Korean is such a cool language to learn!
Not only is the written script one of the easiest to learn, but the language will open doors to a culture unlike any other.
So it’s clear that deciding to learn Korean is an awesome decision—but where do you start?
Keep calm and Korean on, because we’ve broken it down into three simple steps with helpful tips to get you going.
- 1. Learn Hangul
- 2. Collect Vocab
- 3. Focus on Verbs
1. Learn Hangul
There is a fairly obvious place to begin learning Korean, and that is Hangul—the Korean alphabet. If you want to pursue the language seriously, you are going to need to be able to read. The alphabet has 24 letters: 14 consonants and 10 vowels.
Luckily, Hangul is a surprisingly easy alphabet to learn. When I first looked at it, I could make neither head nor tail of it. But once I learned the logic and simplicity behind its systematic creation, I mastered the entire alphabet in a single afternoon!
Hangul is a magical alphabet because the letters are highly symbolic. Consonants are actually very simple diagrams of what shape the mouth makes in order to articulate the sound.
Vowels are made up of three symbols: a dot representing the sun (written as -), a horizontal line (ㅡ) representing the Earth, and a vertical line (ㅣ) representing humans, who connect the Earth and sun. You can read about the symbolism of Hangul in more detail here.
Here are some great places where you can learn Hangul:
- Omniglot – Korean — Omniglot briefly explains the history and linguistics of Hangul, which I find fascinating. Scroll down to see the letters separated into consonants and vowels, with a recording of the basic pronunciation of each letter.
- An Introduction to Korean — Don’t let the outdated appearance of this site turn you off; it might just be the best place to learn Hangul online. Each page is quite brief, making it really useful for learning Korean step by step. This site gradually teaches you the letters in a logical order and in an effective way. Click on “Consonants and vowels” in the bottom right corner to begin. As you progress through the mini-lessons, there will always be a link like this in the bottom right corner (next to the small green arrow) which you click to move on to the next step.
- Hangul a Day — This site gives great examples of how to pronounce each letter. But just be aware: When used in actual words, there are several irregularities in how some letters are pronounced—depending on what letters they follow. The next site will help you learn these irregularities.
- Learn Korean Language — As mentioned above, this site clearly explains pronunciation irregularities. They may seem impossible to remember at first, but once you start speaking Korean you should find that they are actually very logical rules that make pronunciation far more natural.
How to Practice Hangul
Depending on your study plan, you should be able to learn Hangul in a matter of weeks (or less!). I started by looking at all the letters at once, and then I broke them up into chunks to memorize.
One way to learn is to spend a week just learning the most basic eight vowels, followed by a week on the y-sound vowels and vowel combinations. Then you can move on to consonants, again breaking them into groups of about eight letters each. That way, by spending ten minutes per day (on average) reviewing flashcards, you can read Hangul in about a month.
Once you have the individual letters down, reading words can come surprisingly quickly. The more you read (even if you cannot understand a word of what you’re reading), your reading speed will improve greatly. I practice most often through social media, particularly by following Korean people of interest on Twitter and Instagram, as the text is extremely short.
Here are some Korean people of interest you could follow for reading practice:
- Moon Jae-in @TheBlueHouseENG, the South Korean President
- G-Dragon (@IBGGDRGN), K-pop megastar of band BigBang
- CL (@chaelinCL), K-pop star of 2NE1
- Psy (@psy_oppa), K-pop star known for the worldwide hit “Gangnam Style”
- Lee Min Ho (@actorleeminho), famous actor
- Jin Goo (@actor_jingoo), famous actor
Sometimes I look up what the words mean, but other times I simply practice reading the words as quickly as I can. You may also find that writing in Hangul (even if you’re actually just transliterating English words) will get the letters into your head more quickly and naturally.
2. Collect Vocab
Once you’ve learned to read the Korean alphabet, the next step is to begin collecting vocab. I once read a novel in which a character who speaks upwards of 20 languages brushes off his remarkable skills as “you really only need about 500 words.” When I read that, I practically snapped my fingers: That’s less than 10 words a week for a year! Perhaps his statement was a wild exaggeration, but it’s still a fantastic start. So if you like this idea as well, let 10 words a week be your goal.
Sometimes it’s difficult to decide which vocab to learn, which is where categories can be helpful (i.e. greetings, honorifics, food, animals, common adjectives, transportation). You can also let popular culture provide you with thematic vocab. For example, by watching a drama set in high school you can pick up school-related language, or learn romantic language by listening to K-pop lyrics.
How to Practice Vocab
Practicing vocab is when apps can be most useful. I like Anki and Memrise, and I also use physical flashcards because I’m old-school.
One way that I like to interact with language is to learn the words for things in a room in my house—for example the Korean words for all the items I commonly use in the kitchen (i.e. refrigerator, toaster, plate, bowl, chopsticks, etc.). Stick a portrait of your favorite K-pop star on your fridge, for example, to remind you to say the Korean names of items as you use them. Other kitchen ideas include putting a souvenir magnet or postcard from Korea on your fridge, eating off Korea-related placemats or even labeling each item in Hangul with Post-its.
Making little habits like this are a great way to get your brain practicing, without using up effort remembering to review. And the more you can ramp up the fun factor by engaging with whatever makes Korean language or culture interesting to you, the less effort it’s going to take to make yourself practice.
An easy way to bring Korean into your daily life can be by watching Korean videos. There are a lot of different resources for finding good Korean videos to watch and tons of different ways to incorporate Korean into your daily life.
When I want to watch authentic Korean videos, I use the FluentU app. That way, when I stumble across new words, I can learn them with the Korean and English subtitles. It’s nice to be able to just hover my mouse over the word to see what it means in the context of the video that I’m watching.
Korean videos are excellent because there’s really something for everyone. If you’re into cooking, for example, make one night per week “Korean night,” where you make a Korean dish while learning the names of the utensils and ingredients in Korean. Maangchi’s blog is an awesome source of Korean recipes, and she always refers to the dishes by their Korean name in her videos—which is very helpful for pronunciation!
Go back to your original motivation for learning Korean; that’s where you find your inspiration! Whether it’s watching movies and dramas, making kimchi from scratch, singing along to K-pop or boning up on North-South relations, all areas of interest come with a wide rage of vocab to learn. And following your curiosity is the most exciting way to learn those Korean words.
3. Focus on Verbs
Learning common verbs will be your third step to get started with the Korean language, as verbs are probably the most important part of any Korean sentence. In fact, it’s quite common in Korean to skip a sentence entirely, and only say the verb! For example, you can simply say “eat” to mean “I want to eat,” “Let’s eat” or “Do you want to eat?” The meaning can generally be taken from the context and your intonation.
Think about the verbs you use most frequently in English; that’s a good place to start. Write a list of verbs to learn, and look them up in a Korean dictionary. Naver’s Korean-English dictionary is a great choice (Naver is kind of like the Google of South Korea), or I frequently use Rieul Korean. iOS users could try DictBox or DioDict as well.
Or, check out Korean verb lists where people have already done the defining/translations for you!
- Sydney to Seoul has a list of 100 common Korean verbs.
- TOPIK Guide provides a list of the 500 most common verbs in Korean. You’ll need to be able to read Hangul to use both sites, as they do not provide Roman lettering.
How to Practice Verbs
Like with other vocab, if you start with verbs that you use really frequently, you can form the habit to use the Korean word rather than the English. For example, I never say “let’s go” anymore. I say “가자!” (ga-ja!)
And like with Hangul, it’s wise to learn a small number of verbs at a time, and practice frequently enough to have a high turnover. A good goal to begin with is to learn five new verbs every other day, and review daily. Ten to 15 minutes per day is plenty of time to spend learning new verbs.
While there really is no limit to how much time you could spend reviewing and committing Korean words to your long-term memory, a shorter period of time (like 10 minutes) of consistent daily flashcard practice will move you along quite nicely.
It’s normal to be nervous and or to procrastinate beginning to learn a new language, even when you desperately want to learn it. But it really is as simple as getting started and continuing.
Aim for consistent small steps which you can easily complete, such that daily progress feels manageable. So instead of “I want to speak the Korean language fluently,” start with our first step and give yourself a deadline. For example: “I want to be able to read Hangul by the end of the month.” Then break that goal down further into a study plan of minutes/day on one of the sites we recommended, letters/week, etc.
We hope these first three steps will get you started and help to build your momentum. Enjoy the journey!