How to Learn Korean by Yourself

Depending on what your first language is, Korean language can be quite a challenge to master. That’s why if you’re studying on your own it’s best to use as many different angles of attack as possible. This will ensure you cover all the neccessary bases – grammar, vocabulary, listening, speaking, correct pronunciation… Also, the advantage of using multiple sources is that when you run into the same word or rule in two different places, it gets secured in your memory more firmly.

If you are unsure where to start, 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. Learning the basics of Hangul will be easy, I promise. The pronunciation is somewhat more complicated.

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. Much easier to say “Is it 미음 (mieum) or 비읍 (bieup)?” when asking ㅁ or ㅂ, than “Is it the square one or the square one with the prongs?”

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So here is how to learn Korean on your own:

Grammar

If you are serious about studying Korean the main sources to learn 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 for listening and speaking practice. Korean Made Easy was the 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 for beginners Darakwon Korean Made Easy is good, but rather light on the contents. So when 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 an absolute beginner. Since both books use quite similar 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.
Korean Grammar in Use DarakwonThere 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 or don’t like them it’s nothing to worry about.

I know grammar is scary to some and boring to others and there are many new techniques that promise to teach you Korean without having to learn grammar with excuses that babies learn the language without knowing a single grammar rule, but you’re not a baby and grammar is the foundation of language. Make your foundations strong or else the whole structure will topple some day.

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. If you’re not ready to invest into learning Korean yet scroll down for online resources.

Vocabulary

Your textbook will have some vocabulary but you will need much more even for the most basic of conversations. That’s why I wrote 10 best ways to learn Korean vocabulary.

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 previously mentioned Korean Made Easy for Beginners textbook. Some people enjoy being able to say a few basic sentences right off the bat while others prefer to wait until they understand how the sentence is constructed. If you count yourself among the second type don’t get a phrasebook. Korean PhrasebookThere 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 or shows magnifying glass.Naver dictionary search Korean translationNaver’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:

Naver dictionary explainedIt is also a good idea to keep track of words of your own choice, not just the ones that are thrown at you by textbooks or courses. I keep my own vocabulary book with all the words I have learnt so far. Korean vocabulary dictionary book Morning GloryOn 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.                        Korean vocabulary bookI find this to be more convenient to carry with me than flashcards but it’s basically the same thing, only difference being the format. Instead of flipping over the flashcards you close the blue flap while you check if you know the meaning. So this is down to your personal preference.

For online flashcard programs scroll down to online resources.

You can find words on your own (I listed the ways how to do this and linked them above in the “10 best ways to learn Korean vocabulary”) so Korean vocabulary textbooks are not neccessary, but if that’s what you prefer Talk to Me in Korean’s My First 500 Korean Words and Darakwon’s 2,000 Essential Words for Beginners are really good.

Price: Free! There are plenty of good free online dictionaries you can use and the internet full of Korean words. All you need to do is choose the ones you want to learn. You might get lucky like I did and get a phrasebook with your textbook. Unless you really want to buy a phrasebook and an empty vocabulary book, or a textbook, you don’t have to spend anything on vocabulary.

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. This is an AMAZING book!

You can read our review of this book, the book which has more than 200 pages of nothing but pronunciation instructions. 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.

You can also find how each word is pronounced in the free Naver dictionary I linked above.

Price: I’ve seen the book range in price up to $25. Otherwise, you don’t need to spend any money on pronunciation either. Just immerse yourself into Korean content and get the feel for the flow.

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 (TTMIK) 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 skim both vocabulary and grammar. That is in no way criticism to their team, it’s best not to go too deep into details in the very beginning. But that’s why I always recommend learning from several resources at once anyway. Also, while their chatty approach to lessons is endearing, on third or fourth listening you will start feeling like you want to get to the important points and skip the banter. They also publish more and more useful books for Korean and have premium online content that’s not free.
  • How to Study Korean is for you if you like a more detailed approach to grammar, larger vocabulary, and more text and less multimedia. You will probably like it more than TTMIK. But it doesn’t have to be either or. Use both!
  • Dictionaries: Naver dictionary, Daum dictionary, wiktionary
  • Online flashcards: 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 prefer Memrise, but many love ANKI. Both do basically the same so it’s your choice.
  • The Cyber University of Korea free online Korean language learning program. It’s like online lectures but you take them whenever you want at whichever pace you can.

Extras

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,” and I knew how to say “a boy” 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 unnatural in Korean.

Pimsleur wasn’t my cup of tea either. I learn way too slowly just by repeating things like a parrot. Another thing that I didn’t like 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?

 

 

 

 

You might also like:

learning Korean Korean vocabulary Korean grammar in use
How to type Korean Korean romantic expressions How to learn Hangul

36 thoughts on “How to Learn Korean by Yourself

  1. I have to agree that Rosetta Stone is not worth it. I used the free trial and hated it. I use ttmik as well as an assortment of smaller books I’ve picked up at the Korean bookstore. I one I like the most is Living Language. I find it easy to use and understand. I also like the fact that it comes with a notebook to practice writing in and the audio CD’s are a plus.

  2. what did you do to be able to speak and understand korean language? I think you must be good in english too, to be able to learn korean. I am a Filipino, Im not that good in speaking/writing in english but I was able to comprehend what im reading. please help me

  3. do you know where i can find the books in pdf? i cant afford to buy them but i want to learn the language

    • I believe that King Sejong Institute has some free textbooks in pdf format. However, for free resources I suggest you use either Talk to me in Korean or How to Study Korean (or better yet, both). I supplied the links in the “Online Resources for Learning Korean” section of this post. They have everything you need to study Korean for years to come.

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