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.
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
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.
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