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Web series are an exploding business in Korea, where long train commutes and the world’s best free WiFi make smartphones by far the most popular medium for entertainment.
As a result, Korean web series enjoy high production value and big names in both cast and crew, making them competitive with the best films and full-length dramas.
But with so many web series bursting onto the scene in the past few years, which ones should you watch to start?
And, as you learners might be wondering, how can watching a web series help you improve your Korean?
In this post, we’ll look at what web series can do for your Korean at any level, along with nine 대박 (dae-bak — awesome) series that are great for learners.
Why Watch and Learn with Korean Web Series?
Accessibility and convenience
Consumable in a matter of hours, web dramas bring new meaning to the term “binge-worthy.” Not only does that mean you can easily watch your favorite series in one afternoon, but it also means you can fit in a web series Korean “lesson” on your commute, while you wait for a friend to arrive for lunch or even in line at the bank!
Web series are also generally distributed exclusively online, making them easy to legally access from anywhere in the world for free or cheap.
They’re short, sharp and shiny
One web series episode generally runs for around 5-10 minutes. This is a far less intimidating listening task for a Korean learner than a 120-minute film or traditional drama, which has around an average of 16 episodes that can run anywhere from 45-90 minutes per episode.
Especially if you’re trying to challenge yourself to watch without the aid of subtitles, you’ll likely feel overwhelmed by the dialogue at the beginning. However, in all likelihood, by the end of Episode 1, you’ll be so hooked by the story you’ll find yourself hanging on to every last line.
Exposure to Korean culture and lifestyle
How much do you know about Korean drinking etiquette? What about how to get the waiter’s attention in a restaurant? Are the rules different if you’re in a tiny local noodle joint or a white-tablecloth restaurant at the top of a skyscraper? What should you do if you see your idol shopping in Gangnam?
Traveling to Korea for the first time can be very daunting, so why not familiarize yourself with Korean cultural norms in the most fun way possible? By paying attention to the lifestyles and behavior of characters in a web series, you can prepare yourself, avoid embarrassing faux pas and reduce culture shock the first time an 아줌마 (ajumma — “aunt,” or middle-aged Korean woman) knocks you out of the way to board a train first.
How to Learn Korean with Web Series
Try turning off the subtitles
Subtitles can be an excellent learning aid, but depending on your ability level, web series are an excellent place to fire up your listening skills and start watching Korean shows without them.
The short episodes are manageable even for Korean beginners, and if you find that you just cannot follow the story, then you can go back to the beginning and watch the episode again—after all, it’s only 10 minutes out of your life!
Watching a Korean drama without subtitles forces you to watch far more actively—you’ll need to use all the visual cues available to help you understand what’s going on.
If you do turn the subtitles off, make sure to pay attention to the setting, the actors’ facial expressions and body language, and anything else in the scene that can provide context for the dialogue. You’ll be surprised how much you can work out about what’s going on, even if you can only catch a few snatches of speech.
Take notes like a champion
This is about more than just recording key vocabulary: There’s ample evidence to suggest that the simple act of writing while listening can significantly enhance your ability to process and memorize new information. Check out this great article to improve your note-taking skills.
Taking good notes ensures that you’re listening actively. By actually doing something with what you hear instead of just passively listening, you’re making your brain wake up and take notice of what you’re trying to learn—which will in turn encourage your brain to care enough about the material to remember it later.
You can take different kinds of notes depending on your focus and motivation for learning Korean. Do you want effective communication skills? Focus your notes primarily on understanding and interpreting the content and dialogue of the web series episodes. If you’re more of a technical learner, your notes should primarily be a record of new and interesting vocabulary and grammar, with details about the context in which the language was used.
If you’re a real nerd like me, you can watch the episode twice (again, episodes are only 10 minutes long!) and take two different sets of notes: one on content, and the other on language.
Bonus points if you can take notes primarily in Korean!
Use FluentU to practice what you’ve learned
To actually test and practice what you’ve taken notes on, try adding new words and phrases to a custom flashcard set using your FluentU account—the program will pull other examples of the vocab being used in various internet videos on the site, so you’ll not only be able to see the same vocab being used in different situations, but you’ll be able to take quizzes to test your knowledge.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Pay attention to politeness
One of the more challenging aspects of the Korean language is the multiple levels and seemingly endless list of unwritten rules around formality and politeness in language.
The basic rules of polite language can be explained quite simply, but using polite and casual language correctly is an entirely different story.
Watching dramas, movies and web series is an excellent way to familiarize yourself with which contexts require polite language, and when you can relax into your informal Korean.
For a detailed explanation of the basic levels of Korean politeness and when to use them, check out this excellent guide to Korean speech levels.
Replay… again… and again
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—the biggest strength to Korean web series over dramas and movies is that, just like FluentU videos, they are wonderfully, mercifully short.
When you’re taking careful notes and miss the second half of a scene, or if you’re hung up on one strange turn of phrase that throws you off your game for the rest of the episode, don’t be afraid to rewind and play scenes—or even entire episodes—two, three or ten times over if necessary in order to fully understand what’s going on.
Sure, seeing the same action played out over and over again could get tedious. But then again, if that action is starring members from Big Bang, EXO or Infinite… maybe not.
9 Daebak Korean Web Series to Get You Addicted to Korean
“EXO Next Door”
This web series wins the award for the most accurate portrayal of a fangirl’s ultimate fantasy: Moon Ga-young plays Ji Yeon-hee, a fangirl whose life is turned upside-down when members of “universal star” boy group EXO move into the house next door.
Chanyeol (Park Chan-yeol), D.O. (Do Kyung-soo), Baekhyun (Byun Baek-hyun) and Sehun (Oh Se-hun) are looking to lay low for a while, and employ Ji Yeon-hee to clean their house while they hide out from the public eye.
The audience is then spoiled with every romantic comedy trope in Korean drama history: long-lost friendship, the handsome and moody male lead set against the clueless and dorky girl-next-door (in this case, literally), and of course, a heart-wrenching love triangle. Baekhyun, Sehun and Jang Yoo-sang provide some wonderful comic relief.
You can watch “EXO Next Door” on DramaFever.
If it whets your appetite for some more idol web series magic, check out “Dream Knight” starring GOT7, “Choco Bank” starring EXO’s Kai and “Somehow 18” starring SHINee’s Choi Min-ho.
“7 First Kisses”
Min Soo-jin (Lee Cho-hee), who works as a receptionist at the LOTTE Duty Free Department Store, reaches her 25th birthday without ever having had a date. After inadvertently helping the Angel of Love (Choi Ji-woo) find her passport, Soo-jin is granted her wish: to finally have her first kiss. But first, she must choose between seven perfect men!
The star-studded cast of this web series’ very long and rather creative advertisement for LOTTE Duty Free is bound to flutter the heart of any Korean romance fan, featuring Lee Joon-gi as a tech billionaire, Park Hae-jin as an abrasive-turned-romantic boss, Ji Chang-wook as a sexy secret agent, EXO’s Kai as an adorable ex-student, Ok Taec-yon as a passionate and innocent 재벌 (chaebol — South Korean business conglomerate) heir, Lee Jong-suk as a dreamy pop idol and finally (of course) Lee Min-ho as a free-spirited travel writer.
LOTTE has made the entire web series available for free on its YouTube channel, complete with English subtitles.
If you would prefer to watch “7 First Kisses” subtitle-free, try NaverTV.
Starring Big Bang’s T.O.P, “Secret Message” follows the slow love story between a Korean man, Woo Hyun (T.O.P), and a Japanese woman named Haruka (Ueno Juri), who have both been scarred by previous relationships but hesitantly make their way towards each other despite the barriers of language and distance.
The film-making style of this web drama is artistic, and the dialogue thoughtful and philosophical, making this a lovely and thought-provoking story rather than just another binge-worthy romance. This is a great option for more advanced Korean learners to challenge themselves with some more complex dialogue.
You can find “The Secret Message” on DramaFever.
Or on YG Stage: Film if you’re in Korea.
“After School: Lucky or Not”
Timid high school student Kim So-eun (herself) finds herself inexplicably chosen by five “flower boys” to become the new leader of their after school club, known as “Lucky or Not.”
This club provides entertainment in the form of a slip of paper drawn each day that contains an adventurous mission for the club members to complete. Through her involvement with the Lucky or Not club, So-eun discovers a bolder, more empowered side to herself.
Catch “After School: Lucky or Not” on Netflix or DramaFever.
While many of the most popular web series are placed firmly within the realm of romance, and particularly romantic comedy genres, “Aftermath,” based on a popular webcomic and starring Kim Dong-joon, Sun Joo-ah, Kim Geun-hyung, Kim Min-suk and Kim Ri-ah, is much darker.
This crime series follows Ahn Dae-yong (Kim Dong-joon), who wakes up after a terrible accident with frightening supernatural powers, including an ability to smell people’s “auras”—the eyes of someone about to die appear to him a glowing red. Even worse, when he sees a person’s eyes glowing bright blue, he knows that they’re about to kill.
Dae-yeong decides to use these new abilities to fight crime and prevent deaths in Seoul, making him a local hero.
Check out “Aftermath” Seasons 1 and 2 on NaverTV.
“Love for Ten: Generation of Youth”
This is one of my all-time favorite Korean dramas, for its quirky vibe and awkward but incredibly endearing characters. After countless rejections from his girl-obsessed childhood, nerdy engineering student Gi-eok (Infinite’s Lee Sung-yeol) swore off girls and dating.
But on the first day of college, he meets the beautiful and outgoing Min-ah (4Minute’s Ji-hyun), his “ideal type,” and falls into a deep crush. After joining a drama club in order to get closer to Min-ah, Gi-eok makes some kooky new friends and rediscovers his long-lost confidence.
The artsy and summery production style with shots reminiscent of Wes Anderson, as well as the hilarious and adorable cast’s wonderful chemistry, make this web series a bizarre but delightful watch.
You can check it out on Netflix.
Another of the few web dramas based on more than just romance, “Brother Disappeared” follows Gong Joong-ki (Chang Jo), a famous crime blogger, as he searches for the missing brother of his new client Yoo Ri-ae (Pyo Hye-mi).
During the search, a sweet (but not over-the-top fluffy) romance blossoms between the leads, building towards an ending that brings some genuine surprise.
Watch “Brother Disappeared” free on VLIVE.
Thirtysomething Je Gal Jae-yeong (Park Hee-bon) navigates singledom (again), work, friends and dating—all while never missing a delicious meal.
The age of the characters in this series makes for some refreshing material, and the slightly lower-budget production style is unusual for a K-drama in a great way.
A lovely addition to this particular series is a short tutorial on how to simply make the featured dish at the end of each episode, hosted by the lead actress.
Binge “The Cravings” while binging on some delicious food on Netflix.
Even though this Korean-American collaboration is conducted primarily in English, I have to include it as an honorable mention just for being the perfect culmination of every K-drama fangirl’s wildest dreams.
Claire Duncan (Liv Hewsen) is a 20-year-old college student dissatisfied with her ordinary life, who distracts herself from her average reality by watching episode upon episode of Korean dramas. One night, while working alone in her father’s restaurant, Claire is sucked into her smartphone and lands in Dramaworld, the magical world where all Korean dramas are made.
Claire finds herself in the center of her favorite series, “Taste of Love,” and face-to-face with her idol Park Joon (Sean Richard Dulake). She’s faced with the increasingly impossible task of keeping “Taste of Love” on the correct story arc and saving Dramaworld.
Enjoy the ridiculous, fantastic ride of “Dramaworld” on Netflix or Viki.
Korean dramas are wonderful—nobody can deny it.
But they’re also a big commitment, usually running for a total of 10-20 hours per season. For a Korean learner trying to push their listening skills to the next level, that’s an intimidating and frequently off-putting prospect, leading those of us with all but the best intentions to switch on the subtitles, kick back and relax—which is great!
But web series tend to run in under two hours from beginning to end, and are made up of bite-sized, 5-10 minute episodes, making them more manageable and convenient for listening practice.
These wonderful stories provide not only an excellent opportunity to improve your Korean skills, but they also have refreshing and creative storylines, classic romantic tropes and adorable and lovable characters.