Saturday, November 12, 2005

How do I study Korean?

I have been studying Korean for almost thirty years, but not in a very systematic way. Also, when I started, there was no Internet, no personal computers, and few Korean language sources for foreign learners. In March 1977, when I first came to Korea in the navy, the best Korean language source for foreign learners were two books called "Myongdo Korean I & II." Later, a third and forth book came out, but they were not as good as the first two. These days there is almost too much out there.

I consider myself fluent, but there are different levels of fluency. For example, I can watch Korean soap operas, follow TV news, and discuss a range of topics with taxi drivers and others, but I still have trouble following certain discussions on TV and understanding groups of Koreans when they start talking in their abbreviated style of chatter, which is often filled with slang and idiomatic expressions. They also have background information on the topics that I do not, which makes it hard to follow them.

What are my suggestions for learning Korean?

First, I would get the 6-book series from the Yonsei Korean Language Institute and read through them about five or six times. Those books are filled with good stuff, and you will learn something new everytime you read them.

Second, while going through the Yonsei books, start with the first grade textbook on the Korean Lab Web site and work your way up. That will help make sure you learn the cultural items and language expressions that every Korean knows, instead of things that only a few super-educated Koreans know.

Third, get yourself a Korean chat friend because that will help you get plenty of exposure to the slang. By the way, here is a link to Korean Chat Expressions.

Fourth, stay curious and do not pretend to be more fluent than what you are, which means ask questions when you do not know. Read newspapers and college level material, but also read children's stories, which teach those little verbs, adjectives, and adverbs that foreign learners of Korean seem to have a lot of trouble with.

Fifth, learn the Korean idioms because they are used all the time. Here is a good Idiom Dictionary.

Sixth, learn Korean proverbs because if they come up in conversation and you do not know them, you will get lost. Korean proverbs are fun. Just read them at your leisure. Here is a Proverb Dictionary.

Seventh, learn Chinese characters and Chinese character idioms. Knowing Chinese characters will help you better understand and remember a lot of confusing Korean words. Naver has the best Chinese Character Dictionary I have seen. In fact, Naver has just about the best everything.

Eighth, listen to Korean news broadcasts. I listen to the KBS 9 O'clock News to develop my listening skills. After listening to the news on TV, I can go on the Internet an hour later and listen to it again while following a transcript the site provides. That allows me to see and hear the portions of the news that I did not hear the first time around.

Ninth, keep an online diary or write a blog in Korean. I do not do it, but I should. I do have this blog, however, and the reason I have it is that when I write about something dealing with the Korean language, it helps me to learn and remember what I am writing about.

Tenth, do not get frustrated. When you are nearing the top of one hill, expect to see another one on the other side. Enjoy the journey and do not worry about reaching your destination because there will always be another hill.

Well, that is my 10-Step Plan for learning Korean. I do not read many Korean novels or watch many Korean movies because both are a little difficult for me to understand and enjoy. I prefer TV soap operas to movies because the dialog is not usually mixed with background noise and special effects, making it hard to hear. Also, a soap opera is a story that continues over several months instead of just two hours, so I have time to follow the story, understand the characters, and learn their style of speech and favorite expressions.

I prefer reading Korean history and language books to novels because they have more explanation. I especially like Korean language related books. I also like Korean children's stories because they are fun and are stories that almost every Korean has read. Novels are usually too difficult and tend to mix in a lot of dialect, which I am not really interested in learning right now. There are too many things to learn, and novels seem to take up too much time.

That is how I study Korean, but I am sure everybody has his or her preferred way.


  1. Your honesty is much appreciated.

  2. 30 years! Even though I'm a language teacher myself, I sometimes forget how long it takes to achieve full proficiency.

  3. Gerry,

    Do you ever collaborate with Korean language teachers on projects? I have studied Japanese and Chinese, and there is a wealth of language learning materials for those languages. I realize Korean isn't as popular, but the number of students is growing. The Korean language section of the local bookstore is filled mostly with integrated skills texts. As a Korean language learner, I'd like to see:

    1. Grammar self-study books. There is one put out by Yonsei, I think.

    2. A vocabulary guide that compares and contrasts similar words.

    3. A usage guide that teaches colloquial expressions and distinguishes similar sentence patterns.

    4. A book on onomotepia.

    5. Listening materials suitable for different levels of proficiency. A couple of teachers in Oz put out a two-volume book for real beginners several years ago, but there is nothing else.

    I wouldn't say there is too much choice for the Korean language learner. Rather, there is too much of the same thing and not enough supplementary resources for self-study.

  4. Great tips by the way. Everytime I'm in a bookstore in Seoul I'm tempted to buy the latest book that promises to teach me Korean in a way that's fun, fast, and easy. Your tips are good because they're well rounded and have one key ingredient. Study. Simple as that. Also like the links you provided. Thanks.

  5. Sonagi,

    No, I do not collaborate on projects with Korean language teachers, but I wish I could.

    There are two books on Korean that I would like to see. One would be a "Korean for Dummies" style book, and the other would be a textbook series that follows the same approach used in the English "Side by Side" series. Actually, there could be several "Dummies" books, including "Korean Grammar for Dummies," "Korean Pronunciation for Dummies," and "Korean Vocabulary for Dummies."

    The things I like about the Side by Side series are the pictures and the redundancy and reenforcement. The Yonsei books have no pictures and very little redundancy. They are all about introducing students to new words and structures and then moving on. Without pictures, beginning students can only imagine what 송편 and other kinds of rice cake look like, and without redundancy, students will learn a new word or phrase and then forgot it because it does not appear again in the text.

    Yes, Koreans seem to love onomatopoeia much more than American English speakers, and even after thirty years, I can only make a few associations. Actually, one of the reasons I am reading children's stories is to learn more onomatopoeia.

    Sumiyoshi Pilgrim,

    I agree. The chances of finding the "Fountain of Youth" are better than the chances of finding a Korean language book that is "fun, fast, and easy."

  6. By the way, Max, I meant to thank you for your comment, but forgot.

  7. Hi,
    Came over from Blinger's site. Great tips that you articulated so well.

    Yup, I noticed there is a Japanese for Dummies but none for Korean. Even has a special Jap category but none for Kor. Sigh !

    To Sonagi, I know Chinese as well but still feel there are lots more online Korean study materials than for Chinese. Perhaps I've not been looking at the right places. I always recommend and

    I also look into sites for Koreans to learn English for the bilingual sentences or passages.

  8. Hi Sy huang,

    I have also seen the "Japanese for Dummies" book and felt that there should also be one for Korean. Afterall, if they have "Acne for Dummies" and "Beekeeping for Dummies," why not "Korean for Dummies"?

    Actually, I have thought about writing a "Korean for Dummies" book, even though my Korean and my writing skills are probably not up to the task. Still, I think it would be fun to attempt it.

    By the way, I think Sonagi may have been referring to offline study materials for Korean as a Second Language, and there are relatively few of those. In my original post, I was thinking of the online stuff, which are intended for Koreans but can also be used by non-Koreans. I meant to say that there are so many good Korean language sources on the Web that it is hard to stay focused on just one.

  9. 30년이나 공부하셨다니, 대단하십니다. 사실 한국 유행어는 한국 사람들에게도 쉽지 않죠. 특히 나이드신 분들이나 TV를 많이 보지 않는 사람들은 최신 유행어를 들었을 때 알아듣지 못합니다. 그래서 단어에 대한 뜻을 물어보곤 하죠.

    한국어를 잘 하시는 분을 만나서 반갑습니다. 제 외국인 친구에게도 님께서 쓰신 이 글을 꼭 읽어보라고 전해주고 싶네요. 기회가 되신다면 제 블로그에도 한번 방문해 주세요.

    그럼 즐거운 주말 보내시길 바랍니다.
    URL :

  10. Thanks a lot for the post. I have studying Korean on my own for over three years, and am still working through the yonsei books.

    The other links are great.

  11. Hey, enjoyed your post. Wow, you've been studying a long time! I've only been studying about 3-4 years now.

    I just started up a blog about Korea, mostly language learning, so if you want to check it out it's at

  12. Hi there I am ESL teacher in Korea and also got a Korean boyfriend, many of these resources from your blog should be helpful in my study of both teaching English to Koreans and also learning Korean myself..

    Any key phrases that you guys feel would be appropriate when I interact with my boyfriend's family ie mother or his friends? Sometimes am a bit clueless and want to have a good impression on them. thanks!:)

  13. This is just the kind of information I was looking for as I haven't had to learn a foreign lanugage from scratch before.

    (from a Japanese-English speaker.)

  14. Great Post, I am an Indian, i would love to have a conversation with my customers and korean colleagues in Korean language.
    Do you suggest i need to start the same way you have begun.

    Given that i am in India and i maynt have access to lot of korean language speakers, how do i reach a level where i can do business communication in korean

    Looking forward for your inputs.

  15. Thank you, Alchemist.

    Your question is a little difficult for me for two reasons. One is that I do not really understand what is meant by "business communication," and the other reason is that things have changed a lot since I started studying Korean, so there may be better ways to learn these days.

    I have studied "Business English" in college and taught it in Korea, but I did not like teaching it because I do not really see much difference between business English and regular English. Though I learned some letter-writing strategies in Business English, the English is basically the same. I think Business English is mainly just a gimmick to try to convince people that there is a shortcut to learning English. Likewise, I would say the same applies to Business Korean.

    I do not think there is a shortcut to learning Korean. There may be efficient ways of learning, but no real shortcuts.

    I would suggest that you get the first book in a good conversation Korean book series and start working your way through the series. At the same time, start working your way through the online Korean lessons on the Sogang University site HERE.

    Later you can start watching Korean soap operas captioned in Korean, such as THIS ONE. They will be difficult to understand at first, but if you keep studying your books, they will get easier.

    You can make online Korean chat friends to practice your spoken Korean through video chats. These days there are many Koreans interested in India, so I would think you could make online Korean friends fairly easily.

    Finally, after you build up your reading skills, start reading Korea business articles to get the business terminology you will need.

    It is a lot easier to learn Korean today than when I first started, but it still takes time, patience, and effort to get comfortable with the language. There are no real shortcuts.

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  17. Hello! I'm from Hong Kong. :)

    It's always not easy to learn a foreign language. Fighting!! 화이팅

    I also need to put more effort into my study :) Learning Korean is not easy but I just love it.

  18. If you're into reading novels, try to find a translated story that matches your language level. Mark the words or phrases you don't know and search for them on naver. My Korean is nowhere near advanced, but I manage to complete a novel from time to time.