Gentle Advice: 10 Ways to Improve Your Korean Speaking
Did you notice how, the moment you decided to start learning Korean, everybody starting yelling opinions at you?
But you don’t need to get overwhelmed by all the different advice you hear.
If you’re looking to improve your Korean speaking, regardless of where you are in the world or how far along you are in your learning, there are more concrete things you can do to get there.
Below are some suggestions that anyone can use to actually improve their Korean speaking skills. No yelling involved.
- The Stuff You Probably Already Know
- The Other Stuff You Should Be Doing
The Stuff You Probably Already Know
The truth is, you’re probably already aware of these things and you’re either already doing them or you’re not. You don’t have to do all of them, and you don’t have to do any of them all the time—but whatever you can do will, inevitably, be helpful.
After we go through these, we’ll look at less obvious stuff you can do.
One step that you must conquer before even attempting to level up your Korean speaking is overcoming your fear of this skill. For some valuable insights into this critical action, check out the video below. Korean learner Cherie talks you through some of the top ways to overcome this initial hurdle and make the most of all the speaking opportunities available to you:
Watch dramas and movies.
Korean learners have an advantage over learners of many other languages in that the amount of authentic media out there in the form of TV and movies on an international level is staggering.
Most major streaming platforms carry a healthy dose of Korean films and dramas, and sites like Viki give you more dramas than you could likely ever watch. Asian Crush is a great place to access Korean movies outside of the main international platforms like Netflix. Additionally, you’ve got the generous Korean Film Archive on YouTube.
And by the way, all three of these resources offer free content.
When you watch movies or shows, try to alternate between intensive and extensive learning. In other words, make sure that you sometimes watch just for enjoyment. Other times, you may want to go through a particular scene to pick out useful phrases or words (we’ll talk about sentence mining a bit more below).
Find a Korean learning partner.
This tip can help you at any stage in your learning, but it can be a pain trying to find someone who you feel comfortable talking to. One solution to this could be to start off with a penpal and then, after you’ve exchanged some emails and gotten to know them a bit, suggest switching to video calls.
If you’re more comfortable with an in-person exchange but nervous about working out the particulars, Lexody offers a more guided experience for meetups near you.
Find as many opportunities as possible to use the language.
This goes not just for actual speaking but for any spontaneous, interactive usage of the language. Starting with your computer settings and social media accounts is a good idea because you probably already spend a lot of time interacting with your electronic devices.
For example, creating a separate account for chatting with people in Korean on Twitter (and following only Korean accounts) is one way of using the language that’s fairly close to speaking it.
The Other Stuff You Should Be Doing
Hanging out where Korean speakers hang out (even if you’re not in Korea).
There’s a lot to be said for just being in a place where people are speaking Korean, even if you aren’t actively participating in conversations. While they often contain similar vocabulary, real conversations flow differently than those in dramas, and simply witnessing them can help build your speaking confidence.
If you’re in Korea, this is easy. If not, you may think you’re out of luck. But the Korean diaspora may be more accessible to you than you think. There are a bunch of Koreatowns in the U.S., and they’re not all in California by a long shot. Toronto’s Koreatown is also fairly robust, and the food options are nearly overwhelming.
Additionally, any H Mart location is a dream for your Korean speaking skills. Most H Marts are still in the U.S., but they’ve begun expanding into Canada and the U.K. The exact layout will depend on the location, but many H Marts have a regular (huge) grocery section and a food court with several restaurants where you can hang out and listen to people talk.
You may also find separate small shops selling anything from furniture to (Korean-language) books.
The staff members are often bilingual, so you can find reasons to have small conversations with them in Korean and switch to English if needed. You don’t need to feel weird about being in an H Mart if you’re not Korean, but you’ll also invariably run into native speakers there. My 할머니 (halmoni, Korean grandmother), who lives in the Chicago suburbs, insists on going there practically every time I visit her.
Even if you’re not near any of this stuff, it’s worth looking into Korean groceries, restaurants and businesses in your area. Korean YouTube chef Maangchi maintains a worldwide directory of Korean grocery stores on her site.
Using an immersion program
A great way to practice your Korean speaking skills is to listen to native speakers and imitate how they speak. And you don’t need to travel to Korea or get a language exchange partner to listen to native speakers. Korean media is a great way to hear native speakers talk.
While you’ve no doubt been wanting to enjoy authentic content like Korean movies and TV shows, an immersive language learning program can give you more structure and support while you learn from listening to native speech.
Getting into sentence mining.
Learning Korean vocabulary will only help you to the extent that you’re able to use it naturally. And for speaking, you need to be able to locate that natural usage at the drop of a hat. One way to get started on this is to have a list of templates in your brain that you can modify as needed to form useful sentences.
Sentence mining is collecting sentences, often from a variety of sources, saving them and familiarizing yourself with them. It’s striving to learn full sentences rather than individual words. For example, you might use a flashcard program like Anki to store sentences that you cull from a variety of places (books, webtoons, dramas, etc.).
There are already some Korean sentence decks on Anki, but these are user-made, so you’ll want to check them for errors before drilling them into your brain (which could in itself be a useful exercise).
If you’re a beginner, you can start mining sentences from any program that gives you example sentences. Korean from Zero! is excellent for this, because each lesson is packed with sentences and matching playable audio.
If you’re past the basics, you can start mining authentic sentences from any resources that suit your needs. For example, mine from a medical drama if you’re looking to use the language in a medical setting (of course, you’ll have to work out yourself how factually accurate any fictional sources are).
Using programs with voice recognition.
Programs that prompt you to speak into your device’s microphone, then analyze your speech, are fantastic for building speaking confidence. They give you a feeling of accomplishment not just for having successfully spoken within a limited time-frame, but also for having engaged in some form of interaction.
There are well-known programs that come with voice recognition, but these can be pricey. As an alternative, you can always use Loecsen online for free. While this program teaches Korean basics, there’s no shame in using it to enhance your speaking skills even if your knowledge is more advanced. Just because you’ve “learned” something doesn’t mean you’ve really learned it.
You can also just use Google Translate’s voice input feature to test your Korean speaking. Set the entry language to Korean and hit the mic icon on the bottom left. You can then use whatever input you like (your previously mined sentences would be perfect) to test out your skills.
Doing audio courses with your eyes closed.
Of course, the traditional audio language course often includes speaking prompts even without voice recognition technology. These can be useful for speaking, too.
In my experience, though, they can also increase tension and foreign language anxiety, especially if you’re already nervous about speaking. I once actually broke out in hives for a few weeks after using a pretty well-known audio language program that shall remain nameless. This may be due to the combination of the timed intervals and lack of supportive feedback; you feel compelled to concentrate really hard but then have to deal with the uncertainty of not knowing how you did.
The solution? Use these programs, if you find them helpful, but make a point of using them in a relaxed environment, and try closing your eyes throughout the lesson. I find this helps because it sort of forces me to sink into the language instead of staring fixedly at some random object while picturing a future stressful interaction.
If you have issues with tension and anxiety when practicing your speaking, you may also find the Michel Thomas Method helpful, which has a basic Korean course available. Thomas popularized a laid-back method of audio learning meant to take the pressure of memorization off the student.
Getting into shadowing.
Another option for decreasing tension with audio courses is shadowing. This guide to shadowing gives a thorough overview, but essentially what you want to do is to start speaking along with the audio as soon as it begins.
This takes away the pressure of trying to spit back a perfect mimicked version of what the speaker said after they finish. It also forces you to speak at a regular pace, so you don’t have time to worry about shaping your pronunciation exactly right.
Not trying so hard to copy a native speaker can actually result in better pronunciation, and that better pronunciation is more likely to kick in naturally in a real-life situation since it was learned with a more natural approach.
Depending on what programs and audio you have access to, you can use shadowing in conjunction with sentence mining to drill useful sentences. 50Languages is wonderful for this purpose for beginners (but again, can be used by more advanced learners who need to work on speaking), as it gives you lists of phrases and sentences that you can review with audio individually, or play in succession.
If you’re going to be meeting and talking to Korean people, you’ll eventually be using this popular app, because someone will at some point ask if you have it.
If you’re looking for a Korean language exchange partner or trying to make Korean friends online, you can simplify the process by giving out your KakaoTalk ID—then anyone who’s interested in chatting with you can add you as a friend on the app.
Even if you only use the text features on KakaoTalk, using your phone to stay connected in multiple ways these days is part and parcel of communicating in general—and that’s especially true for connecting with Koreans, one of the most smartphone-dependent populations in the world.
Having KakaoTalk will help you find and maintain relationships with people who you can talk to in Korean. Even if you don’t use it right away, you’ll feel more confident and committed to your Korean speaking knowing you’re a part of a large app-based community that includes a ton of Koreans.
Speaking in Korean may seem terrifying, but the journey to fluent Korean speech can actually be pretty relaxed.
In fact, that may be a requirement.
So give yourself the gift of enjoyable Korean speaking practice.
Elisabeth Cook is a freelance writer who spends too much time writing and therefore doesn’t have enough time to spend taking her halmoni to H Mart. You can read more of her writing on her book blog, Lit All Over.