Waegukin - living and teaching in Korea

10 ways to learn Korean, and how I went with them

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Feb 08 2013

After two and a half years in Korea, I have TOPIK level 2 Korean. I took the test a year ago, after 18 months of living in Korea, and since then my Korean hasn’t improved much. I haven’t been studying. It’s probably around TOPIK 1.8 these days, if there were such a thing. I’m going backwards…

TOPIK Level 2 means I can theoretically “discuss familiar topics employing a vocabulary of about 1,500∼2,000 words”, which sounds about right. I can make small talk with taxi drivers and communicate my needs when I need to. When I talk with a student outside of class, it is usually about half in English and half in Korean, both of us code-switching constantly. I can have a conversation in Korean with a Korean – so long as they make allowances for my abilities, put effort into deconstructing my mangled grammar, and stick to easy topics.

This puts me ahead of about ninety percent of the English teachers here, and you know what? I think it is a pretty pitiful achievement on my part. Yes, Korean is a difficult language to learn for native English speakers. But that’s not the reason why my Korean is still ordinary, nor why most other English teachers here are even worse. The real reasons are that I – we – are lazy. And that we can get by without it, in our little English-teacher bubble. If most English teachers had to do normal things themselves – like finding an apartment or understanding a class timetable – we would quickly go to pieces.

When I took the TOPIK exam there was one room for people taking the beginner level: me and some other Western dilettantes. There were ten rooms for people taking the intermediate level, and they were full of South-East Asian factory workers and manual labourers. Those people need to study Korean for their jobs, their citizenship, their lives. We English teachers, however, can exist happily in our sphere of Western privilege, in which every Korean believes that they should be able to speak fluent English, is ashamed that they can’t, and will praise you if you manage to say hello in Korean without tripping over yourself*.*At my last school, I had two co-teachers who spoke extremely good English – the sort of English you get after studying hard for ten or fifteen years. I used to see their faces when other teachers would praise my Korean. They would get a look that said, “Do you know how hard I had to work to learn English? Why are you praising him?” I totally understood where they were coming from.

As for laziness – there exists an idea amongst Westerners that language is something you just absorb, with no real effort. Probable everyone who comes to Korea has had relatives who tell them, “You’ll pick the language up in no time once you’re there.” Well, you won’t. If you depend on this method you will be lucky to learn a dozen words in a year in Korea. Trust me – in my first year, after the first couple of months of middling effort, I tried this “method”, and went home after one year never having learned really simple, common words of Korean, like 진짜? (Really?) and 기다려요 (wait a moment). Maybe this absorption method works if you spend time in a country with a Germanic language – you probably don’t have to hear polizei too many times in order to remember it is the German word for police – but it doesn’t work at all for a language like Korean. “Police” in Korean is 경찰 – “gyeongchal”. Good luck absorbing that, or “picking it up in no time”.

Reviewed here are all the methods I’ve tried in my circuitous journey to TOPIK level 2 Korean, and how effective I have found them**Some, though not all of the links in this article are affiliate links, which earn me a commission. Regardless all opinions expressed are my own honest opinions.. I’m going to start studying again, soon. Really I am. This blog article is preparation.

Teach Yourself Korean, by Mark Vincent and Jay Hoon Jeon

I bought this book before I came to Korea for the first time, and managed to learn the alphabet and the absolute basics of Korean grammar from it.

Unfortunately, having presented the Hangeul alphabet, this book then proceeds to not use it for much of the book. Even worse, they romanize Korean using their own cockeyed version of the outdated McCune-Reischauer system. A knowledge of McCune-Reischauer will come in handy if you are reading about Korean War battles, or if find yourself at an ancient bus terminal and wonder why there are no buses to Daegu, but plenty to some place you’ve never heard of called Taegu, but not for much else.

The method used in the book is the common one of presenting dialogues that introduce new vocabulary and illustrate grammatical principles. The dialogues are good, but I did find that the ramp-up in difficulty was really steep – lesson two, for instance, includes sentences like “No, this isn’t the Korean department. This is the Japanese department.” While it’s not a complex sentence, it’s a fair way beyond simple greetings.

That said, apart from the goofy romanizations, this is a solid book that will give you a good workout in Korean, if you stick with it. I – beginning what would become a long tradition – did not.

CURRENT STATUS: I never got past lesson 2, and left the book behind when I went back to Australia after my first year.

Learning from Korean-Australian friends at orientation

Orientation offered Korean classes, which I attended two of before abandoning them to go drinking with my new friends. Fortunately my new Korean-Australian friends said, “We will teach you!” (They wanted me to come drinking, too.) As a result I still have a notebook full of Korean swear words, insults and pick-up lines, along with meats, numbers, and Korean family relationships.

CURRENT STATUS: Ended with orientation, but definitely educational while it lasted.

Rosetta Stone Korean

Rosetta Stone is the bestselling method for learning a foreign language. You might assume that this is because it is the best method, or at least slightly useful, but it is neither of those things. It is the bestselling method because of its marketing.

Rosetta Stone promotes itself as a fun, immersive way of learning a foreign language “the way a baby learns”, with minimal effort, using something called the “Dynamic Immersion Method”.

I’ve already talked about the problems of immersion as a method for learning another language. Don’t get me wrong – being immersed in another culture while you learn a language, being able to hear and practice it every day, is tremendously helpful. But the idea of passive absorption is a joke – it simply will not happen. Babies are neurologically wired to learn languages at an extraordinary rate, an ability that disappears as you grow up. The idea that an adult can replicate this process with a stupid computer game that requires you to endlessly click on one of four pictures is ridiculous.

And that is what you will do with Rosetta Stone: you listen to a sentence and click on one of four pictures. Again, and again. Often the same pictures, for what seems like decades. There is an element of gamification to it, with scores, levels and progress bars, but that doesn’t stop it being unbearably stupefying.

Even worse, Rosetta Stone believes you can shoehorn any language into the same stages, without any explanation of grammar, just by changing the language of the sentences accompanying the pictures. This might be good for company profits but it is a disaster for learning a language with profound grammatical differences from English. An example: when it comes time to learn the numbers in Korean, both Sino-Korean and native numbers are presented together, without explanation of why they are different, or when to use one and when to use another. I don’t believe anyone could learn how to use the Korean number system from this type of presentation.

Another example of the terrible limitations of this system – for at least nine months I believed “book” in Korean was “책을 읽어요”, which is the polite informal present tense for “read a book”, due to there being no way to distinguish the two concepts based only on a picture. I even proudly used this word to a number of Koreans, causing what I imagine was a lot of polite bafflement.

I did, however, learn the words for man, woman, boy and girl, due to their interminable repetition.

CURRENT STATUS: I persevered long enough to go on a virtual hike with some virtual Korean friends as some sort of achievement badge before abandoning Rosetta Stone. But I do still think of it every time I see 여자아이들 책을일거요. (Yes, that’s a joke, although as it requires familiarity with English, Korean, and Rosetta Stone Korean, I’m not sure many people will get it.)

Language exchange with Koreans

At my new school I formed the first of many language exchange groups, with a couple of Korean teachers.

This went the way most of my subsequent conversation groups have gone, the way they go for most foreigners here: we would meet up, have coffee, talk in English, and sometime towards the end I would write down a couple of Korean words. I had a good time and learned very little Korean.

Why does this happen? Because:

  • Koreans who are learning English are generally better at it than waegukins who are learning Korean,
  • The Koreans want to practice their English,
  • The waegukins find it easier to talk in English, and
  • The waegukins are more interested in socializing than actually learning Korean.

It’s only our own fault. I’m sure they would be happy to teach us Korean, if we could really be bothered.

CURRENT STATUS: I haven’t managed to find a Korean with whom I can have a language exchange since I moved to this tiny Gyeonggi-do city, although I’d certainly be up for it.

Taking an actual Korean class

It wasn’t until I went back to Australia, and subsequently decided to return to Korea for something more than just a year abroad, that I decided to get serious about Korean. This seems to be a common pattern for people I’ve known here who have gone past the absolute beginnings of Korean – spend a year messing around and waiting to absorb the language, become appalled at yourself, and actually start studying it seriously. So, back in Sydney, I took the first of what has since become a number of Korean classes.

Taking a Korean class is not fundamentally different to learning from a book. Some people take in information better when they hear it verbally presented than when they read about it, but I’ve never been one of those people. I like to read. Still, there are definite advantages to taking a class:

  • You have a teacher who can help you with specific points which you might find confusing
  • You have a native speaker (your teacher) with whom you can practice, and a variety of other people at the same level as you with whom you can practice, study, commiserate, and secretly compete against
  • Perhaps most importantly: you have social pressure to actually do your work every week and prepare for the next class.

This is important. It is very easy when you study on your own to procrastinate by telling yourself that you will do it tomorrow, or that you are preparing to start studying again by writing really long blog posts about methods of learning Korean. But a language class is scary – you never know when the teacher will ask you a question in Korean that you can’t answer. With everyone watching. So, you find time to study. More than anything, it is this terror of being called upon that makes language classes valuable.

CURRENT STATUS: The “language classes” available in my current city are wonderful, but deserve their own section. See later.

Learning solo with flashcards

At the same time, I also started learning big chunks of vocabulary with flashcards. If you’re noticing a theme so far, it’s this: “fun, immersive learning with no effort” = bad. “Actually studying and memorizing” = good. It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but learning a new language is primarily a massive act of memorization. You can talk all you like about the communicative method, immersion, and making learning fun, but the single best way to memorize things is to, y’know, actually sit down and memorize them.

Ask a Korean blog, in his terrific post on the best way to learn a foreign language, makes the same point. And if you ever read the forums of people whose hobby is being polyglots, you will find they advocate a similar method: familiarize yourself with basic grammar, and then memorize the two thousand or so most common words in the language. This gives you a very large percentage of actual spoken and written vocabulary in a given language, and once you have that you can start intense reading and conversation with native speakers, and learn quickly. I’m not myself dedicated enough to have gone particularly far with this method, but I don’t doubt its effectiveness.

Speaking of memorization, you would be crazy to start without first familiarising yourself with mnemonic techniques. There are a lot of internet resources on this, and the specific technique is up to you, however the one method of memorization you should probably avoid is the one you are likely most familiar with: looking at a new word and repeating it over and over again in your head. This is a terrific way to forget a word within twenty seconds.

I use two methods:

1. Associating the word with an English word, and create a mental picture linking the concept

Earlier I mentioned the word for “police” in Korean is 경찰 (gyeongchal). This to me sounds similar to “King Charles”. So to learn this word I would think of a King Charles spaniel wearing a policeman’s cap. When I need to remember the word, the picture comes quite easily to mind; after a while, you don’t need the mental image any more. Of course, I still have to remember the slight differences between the two pronunciations, but this is infinitely more easy than trying to remember random syllables (it makes it much closer to trying to remember “polizei” as the word for police.)

2. Similar, but slightly different – break the Korean word into syllables, and create a mental picture of the pieces. Yellow, for instance, is 노랑색 – norangsaek. To learn this I imagined a forlorn person standing beside a yellow phone – “no rang”. (섹, the last part, just means “color”, which I already knew.)

It helps to make the mental image surprising or comical. A number of my mnemonics involve Jewish people doing bizarre or disgusting things, not because I am anti-Semitic, but because 주 is such a common Korean syllable.

As I learn more Korean words, I find it is possible to scaffold them – these days my Korean mnemonics are as likely to be made up of other Korean words as they are of English ones. I learned 계절 (season) simply by remembering that it “sounds a bit like 경찰” and picturing a policeman out on his beat in some seasonal weather.

CURRENT STATUS: to be resumed.

Watching Korean dramas

I also started watching Korean dramas at about the same time. I thought it would be a good way to practice Korean, but I was also  missing Korea, and looking forward to going back.

This is a very passive method of learning Korean, but good for reinforcement, and I have learned some vocabulary from it, like formal titles (선배, etc). I have also learned a lot about the intonation of whining in Korean. (Korean is a great language for whining. “엄마~~!” “선생님~~!” etc. It is all about extending the last syllable until it is as annoying as possible.)

CURRENT STATUS: After losing almost a week of my vacation to watching Boys Over Flowers, only to be enraged by its ending, I vowed to quit watching Korean dramas. However lately I’ve been backsliding with School 2013. The Amazon link is for my favourite Korean drama, the underrated Coffee House. Ham Eun Jung…

Hardcore Korean-style rote-memorisation test prep class

When I came back to Korea I took another Korean class at the Daegu YMCA. It was OK, but I found it very slow and thought I could have done as well by studying on my own. Then a friend, who had been taking the YMCA’s intensive course, decided to take their prep course for the Beginner TOPIK exam. He suggested I should do it too, saying “I will be going for level 2, but I think if you study really hard you could easily get a level 1.” This enraged me, so I signed up too and decided I would get a Level 2 just to spite him.

This involved me skipping an entire level of Korean, but I figured I could catch up as I went. (When it comes to taking a language class, I am a big fan of skipping levels. It makes you work like crazy to catch up.) The class was taught by a wonderful Korean teacher who treated us with great affection and absolutely no mercy. You remember how I said earlier that the best way to learn a language is to quickly memorize the most common 2000 words? On the first day she gave us a list of the 2000 most common Korean words. Without English translations. It was a 13 week course, so our job was to translate and memorize 153 words a week. Which we would be tested on the subsequent week. Oh, and do a bunch of practice tests, too. Language learning Korean style!

You know what we did? We translated them, and memorized them. Not perfectly, and only the easy way – from Korean to English (going from English to Korean is much harder, but not as important for the TOPIK test). My Korean skills improved tremendously in those 13 weeks.

A lot of foreigners here like to criticise the Korean education system. “It’s all rote memorization… robots studying for the test… no creativity or fun.” Meanwhile Korea continually tops international tables of educational achievement. There are problems with the Korean education system, but there’s a lot to be said for it, as well, and I think the foreigners who go on with that stuff really have no idea what they’re talking about.

While I’m talking about the TOPIK exam, here are two books I used while studying for it that I found incredibly useful:

1. Korean Grammar for International Learners

This is just a wonderful reference book. Often understanding Korean grammar points is difficult, even with a Korean teacher – they have a hard time explaining the grammar they themselves use instinctively. As an English teacher, I know how they feel. This book is comprehensive, and even better, it has an index. I don’t know how many times this has saved me.

2. Complete Guide to the TOPIK

This is basically a big book of practice exams. We used another book in class, but most of us ended up buying this one as well. The practice exams did a good job of mimicking the style and type of questions in the TOPIK exam, although I found the grading uneven – some tests seemed much easier than others. Its big strength, however, is the explanations of each question at the end. For each question there is a brief exposition of the key point, and any trick involved – and the TOPIK exam is full of trick questions. These explanations are succinct and clear, and very helpful.

CURRENT STATUS: Every one of us who stuck with that course got a TOPIK level 2. I was mentally exhausted and since then my language pursuits have been mostly frivolous.

Being taught Korean by volunteer high school girls

In my city there is a wonderful program put on by the local migrants’ center. It is free Korean classes, taught by volunteer high school girls. The people who go to it are mostly local Uzbekistanis; of the thirty or so English teachers in this city, only three come, which is not surprising.

It is very disorganized. The high school girls have a volunteer requirement at their schools, and have chosen this; they come erratically according to their test schedules. It rarely starts on time. The high school girls have no qualification for teaching Korean besides speaking the language, and they tend to be pretty bad at it. They are very cute and incredibly awkward around foreigners.

It’s great. There is usually one “teacher” per student. My teacher is a sweet girl called 인영. There are textbooks, and we have been going through one, but it’s as likely to veer off into random Korean conversations about school, tests and cell phones. 인영 is very embarrassed about her English (which is genuinely terrible), so the problem of “language exchanges” and talking in English doesn’t occur. Tricky points of grammar or language send both of us scrambling for our smartphones to look up the answers online.

I’m not sure how much Korean I’ve learned in these sessions, although I think they have improved my fluency. But I really enjoy them. They’re my favourite thing about living in this city.

Perhaps if I studied harder, they would be more effective. Tomorrow I’ll get out my flash cards, study my grammar book, think about starting to prepare for TOPIK level 3. I will run faster, stretch out my arms farther…. And one fine morning —

CURRENT STATUS: Winter hiatus.

Learning authentic slang from phrasebooks

A while back, I told the story of being mildly embarrassed in a Korean hostess bar by not knowing the Korean word for sex. (Actually, the story was about something else, but that anecdote did feature in a minor way). There are a lot of words that aren’t covered in most language courses, and, propriety aside, some of these words are important.

(Parenthetically, as a language teacher I made my peace with this issue a long ago. During my first few months teaching, a daring sixth grade girl decided to tell her friend “Puck you,” in my presence. I had to decide: what is the correct response to this? “That’s a bad word; you shouldn’t say that,” or “Ffff, ffff…”? I decided on the latter and also coached her that the emphasis should be on the second syllable – “Fuck you,” not “Fuck you”. Judge me if you like; I stand by my decision.)

One book that attempts to address this deficiency is Making Out in Korean**A copy of this book was kindly provided to me by Tuttle Publishing, by Peter Constantine and Gene Baik. This book has been around for a long time, and has been updated a couple of times to keep up with Korea’s hyper-accelerated changes in slang and technology. It was first published in 2004, and over the years has occasionally been a target for anti-foreigner Korean groups, such as in this attack (via Gusts of Popular Feeling):

The book, which can be bought at the foreign online bookseller Amazon and of course domestically at large bookstores, explains step by step how to meet, lure into bed and break up with Korean women and writes out in English phrases and Korean pronunciation. It is a book published which openly sees women as sexual objects.

The truth is much more mundane than that. The title aside, it is in reality only a Korean phrase book with some slightly racy chapters. Yes, it will give you Korean phrases for such expressions as “Take your panties off!” and “I don’t like to wear a condom”, and certainly these are the parts that everyone first turns too, and reads to their friends. But the majority of Making Out in Korean is everyday phrases that could only be tangentially helpful to getting laid. “I think this food has gone bad,” for instance, is not a phrase that is particularly likely to fan the flames of ardor.

The phrases and vocabulary are very simple; in fact, they seem to have been made as simple as possible. It contains no complex grammar, and thus it is very easy to wrap your head around the vocabulary and how to use it – including those words that you never learn in a language class. On the other hand, particularly because of the simplicity of its language, the one thing I would suggest it is not very useful for is attempting to make out with a Korean. Korean language and customs are circuitous – you dance around the point, never addressing it directly. At a certain point in studying Korean, it can feel as if every new grammar form you encounter translate literally as something like, “It can possibly be conceived that somebody, somewhere might be inclined to feel a certain way about this thing.” Trying to use these very direct phrases – in informal Korean, no less – to pick up is likely to end in disaster (the introduction does clarify this important point). Besides, memorizing phrases – or worse, reading directly from a phrasebook – just isn’t sexy. That said, if you treat it as a fun way to learn new vocabulary and language, Making Out in Korean is a helpful phrasebook, and it might save you from embarrassing yourself one day by not understanding something important.

(If you actually want to hook up with attractive Koreans, I instead pass on this advice, which was given to me by a friend who seemed to do alright with such things, and who speaks Korean much better than me. His advice for using your nascent Korean language skills to try to score was: don’t. His logic was hard to refute. “Let’s be honest: we don’t actually speak Korean very well! Not enough to be funny and charming and actually impress someone. So if you start off talking in Korean, the conversation is going to go nowhere really quickly. But if you start off speaking English, and then bring out the Korean later, it’s different: she’ll be surprised, you’ll have confounded her expectations about foreigners, and then she has to reconsider you.”

CURRENT STATUS: I did actually have the opportunity to try out some of these phrases with a Korean girl (we had progressed beyond the stage where she was likely to take offense at any of them, and I will stop at nothing to provide my readers with accurate research). The result? She laughed, and covered her ears, and told me to put the book away. I suspect that’s about the best you can hope for.

And finally:

Pimsleur Korean

If you’ve come in via google and read this far, you may be thinking at this point, “Where’s the beef? Learning from Korean-Australian friends at orientation and local high school girls may be wonderful, but how does it help me? I don’t have access to those things. OK, Rosetta Stone may be crap, but can’t you just recommend a good Korean course?”

Well – I think I’ve made it clear that the best method I know for learning Korean is to study with a grammar book and a bunch of flash cards. But I’ve also made it clear that as much as anyone I understand how difficult it can be to motivate yourself.

So, if you’re looking for a Korean learning course that will produce good results, I’d suggest this: the Pimsleur method.
Yes, Pimsleur – that old system from the seventies invented by Dr Pimsleur, with its audio tapes (now MP3s) and “Graduated Interval Recall” and “Principle of Anticipation”. Pimsleur, with his novel twist on the audio-lingual method. The Pimsleur method isn’t fun, and doesn’t come with a bunch of cute software, but I hope I’ve convinced you by now that “fun” and “easy” don’t go well with learning a foreign language. Pimsleur does work. It might not work in 30 days, like they claim, and of course there is also the seemingly necessary marketing hyperbole about “learning the way a baby learns” (which actually has nothing to do with the Pimsleur method at all). As both a student and a teacher of foreign languages, I know this method works, because it’s not so different from what I do in class every day to try to get my students to remember something of English.

It works for the following reasons:

  • New words and phrases are introduced, then repeated at gradually increasing intervals. This takes advantage of the way the brain lays down new memories and transfers information from short-term memory to long-term memory.
  • Do you remember how I said the best thing about a Korean class is how the teacher will put you on the spot, throwing a question at you? The Pimsleur approach does the same thing. It regularly asks you questions that demand a response. So instead of just passively listening and learning, you suddenly have to sit up and think.

For those people who find it difficult to study on their own, and want the flexibility of a course that lets you learn at your own pace, I think Pimsleur is the best way to go. I don’t use it myself, because I get enough repetition, and questions in Korean that put me on the spot, in my daily life, but for someone who doesn’t have access to that, I would recommend it:

Pimsleur Koreanicon

The Pimsleur courses aren’t cheap, however. If they’re too expensive for you, then a pack of blank study cards will cost you a couple of bucks at your local stationary store.

My god – 5,000 words of this. I’m going to go study Korean now. Really I am…

Waegukin wrote these 4966 words on February 8th, 2013 | Posted in Best-of |


37 comments on “10 ways to learn Korean, and how I went with them”

  1. Jay says:

    I find this post very intriguing as being a Korean-English bilingual (more or less…) without actually living in an English-speaking country, I’ve received so many questions from Koreans on how to learn English. It would be interesting to see how you think as someone in a same situation only with the “direction” reversed.
    Gotta save it for later today though, it’s already 5AM and I don’t wanna doze off during the meeting which I have to attend in just 6 hrs!

  2. The Waegukin says:

    Jay, did you learn English as a second language? If so, I’d be curious to know what you think about #4, “Hardcore Korean-style rote-memorisation test prep class” as a method of language learning.

  3. Jay says:

    Even more interesting than I expected.

    I’m actually one of those people who strongly believe that “language is something you just absorb, with no real effort.” I didn’t know this view was common among Westerners though; maybe I’m really that much “not Korean”! (I don’t see myself as a typical Korean; far from it, actually. People who know me agree with this.)

    Anyway, as such, I’m against the idea behind such a “hardcore” approach. I believe that vocabulary should be learned within context by experience rather than mechanically memorized, since you cannot really establish a 1-1 correspondence between languages.

    I think the immersion method advertised by the Rosetta stone co. looks ideal at least on paper. (I haven’t had a single look into one of their learning materials, so I’m not saying that I actually support that particular company here) That’s how I learned English (although it was when I was about 4 or 5 yrs old), and that’s what I always tell people to do when asked about how to learn English. What you said about it is also the typical response I get from those same people! They (yourself included) seem to think it’s simply too late for them to follow that approach. I honestly don’t know whether I’m right or they are.

    More on this later!

    PS. It’s rather surprising for me to hear that you consider your Korean “ordinary” (or even “pitiful” as an achievement) since I thought your understanding of the language to be quite excellent. I don’t know whether you remember it or not, but I posted a comment here a few months ago under the article about romanization of Korean names. Maybe the “Korean” in the not-so-Korean me is too generous with praise when it comes to a “waegukin” learning Korean, who knows… (Yes, it is quite a common behavior, at least from what I’ve observed. Also, I would never cast a cynical glance like some of your English-speaking co-workers did, but maybe that’s just because I never actually put much effort in learning English.)

  4. The Waegukin says:

    Hi Jay,

    Yes, I do remember that comment. I try not to write on here about things beyond my understanding – which is actually quite a lot, regarding Korea. But the romanization of Korean names is not actually that difficult.

    However I have to disagree with you strongly about the best method for second language acquisition. You were lucky to learn when you were 4 or 5 years old, but that ability disappears as you age. This is called the Critical Period Hypothesis, and admittedly it is somewhat controversial, but I tend to agree with it.

    You can read a pdf about it here if you want: Critical language hypothesis

    We start to get into Chomsky and Universal Grammar if we go much further. Excuse me, I’m studying for my Masters in TESOL at the moment, so this is an interesting topic for me.

    I really wish I’d been raised bilingually. It seems there are all sorts of cognitive advantages to having learned a second language as a child. You’re lucky. (By the way, I feel my Korean study coming out in my English sometimes. Like “it seems” in that sentence above.)

    My co-teachers weren’t giving me a cynical glance, they looked more crestfallen. Nobody ever praised their English – in fact, I think the other teachers were probably incapable of realizing how good their English was, or how hard they’d worked to achieve it.

  5. Jay says:

    Thank you very much for the paper!

  6. yoo says:


    I think the best way to learn different language is to make ‘friends’ who have the same interest like you have.

    in my case, i’ve never been to western countries. also i’ve never taken any english language class. but i like watching western movie and drama(like “suits”, “white collar” “sex and the city”) Although i need korean sub-title, i am trying to listen to their conversation in english. (especially it is easy for me to remember bad words or romantic words in movies. ^0^) but it’s not enough to learn.

    A year and half ago, i met my first foreign friend in Korea. And at the same time i had to be in charge of service for Alien. in the beginning it was too hard for me to handle those. cus i was not good at english!

    however, time goes by, i am getting used to speaking english by arguing with alien customers, including my american friend. actually it was very helpful..
    sometimes getting stress from work or people is good to push myself to do something hard. ^^ hahaha

    most of my foreign friends don’t want to learn Korean language. even i suggested them of teaching Korean for free!
    i think that bunch of chances of making Korean friends are given to western people. cus “there are bunch of Korean who want to learn English”
    on the other hands, few chances of making foreign friends are given to Korean. supply and demand are not matched. (>.<)

    once, for serious english studying, i was looking for a person who wants "language exchange(korean-english)" and i met someone. but it was not "language exchange". In deed, He didn't want learning Korean but just need my help to do something. -_- i helped his work for 5 hours and i became exhausted. i gave up finding a good partner since then.

    oh, my point is "to hang out with foreign friends" is fun, joyful and easy. and you can learn something new and practice your speaking skill in Korean. ( I prefer meeting people to reading text book. ^-^ ) the more you can share common thing with them, the more you can be satisfied. this is totally my personal opinion though! ^^

    ps. your posting is always interesting! Thank you!!! so much~~ hope you have wonderful day!!!

    maybe it sounds crazy, on this saturday there is a birthday party at itaewon. if you have interest in it, you can come! actually i don't know whose birthday it is. haha~ my American friend invited me to the party.


  7. The Waegukin says:

    “I am getting used to speaking English by arguing with alien customers” may be one of the best sentences I have ever read.

    Your comments are always interesting, too ^^

    Thanks for the invitation, but foreigner birthday parties in Itaewon aren’t really my thing, particularly if i don’t know the person who is having the birthday.

  8. Charlene says:

    I was just wondering, but have you ever checked out the site TTMIK? Talk to me in korean?
    So far its actually really helpful.
    But It’d be great if you could take a look at it and write a review. I’d really love to read your opinion on it ^^

  9. The Waegukin says:

    I really admire what the TTMIK guys are doing. Speaking for a moment as someone with an interest in making websites, I think their site is one of the best niche websites I’ve ever seen. The design is classy and well organized, and they give away huge amounts of quality stuff for free.

    I didn’t review them here because I haven’t personally used them very much, for reasons mentioned in the article – I’m not a fan of learning by listening. In university I always skipped lectures if I could read the notes instead – it’s just the way I prefer to take in information. Listening to people talk is so slow.

    I have used their pdf lesson notes from time to time, and they’re good. Their grammar explanations are clear. I also like that they don’t go in for the “learning the way a baby learns” nonsense or try to suggest that learning Korean is easy.

    The other reason I didn’t include them is that while I think they are a great supplementary resource, I’m not sure you could learn Korean from that site alone, because it is all receptive skills – reading and listening – and there is little chance for production – writing and speaking.

    They sell textbooks as well, which apparently have exercises, and which would address some of that. But I haven’t seen them, so I don’t know if they are any good or not.

  10. Hangukdrama says:

    Personally I advocate self studying Korean. Not sure if it works for everyone but it certainly does for me. I’ve never memorized a single vocabulary or grammar point and I don’t use flashcards. Instead I read a lot and every time I come across a new word, I look it up on the dictionary and write it down on my notebook. haha I have accumulated 8 full notebooks over the years xD I think the most important thing is to find a motivation/link/passion so that you feel “closer to the language”. For a lot of people, a love for kpop/kdramas really anchors and fuels them to learn the language ^^

  11. Barbara says:

    What a gem of a website!!! Thank you for making & maintaining this. I have to agree with Hangukdrama; finding a “passion” can help one learn something. For me, it was a fascination with asian embroidery, led to Korean embroidery, and finally looking to learn the language. Kdramas do help to a point, and I’ve downloaded tons of korean songs on my mp3 player. I am lucky enough to have a “boring” job where I can play it for 8 hours. There is a language specialist who wrote something like “language is music” who advocates beginning to learn a language by listening to songs. I’m a self-studier; but I think people can move through stages as well. I am at the point where; while I may memorize vocabulary, I need a native speaker to explain pronounciation to me. Example: one website says the spelling (romanization) for the color brown is “galsaek” but another writes it “kal sehk”. Even worse: purple is “bora-saek”; but “pohrah sehk” on the second site. For an english speaker(American) that can be a major difference without the aid of hearing from a native speaker.

    Just my thoughts. Keep up the great work.

  12. The Waegukin says:

    Hi Barbara, thanks for the kind words. Regarding your pronunciation difficulties, learning Hangeul would help solve those problems – as you’ve found, depending on romanizations will lead to problems. 보라색 should be romanized as “borasaek” using Revised Romanization – the second website is attempting to give their own phonetic rendering of how it should sound. Whereas the rules of Hangeul will in most instances give you an accurate understanding of how the word should be pronounced (although actually pronouncing it like that is its own challenge).

  13. Sherri says:

    Just stumbled across your blog while researching (ok, googling) bullying in Korea. I moved here 2 months ago (from the US)and have been hoping to stumble upon the easy/fun ways to learn Korean…but you have set me straight. : ) Ah, to break out the flash cards!

    Thank you!


  14. David says:

    Has anyone learned to speak mainly through verbal interactions and little focus on written materials?

  15. Chris Bowley says:

    Best way (for me) for any language learning is by using flashcards. I’ve been doing 30 new words comfortably a day with a grammar lesson. I take vocabulary from word frequency lists and grammar from TTMIK and howtostudykorean. By March 2014, I estimate I’ll know 6000common words, theoretically enough to understand over 90% of speech. Put the time in and you will be rewarded. With the right materials and willpower, it isn’t hard – it’s just a long process.

    I’ve found this polyglot guide particularly useful:

  16. Tenkun says:

    Having grown up bilingual, English and Tagalog, it kinda helps because you have a better grasp on association of words. I’m American born Filipino/Japanese, having learned Tagalog by speech as I was growing up and being the only kid in this generation to have actually been capable of learning fluency through normal speech interaction. Anyways, that being said let me get to my real point. When I was in High School, I took 3 semesters of Japanese and continued to study it as I got older having completed somewhere around High School level fluency in Japanese by the time I had finished. But I had a harder time with absorbing some of the more written aspects over the linguistics that I would hear when I was constantly studying. Personally, I think the learning process of language is highly determined by the person’s learning type – being one of three spheres, which are visual, auditory and kinesthetic (I don’t tend to include kinestheic when it comes to language though.) But what I have noticed for me personally, having learned Japanese as far as I have already, making word associations is a lot easier for me when I’m actually watching and listening to korean shows because either I have the visual cues from the translation subs or the audio cues from words that are either similar or the same in Japanese like yakusoku, shojiki or arubaito.

    In regards to the pronunciation, like Barbara had said prior, one of the biggest things when applying vowels to Japanese and Korean is to re-associate what AEIOU sounds like, because the romanization is just a guideline. For example in Japanese with the basic hiragana alphabet the organization goes AIUEO (Ah, Ee, Oo, Eh, Oh).

  17. Eric Munoz says:

    OMG. Everything you said is SO right on. I’ve tried a few of these methods myself. I’m currently teaching in Cheongju now, and I absolutely want to take advantage of my time here. Your post had me nodding in agreement and laughing along (esp. regarding the Korean Drama post).

    Very great entry. Loved it.

  18. Paul says:

    Thank you for sharing your insight on language learning.

    I lacked the focus to do well in my high school Spanish classes but later in life became fascinated with learning a second language. Unfortunately :), after getting hooked on Kpop and Kdrama, I decided to try an tackle Korean, so I’m now working my way through the Pimsleur course. With no commonality between English and Korean it has been a real challenge but your comments have given me some encouragement to keep pressing on. It is work! Passive listening might work for some but not for me. Repetition and memorization. I’m a auditory/visual learner so I’ve been supplimenting Pimsleur with on-line video material. If I have a 500 word vocabulary by the end of the year I will consider my first year a success.

    Again, thanks for the encouragement.

  19. Catia says:

    I’m 14 teen years old and I’m teaching myself Korean so I thought this was quite interesting but I have a few this to say..
    1 I think just memorizing stuff like that is most of the time discouraging and it feels a little to.. Heavy? Anyways if I do that (and only that) it kinda makes me want to quit..

    2 my way of learning is drowning in the language the most I can without having any korean friends or any way to go to korea. My ways to do that is to drown in k-pop every second I can (I love music so that’s perfect for me), watching tons of dramas and trying to understand what they’re saying (like absorbing stuff but actually trying to understand it better, plus it helps with pronunciation), watching interviews of my favorite groups (I like to find radio things they do and listen to before I go to sleep, not in a weird way), I also watch lots of youtube videos (TTMIK for one is good), I also have a few sites that teach hardcore grammar and lastly since I can’t talk to ppl who talk korean I just talk to myself or think in korean the most I can. (Right, I also read posts like this, even though not tecnicaly in korean it’s still korean-ish)

    3 I think that to learn a new language you have to want to learn the language and not just cuz you have to. personally I don’t know why I started learning it since I didn’t know about k-dramas or k-pop (which I love) before I started so it doesn’t make any sense to me why I want to learn it so much (doesn’t make sense to my parents ether but they don’t mind) but I do, so I’m learning it and enjoying learning it (I hate hate hate homework grammar or anything school related so this makes no sense to me xD).

    4 I do see some truth in what you said (the part where you lose the baby kind of learning) cuz when I learned English I was like seven (till like I was 12, I took it kinda slow but you got to admit English grammar make almost no sense at all, also I just didn’t really spend all of that time learning English I just sorta did that scattered around) and it was a lot easier than learning korean now… I guess I still haven’t lost all of the baby learning though cuz I’m still young so I probably have some left (hopefully let that be true ^_^)

    5 I really think all those teachers should learn korean, if I met someone were I live that doesn’t know my language I’d be.. Angry? Offended? Just think what’s wrong with you? I don’t know but I wouldn’t like it xD maybe that’s to harsh but if someone lives in a country they should learn the language or just live where they’re from (sorry, I’m sure that’s harsh to say so ill just apologize before hand ^_^)

  20. Waegukin says:

    Hi Catia – if you’re 14 and learning Korean as a third language for fun, I’d say you’re doing fine^^. I use most of the methods you use, too.

  21. Brian says:

    I decided recently to learn Korean. I enjoy K-pop and K-dramas as well as Korean variety shows. I hope to move to Korea someday and live there and possibly start my own business there within the entertainment industry (I’m a writer and director). While in college, I signed up for a French language class. On the first day, we were told the immersion method would be used. I knew from the first class that method wouldn’t work for me. I have searched all over the internet for resources for learning Korean, and there are many, and many of them offer at least some free content. I also picked up the latest edition of Teach Yourself Complete Korean by Mark Vincent and Yeon Jaehoon. I only started studying it recently, and admittedly I’m not that diligent about it, but I was surprised at how fast I picked up Hangul. I also downloaded Byki 4 Express, which is just a free flashcard program. From the flashcard program I learned a few words, from the book I learned Hangul, and have picked up a few words from the shows and music. I also have a cousin who drives a truck and he brought me some Korean newspapers from a restaurant he frequents. I’ve also found some helpful videos on youtube and even the website Korea.net has some language resources. I find it best to look at all the various methods and then pick out the ones that work best for whatever your learning style is, and then stick with those. The more variety in ways of reinforcing the language the better. The main thing is that you have to want to learn it, and you have to stick with it and practice it, even if it’s just twenty minutes every other day.

  22. 이상희 says:

    안녕하셔요? 한국어를 알기 위해 노력하시는 모습 보기 좋아요

    제가 ‘외국인’님의 한국어를 배우기 위한 열가지 방법을 ‘사이버외대’ 한국어를 배우는 영어권학습자의 모습에 소개했어요.괜찮지요?

    저도 경기도에 사는데..^^ (참. 이 글 이해하시죠?)

    For your understanding, i will translate the above mentioned into English. Somewhat awkard, maybe, but i belive it will be understandable.

    Hello? your efforts to learn Korean made me impressed a lot. So, I introduced your posting of ’10 ways to learn Korean’ to the site of Korean Language Department in Cyber Hankook University of Foreign Studies. If you feel bothered, pls tell me, then i will delete the posting related to your blog.

    I live in Gyenggi Province,too.^^

    Take care ~~

  23. Tas says:

    Hi, thanks for the great article. I came across it as I was looking around for ideas to learn Korean. I have 2 basic degrees and 2 postgraduate degrees and speak about 5 languages, or rather 4 and a half as my French is rather rusty as I have not been practising it much since my GCSE a few years ago.
    Incidentally, I started trying to learn Korean by several of your methods about 2 months ago. I have to agree with several of your comments.
    Rosetta Stone is pretty useless. Learning by immersion is excellent when you are a child and if that is your only way to communicate so that you are pretty much forced to do it. As an adult, it is very frustrating as many of the pictures can be quite vague. It is probably good to learn some languages that way but certainly not Korean. I had a look at the French version and it was much better ( but I could be biased as I could already understand most of it).
    I tried learning via Korean dramas. It has to be the least painful way of learning a language that I have come across. Except for watching some cringe- worthy plots on those shows and of course for it really not being of much help in learning Korean.
    I had also bought the book you mentioned and am also at Chapter 2. I got bored at all the mentions of the language departments but will endeavour to perserve…
    I managed to learn the pronounciation on a rainy afternoon using free apps on my smartphone but that will be insufficient for anything but the most basic greetings.
    Korean is a rather difficult language to learn although certain words sound like Mandarin and another Chinese dialect and I can make some associations that way. I agree that perhaps the way to learn it is going to be by hard work and sitting down and memorising it.

  24. Steve says:

    I wish I would have found your blog before I purchased Rosetta Stone. 10 years ago a friend purchased Pimsleur Japanese CD’s for me when I was working with a Japanese supplier in Michigan. From reading your experiences and knowing my experiences thus far, I will using the flash cards and my phone apps as methods of increasing my learning of Korean.
    I will also use Korean Grammar for International Learners.
    I am in and out of Korea working with Korean metal stamping suppliers, so learning as much Korean possible will help in my interaction when I am here.

  25. C says:

    I just started learning Korean and am wondering if you know some short and easy to understand videos that i can watch so i can actively process the vocabulary and grammar I learn. I use TTMIK and My Korean for grammar and vocab. So far I can only find videos teaching grammar but no fun videos and entertaining videos specifically meant for language learners.

    A bit like this I mean: https://www.erin.ne.jp/en/
    Hope you or someone else can help me :). Korean dramas etc are too difficult for me.

  26. Barbara says:

    You are actually going into uncharted territory on this one. Korean language learning is still in its infancy in regards to the Western world. What I have been doing for the ‘fun’ side of learning, is to find music videos which have the lyrics in Korean and English translation on them. I hand write both out and then start practicing with the videos. It may not help you with the Grammer (I don’t know how much artistic license can be taken with the language), but it breaks the “working” feel of learning a new language. Also, if you are near any college campus, check if they don’t have some Korean students who would be willing to help. If you find any please be sure to offer them some form of compensation. It’s only fair. Good luck and let us know.

  27. Tas says:

    Hi, A quick update. I have started learning korean in class as I felt that phone apps were a bit too unstructured. However midway through the first course, the school is winding down due to the sky high rentals. I was also using videos to help, specifically Let’s Learn Korean. I am half way through the first season and way way ahead of my class. Hope it helps others to learn too. Exams help me to focus so I have decided to take Topik Level 1 in 3 months instead of the usual 12 months. Wish me luck.

  28. Louis says:

    You’re a bit unfair to Rosetta stone. It can’t be relied on 100% but it’s great for acquiring vocabulary.

    Pimsleur, on the other hand, gives you a great understanding of how the language works but very little vocabulary. I went through Pimsleur Russian I and II but didn’t learn any colours, the seasons or the weather.

    Rosetta could be greatly improved by making it language specific. It teaches exactly the same foods for Korean learners and Russian learners. Do Koreans even drink milk? Still, I haven’t found a better way of learning vocabulary.

  29. Cas says:

    I really cannot imagine anyone new to Korea, teaching there full-time, planning for 4 or 5 classes a day, and adjusting to a new culture can be considered lazy just because they don’t focus on Korean language acquisition in their hours off.

  30. Waegukin says:

    We’ll have to disagree on that, Cas. “Lazy” is probably the mildest word I’d use for someone who chooses to live and work in another country without making an effort to learn the language.

  31. Chuckles says:

    Waugukin, I disagree with your comment about ‘effort’.

    I’m living and working in Sri Lanka, on a project where the language is English, the contractor Korean (hence the interest), the local language is Sinhalese with some Tamil (Sri Lankans will speak either but not both), a Portuguese design team, and other parties coming from Vietnam and China (so far).

    Am I ‘lazy’ to not want to learn all those other languages, given I only work 6 days a week, and also have a family?

    I’m also struggling to get enough sleep, find time for exercise…in your magic world everything may be possible, but not in everyone else’s.

  32. Waegukin says:

    No, I doubt you’re lazy, and the fact that you’re reading about learning Korean is to your credit. The context of my comment and my opinion in the article is as it applies to English teachers in Korea, a situation you may not be familiar with.

    The equivalent context for you, regarding the previous comment by Cas, would be if the local language was Sinhalese, the design team spoke Sinhalese, the contractor spoke Sinhalese, and everyone else spoke Sinhalese except your off-duty ex-pat drinking buddies. Also you would be working a 40-hour a week with considerable downtime. In that case, I’d call you lazy if you made no effort to learn Sinhalese.

  33. Myat Su Mon Htike says:

    Now I am studying korean language.so
    I’d like to know how to improve my korean…

  34. mjb says:

    So inquiring minds want to know…will you post the list of the 2000 Korean vocab words??

  35. Waegukin says:



  1. Moving to South Korea: A Resource | Life's an Adventure (if you live it like one)
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