Depending on what your first language is, Korean language can be quite a challenge to master. That’s why it’s best to use as many different angles of attack as possible. This will ensure you cover all the neccessary bases – grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation… Also, once you run into the same word or rule in two different places, it gets secured in your memory more firmly.
Before you do anything else, learn Hangul. I have seen this said million times, and that’s because it’s true. Don’t try to learn Korean using Romanization. Hangul is an alphabet, very alike to what are you reading right now, and not at all like Chinese characters that so many fear.
Very few learners bother to do this, but learn the names of the letters in Korean too. Native speakers are the best source of knowledge when it comes to learning a language so once you have the chance to ask them, you don’t want to waste your time trying to explain what you are talking about by hand-waving.
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How to learn Korean
- Grammar The main place to get grammar from are Korean language textbooks. However, most textbooks have integrated approach; they try to teach not only grammar but pronunciation, vocabulary, and come with audio materials. That’s fine. For this purpose I use two books and I am really satisfied with both: Korean Made Easy for Beginners and Korean Grammar in Use: Beginning to Early Intermediate, both published by Darakwon and both containing an audio CD. Korean Made Easy was a first gift from Kimchi Man I ever got. I tried many other beginner textbooks and while these two are not perfect, they are by far the best I found even after all this time.Korean Made Easy is good, but rather light on the contents. So if I need more in-depth explanations of some grammar points I turn to Korean Grammar in Use. However, this book has no vocabulary list so it’s not good for absolute beginner. Since both books use approximately same vocabulary it is best to start with Korean Made Easy and once you learn some Korean words from there then start supplementing with Korean Grammar in Use approximately half-way through.
There is a wide selection of Korean beginner textbooks on Amazon, and even more in Korean online shops,so if you can’t find these exact Korean textbooks it’s nothing to worry about.
Price: I got both books as a present from Kimchi Man but I believe you can get them for around 15$ (11€) and 12$ (9,5€). Other textbooks are similarly priced.
- Vocabulary Your textbook will have some vocabulary but you will need much more even for the most basic of conversations. Phrasebooks offer little or no grammar but are full of practial words and phrases. I was lucky enough that I got a complimentary phrasebook with the Korean Made Easy textbook that I got as a present from Kimchi Man.There are plenty of free online dictionaries you can use. I like Naver’s two-way dictionary. It’s simple to use and search results are more than satisfactory for a beginner. Enter a word, either in English or Korean, into the left text-box and press the green button that says 검색.Naver’s Korean-English/English-Korean dictionary gives you the word’s meaning, pronunciation, audio sample, word’s frequency and even hanja for advanced learners. It might be a bit confusing because user interface is in Korean so here’s a mini guide:It is also a good idea to keep track of words of your own choice, not just the ones that are thrown at your by textbooks or courses. I keep my own vocabulary book with all the words I have learnt so far. On the right side I write down the word, its pronunciation, and meaning, and on the left I write sample sentences using that word, and any other notes I think are important. I find this to be more convenient to carry with me than flashcards but it’s basically the same thing, only difference being the format. So this is down to your personal preference.
Price: Free! There are plenty of good online dictionaries you can use. All you need to do is choose the one you like. You might get lucky like I did and get a phrasebook with your textbook. Even if you decide to buy a phrasebook and an empty vocabulary book they are rather cheap.
- Pronunciation You can pick up pronunciation from many different places: online lessons, K-pop music videos, Korean dramas, YouTube videos, etc. But if you are serious about improving your pronunciation nothing can measure up to Sounds of Korean: A Pronunciation Guide. You can read our review on this book which has more than 200 pages of nothing but pronunciation. It teaches you how to pronounce individual letters, how to position your lips and tongue, how the sound of each letter changes depending on it’s position in the syllable, word and sentence. And half of the book are audio exercises to help you put theory into practice.
Price: I’ve seen the book range in price up to $25. Otherwise, you don’t need to spend any money on pronunciation either.
- Fun I haven’t seen this ingredient mentioned elsewhere, but I believe the best source for learning a language is whatever you find fun! If you are a fan of a K-pop song, find the lyrics, try to translate it yourself, search for the words in dictionary, practice singing it, use it any way you can think of. Same goes for fans of Korean drama, movies, literature, and any other form of music. If you like fashion, find a blog about fashion in Korean language. If you love gadgets find an article about Samsung’s latest device. Practice saying cute and romantic Korean phrases with your boyfriend or girlfriend. etc. That is the most painless and easiest way to learn.
Online Resources for Learning Korean
- Talk to Me in Korean is without a doubt best online course you will find. Each lesson is in audio format with accompanying pdf. You can also follow their YouTube channel for extra video lessons. However, I don’t believe this alone is enough to learn Korean. Their lessons just skimm both vocabulary and grammar. That is in no way criticism to their team, just an observation. Also, while their chatty approach to lessons is endearing, on second or third listening you will want to get to important points and not have to listen to banter over and over again.
- Naver dictionary, Daum dictionary, wiktionary
- Memrise This is a wonderful interactive online tool to supplement all your other learning tools. It uses mnemonic devices, which are created by members of the community (inluding yourself), to help you memorize grammar or vocabulary. You need to create an account. I am currently working on a list for TOPIK beginner vocabulary and I am loving it!
- Anki This is not directly linked to Korean language but you can use it to make digital flashcards for any language you are learning. I don’t really like it, but many other do.
- Educational Foundation for Korean Abroad Cute pdf files intended for Koreans living abroad to teach their children, but there is no reason why we can’t benefit from it as well, right?
The ones I didn’t really like
Rosetta Stone seems like a big waste of money to me. I spent few days using it and got nothing out of it. I don’t like this format of teaching where nothing is explained and I have to guess an aproximate meaning of each word and grammar point. It takes much more time than if they just gave me translation. Also, I found myself uncounciously cheating. For example, if the sentence said “The boy is running.” I would pick out the picture that had a boy in it, and have no idea what the rest of the sentence means. Oh, and it seems like they didn’t adapt their lesson format to Korean language. Using ‘a boy’ = ‘남자아이’ as a subject in a sentence is somewhat unnatural in Korean.
Pimsleur wasn’t my cup of tea either. I learn way too slowly just by repeating thigs like a parrot. Another thing that I hated is that they don’t explain the whole syllable – word difference in Korean. What I mean by that is that they break the pronunciation in syllables to make it easier for you to get the correct pronunciation. But again, while it might work in other languages, it doesn’t really work in Korean. For example, 감사합니다 is pronounced gam-sa-ham-ni-da. But 감, 사, 합, 니, 다 is pronounced gam, sa, haP, ni, da. So when they were pronouncing the whole word I heard ‘m’ and when they would break it down I heard ‘p’ and I thought I am going crazy.
As you can see, I tried many different sources and I am willing to try out more. So far, I found big faults with everything I tried, save for the things I mentioned above. If you are interested in my opinion about a textbook you intend to buy or free online source let me know and I will either tell you what I think or add it to the list of things I intend to try out in the future. Also, if there is some resource you especially like, let me know.
How are you learning Korean? What works the best for you?
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