GUEST POST: “The Best Way to Learn Korean for Newcomers” by Jason Yu

Professor Oh July 8, 2012 34

The Best Way to Learn Korean for Newcomers
Guest Author:    Jason Yu (from the Green Tea Graffiti)

Ever been frustrated learning a new language? Do you break your pencil in anger after messing up writing in a different alphabet? No worries, it’s understandable. Really. It’s the growing pains of learning something new, much less a whole new way of communicating.

Korean is no different.

In the past five years, the demand for learning Korean has exploded. Forum boards, Korean language sites, and music gossip sites have sprung out of nowhere. Whereas people once flocked to learn Japanese as their preferred Asian language just twelve years ago, the tables have turned. The main culprits of this new-found Korean phenomenon: K-pop and K-dramas.

Rather that teach the finer details of Korean, this guide will focus on the methods of learning Korean. We will explore why you should learn the language, how passion is so important, how to learn it, and how learning Korean can be fun. If you want to learn how to learn Korean, well… that’s what Professor Oh’s for, right?

With that being said, let get started!


Why Learn Korean – Do you have the right reasons?

If you asked 10 Korean language learners why they’re learning Korean, 9 out of 10 of them would say K-pop or K-dramas. Are you one of them?

While there are many skeptics out there that frown on people learning Korean solely because of Girls Generation or Big Bang, I am not one of them. In fact, I fully embrace learning a language because of its pop culture.

The truth is, most people become excited to learn a new language because of its pop culture. It happened two hundred years ago in the 1800s, when everyone wanted to learn Russian and French to watch plays and read famous literature. If you wanted to be part of the “in crowd” back then, those two languages were mandatory.

It happened more recently in the 1990s when all the cool kids wanted to watch their favorite Japanese anime and sing J-pop. And it happens today with English and Korean, as many want to karaoke to One Direction or 2NE1 respectively.

Did Girls’ Generation lure you in learning Korean?

When asking foreigners why they’re learning Korean, most reply that they want to become good enough to learn their favorite K-pop songs without stuttering. They want to be able to impress their friends and sing to their favorite Korean songs like a native. Others say they want to be able to understand their favorite dramas. They want to be able to understand Secret Garden (2010) and The Moon Embraces the Sun (2012). And they want to be able to do so without those annoying words on the bottom, also known as subtitles.

Very few people learn a new language “for the heck of it”. Unless you’re a Linguistics major, are forced to learn a language for a job, or appreciate learning new languages as a passion, you’re probably in it for the entertainment aspect. And that’s okay.

So do you have the right reasons for learning Korean? The answer is: there is no “right” reason. That’s up to you. Whether you’re learning it purely for the entertainment value or expanding your language abilities, more power to you.


Follow Your Passion – Why passion is so important in learning


Learning Korean is tough. No doubt about it. The frustration and temptation to give up will be there often. The one thing that overcomes all this language adversity: passion.

The people that eventually become fluent in a language usually aren’t the smartest or most talented. Rather, they’re the ones that keep at a language, even when it gets difficult. And they’re the ones that will eventually see the rewards pay off.

A friend of mine illustrates this example well. Two years ago, he came to Korea for the Hallyu Wave – the explosion of Korean entertainment. He knew no Korean at all. Not even “hello.” Yet, he was determined to learn Korean, or die trying doing so. With the proper, efficient ways of learning a language (see the next section below), he soon became good at Korean. Real good.

The other day, he told me he finished reading the entire Harry Potter series in a week… in Korean.

As my friend’s experience showed, anyone can learn Korean. It’s just a question of: how badly do you want to learn it?


How to Learn Korean – The best ways to tackle the language

Every time I see new language learners cramming their faces in their books, I shake my head. If I study six, eight, ten hours a day, I’ll become awesome at a language. The theory goes: the more I force my eyeballs to read this language book, the more fluent I will become. While the thought is nice on paper, it rarely works.

There are more efficient ways to learn a language.

The best secret to learning a new language is to build a solid foundation.

While learning all the curse words and slang may be cool from the start, if you don’t know why sentences and phrases are formed, you’ll be reduced to only knowing canned phrases (remembered phrases). And that’s not good when understanding language, much less Korean.

You have to understand why and how Korean works.

So how do we build this foundation? Here is what worked for me:

1)  Learn the 100 to 150 most commonly used verbs

2)  Learn the 100 to 150 most commonly used nouns

3)  Learn the 100 to 150 most commonly used adjectives

4)  Learn Hangul (the Korean writing system)

5)  Repeat phrases often

6)  Focus on speaking and listening

7)  Learn the subject-object-verb (SOV) word order


Learning Hangul is important in learning Korean.


Let’s go over the seven steps above in more detail:

1)  Learn the 100 to 150 most commonly used verbs:  Learning basic verbs, such as “to eat” (먹다), “to buy” (사다), “to play” (놀다) and so forth, will go a long way in communicating. Even if you don’t know how to form sentences, just saying “eat” will be understood by Koreans that “you want to eat.”

2)  Learn the 100 to 150 most commonly used nouns:  As with verbs, learning nouns will help you understand the topic when people speak to you. Even if all you hear is “blah blah blah school blah blah blah,” you’ll know that the person is talking about school (what about the school, however, is anyone’s guess).

3)  Learn the 100 to 150 most commonly used adjectives:  Adjectives are what make sentences more interesting. You can also tell a person how you feel, which is very common in Korean. “This kimchi (spicy vegetables) is spicy,” “I’m feeling tired today,” and “My weekend is very busy” are just some of the common phrases in Korean with adjectives.

4)  Learn Hangul:  Hangul is the Korean writing system. Unlike Japanese and Chinese, Hangul is very easy to read and write. Within a couple of hours, it is possible to learn the entire Hangul alphabet. Learning Hangul can help you sound out words when hearing them is not enough.

5)  Repeat Phrases Often:  Repetition is key when learning a new language. Linguists say that it takes an average of 6-10 times of repeating a word before it sticks in your head permanently. With enough repeated phrases, you can learn a lot of phrases in a short period of time without studying a book.

6)  Focus on speaking and listening:  When you first meet someone new, you will be talking with them. This involves speaking and listening. All interactions with people involve verbal communication. Thus, it is important to know that these two skills are the most important in first learning a new language. It’s not to say that reading and writing aren’t important – they are – but talking will always be the first way to introduce yourself to another person.

7)  Learn the Subject-Object-Verb Word Order:  In Korean, the word order may be difficult to master at first for Westerners. It uses the subject-object-verb word order. So a sentence like “Min-soo kicks the ball” in English, will be “Min-soo the ball kicks” in Korean. This reason alone is why Japanese have an easier time learning Korean, since both languages share the same word order. Similarly, English and Chinese share the same subject-verb-object word order, thus Chinese becomes easier to pick up for Westerners.

By following the steps above, a good Korean-language foundation will be built. From there, learning slang, colloquialisms, grammar, and jokes becomes much easier. A good foundation shows that you know the structure of the Korean language.


How Learning Korean Can Be Fun – Noraebang!

One of the best ways to learn Korean may turn off some old-school teachers. Namely, it’s going to the noraebang (karaoke in Korean). Put those books away and break out the microphone. It’s time to go to a noraebang studio with your friends to belt out your favorite K-pop songs.

Before going to the noraebang, it’s best to learn Hangul (see step #4 above). Without knowing Hangul, it’s impossible to read the Korean lyrics when singing. At the Korean karoake, there are no English-Romanized lyrics. Some people may remember their favorite songs through rote memorization. Reading Hangul means you can jump in and sing any song, regardless if you know it or not.

Is noraebang the best form of studying Korean? You bet!

When selecting your first K-pop song, choose a slow ballad or a tune you are familiar with. Pick songs you know because you will be comfortable with their speed and tempo. The same goes with slow ballads. The speed of the song will be slow enough that you can pronounce each word when singing.

When your level of Korean escalates, give faster songs, such as electro-pop or hip-hop, a shot. Showing off by rapping Epik High will get you mad K-pop street cred with the audience watching.


My Short Personal Story – A quick look on how I learned Korean

Quick confession: I came to Korea in 2010 to expand my language ability and… K-pop. Yeah, I’m one of those K-pop people. I first got into K-pop back in 1997, when SES, HOT, GOD, and the first generation of K-pop idols debuted. Although I became interested in Korea because of its music, I learned that Korea is more than just K-pop (this is for another story in the future!)

Seven years ago (2005), I finished up my second year of Korean language courses in university (go Cal!). Learning Korean was to be my fifth language to master. Yet after not using Korean for almost five years, my two years of Korean study were nearly forgotten. By the time I came to Korea, my Korean was almost non-existent. I had the language level of a Korean Kindergartener.

Since I did take two years of Korean a long time ago, I had one important thing going for me: a strong foundation. While it was still hard to relearn Korean, I did it faster and more efficiently because I understood the basics of the language. And I did it without cramming at the library or studying 12 hours a day. Coupled with a passion to learn Korean, the process of catching up was pretty fast.

I learned Korean through speaking it daily, watching Korean dramas, listening to K-pop, and of course, watching Korean Youtube learning channels like SweetandTasty.

While I am still not fluent in Korean, I would say I am quite comfortable in the language. I can talk to people freely, understand them, pay my bills, watch Korean TV and dramas, read Korean books, and even crack jokes (although my Korean jokes are not that funny). I can also do some rap and fast-paced Korean songs at the noraebang, too.

It’s been an awesome two years of Korean learning thus far! We’ll see where next year takes my Korean learning.


Wrapping It Up – Never give up

Learning Korean is a pretty exciting experience. Whether you are learning Korean because of 2PM and SISTAR, or learning it for your personal thirst of languages, remember to learn it for yourself. And if my Harry-Potter-reading friend and I could both learn Korean, there’s no doubt you can, too!

Jason lives, breathes, and talks about Asian pop culture. When he’s not working, writing, or coding, you can find him at the gym, learning new languages, listening to music, or playing video games. He currently lives in Seoul, Korea. Check out his Asian pop culture site: GreenTeaGraffiti

Twitter: GTGNews


  1. Daniel July 6, 2013 at 5:49 am - Reply

    Very informative post!

    I found this website recently and its great for learning korean for free ^^

  2. Annie May 29, 2013 at 9:09 pm - Reply

    Can somebody suggest how to get started on learning Hangul, and generally Korean Culture? While I’m trying to learn Spanish for family’s sake, I truly want to learn Korean. But the problem is that my school doesn’t offer Korean classes (6th-grader going into 7th grade), and I’m not sure what I should do to get started, and also, what can I do to keep my Korean alive? I’d love to know Korean, but since I don’t live in/near a Korea Town, I really can’t find a way to practice my Korean. In fact, the only Korean thing in my area is a Korean-Japanese BBQ, and I’m the only one in the family who wants to learn about Korean (And generally any Asian) culture and try their food, (Yet I’m picky, so I’m a bit scared to try Korean food) so going there’s a bust. I also don’t know any Koreans, so what should I do?

    • Leanna June 27, 2013 at 10:10 am - Reply

      @Annie – I was in the same boat as you (except I’m in 7th, going to 8th) and what I did to study Hangul was sign up for koreanclass101 for their 7-day free trial. I only really used it for their Hangul Quiz, which doesn’t need much explaining once you see it. I didn’t bother to study, because I find discovering the sounds each individual character makes is more effective than studying first and applying later in the quiz.
      As for the Korean culture, all I can really suggest is read and watch what you can. There aren’t any Korean-related things in my area either, so I just make do with reading about their culture through sites like Seoulistic and watch videos like that. Since I spend a lot of time online, I usually try to pick up Korean words bit by bit on sites. The content that I read is usually K-pop related, so I go on international fansites and get the original source from a news article to translate myself.

  3. Lady G. May 16, 2013 at 10:21 am - Reply

    I really enjoyed this blog post! I’m not into K-pop, or much American pop for that matter, but in the last 6 months K-dramas have sucked me into a vortex. However, the more I heard the language and saw the cultural aspects the more fascinated I became and wanted to learn it regardless. I remember the Japanese wave, and it was huge in the eighties! 1980 introduced the annoying song, “Turning Japanese.” Sung by a British band, The Vapors. And forget about the Manga influence of the nineties! In my teens then I liked the Animes for a bit. But it got old.

    Now I’m in my early 30′s and not so swayed by fads. But I appreciate great entertainment like the K-Dramas offer. So the initial reason was the entertainment value, but now I see it as a fine challenge and a chance use the language in a Korean Congregation, etc. And I just love learning new things, so my enthusiasm is there. I have books I’m pouring over, but I’m finding them a little difficult, except to copy and study Hangul. So I moved on to audio cds and online learning videos. Much better! I just need to discipline myself to set aside real time to practice and learn. I am definitely going to apply your great suggestions. I already find myself watching the dramas and hearing, ‘blah blah blah, I love you, I like you, go away, jerk, are you hungry? Aigoo, what do I do? Are you hurt?…blah blah blah…’ LOL. And it’s exciting that I can get the gist of it!

  4. inquisitiveman February 13, 2013 at 4:23 pm - Reply

    you knowledge of korean has been over 7 yrs now and you still believe that you’re not fluent enough to read magazines and news papers with proficiency? that is not encouraging for others…i would think that one could be fluent enough to understand local natives and newspapers with 2-3 yrs of studying.

    • Leanna June 27, 2013 at 10:16 am - Reply

      He’s not fluent because he didn’t continuously study Korean. He stopped after a while, then continued again. Of course some information would be lost within that time.

  5. Ehsan January 15, 2013 at 11:54 am - Reply

    thank you !
    Iam Arabian who can speak english and gonna to learn korean because of CNBlue <3 <3 <3

    • hasnae February 27, 2014 at 1:48 am - Reply

      I”am Arabian too

  6. Johnnie December 30, 2012 at 10:03 am - Reply

    I actually found a book at my local library that is just a list of the most common verbs, nouns, ect and some short phrases. it’s been really helpful. My big thing has been learning to read it in hangul and not worry about romanization. I really want to be fluent in the reading part of it, I know once I get that part down where I can recognize the words, the rest will come a bit easier.

  7. Carmen October 13, 2012 at 10:05 am - Reply

    Love your article! I’m especially interested in the 100-150 nouns/verbs/adjectives you mentioned. I tried googling it prior to reading your article, but there seems to be limited (or none!) lists of such kind. There are many lists of 1000 most common english words though. Can you possibly advise where to look for 100-150 common n/v/ad of the Korean language please?

    • Karli May 16, 2013 at 3:59 am - Reply

      I am also studying Korean and living in Korea right now as an English teacher. I would like to know about this list of n/v/ad that you mentioned!
      Do you have access to one or can you lead me in the direction of them?

  8. TKD students October 8, 2012 at 10:43 pm - Reply

    I’m learning Korean because I’m studying Taekwondo. At first I just wanted to know the numbers, and then some of the commands. But now I’m just really becoming more interested in the culture and history. So I’m excited on my journey to a new language.

    Thank you very much for this blog! It has been very encouraging and humorous as well!

  9. Fredrik September 16, 2012 at 7:59 pm - Reply

    Hey, I’m Norwegian/Korean trying to learn some basic Korean before I’m heading down for a year. Must say I’m a big fan of you’re work. Keep it up!
    (PS: The comedy makes it fun learning aswell)


  10. udder July 28, 2012 at 1:49 am - Reply

    What’s the name of the han’gul app with the sheep on it? Looks like it could be very useful!

  11. Kimberlyn Miguel July 20, 2012 at 8:11 pm - Reply

    it says that “really” is jinjja jeongmal!!
    sometimes i heard jinjjayo , jinjjaro , jeongmalyo?? when do we use that where can we used that or whom !!

  12. Dom July 12, 2012 at 2:25 pm - Reply

    Great article. I’ll definitely use this to help my learning.
    I must be in the minority because i have never seen any k-dramas or heard any k-pop, apart from Guckkasten (do they count?). I’m learning korean because i’m going to Seoul in a couple months to see my girlfriend. Thought i should make the effort!
    Does watching K-dramas help a lot? Can you recommend some? I presume there are quite a few.

    • JangTa July 12, 2012 at 6:38 pm - Reply

      Thank you for the comments. As for your question, it’s not really about the drama that helps you speak Korean, it’s really about the repetition of listening and speaking. With that being said, a couple current, good dramas are: The Moon Embraces the Sun (2012), Secret Garden (2010), City Hunter (2011), and Rooftop Prince (2012).

      Those dramas are both solid and has also helped my Korean, as I listen to the phrases without subs, then practice speaking with Koreans. Speaking, listening, and building up your vocab is the fastest way to get a good start with Korean. Fortunately, you have a girlfriend that’s Korean, so that helps a lot too :)

  13. Diana July 11, 2012 at 12:04 pm - Reply

    wooww…Great Article…I´m doing my best in learning the language and let me say that you helped me a lot!!…Thanks

    • JangTa July 11, 2012 at 6:39 pm - Reply

      Thanks Diana for the kind words! Try and challenge yourself to learn 5-10 new words and 5-10 new phrases a day (yeah, it’s hard at work haha). That should take about an hour at most. Then after that, just repeat those words and phrases to yourself.

      And… if you know a Korean (or someone that’s good at Korean), try speaking Korean with them for 5 minutes at first. Then build it up to 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes over time :).

  14. JohnS July 9, 2012 at 12:48 pm - Reply

    I’m learning because my wife is Korean. I speak Mandarin Chinese and Japanese already so this is quite challenging. I have heard the grammar between Korean and Japanese is similar, but it is not making it much easier. Perhaps it is because some words will sound the same or similar in Korean to either Chinese or Japanese, but then I get confused with which way to pronounce it is right when I want to say it in Korean. The other thing I’m having trouble with is spelling in hangul and how to sound them out. I can pretty much read hangul (slowly) but I have no idea what I’m saying or reading. Also having some trouble with how some hangul sounds like “g” or “k”, or if “d” or “t”, etc…. my brain is confused with Chinese, Japanese, and now Korean vocab to remember all at the same time! LOL

    • JangTa July 11, 2012 at 6:37 pm - Reply

      I can definitely relate to you. Like yourself, I speak Japanese and Chinese. The grammar between Korean and Japanese are similar (word order), but the pronunciation and particles are quite different. The cool thing about Korean is that, like Japanese, you can say everything in a flat-tone (unlike Chinese and Vietnamese, where tone is everything).

      Hangul spelling can be a pain sometimes. How they say the word and how its written is different sometimes. For stuff like that, it helps to have a native Korean help you, as a book cannot teach you those subtle differences. I’ve had Koreans tell me I was pronouncing a word wrong, even though I read the word correctly.

      As for being confused in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, that’s actually normal. Last year when I was in Tokyo, I said to the Japanese cashier person “kamsa hamida” ( 감사합니다). I wondered why the cashier was looking at me so strange until I realized I was speaking Korean in Japan for the past four hours after I arrived!

      Keep studying Korean and build a good foundation. They say it takes an average of 3-4 years to become fluent. By conquering baby steps (e.g. learning 5-10 new words a day or 5 new phrases a day), it becomes easier over time :).

  15. icey38386 July 9, 2012 at 8:49 am - Reply

    I was wondering if you could post a list of nouns and adjectives that you think are useful to know? I found a pretty good list of 100 most common Korean verbs, but haven’t really found any comprehensive noun or adjective lists.

  16. Sammy Leigh July 9, 2012 at 1:46 am - Reply

    This was rather inspiring… Strange but I think this was something I needed to read at the right time~

    I’ll admit I took up korean classes at a college ’cause of k-pop and dramas, but I noticed once you start you kind of realise the rest of it? It’s so much more then just songs and shows now. Always hearing stories from my teacher inspire me to understand everything about Korea and the language a lot more =)

    Thanks for reminding me to not feel ashamed of why I started but to embrace it and keep at it ^__^

    • JangTa July 9, 2012 at 9:43 am - Reply

      Thank you for the kind words. Korean can definitely be a struggle. But keep studying! Like you said, Korea is really more about K-pop. I’m glad your teacher taught you about Korea as the country itself and not just SNSD (although they’re not bad to learn either!)

      Embrace the reasons why you learned Korean in the first place. And… if you need help, you can always ask :)

  17. Kimberlyn shane miguel July 9, 2012 at 1:16 am - Reply

    Hi!! Sometimes i have a conflict in reading korean language!! How to use the ㄱ because it sound sometimes as g and k!! When do we use if it sound g or k!! ㅋ when do i need to use this one!! ㅂ and ㅍ this the same as said above!! ㅌ and this ㄷ sorry for that bad question!! Everyday im learning this characters but i dont have any idea to use that characters!! Mianhe!! Im concern!!

    • JangTa July 9, 2012 at 1:41 am - Reply

      Thank you for reading the article!

      As for your question, I think the easiest way to differentiate between “g” and “k” is that ㄱ is a soft g, where k is more hard sounding.

      Here’s an example with a soft g: The female name 가인 from Brown Eyed Girls. The sounding would be more like “gaa in”.

      For a hard k: The female group 카라, or KARA, has a hard “k” sound. So it would sound more like “KA ra”.

      As for ㅂ and ㅍ, they do sound similar. The first is a “b” sound, while the latter is a “p” sound.

      ㅌ andㄷ also run into a similar dilemma; they sound familar. The first is a “t”, while the second is a “d” sound. I know I mixed these up when I first learned.

      Let me know if that makes sense. And asking questions about Korean is always good. I know I still do.. and I live in Seoul!

      • Kimberlyn Shane Miguel July 9, 2012 at 5:35 pm - Reply

        sometimes the “b” sounds p in the beginning consonant same as “d” sounds t in the beginning! when you write this ㄱ in beginning it’s okay to pronounce this as “ga” or “ka” but its the same meaning? and also with this ” ㅂ” and this ㄷ ! it can be pronounce as t or p or d or b but the same meaning???

        • Kimberlyn shane miguel July 12, 2012 at 6:46 am - Reply

          sometimes the “b” sounds p in the beginning consonant same as “d” sounds t in the beginning! when you write this ㄱ in beginning it’s okay to pronounce this as “ga” or “ka” but its the same meaning? and also with this ” ㅂ” and this ㄷ ! it can be pronounce as t or p or d or b but the same meaning???

  18. Park Tae Tweeze July 9, 2012 at 12:07 am - Reply

    I think my greatest challenge learning Korean will be getting the word order in my head…as of now all I do is say a few Korean phrases in the English order =P

    • JangTa July 9, 2012 at 1:43 am - Reply

      Haha, I do that still sometimes as a joke myself :). The Koreans get a kick out of it though!

  19. Ashley July 8, 2012 at 11:57 pm - Reply

    Wow – this is a fantastic article. And to think I thought my passion for learning Korean was as strong as can be … it’s ever stronger now!

    • JangTa July 9, 2012 at 1:42 am - Reply

      Thank you so much for the kind comments Ashley! It’s great that your passion is even stronger now! I do think learning any language is really about passion more than natural ability. Hang in there and ask Professor Oh or myself (although I’m not an expert) for any questions. I actually have some Korean slang questions for her in the future as well.

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