How to Learn Korean [The Complete Starter Guide]

At this point, you probably had a taste of Korean culture in some form.

Maybe you nibbled on some delectable, tangy kimchi. Or perhaps you’ve shamelessly bopped to a catchy K-pop song. Very possibly, you binge-watched an entire Korean drama and had to use an entire tissue box to stem your tears.

So if that’s the case…then why not just take the next step and learn the Korean language?

Need a little more convincing? Say no more. I’ll break down a few major aspects of what learning Korean entails, providing both facts and advice about taking up this amazing language.


Korean Language

In Korea, the Korean language is known as 한국어 .

For many linguists, Korean is considered a language isolate. That is, it’s believed that Korean hasn’t descended from any one specific language. Certainly, it’s been influenced by other tongues, but its overall origin seems to be unique, making it distinct from the languages of its East Asian neighbors.

Even within the small peninsula, the Korean language has a variety of distinct dialects based on region. It’s estimated that there are up to nine different Korean dialects.

Today, Korean is spoken by over 75 million people all over the globe. Most of this population resides in North and South Korea, but millions others reside in countries such as the United States, China and Japan.

In modern times, Korean cultural products have taken the world by storm. This in turn has made the Korean language a popular one to learn for aspiring polylinguists.

How to Learn Korean

This is a multi-layered question that many learners contend with. The short answer is: there really isn’t a right way on “how” you learn. What’s more important is that you learn in a way that suits you best and doesn’t stress you out.

And no, you don’t have to just depend on Korean learner books and worksheets. You don’t even need to attend an actual language class.

It’s important that you do two things: try out a variety of different learning strategies, and practice language immersion. Both of these will make learning Korean a much more engaging and interactive experience, which will ultimately boost your motivation and skill acquisition.

Another big hurdle for some learners is figuring out a correct “order” to learning Korean. This too doesn’t have a concrete answer. For most languages, it’s generally recommended that you focus first on the alphabet, then pronunciation and phonemes, and then dive into vocabulary and sentence-crafting.

However, your process may vary based on your priorities and resource availability, so don’t feel compelled to stick to any sequence.

Speaking Korean

I wouldn’t blame you if you first became enamored with Korean because of how it sounds when spoken by natives. Indeed, the spoken language possesses a unique beauty and allure.

Thankfully, most Korean phonemes aren’t too hard for learners to imitate. Many of them can be equated to existing English phonemes. There are a few consonants and diphthongs can be a tad difficult to master, and careful practice will be key.

Also, Korean isn’t tonal. This means that, unlike languages such as Chinese or Vietnamese, Korean speech doesn’t require any special emphasis on pitch or accent. This is a great weight off learners’ shoulders, so you could be at ease!

Now, besides the mechanical aspects of speaking, learners also have to consider something else: politeness. In Korean, what you say depends on how formal you’re being. This does mean that speech will vary depending on who you’re talking to.

Listening to Korean

A language learner’s ears must always be perked up and alert. Listening comprehension is always a tough skill to build, but that makes it all the more important.

Korean is a phonetic language. Most Korean syllables, especially consonants, are easily distinguishable, so it’s pretty easy to pick out basic words in Korean speech. But, there are a few potential issues you should definitely be mindful of.

Again, those vowel diphthongs can come as a challenge. It can be tricky to figure out which vowels are being used in a given syllable, as some vowels sound quite similar to each other. Indeed, it’s common for even Korean natives to use incorrect vowels when attempting to write out what they hear!

The rapid speed in which Korean is typically spoken can also be tough to reckon with. This, plus the general lack of inflection, can make natural Korean speech seem “flat” or even “mumbly” at times. Try listening to a Korean news report, and you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Constant listening practice will very much be key to your Korean studies. It’s not just to help you understand Korean as it’s being spoken–it will also help you immensely in your own speaking ability.

Reading and Writing in Korean

If there’s one thing learners truly appreciate about Korean, it’s the Hangul alphabet.

Consisting of 24 letters, Hangul was specifically conceived to be easy to memorize. Seems like the agenda worked, since Hangul is lauded by many to be one of the best written language systems in the world.

Hangul characters are combined into syllables by essentially becoming blocks. Think of the geometric wooden blocks in your childhood that you used to stack up. Korean syllables work in a similar fashion–you put characters beside and under each other to form squares.

A single syllable can have two to four characters. Characters are written, and pronounced, from left to right, top to bottom. It’s all very logical, but the technical difficulty can come in when you’re attempting to fit all those characters into a distinguishable block or square. It can take some time to master–my own Korean handwriting is worse than chicken–scratch.

There are plenty of ways to practice Korean written script, whether you pick up a Korean novel or follow the transcripted lyrics of your favorite K-pop song.

Korean Grammar

The horrid “G” word that makes every language learner cringe. Yes, I know, grammar doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being exciting.

Thankfully, although it’ll take a little while to get used to, Korean grammar isn’t actually too complicated! In fact, it’s reasonably logical. Once you know the foundational rules, things are left pretty consistent, probably even more so than in English grammar.

Basic Korean sentences follow a Subject-Object-Verb order (compare this to English’s Subject-Verb-Object order). Many times, however, Korean sentences totally dismiss the mention of any subject, making very basic verbal phrases.

Korean is typically considered an agglutinative language. Conjugations on verbs and adjectives are done by adding affixes to the word stems. This unique concept can make learning Korean grammar all the more exciting (and challenging).

For grammar, you’ll again have to consider politeness! Formality levels will dictate how sentences are written and how words like verbs and adjectives are conjugated. So, how a sentence is structured can vary whether you’re talking to your good buddy or your boss.

Korean Vocabulary

In general, the Korean vocabulary is made up of 60% Sino-Korean words (words derived from Chinese), 35% native Korean words, and 5% loanwords from other languages.

So technically, the bulk of Korean vocabulary is adapted from Chinese. However, this doesn’t mean that everyday vocabulary will revolve around Sino-Korean words.

As a result of globalization and social media, loanwords in particular are expected to grow in quantity. Specifically, English vocabulary continues to trickle into Korean lingo, particularly in the realm of slang. This can come as a boon for learners, since this means that you may potentially be (partially) understood by many natives even if you primarily spoke in English.

When you think of studying vocabulary, you may imagine just flipping through a bunch of flashcards or scrolling through a list of words. However, it isn’t just a matter of memorizing words in isolation. It’s important that you learn Korean vocabulary in context, because context is highly important and can greatly affect the meanings and intentions behind words.

If you want to learn more Korean vocabulary, you could check out language learning program FluentU.

Resources for Learning Korean

You’ll not be left wanting for Korean learning resources. There’s a whole sea of them out there, all ready for you to swim through.

And there’s no need to be picky about your study tools–you should try out all of them! You can go for the more official educational resources, such as the standard Korean textbooks and workbooks. Nowadays, digital tools and media, such as apps and websites, are widely used because they’re highly convenient and inexpensive.

Actual Korean language classes (both free and paid) are always still a great option. Online classes in particular are very accessible and can accommodate both self-learners and group-based learners. You’ll be guaranteed lessons from an actual native speaker as well.

Do be very open-minded about your choice of resource–anything sourced from Korea can work as learning material, even if you wouldn’t initially consider them to be. That’s right, even your favorite Korean songs, movies and shows can become fantastic study tools, with the added plus of being extra engaging.

Korean is an incredibly rewarding language to learn. And it’s never been easier than now to do so.

I guarantee that even with studying hurdles, you’ll encounter plenty of joyful and fun moments that will make all the challenges worth it. You’ll become capable of interacting with a whole new world of people and content.

So no need to hesitate or ruminate about this. Boldly go ahead on your Hanguk journey and don’t look back!

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