On a scale of McDonald’s to being yelled at in Cantonese, how foreign do these signs seem to you? Unless you can read and understand basic hangeul (한글), the Korean alphabet, they might be very intimidating indeed. But worry not, because below I’ve got some tips for you on what Korean to study & how, based on a year of living here.
Table of Contents
My First Year in Korea
Exactly one year ago today I stepped off the plane into a drastically different culture. When I first arrived in Korea, I was intimidated by anything beyond basic communication attempts. And despite over sixteen months of cultural research, my pathetic attempts at learning Korean might as well have never happened. I realized quickly how hopelessly ill-prepared I was. However, now I communicate quite well. And had I been approaching studying with more willpower & information before arriving, I would have focused on understanding Korean grammar. This might seem counter-intuitive to some people, as you have to understand some words before you can get the grammar down. Right?
Well, not necessarily. To this day, grammar is what I struggle with the most. Word order in Korean is scrambled & the basic building blocks are expressed in a different manner. It’s not just the words which are different, as in Spanish, but the concepts behind the words, many of which have Chinese roots. Since last September, I have tried most every study method out there and found what works for me. But the issue I ran into with my self-study was not knowing what to study.
I could be the best “studier” in the world, but still fail if I was studying the wrong material.
I wasted a month here learning to read Korean, when I could have exposed myself to it at home. For two straight months I spent three or four hours a day trying to study grammar through the lens of basic phrasebooks and textbooks I had bought. Unfortunately the books couldn’t keep pace, because here they speak to you like another Korean adult, when you really need toddler talk at first. One year wiser, there are three aspects of Korean I wish I had initially structured my self-study around.
Top 3 Things to Focus On
Based on how long you have to prepare— Basic: a couple weeks, Intermediate: a couple months, Advanced: several months or longer— choose your study materials and hit the books, forums, and apps hard.
1. How to read hanguel (한글).
Understanding the structure and history behind the language can help temper your instinct to find English equivalents for each word. Learn how young Koreans are taught how to read and mimic it (I can’t find an article explaining it, but basically they learn Korean by recognizing syllables much like we recognize letters of the alphabet.).
Basic: associate the shapes with their rough sounds, and walk around the house practicing. Start with the consonants and work your way through the vowels from there.
Intermediate: learn how to read hanguel and learn some irregular batchim (박침). Start with Wikipedia’s page on Hangeul. Seriously.
Advanced: learn hangeul well enough to read whole sentences aloud as pronunciation practice; the faster your brain associates each letter with its sound is a higher level of fluency attained. This especially helps with reading Konglish words (English words written in the Korean alphabet). Practice with a Korean language partner, if possible.
2. Learn common spoken Korean.
Basic: recognize ten simple words written in hangeul, and memorize five to ten of the most common phrases, written and spoken (hello, goodbye, thank you, nice to meet you, how much is it).
Intermediate: recognize fifty words written and spoken, and memorize ten common phrases, written and spoken (hello, goodbye, thank you, nice to meet you, how much is it, etc.). Learn to count to ten in both number systems.
Advanced: recognize a hundred basic words written and spoken, and memorize twenty of the most common phrases written and spoken (hello, goodbye, thank you, nice to meet you, how much is it, etc.). Learn to count in both number systems.
3. Grammar basics.
Again, this is what I wish I had initially studied. Understanding how a sentence will be put together helps you create and dissect new phrases, as well as easily categorize new vocabulary.
Basic: learn about the three conjugation forms for verbs (past, present, future), and basic word order for sentences (hint: it doesn’t always have to be in the same order, like in English).
Intermediate: learn about banmal & cheondaemal (반말 & 천대말) and basic word order, as well as the five most common particles and how to add them to words. Advanced: learn about banmal & cheondaemal (반말 & 천대말) and basic word order, as well as the five most common particles and how to add them to words. Understand the usage difference between 이/가 & 은/는, and memorize various verbs conjugated in present tense.
5 Language & Culture Tips (& Common Mistakes)
- Know your place in the hierarchy. This means that you will know which type of language to use in conversation (formal/informal), what name to call someone, how deeply to bow when you meet (if at all), and how to say goodbye (which also changes depending on whether you’re coming or going.)
- Start speaking as soon as possible, You will never be perfect, so understand that you’re not a native speaker and that you’ll make mistakes, and you’ll be much happier in the end. Language exchanges are especially useful, but make sure you’re getting the most out of them.
- Break down each word you learn. Even if it only has one syllable, check to see if it is connected to a hanja (한자), which is a Chinese character. This would signify that it has an inherent meaning you could use to help understand it in other words.
- Learn hanguel through listening rather than the alphabet. If you are thinking about the letters in terms of the alphabet, reading will always be a practice in translation. Learn from my mistakes on this one. Because there are not true equals between the two languages’ alphabets, hearing the individual sounds and connecting them to the letter is way more helpful, though initially more time-consuming.
- Use flashcards for words that cannot be labelled in your home or daily life (verbs, adjective verbs, grammar points, hanguel, etc.).
Study Strategies & Recommended Apps
Use Korean every day. I cannot emphasize this enough. Get a dedicated notebook for Korean and use it every day, even if it’s only for two minutes.Learning a language also means learning the culture build up around the lexicon, so if you are working on mastering the language, I promise that you’ll adjust faster. Other tools:
- flash cards for words & sounds
- apps for listening to natives speaking those sounds (for apps try Duolingo, Memrise, or Writing Princess)
- Korean grammar podcasts
- switch to using naver translate instead of google (Naver has a dictionary app & a search engine app)
- a notebook for collecting words (like when you point to something and ask “what’s this called?”)
- write words on your hands to better visualize them
- learn the names of the hangeul letters themselves (there is blasphemously no song for kids to learn the Korean alphabet with)
- translate song lyrics
- translate vocabulary with your students, if you teach in Korea
- practice reading signs in your neighborhood or found online
- TALK TO ACTUAL HUMANS (adults preferred)! Language exchanges, even online, are one of your best resources.
These may seem like lofty goals now, but I promise they will help you feel much less overwhelmed by Korea & Korean. If you’re teaching English here, you’ll probably be in a pretty rural spot. It will be different. But trust me, coworkers will be impressed if you learn anything at all.
Having studied Spanish & French previously, I knowI respond well to pressure. Living here was the pressure I needed, but what is yours? Do you have any tips for Korean learners?