Your day is about to become extra special.
In the next few minutes, I’m going to give you some powerful weapons that will clear a path to Korean fluency for you.
They’ll obliterate practically every learning obstacle.
I just need you to promise me one thing… that you’ll look beyond first appearances.
Because these babies are highly deceptive.
What you first see might make you cringe and think “Why?!”
But underneath all the zaniness, the drama and the twists and turns, they offer language lessons and insights that you won’t get anywhere else.
Are you ready?
So here are your big guns: Korean variety shows.
In this post, we’ll be talking about why they work so well for learners. Then we’ll look at 12 awesome examples of variety shows that ought to be in every Korean learner’s arsenal.
Watching Your Way to Korean Fluency: Why Korean Variety Shows Work
“Variety show” is a catch-all term for entertainment acts that include song numbers, dance performances, interviews, comedy sketches, magic and yes, even ventriloquism and juggling. The key word here is “variety.”
Traditional variety shows feature a single platform or stage where different acts can be performed. Today’s variety shows have gone beyond the studio, where acts are recorded in front of an appreciative audience, and now include elaborate sets, reality segments, celebrities doing games and challenges and more.
Korean variety shows, just like Korean dramas and movies, are their own unique brand of entertainment helping spread Korean language and culture around the world. These shows are a tour de force when it comes to language learning for a number of reasons.
Korean variety shows are authentic.
Today’s technology means that language learners don’t need to purchase a plane ticket just to immerse in authentic Korean material. You can watch what Koreans watch and you don’t even have to change into a fresh pair of pajamas to do it.
“Authentic content” is very important to Korean language learners because it features the language as it’s used by native speakers. It’s language “in the wild,” as opposed to language in the laboratory. A Korean instructional video, for example, will have hosts enunciating slowly, clearly and repetitively just so viewers can follow the lessons.
Variety shows, on the other hand, assume that viewers know the language and therefore speak rapid-fire fast and may even use idiomatic expressions and slang.
While fictional dramas, series and films are also generally considered to be authentic content, variety shows add a whole new level because the situations on-screen tend to be less scripted and the language more realistic.
Korean variety shows illustrate what Koreans actually sound like. This makes them perfect to pair with your learning routine on FluentU, which makes it possible to learn with K-pop videos, funny commercials, entertaining web series and more.
Here's a quick look at the variety of video choices available to you:
Each word in the interactive captions comes with a definition, audio, image, example sentences and more.
Access a complete interactive transcript of every video under the Dialogue tab, and easily review words and phrases from the video under Vocab.
Don't stop there, though. You can use FluentU’s unique quizzes to learn the vocabulary and phrases from the video through fun questions.
FluentU even tracks your progress and remembers all the words you've learned, making for a 100% personalized experience.
Review sessions use video context to help embed the words in your memory. The best part? You can access the full FluentU video library with a free trial!
Start using FluentU Korean on the website or download the app from the iTunes or Google Play store.
Korean variety shows are fun.
When these shows were conceived by their producers, they had ratings in mind. And in order to win the ratings game, shows have to entertain. As a rule, these shows cannot be boring. Every minute should have something going on, something funny, interesting—an intrigue brewing, an unexpected twist or a dilemma.
These elements all work for the language learner, making the show and the language memorable. Learning the language becomes doubly easy when you’re having fun.
Korean variety shows are contextually and culturally insightful.
Korean variety shows provide a vivid context for the language being used. And often, this context is tied to culture. In the midst of fun and games, an observant language learner will, for example, see a demonstration of Korean honorifics, say, in how a host greets his guests. This exchange could clue you in to their sense of relationship hierarchy.
These shows give you a powerful visual of Korean culture. It can be gleaned from the objects and props on set, the places the shows go to, the different activities they engage in and the meaningful non-verbal cues that pop up on the screen.
With Korean language shows, you’re learning about language and culture at the same time. And maybe you’re even seeing your favorite Korean idol getting poked by a foam finger in the face, which of course easily makes your day.
Beyond Garden Variety: 12 Korean Variety Shows for Learners
This show is also known as “Ask Us Anything,” and on Netflix, it’s listed under the title “Men on a Mission.” And it will leave you in stitches. It keeps getting funnier each episode, and may enter the conversation when the question “What is the best Korean show of all time?” is asked.
The format is a high school classroom. You have permanent cast members like Kang Ho-dong and Seo Jang-hoon, who play high schoolers. Each week, a celebrity plays a transfer student and enters the lion’s den, uhm, I mean the classroom. Everything is fair game from that point on.
You might see interviews, debates, karaoke, random games, improv, etc. There are even eating contests, poetry slams and yes, every once in a while, a wrestling match. Guests are usually stars from girl and boy groups who are put in uncomfortable situations, to the delight of their fans.
Language learners will get stretches of rapid-fire banter and teasing between hosts and guests from this show. It’s perfect for intermediate students who want to up their Korean speaking and listening skills.
“Infinity Challenge” reigned supreme over its Saturday evening time slot. Although the pop culture staple took its final bow in March of 2018, thankfully its more than 400 episodes can still be found and enjoyed online.
Let’s see here, what do you get from a show whose tagline is, “Dirty, Dangerous, Difficult”? Well, everything… and so much more. You get tug-of-wars with cows, black noodle soup while on a roller coaster ride, hidden camera pranks, satirical TV ads and fake news segments. The challenges are so creative, and sometimes so impossible, you just can’t help but get glued to your seat. That’s what you get when you have a show anchored by cast members who are ready to do just about anything at the drop of a hat.
This show has been so influential that it’s been reported the South Korean government wanted it to feature content based on its policies.
“Infinity Challenge” is full of Korean words and phrases that you can use in normal conversations. So for language learners who enjoy features like “Word of the Day” or “Phrase of the Day,” you can lift this stuff right from this show. Have your paper and pen ready to start writing.
Update: The streaming service Drama Fever is no longer available, but you may watch episodes of “Infinity Challenge” on Viki.
Each week on this show, different K-pop stars and groups come in for a jolly good time. If you want to see your idols both tense and relaxed, then watch this show. It features Korean music idols being given different tasks, asked to play different games, etc.—all for an awesome reward (like their favorite grilled beef?). So for example, they might be asked to dance to a specific song—then suddenly, some other song is switched in and they must go with the flow and adjust their dance moves.
It’s all so zany and it gives you the chance to see your idols in a whole new light.
The show is anchored by the trio of Lee Sang-min, Yoo Se-yoon and Kim Shin-young, who make sure that the idols have an awesome and fun experience.
The show is a great tool for language learners because, just like on many Korean shows, they like repeating and emphasizing punchlines. So for example, if a host or a guest says something funny, the graphics and editing team loop what was said four or five times, even writing out what was said in bold pulsating letters for emphasis. And this repetition makes it look like the whole show was created for Korean language learners!
“The Return of Superman”
If “The Bachelor” ended up marrying the girl, and they had kids, then it would be this show.
It features celebrity fathers left alone with their kids, in their own homes, for 48 hours, while mom enjoys a well-deserved break. Their mission is to keep their kids happy (and alive!) for those 48 hours—without any help. This provides an intimate look into the lives of celebrities as regular and real-life fathers, from their kitchen foibles to their awful lullabies, as they do everything from entertaining their kids to cleaning up after them.
Language learners will take a lot away from the interaction between father and children. Because they’re talking to little ones, the fathers often use words and phrases perfect for language beginners. The interaction is often simple and suited to learners who might consider themselves “babies” in the language.
Mom comes home after the two days are up, often to the delight of dad.
Update: The streaming service Drama Fever is no longer available, but you can still watch “The Return of Superman” on Viki.
“2 Days & 1 Night”
This show is a dream for South Korea’s tourism office. But instead of targeting an international audience, it’s for South Koreans.
Cast members visit little-known but interesting spots around South Korea. So for example, they might drive to some mountain town or seaside village, or ferry to a nearby island, where they spend, that’s right, two days and one night. They explore the place, meet with locals and have fun, interesting conversations along the way. They’re also given a variety of challenges, followed by a reward or punishment. A reward might allow them a taste of a local delicacy; a punishment might mean going for a dip in the town’s frigid waters.
Language learners can learn not just Korean with this show, but about South Korea as a country, its hidden gems that even South Koreans know very little about. So aside from the language, you learn something about the culture in the same way a native speaker who lives in the big city learns about their own culture.
Update: The streaming service Drama Fever is no longer available, but you can watch episodes of “2 Days & 1 Night” on Viki.
“We Got Married”
Picture this: Two celebrities, who aren’t a couple, are asked to live the life of a married couple.
Each week, they’re given different tasks and missions, from getting groceries on a limited budget to spiffing up the house. The couples might be fake, but the tasks and the interactions are real, and fans are on the edge of their seats wondering if the two people in the situation are really starting to fall for each other. This premise caught on and resulted in a Chinese spin-off featuring Korean and Chinese celebrities as well as one that included celebrities from Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
Korean language learners can pick up a lot of nuances from the couple’s interactions. This is Korean as it sounds in the wild, as used by native speakers—where sometimes one person talks over the other or where slang and idiomatic expressions are deftly used. And the fact that viewers only need to follow two people really helps with absorbing it all.
Update: The streaming service Drama Fever is no longer available, but you can watch episodes of “We Got Married” on Viki in select regions. Many clips from the show are also available on YouTube.
“I Live Alone”
As a complete turnaround from the previous suggestion, how about following the life of a celebrity that lacks the presence of a romantic partner?
Its premise might sound quite mundane, but “I Live Alone” (also known as “Home Alone”) has become a hot favorite in and out of Korea. Roughly a third of Korean celebrities live alone for varying reasons: the lack of a romantic partner, business matters that often keep a couple apart or a simple personal preference to live independently. While there are a few variety show elements like group panels and such, the show’s special sauce is its honest portrayal of these individuals as they go about their everyday life.
The show is well-liked for its unscripted and genial nature, supported by the documentary-style footage that give little peeks into the celebrity’s life. Korean language learners can expect to hear more natural Korean, particularly the Korean used to describe daily or self activities. The relatable aspects of the show will also certainly help to keep viewers engaged and interactive with the content.
“Law of the Jungle”
Speaking of the wild, this show is like a South Korean version of Bear Grylls’ “Man vs. Wild” with an ensemble cast.
The show has been to places like the Cook Islands, Madagascar, the Amazon and Antarctica. They take celebrities, actors, K-pop stars, etc. and plop them in remote locations where they’ll have to fend for themselves. The guest stars gather food and create shelter. They’ll have to survive extreme weather conditions and scarcity. But most of all, they’ll need to survive each other.
“Law of the Jungle” is hosted by Kim Byung-man, a comedian—because, you know, there’s nothing like humor to tide you over through a cold night in the middle of nowhere when your stomach is empty.
Language learners can take life lessons from these Korean stars. If they, used to being pampered by the adoring media at home, can survive and flourish in extreme conditions, are you really going to let a minor setback in learning Korean stop you?
So what if you need to put in a little work? At least you’re doing it with comfy clothes and in the warmth of your own room. So get to it! You’ll come out of it alive.
With “Crime Scene,” Sherlock wannabes, crime-solving enthusiasts or general lovers of the game “Clue” can get their mystery fix while also getting some Korean learning done.
A mock-up of a murder scene (inspired by actual real-life cases) is presented to the cast, who must then use their personal detective skills, available resources and limited time to conduct thorough investigations. The end goal is to figure out the criminal hiding among them. If the cast can correctly deduct the true murderer, then the cash prize is given to them; however, if the heinous perpetrator runs scot-free, he or she alone takes the whole cake.
A lot of fun and intrigue can be found with the dramatized portrayal of the crime scene investigation process. Any fans of the “whodunnit” brand will surely appreciate the effort put forward by the crime recreation and role-playing elements from the cast. Indeed, several members express a fantastic degree of serious smarts (or deception) while tackling the case.
Learners can get some exposure to some specialized vocabulary such as crime-related Korean terminology. During investigative moments, one can expect to hear phrases and questions of context-dependent deductive reasoning, as well as the speech used during interrogations. And it’s quite likely you’ll be hanging onto every word as you try to solve the crime alongside the cast — after all, it would be remiss for any detective worth their salt to forego any bit of evidence.
Learners of the Korean language are often intrigued by the Korean culture itself. It would be a great boon for such learners to get at least some grasp of the modern matters that affect the country, whether they’re large-scale issues or the little phenomena that exist in the everyday nooks and crannies of society.
“Abnormal Summit” (also known as “Non-Summit”) hosts a panel of individuals from different nations to discuss topics concerning Korean culture and society. All of these individuals are fluent in the language, but being foreigners, they’re able to bring their own unique perspectives to the table as they talk and debate on a variety of matters.
This is a great show to indulge in some fun but genuinely thoughtful conversations about current affairs, and it was noted to have had a large appeal on viewers that were not only native Koreans, but also foreigners interested in Korea. The formatting of the show offered an open space to air opinions from various viewpoints, and it especially helped when the panel consisted of members from nations beyond Europe or America.
Certainly, “Abnormal Summit” can be highly relatable and helpful in providing cultural insight to learners who aren’t from Korea. It can also help to give an idea of how one can speak or express opinions about social and cultural issues, even if they may be a bit sensitive or obscure, and this is surely something of value for learners aspiring to live or do business in Korea.
“New Journey to the West”
No backpacking trip with buddies is complete without playing some games on the road. Toss in some character role-play to the mix, and you get “New Journey to the West.”
This highly popular variety show features well-known Korean celebrities as they travel through different Asian hotspots while undergoing an assortment of challenges. The title of the series refers to the classic, 16th-century Chinese novel known as “Journey to the West.” The show’s very first season has the cast traversing through Xian, China role-playing as characters from the story. Later seasons have the troop venturing to places in Vietnam, Japan, Hong Kong and even their home country of South Korea.
The fun of the show revolves around the chemistry of the cast and the unexpected games and missions they must endure. If you know anything about Korean group games, it’s that they can be quite demanding indeed, and there’s a lot of hilarious moments as members struggle and stumble through them.
Learners can expect to get acquainted with a number of enjoyable games played in Korean, including those that involve speech, singing or chanting, and the sheer amusement of how they’re played can make learning much more interesting and accessible. In many instances during these activities, the cast members often repeat a phrase, whether it’s due to the format of the game or because they’re desperate to win, so active listeners can readily pick up tidbits of new material. During the wayside moments where the cast isn’t subjected to some kind of game-based torture, there’s a lot of fun and casual banter tossed around that can boost a learner’s acquaintance with more informal, natural Korean.
Note: The streaming service Viu currently isn’t available for certain countries, including the US. However, you can easily find a bunch of clips from different seasons of the show on YouTube or Naver TV (only available in Korea).
“King of Mask Singer”
If you’re a fan of the American TV series “The Masked Singer” then “King of Mask Singer” will be right up your alley in both entertainment and learning value.
In this show, different contestants compete in a paired singing competition while wearing some fabulous masks to hide their identities. By doing so, the judging panel’s ratings of each contestant aren’t biased toward their actual backgrounds. Besides belting out some favorite Korean tunes, the contestants are also open to panel interrogation and can showcase other neat tricks they can do (without revealing their real voices, of course), which can help the judges get an idea of who they really are. The losing contestant of each pair-off must unmask and reveal themselves while the winner goes on to challenge head-on the previous competition winner (known as the “King”) in hopes to steal the crown.
Learners get a chance to listen and learn some awesome Korean songs, from mainstream bops like “DNA” by BTS to classic hits relatively unknown to non-natives. The show will supply Korean subtitles for the lyrics, which you can certainly use to practice your Korean reading skills.
However, if singing and Korean learning is a match made in heaven for you, FluentU provides an opportunity for you to learn with music videos such as the aforementioned BTS song! The subtitles you get from FluentU aren’t just text transcriptions though—they’re interactive captions that offer definitions of words in context and example sentences, all available with a single tap. In this way, a total bop of a Korean song can become a fun learning opportunity!
Besides the songs themselves, the post-performance interrogation sessions, which have the judges verbally mulling over the contestants’ true identities, are also great for learning phrases for questioning and for expressing certainty or doubt. Additionally, the often heartfelt and enthusiastic interviews for unmasked contestants can provide some valuable Korean that involves describing one’s self and personal aspirations, as such contestants reveal their reasoning for participating in the competition.
Watch these Korean TV shows, and you’ll not only laugh and cry your heart out, you’ll learn a language, you’ll learn about a culture and you’ll even learn a thing or two about life. That’s hitting three birds with one stone. And that’s what I call a pretty darn good use of your time.
So now, there’s only one thing left to do… press “Play.”
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