stick in your brain.
Step 5: Talk to Native Speakers.
Or talk at your cat. Either way, get lots of speaking practice. You’ll never be able to speak a language if you never practice actually saying the words. Your brain needs practice pulling the words from your memory and your mouth needs to learn how to form all of the sounds in the correct order/pronunciation.
Back in America I totally practiced saying the new words I was learning my talking at my cat or to myself while driving to and from work. Now, I talk to Treebeard (our air plant that lives in our window) when I’m studying at home, but I also try to always use as much Korean as I can when I’m out about town.
Even with all of your “solo practice,” it’s really important to try and talk to people that speak Korean. Not only is it a great way to work out your listening skills, it’s also a chance for someone else to help you with any pronunciation issues you might be having. In Korean, some of the vowels are very similar in sound (especially to foreign ears that are still learning) and even though you think you have the right word, because you said the wrong vowel you’ve completely changed what word you said.
There are lots of ways you can get your speaking practice in. I personally try to talk to Koreans around town as much as possible, because who doesn’t love free practice? I’ve also experimented with recording myself on my phone and listening to it. Here are some other great ways to get speaking practice (that work for any language that you might want to learn, not just Korean):
- italki: This website has a couple of different ways to practice your language. You can pay a small fee for a Skype session with a professional tutor, have a free Skype session with another person learning the language, or you can just chat with other learners through text.
- HelloTalk: Here we have an app that allows you to text/chat with other language learners. You create a profile that says what language you’re learning, what level you’re at, and what your native language is. How this program works is you begin to chat with another person that is trying to learn your native language and speaks your target language. This way, you (in theory) both get language practice and you get to learn from a native speaker.
- Mimic Method: an interesting website created by Idahosa Ness where you learn the rhythms of your target language my mimicking a song. You then upload a recording of yourself so that thousands of other speakers can pinpoint exactly where in your recording you made an error.
- Language meetups: This is going to vary a lot depending on where you live. Take a look through Facebook and Google to see if there are any groups that meet regularly to practice your target language.
Again, the method you choose doesn’t matter as long as it works for you and you speak as much as you can. Try a couple out and see what you like. I’ve tried the chat feature on italki and I’ve used HelloTalk, but I’ve found I much prefer talking to the people around me. Granted, I do have the advantage of actually living in Korea for this one 🙂
Step 6: Keep learning.
This is one of the most important steps. Even if you think you’re an expert in Korean, you still need to keep learning. Keep reading; keep watching dramas and movies; keep listening to songs. There are always new words to learn (even in your native language) and it’s always good to keep exercising your “Korean language muscles.” So find a new textbook (appropriate to your level, of course) or find a new TV show and work your way through it. And above all, enjoy the journey.
So there you have it, my six step guide to getting started with Korean. I’m really excited that you’ve decided to take this step, especially if you are a fellow expat here in South Korea. Let me know how your studies go. I can’t wait to hear about them!