Learning Korean: Common Beginner Questions
Is It Difficult to Learn Korean?
Korean, like all languages, is not easy to learn and use fluently. It takes time, effort, failure, and persistence. So, you have to ask yourself: What’s your WHY? Constantly reminding yourself of you WHY will keep you on track in your studies and practice of the Korean language.
Is your reason to travel? To find a job? To study in Korea? To enjoy popular dramas and music? To find a partner? To reconnect with family? Whatever your reason, keep it in the back of your mind and you will be able to overcome frustration and setbacks.
The difficulty of developing Korean proficiency also depends on if you already have a second language learning experience. Studies have shown that people who acquire a second language are more likely to acquire additional languages. And they can do so more easily. This is partly because they know how to learn. They have developed systems for studying and practicing languages that work for them. They know their strengths and weakness, what to focus on, and how to study efficiently.
So if you are someone who can already speak another language, you have an advantage. If Korean is your first foreign language, don’t worry. Take some time to become familiar with effective study practices, and copy the techniques of others. This will get you started on the right foot.
How Long Does It Take to Learn Korean?
There is no definite answer to this question, unfortunately. Ask any advanced level learner, and they will probably tell you that they are still learning. That’s the thing about Korean language acquisition: it is a constant process of development, stagnation, and progress.
Everyone has different circumstances and learning speeds.
Personally, I’ve been studying Korean for years, but not consistently. I’ve taken breaks and had periods of focused study. It all depends on your life situations. I know people who have spent 10-plus years studying, yet haven’t reached advanced levels. I know other people who have easily picked-up Korean through K-Dramas and K-Pop.
So, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t feel quick progress.
How to Successfully Learn Korean: Intention, Goals, and Motivation
Most learners fail because they don’t have clear goals. Often, they set unrealistic goals that underestimate who much time and effort will be needed to achieve it. For example, often learners say that their goal is to understand songs or dramas without subtitles. That’s a great goal, but far too vague and general. A vague goal and lack of planning mean failure.
Success in learning Korean starts with defining your goal and making a plan. With a clear goal and a solid plan, you can start assembling your toolbox.
For example, make a goal to study and understand one verse of your favorite song, then another, and then another. After you can understand one song entirely, start on your next favorite song. Bit by bit you will be adding to your knowledge and skill.
Once you have a goal, a plan and the right tools, all that’s left is execution. Along the way you’ll need to fight your own laziness or frustration caused by plateauing, here’s why motivation becomes crucial. Whether you can reach your goal is all about your “WHY” – the thing that will keep you motivated and prevent you from quitting.
Let’s look at some common reasons people study Korean:
- For work or study
- For traveling
- For enjoying Korean entertainment
- For personal reasons
Learning Korean for work or study?
If you’ve decided to go to university in Korea, you will need to become proficient in Korean. Luckily, the university programs are among the best and most successful in helping students become quickly proficient in Korean. So, if you’re willing to put in the work, there is an abundance of opportunities for foreign students in Korea these days.
Some people want or need to study Korean for work: in order to get a job, a promotion, a new position, or for some other reason. Being able to speak Korean and your native language will give you a leg-up in the Korean job market. Companies are constantly looking to add bilingual employees to their workforce and will help pay for your language training.
Learning Korean for travel?
Korea is great for travel. Whether you plan to spend a long time getting to know the country, or just stay for a brief visit, Korea has a lot to offer. Being able to speak some Korean will greatly improve your experience. Not to mention, Koreans will be impressed with your skill and flattered that you made an effort to learn their language.
Learning Korean because you’re a fan of Korean pop culture?
K-Pop and K-Dramas have been building a following internationally for a long time. With bands like BTS and Blackpink, Korean Pop Culture known as Hallyu is established world-wide. Maybe you want to sing along with your favorite songs or interact with band members on social media. Whatever the reason, having a motivation centered on entertainment is one of the best ways to enjoy language learning.
Learning Korean for personal reasons?
There are many other reasons to learn Korean. Some people feel a need to reconnect with their heritage, while others are just interested in the culture. Whatever the reason, it’s imperative to set goals, study with intention, and remember your motivation.
So, take some time to brainstorm and write down your motivation, your goals, and your intentions.
Motivation: Why do you want to study Korean?
Goals: What milestones are you going to set for yourself along the way?
Intentions: How are you planning to study and hold yourself accountable?
Now that you’re mentally prepared for success, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty of Korean learning. But first, we need to get some bad habits out of the way if you haven’t already done so.
Don’ts in Learning Korean as a Beginner
Stop Relying on the Romanizations
When you first start to learn Korean, you may be tempted to use the Romanizations of Korean to help you understand and pronounce words. Don’t! Try to read everything in Hangul. Why? Because it is so much fun!
One of my fondest memories of studying Korean is when I first understood the alphabet. I had just finished a study session and was riding the bus home. As I passed by the buildings, I tried to read the signs as practice. I could put a few syllables together quite easily, even if I didn’t understand what I was reading. Then, I read a sign on a restaurant which read – 치즈버거. As I put the syllables together, I was shocked to realize that I was reading “Cheeseburger”. I had just been introduced to the playful world of Konglish: English words spelled with Hangul.
It provided me a jolt of refreshing confidence. The beauty of Hangul is its simplicity. One can learn the alphabet in a matter of hours and sound out words in a couple of days. So just do it!
Don’t Try to Memorize Long Random Words List
When developing your vocabulary, do it with some intention. There are several proven strategies out there to utilize. Most importantly, don’t try to memorize every word you come across, and don’t memorize randomly.
Studies have shown that language is more easily recalled if it is tied to emotion or real-life situations. For example, if you like to go to cafes, use that scenario as a foundation for memorizing the vocabulary typically used in cafes. This will provide you with an abundance of relevant vocabulary that you can use daily. You will be emotionally charged to recall these words because of the smells, sounds, and challenges of the real-life context.
Another way is to group words according to their meanings, such as colors, animals, and food. Putting vocabulary into categories will result in more efficient study and recall. For example, start building a list of words for everything related to money. As your experiences compound, you’ll be able to add to the body of knowledge. Plus, you’ll be better able to recall vocab and phrases related to money.
Don’t Trust Machine Translations
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used an app to translate a word, only to be told later that the word was entirely wrong: either it is not commonly used these days, or it is only used in official written documents but not in speech.
It can be tempting to utilize translation apps to assist you in your language acquisition process, but this can sometimes be more harmful than helpful. Apps like Google translate, Naver, and Papago can make a lot of mistakes. The subtle nuisances of the language are ignored, and often the direct translation is entirely inaccurate.
Machine translations also ignore the proper speech level to use. Korean is a language that is very sensitive to tone, formality, and honorificity. These rules are best learned in everyday life and are not accurately translated by translation apps. This could cause some embarrassment and awkwardness, so it is best not to trust these apps.
However, they still can be useful. One method I recommend is writing your message in Korean, then checking to see if it is accurate in your native language. This is not fail-proof, but it will help you form accurate sentence structures and improve memorization.
Don’t Nitpick Exceptions to Grammatical Rules
Do not spend too much time on the few exceptions to grammatical rules, because almost all grammatical rules have exceptions, and they are only the minority. Just like all languages “grammatical exceptions” exist in Korean too. Sometimes it seems like they don’t even make sense, or are even counter-intuitive.
But, don’t overthink it. The best way to learn exceptions is not through comparison, but rather with repetition. Don’t get caught up in trying to find a pattern or understand the nuance behind the exception.
Just recognize it, study it, and move on.
3 Easy Steps to Start Learning Korean As An Absolute Beginner
The three easy steps to get started with learning Korean are:
- Learn Hangul, the Korean alphabet
- Learn basic Korean sentence patterns
- Memorize Korean set phrases for daily situations
Let’s talk about each of them in detail.
Hangul – The Very First Step
As mentioned, don’t rely on romanization. Do learn Hangul — the Korean alphabet. Although it may look intimidating, once you understand the basics you will soon realize how wonderfully simple it is.
Developed by the famous King Sejeon in the Year 1446; he made Hangul simple and logical. Each vowel or consonant stands alone and can be combined into syllables to form sounds and words. Essentially it is made from varying lines, squares, and circles that are put together in different combinations. That’s it!
Step 2: Get Familiar With Basic Korean Sentence Structures
In English, the basic sentence structure follows a Subject + Verb + Object pattern. But in Korean, the basic sentence structure is Subject + Object + Verb. The conjugation of the final verb will dictate tense, respect, conjunction, tone, and feeling. It is also where the most variation will take place as far as slang, reduction, and intonation. Therefore, it is a good idea to focus on learning verbs and basic conjugations. That way if you only understand the final part of the message, you are able to deduce other parts.
Step 3: Memorize Basic Korean Phrases
Perhaps we have all come across some simple Korean phrases when watching Korean dramas or listening to k-pop. We will find that when we are able to recognize some Korean phrases, our sense of achievement spikes a little every time, and our interest in learning is also thus enhanced. Check out this video below for some most common phrases in Korean dramas:
When we travel to Korea, we don’t really need to master all the complicated grammar structures in order to communicate, but some rather basic phrases like knowing how to say phrases like “thank you” or “how much is it” can help us go a long way.
There is a free section in the Lingodeer App called Travel Phrasebook, you can use this as a great way to memorize some basic Korean Phrases on the go. It covers various situations that may be encountered during travel. Each phrase is accompanied by an audio recording read by native speakers, and you can adjust the playback speed and slow it down if needed.
Beware of the Challenges in Learning Korean
The Pronunciations of Korean
Also, there are some tricky vowels that exist in Korean you should be aware of. It’s not that they are difficult, but getting an understanding of them will help your Korean pronunciation skill. Importantly, try not to pronounce them with an English equivalent. In the long run, it is better to develop the Korean pronunciation from the start. Besides, they’re not hard to learn.
The basic vowels are 아, 이, 어, 우, 오, 에, 애, 으. They can be combined to make a different sound as well. It may be hard to hear these combinations clearly, but if you go slowly, you’ll hear the logical pronunciation. Note, the 에 and 애 actually have the same pronunciation but are used differently in writing. Their counterparts are called aspirated consonants: meaning that an extra exhale or puff of air from the throat is included in the pronunciation. They are also written with an extra stroke, which signifies the aspiration: ㅋ,ㅌ,ㅍ and ㅊ.
The Korean language has some pronunciation characteristics that can be confusing and hard to say for learners. To start let’s look at the unaspirated (plain) consonantsㄱ,ㄷ,ㅂ and ㅈ. I hesitate to tell you how these sound through writing, but they are somewhere between the pronunciations of – “K / G” for ㄱ, “D / Th” for ㄷ, “B/P for ㅂ and “Ch/ Gje” for ㅈ.
So, when you pronounce the aspirated consonants, they have a higher tone due to the extra force of air being used. For example, notice the difference when you say “Jib” compared to “Chip”. Although “Jib” is not a word, when you say “Chip” you can hear the aspiration in the “CH” and the “P” compared to the softer “J” and “B”.
Then there are complex vowels. The extra stroke indicates a “y” sound should be added to the beginning of the pronunciation: 에, 얘, 요, 유, 여, 야, 에, 의.
A combination that uses 우 or 오, indicates that a “w” sound should be added to the beginning of the pronunciation, for example, 왜, 와, 외, 워,웨, etc.
Additionally, you will see and hear double consonants ㅉ, ㄸ, ㄲ, ㅆ, ㅉ, ㅃ. These can be hard to pronounce like native speakers who are accustomed to the nuance. Basically, the method I use to pronounce these double consonants is to simply put more strength and intensity into the pronunciation. Double Consonant = Double Strength.
It can sound harsh or even aggressive, but that’s how Koreans use them. It may even sound like they are angry, but they are not. In fact, they are using a double consonant. The sounds of double consonants exist somewhere between the normal speaking tone and aggressive tone, in a short, quick burst. To practice, have fun with it. Let them rip! See if you can impress Koreans with your double consonants.
Lastly, be aware that Korean words do not end with a consonant. They always end on a vowel.
Korean is not a true tonal language, but it does use intonations that can change the meaning of the sentence or question. This is like English in which we emphasize a certain word or part of the message to alter the feeling or meaning.
Take the sentence, “I didn’t’ do anything”. Now put the emphasis on different words to change the meaning. When you emphasize “I”, the sentence has a different feeling compared to if you emphasize “anything”. There is a similar concept in Korean.
Likewise, when you ask a question in English, the intonation rises to indicate curiosity. This also exists in Korean.
Korean Speech Levels
Probably the most unique trait of Korean (at least in my opinion) is the use of different speech levels, called HONORIFICS. Age, respect, and formality play a huge role in how Koreans speak to each other. The more familiar and equal, the more casual and loose the language can be. The more formal, respectful, and unfamiliar the more strict and polite the language should be.
English does not use this system, but in Korean it is expected to be used by everyone. To get the concept, think about this: How would you speak to your best friend, compared to how would you speak to a well-respected CEO? Probably much different.
But in Korean, this concept is applied to the most subtle of social differences. Even if two speakers are a year apart in age, the younger one must speak to the older one using honorifics.
Fortunately, this doesn’t always apply to non-native Korean speakers. Koreans don’t expect you to follow these guidelines as a foreigner, but they will be impressed if you do. For now, don’t worry about learning these. But do take note of differences when you hear them.
Two Korean Number Systems
Korean uses two different sets of numbers depending on the content of the message. I’m not going to lie, this can be frustrating as a beginner, and it is still something that trips me up from time to time.
|1||일 il||하나 hana|
|2||이 i||둘 dul|
|3||삼 sam||셋 set|
|4||사 sa||넷 net|
|5||오 o||다섯 daseot|
|6||육 yuk||여섯 yeoseot|
|7||칠 chil||일곱 ilgop|
|8||팔 pal||여덟 yeodeol|
|9||구 gu||아홉 ahop|
|10||십 sip||열 yeol|
The first set is called the Sino-Korean system, which comes from Chinese, and is used for things like dates, addresses, phone numbers, etc. You may be wondering why Korean uses a Chinese numbering system? The long history of China has had an influence on all of Asia at some point. So remnants of the Chinese language and culture are quite common.
The Native Korean system is used for counting things, numbering items, and speaking about age. The most common way in which this is used is when communicating about quantities of items or how many people are in your group when walking into a restaurant. So, a fun way to practice this Native Korean system is to go out to eat and go shopping.
As for telling time, it becomes a little more complicated. Telling time uses a hybrid of the two systems, but it best to be studied as a stand-alone subject.
If you are worried about making mistakes, don’t be. Koreans are quite understanding when it comes to numbers, and will know what you mean if you use one system in place of the other.
Korean Verb Conjugations
Many grammatical functions are expressed through verb conjugations in Korean. In fact, it is said that the most important part of the sentence usually comes at the end. This is because the end of the sentence is where the most important conjugations take place. Additionally, how the verb is conjugated can dictate the tone, feel, and honorifics of the message.
Tips for Hacking Korean Learning
Konglish – So Many Korean Words You Already Know!
Don’t disregard Konglish. It is one of the best tools for developing familiarity and confidence in the Korean language. In fact, I would say that Konglish is becoming so prevalent that Koreans sometimes don’t even recognize the word as an English word. So, how to read English words written in Korean? It’s quite easy. Once you grasp Hangul, simply sound out the syllables slowly and distinctly. You’ll immediately hear the English version hidden in there. Then you’ll start to see Konglish everywhere.
– Ice cream is 아이스크림. Notebook is 노트북. Shirt is 셔츠.
– A good example of how Konglish has progressed, take a look at the word 미용실 which is the Korean word for “hair shop”. You will still see this word used today, but you’ll much more commonly see the Konglish version – 헤어숖
For fun, try to convert your name into Korean. Use the Hangul pronunciations to sound-out your name. They’re not exact pronunciation matches, but you can hear the name.
– Jon is 존. Mike is 마이크. Jennifer is 제니퍼. Sara is 새라
Some other examples of common Konglish words: 컴퓨터, 택시, 크리스마스
Using Common Characters to Memorize Sino-Korean Vocabulary
As you study Korean you’ll begin to notice patterns that can help you identify and memorize new words. For example, 국 is often a suffix for a “country”. So when you see or hear that word, it may refer to a country, but not always. It could mean soup! Delicious! Another common Sino-Korean word is “님” which is often in reference to a “person”. These patterns are everywhere, so take notice!
- Example: Korean – 한국, China – 중국, America – 미국
Rule of Thumb for Managing Sentence Endings – Adding 요
A great way to quickly improve your Korean skill without offending anyone is to default to using the ending – 아/어/여요, if you don’t know which honorific to use. This is kind of the “middle-ground” when it comes to honorificity: it carries enough politeness to be acceptable in most situations, but it can also be casual. I still use this rule of thumb regularly because it allows me to speak without having to think about which honorific ending is most suitable for the situation. This frees up my mind to focus on speaking and gives me confidence that I won’t be blatantly offending someone. Koreans will usually accept this level of politeness, especially from a foreigner.
- Verb stem + 아/어/여요
- Adjective stem + 아/어/여요
- Noun + (이)요
Improve All Four Areas in Learning Korean As You Advance
Getting Better at Speaking Korean
Try to imitate native speaker’s recordings as much as possible, and copy what you hear around you. It can be great fun to test your accent and intonation by mimicking how Koreans speak. This was a strength of mine when I first began learning Korean. I focused on imitating what I heard because it was the easiest way to practice without thinking about the meaning. Granted, sometimes this got me into a little trouble when I would imitate swear words on accident, or say something in a way that only females would say it. But overall, it usually made for a good laugh, and Koreans always complimented me on my accent.
Koreans have a range of emotions, attitudes, emphasis, and subtle meaning riddled throughout their speech: from low grumbles to high-pitch cuteness. It’s always fun to see what you can copy, and they usually get a kick out of hearing it come from a foreigner.
To get a better idea of how you sound, record yourself from time to time so you can be sure that you are understandable. Playback your own recordings and listen to it along with a native speaker’s recordings → function supported in the LingoDeer app.
Getting Better at Listening to Korean
For me, one of the biggest challenges is listening comprehension. So, I’ve had to emphasize listening. There are many helpful ways to do this.
- You can watch a Netflix show or YouTube channel with subtitles, then with Korean subtitles, then without subtitles at all.
- Another way is to listen to music, or podcasts, or the radio.
- My favorite way is to just listen to what is happening around me. Do some casual eavesdropping on a public conversation to see what you can pick up. Don’t worry about being offensive. Koreans often talk quite loud in public places, so it’s easy to get some real-life practice.
If you use a feature that allows you to slow down the speaking, this can be extremely useful to pick up the meaning of a sentence or message. Listen to clear and slow speeds and gradually move to speech at a faster, natural speed → function supported in the LingoDeer app
Getting Better at Reading Korean
Reading is a great way to improve your vocabulary and sentence structure. Your first inclination is to whip out the dictionary and translate every word you don’t know. We recommend refraining from this practice. Not only is it tedious, but it removes a crucial learning mechanism from the process: deduction. This involves using the broader context of the syntax to figure out the specific meaning of a word. So, try to guess the meaning of new words with contextual information. It may be harder at first, but it’s a great way to increase your vocabulary.
Have a notebook to collect useful new words and well-written phrases. There is so much new, fun, and interesting information to gather while learning. You’re going to want somewhere to stash it so that you can reference and recall it later. Don’t rely on memory. Develop a system of recording and collecting things you’ll want to remember. Then, review them regularly.
Getting Better on Writing in Korean
Accept the fact that writing is the hardest and takes a long time to practice and improve. So invest in some pencils and a few heavy-duty erasers, because it’s going to take some time to write well. Especially since digital mediums are so common these days. You don’t spend much time with paper and a writing tool, but this is crucial to your language development. That tactile process of putting pen to paper will ignite your childhood learning system and help you lock in important and useful content.
Writing Hangul is tough at first, but once you get the strokes down, you’ll see that it’s a beautiful language and a lot of fun to write.
These days, you’re going to have to type on a device. So, get a Hangul keyboard and start forming the habit of typing in Korean. Get familiar with useful writing templates, such as an email, a sick leave notes, or an invitation.
Assembling Your Toolbox for Self-studying Korean
Must-Have Main Tools
- Start as an absolute beginner and follow an expertly structured curriculum to get your foot in the door
- Learn Korean on the go with the app using the offline mode
- Read the blog to get great supplementary material on language learning
- Learn Korean with sample dialogue videos
- Get beautiful printed books that you can use along with the online courses or for extra learning, or buy ebooks on google play and amazon kindle
- Test your skills at the end of each unit, including comprehension, listening, and grammar
- Listen to dictation practice videos available and read short stories for extra intermediate-level practices
Other Handy Apps to Support Korean Language Learning
- Anki: flashcard decks for vocabulary memorization
- Drops: game-like vocabulary building app
- Naver dictionary: most popular dictionary among Koreans
- Papago: translation app developed by Naver
- Tandem: language exchange platform to make native speaker friends
- HelloTalk: a language exchange app used by many Koreans