Want to Learn Korean? Think Like a K-pop Star!
Unless you’ve got some seriously sweet dance moves and a radio-ready voice, you probably don’t think you have much in common with Korean superstars like PSY, BoA and Rain.
Well, if you’re a Korean student, you actually share a lot in common.
That’s right. While you’re grappling with tricky pronunciations and memorizing Hangul with mnemonic devices, you’re not all that far from a typical K-pop rehearsal session.
In this post, we’ll explore some surprising experiences that language learners and K-pop stars have in common, which will help reveal some of the keys to practicing and mastering Korean.
But wait a minute, before we get into the surprising similarities, just what in the world does K-pop have to do with learning the Korean language?
What Does K-pop Have to Do with Learning Korean?
If you think K-pop is just something to dance to as you prepare your omelette in the morning, then you’re missing out on a major resource for language learning.
Studies have found that music boosts memory. For example, in a University of Edinburgh study, participants were divided into three groups. One group was asked to listen to and then repeat foreign phrases in a neutral speaking tone; another had to repeat the phrases in a rhythmical tone and a third group sang the phrases.
And guess what? Researchers found that the third group—the ones who interacted with the foreign language in the context and melody of a song—were able to best the others in language tests afterwards.
A slew of research is uncovering just how tightly music and language are connected. It’s now becoming clear how tonal musical skills affect tonal linguistic skills, or how developing musical competencies positively affects linguistic ones, and vice versa.
It’s partly because both proficiencies employ common neural mechanisms. Research has shown that for babies, speech and music development are intrinsically linked—even indistinguishable in early stages.
That’s really good news for Korean learners. If developing music positively impacts language acquisition, your K-pop playlist is suddenly an amazing language learning tool!
And for the Korean learner who wants to stock up on K-pop, the internet is chock-full of material waiting to be put to good use:
- Check out this list of K-pop songs that’ll help strengthen your language skills.
- You can also boost your language skills by listening to these five K-pop sensations.
- And here are some great online resources for learning Korean with K-pop.
In the next section, we’ll turn our focus not to the songs, but to the people behind them—the K-pop artists who perform and make the songs come alive. You may not realize it, but as a language learner, you have a lot in common with them! By understanding how K-pop artists work, you can discover some hidden secrets to mastering Korean.
Let’s get started!
How to Learn Korean by Channeling Your Inner K-pop Star
1. Use Music to Work Your Magic
Let’s start with the most obvious point. A K-pop artist without his or her music is just a pretty face with a great fashion sense. They’re a dime-a-dozen on Instagram.
But when they hold the mic to sing, when they start getting in the groove, when those dance steps begin to flow one to the next, magic happens. They’re transformed from a mere pretty mortal to an idol, a diva holding an audience in rapt attention.
K-pop artists need music. They need it to transcend. And, whether you know it or not, as a language learner, you need music just as imperatively as the next K-pop superstar.
Without music, your goal of learning Korean will fall flat. As we discussed above, music can help you remember linguistic concepts. You’ve probably experienced this in your own life—ever find yourself singing the alphabet song when trying to alphabetize a list of items? That’s a testament to the power of song for memory.
And if you think the context provided by a story is important to learning Korean vocabulary, consider how much more memory-friendly a story delivered in music and accompanied by vivid visuals can be. K-pop music videos aren’t just mere entertainment.
Used correctly by language learners, they can indeed be weapons of mass instruction. Here’s how:
- You can use K-pop music videos to stimulate your senses and engage with new vocabulary. Write down words and phrases in the lyrics that you don’t recognize, and use the context clues of the video to try and guess the definition before looking them up.
- Listen to songs multiple times so you can get a feel for the rhythm of the language. Don’t be afraid to sing along, which will help this rhythm, as well as pronunciations, stick in your memory.
- Pay attention to the storylines within the songs. Not only will this help you harvest plenty of phrases and expressions to use in daily life, but you’ll also get some key exposure to Korean culture and the ideas that resonate with young Koreans.
2. Find Success Through Practice and Repetition
The first time you see a K-pop idol on stage, what you’re seeing is the result of thousands of hours of hard work, involving grueling dance practices, voice sessions, style consulting and the honing of a host of other skills.
There’s Harvard, and then there’s those Korean entertainment companies. The space for K-pop artists is actually rarefied air. Thousands vie for a spot on boy groups like Big Bang or EXO and only a handful make it. And even then, the best and brightest recruits don’t get to go on stage after a few weeks of practice.
They spend years in training, submitting their bodies and voices to a strict regimen, rising through the ranks, surviving eliminations and proving themselves on a daily basis.
Success can only be had with constant practice and repetition. Consistency is the name of the game. It’s true for K-pop stars just like it’s true for everyone from basketball players to painters to, of course, language learners.
As a language learner, you need to strive for numerous regular practice sessions and repetitions. I don’t mean that you need to turn your study time into some grueling eight-hour marathon. I mean that for you to succeed, you need to show up to those study sessions. You need to sacrifice time from your “The Walking Dead” schedule and crack open a Korean book or listen to a language learning podcast.
The good news is that you’ll never be short on Korean learning material.
YouTube channels including SweetandtastyTV, KoreanClass101 and Go! Billy Korean specialize in teaching the language in creative ways. Check them out and you’ll not only improve your grasp of the language, but you’ll also have fun while you’re at it.
KoreanClass101 in particular takes your Korean learning to the next level, going beyond YouTube videos into a whole course full of podcasts, lesson modules and interactive learning features. If you want something that you can learn with consistently and take on the go with you, then KoreanClass101 is an excellent choice.
3. Make Mistakes, but Keep Going Anyway
From a nervous high-heel wobble on a slippery stage, to an awful faceplant in front of screaming fans, these K-pop idols have done it all. (They’re humans after all.) And these mistakes are splashed across the internet as entertainment, to be seen across the globe. These are then memed and commented on by millions.
But guess what? Each fall is followed by standing up and getting on with the show. They dust themselves off, maybe even laugh at the incident and then have the chutzpah to follow it all up with a heartwarming song.
Your linguistic mistakes may not win you a meme—it may be just like a tree falling in the middle of the forest that nobody hears—but it’s important to display the same nonchalance, even graciousness, about your mistakes. If your K-pop idol can do it, and theirs involve stitches, you sure can.
The language learner’s journey is fraught with mishaps, mistakes, mispronunciations and miscommunications. They aren’t special occurrences, they’re smack in the middle of language learning. They’re normal and inescapable. Well, the only way you can escape them is if you don’t try at all.
So don’t let them get to you, don’t let them stop you. Take practice tests on a regular basis. Listen to podcasts and if the host tells you to repeat after him or her, do it aloud—even if you’re on a commuter train and others might think you’re loopy. Let your voice be heard in online language groups and forums, and ask your questions. Don’t be afraid of sounding stupid. You’ll never progress if you never make the effort to write, read and speak in Korean.
4. Talk (and Sing!) to Native Speakers!
Today’s K-pop artists have gone international. The Korean cultural wave has reached all corners of the earth and there are screaming fans to talk to the world over.
K-pop stars have to reach out to new audiences by greeting them in their native tongue. They may give a brief shoutout to fans in an interview or shoot a commercial in their language. Nothing makes hearts skip a beat like hearing a K-pop idol tell a concert audience that he loves them—in the language they understand. (They may even give a full-length foreign song a shot.) It’s a great way of expanding the fanbase.
Well, you may not have screaming fans following you around, but the need to talk to native speakers is one you share with your idols.
It may seem obvious that in order to learn to speak a different tongue, you need to actually speak it. But for many language learners, conversing with native speakers can seem much more intimidating than, say, drilling new vocabulary alone with a textbook—so they put it off.
Take a page from your K-pop idol’s playbook. Do you think they just blurt out Russian out of the blue when visiting Moscow? Nope, they’ve been practicing on the plane, backstage before the show or in the dressing room. They have native speakers coaching them on how to get the pronunciation right. It’s never perfect, but they let it out into the mic anyway.
It’s time for you to step up to the mic, too. Here are some resources to get started:
- Try an online language exchange. The italki site is perhaps the best and most popular place to do this! The thought of talking to someone who clearly knows more about a language than you might seem daunting, but it’ll be one of the most insightful and informative experiences of your language learning career.
Because you’re getting insider info now. You’re learning not just from books, but from somebody well versed in the nuances of Korean. Maybe you’ll learn some fun new slang, too. And of course, you’ll be practicing your speaking skills with someone who can respond, ask follow-up questions and make corrections on the spot, which is invaluable for any language learner.
You’ll likely find that your Korean speaking partners are very patient with your learning process, and they might even be more nervous about their English than you are about your Korean!
- Seek the help of Korean language tutors. With a tutor, it’s all about you and learning at your own pace. Sessions can be tailor-made to boost your weaknesses and specifically target your language sticking points.
Check out Verbling, for example, and have your pick of Korean tutors. You can compare their rates per hour, see the number of lessons they’ve taught and even watch a clip from your potential teacher to get a feel for his or her style.
Plus, many of these tutors will offer additional learning materials and exercises for a well rounded learning experience. There are lots of time slots allowing for flexible scheduling. Click here to start browsing your options.
In the case that you’re already set up on italki and loving your language exchanges, you can hire a private Korean tutor for one-on-one lessons right on the italki platform too.
5. Seek Out and Listen to Feedback
In the course of their interaction with fans, K-pop idols inevitably get feedback on their work. How was the new music video? Did audiences enjoy the beat of the new song? Was her dress over the top? What brand should he or she be wearing next time?
One of the reasons the stars get into social media is in order to get feedback. They need to have a finger on the social pulse and watch the ebb and flow of pop culture. Without the critical feedback provided by an engaged fanbase, they not only lose touch, they’ll lose fans to a more savvy celebrity.
You may not be practicing Korean from a stage, but you shouldn’t be your only audience member. To progress toward fluency, you’ll need input from others on your pronunciation, grammar and more. If super busy artists find time to collect feedback, so can you.
One way of getting feedback is by having a language learning buddy who you’ll be accountable to and can get you back on course when you’re slacking from your study sessions.
Besides rubbing elbows with native speakers online, find like-minded souls who are also on a Korean journey and interact with them. You can join language learning communities and ask and give feedback at the same time. You can try groups like those at Linguaholic and Reddit. Be active in the forums and message boards.
One of the most important characteristics of a smart language learner is his or her openness to critiques and constructive input. Don’t fret over your mistakes, and don’t bite those who are gifting you with feedback. As you see how quickly your skills start to develop, you’ll thank them soon enough.
These are just five of the experiences that K-pop superstars and language learners have in common. (Who knew you would be in the same boat as BoA, PSY and G-Dragon!)
You’ll succeed in your Korean learning endeavor if you go at it in the same way these K-pop artists do—with plenty of practice and without the fear of falling off stage. So have at it!