Learning even just the basic vocabulary of Korean language can, and usually does, take years, so it makes sense to carefully choose which words to learn first. After all, what use would it be to know how to name all the bones in the human body in Korean if you’re not even able to greet someone yet (unless you’re a doctor, but even then it might be nice to greet your patient first).
Two most common choices tend to be:
- start learning the most frequent words in Korean language
- start learning words that pertain to your interests.
I recommend you do both.
Luckily for us, there is already a compiled list of the most common Korean words making rounds around the internet. The list is not perfect since only news articles were used to calculate the frequency of words; and news articles use somewhat different vocabulary than people do in everyday speech. Regardless, it’s a great place to start. You can find the link to the list further down.
As far as the second way is concerned, the fun way, well, most people are learning Korean language because some aspect of Korea interests them. If you exploit your own interest in Korea it will both give you the vocabulary you personally will use the most and, just as importantly, it will make learning a lot more fun.
10 best ways to learn Korean vocabulary
1. Memrise (or ANKI)
Memrise (and its offshoot Decks) is an online learning tool which uses spaced repetition and mnemonics in order to help you learn more efficiently. That means it automatically spaces out practice and chooses intervals of time, according to how well you know the specific Korean word, so you don’t see that word too often, nor wait to see it so long that you completely forget it. It also means you get to use mnemonic devices which were created by community of people learning Korean. Mnemonic devices help with word recall, and having some of them already prepared by others cuts down on the time you would need to come up with your own.
You can create your own courses, flashcards, and mnemonics (called “mems”) or you can use the ones others have already created.
I believe the best place to start is the frequency list I already mentioned in the introduction – the 1000 most common Korean words that others have already transferred to Memrise. It even has audio included for each word, which otherwise might be difficult to get when you’re making your own flashcards.
It is one of the most popular Korean courses on Memrise, which means there are more chances others will have cleared up any ambiguity or fixed the mistakes over the years, and came up with mnemonics so you don’t have to. Of course, nothing is stopping you from coming up with your own mem for each word where the existent one doesn’t do it for you.
Since you can also create your own courses with your own flashcards it’s great to come back and input into Memrise any words that you come across by other methods I mention below. If you create your own you will learn words in the context which is even better.
ANKI is a similar and also popular tool you can try, but I’ve never used it since I’ve been rather satisfied with Memrise.
2. Vocabulary videos
There are many video lessons for learning Korean vocabulary, majority of which are on YouTube, and the most popular probably being Talk to Me in Korean. They have playlists such as Korean vocabulary with pictures and Korean words starting with, to name just a few.
The upside of using videos is that you get both the audio and the visuals which help jog your memory and help you use the words more precisely. The downside is that it will be difficult to remember the word down the road just from seeing it once or twice, so you will need to watch the same video over and over again, which I think for most of us is not a fun thing to do.
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Well, I’m crazy. A bit, naturally.
When I found out that first Korean drama I ever liked was based on a bestselling novel I just had to have the novel. So that is exactly what I asked for for my birthday.
When I watched the interview with the main actor from the drama saying he couldn’t really understand everything his character was saying due to it being in archaic Korean I realized I may have been “a bit” over-enthusiastic. But hey, I had the book for a few months now, and I already read the whole first page and I almost sort of kind of understand what’s going on so, yay me.
I guess the point is, which I already mentioned above, when you are interested in something, or even better passionate about it, you are going to be much more daring and stubborn, both of which are necessary when undertaking a huge task like learning a language. And having that book on my shelf, apart from it being a really pretty decoration, means having one more reason to want to learn Korean.
I noticed that many people buy Korean edition of Harry Potter books. Precisely because being passionate about the subject is so important. Another reason is that they find it easier to start with the story they are already familiar with, where it doesn’t matter if you can’t understand every single word.
If you are in Korea, there are many online shops that you can get Korean books from. If you’re not, like me, then you’re probably going to have to rely on Amazon which has a wide selection of Korean editions of books, or order from Korea from online malls like Gmarket and 11st, and deal with high shipping prices.
Korean magazines can be easier or more difficult to study vocabulary from than a book, depending on how you look at it. Articles are certainly shorter and thus less overwhelming. On the other hand, each article has its own topic and is written by a different journalist so it will have less repeated words than a book.
Either way, magazines may seem like a more advanced step for a complete beginner, but no one says that you need to learn every single word from an article, even less so from the whole magazine.
The great thing about magazines is that you can find that something you are really passionate about, something that gets your heart racing, and instead of being faced with boring lists of endless Korean vocabulary you feel forced to memorize you will be faced with delicious secrets waiting to be unlocked once you learn enough.
Whether you found an article about your favorite Korean band, actor, or a whole magazine about golfing, learning something that interests you is going to be so much easier.
If you have a physical copy of the magazine, and you are not too petrified to ruin it a bit, you can take a highlighter (Mildliners seem particularly popular in the language learning community. I find them to have quite a bit of feathering but I guess others use higher quality paper than I do) and start highlighting the words that you don’t know as you add them to Memrise using an online dictionary like Daum’s or Naver’s.
Then before you proceed with the article you take some time to learn the new words. Since words are usually going to start repeating in the same articles, as you go down paragraph by paragraph you will see less and less highlighter even if in the beginning you had to highlight every single word. Seeing your progress visually represented like this will give you a real sense of accomplishment.
If you come across a word you can’t find in a dictionary, just skip it. It may be the word is obscure, or you just don’t know enough grammar yet to be able to tell what the root of the word really is. Either way, don’t waste too much time on it. Even when you become an advanced learner, you won’t need to know every single word in order to understand it from context.
You can get FREE digital Korean magazines for your Android or iOS device. In Play Store I just search for word 매거진. The one I’ve been using for the longest time is “올레매거진” and I still have it installed on my tablet but it seems to be gone from the Play Store. Still, if you can find it, I recommend you install it.
These apps offer just excerpts from articles in each issue of the magazine but it is more than enough for beginners. And magazines like Men’s Health have plenty of Korean celebrities you may be interested in ;).
Buying physical magazines may be a bit more difficult. Korean online shopping malls like Gmarket and 11st have plenty to choose from, but they only ship using EMS which can get quite pricey for heavy things like magazines. The one I used for the photo above is approx. 2cm thick and weighs almost 1,5 kilogram!
Cheaper shipping prices are offered in most Kpop online stores, but then you have to be lucky enough that at least one Korean pop star happens to appear in the exact issue of the magazine you want, otherwise it won’t be available.
5. Online comic books (webtoons)
Comic books (manhwa in Korean) are, in a way, much easier to read than books and even magazines. There is less text and obviously a lot is communicated through pictures which are a universal language. You could probably get the main gist of what is going on even if you can’t read Hangul. (But if you can’t, seriously, go learn Hangul right now).
Koreans have a whole special genre of online comic books called webtoons which are in color and often free. You will have endless choices to scroll through on your phone even when you’re out and about.
The downside is that comic books have somewhat of their own language which may not be applicable in everyday conversations, but at the same time you will find expressions which are more current than books and magazines.
But it is still a fun and easy way to learn new words. And in case of Korea, free!
You can search for different genres, ratings, reviews, etc. I still haven’t been courageous enough to actually try reading one (because I know I would fail ^^), but seeing lots of pretty pictures and a few words here and there makes it a lot less of an imposing task than books and magazine articles.
I tried to translate the main navigation on the Naver page so you can try and find a webtoon that interests you.
6. Korean Subtitles
Another plus is that within multiple episodes of the same show certain words keep getting repeated over and over again. This is why I find learning from TV series and shows easier than from movies, which tend to have more complex vocabulary and less opportunity to repeat it. A Korean drama can run up to 20 hours or more, whereas you will struggle to find a single movie that lasts over 3 hours. Bad news for those like me who prefer movies, but great news for every drama fanatic. (Speaking of Kdrama fanatics we answered a question Do Korean guys act like in Korean drama?).
However, even with many episodes watched, if you had been too engrossed in the plot and paying no heed to the language, you will probably come out learning nothing.
Learning a language is hard work, and leisurely watching fun shows is unfortunately not going to get you anywhere. As usual, learning takes effort and concentration.
It’s best to choose something you liked enough to watch several times and once you already know the plot to go back and re-watch it, but this time, concentrate on the sound and content of the language.
Pause often and take your time to add the words you pick up into Memrise or any other place where you keep track of Korean words and meanings. This might be a bit difficult if you can’t guess the spelling of the word just from hearing it in a scene. That’s why once you know the plot you can go ahead and use Korean subtitles instead of English, or your own language.
Unfortunately, Korean subtitles for Korean series and movies as opposed to the foreign ones are a lot more difficult to find. Here are several sites:
Korean Hangul subtitles for American, British, Japanese, Chinese, etc. shows, dramas and movies
- GOM Korean subtitles for American and Japanese movies and series. (If you install GOM player it has an automatic subtitle search function.)
- Cineaste Korean subtitles for American, British, Japanese, Chinese … movies. (Use the lower search bar next to the 제목 drop-down menu, not the upper red one. It seems they also recently added login requirement to use the search function.)
- Cineaste Korean subtitles for American, British … dramas. (Same as above but doesn’t seem to require login.)
- Kakao TV for anime fans: streamed anime with original Japanese audio and Korean captions. (Search in the upper right corner next to 전체 in the drop-down menu. Just type the name of the show you are looking for in Hangul, for example: 원피스 for One Piece, 블리치 for Bleach, 디지몬 for Digimon, etc.)
- DCInside Gallery Korean subtitles for American dramas and tv series.
Korean Hangul subtitles for Korean shows, dramas and movies
- Korean subtitles for the deaf (It seems you need to sign up.)
- TTMIK has a series of natural Korean talks with both Korean and English captions. Make sure to choose their own subtitles and not auto-generated. Even though they try to keep it simple, their talks are not for beginners.
Keep in mind that some of the contents on those sites might be copyrighted and it’s up to you not to break any copyright laws.
If all else fails (or maybe before you even try anything else) you can always type the name of the show and add “한글자막” in the search engine and hope for the best.
한글자막 literally means Hangul subtitles.
Since Hangul subtitles for Korean dramas and movies are really rare, an alternative is to find Hangul transcripts. This will only work for serious studying and take quite a bit of effort because you will have to have the text open next to the show playing and carefully follow what is being said. Several blogs have some Hangul drama transcripts and subtitles.
SBS has the option to view transcripts of some of their dramas which have already finished airing. Click on the drama you want, then select the second tab on the right, with the title 자막보기. There is a blue button with an option to download the transcripts 다운로드, but you need to be logged in.
To help you follow Kdramas popular Korean teaching team TTMIK prepared video lessons on common Korean drama phrases.
There are also TED Talks in English with Korean captions.
7. Korean Music
Even though Korea has other genres of music to offer, foreign learners of Korean are definitely the most familiar with Kpop.
I was reminded of this and its immense popularity once again in the form of a choice made by Loving Korean readers when asked to choose Kpop song they would most like to see turned into a guide on learning the language with lyrics and song. I took your favorite song and written
By popular vote INFINITE’s “The Chaser” won, and the sheer amount of people that visited the site during those few days of voting reflect how popular Kpop really is and how enthusiastic its fans are.
And I believe that unwavering enthusiasm is the most powerful tool for learning a new language.
However, a word of caution: lyrics are poetry. They do not need to abide by grammatical rules nor do they necessarily represent the language as it is spoken. It is good to keep this in mind when using Kpop lyrics to learn Korean vocabulary.
Critics of learning Korean through Kpop assume that daily communication with Koreans is the end goal of every learner. But people learn a language for different reasons. Actually I would be willing to bet there are more people learning Korean in order to understand K-pop songs and watch K-dramas than those that will get an opportunity to travel to Korea or make Korean friends and learn the language in order to communicate with them.
The advantage of learning a language through songs is that they probably have higher repetition value than any other learning method. How many times are you willing to go through the same grammar lesson in a textbook? Two times? Five times? Ten? Yet you can easily listen to your favorite song a hundred times without it feeling like a chore.
Whatever your goal is, it’s fine learning Korean from K-pop. Just make sure it’s not your ONLY source. Which actually can be said for any other source as well. Mix it up.
8. Korean apps and games
While there are many apps for learning many different aspects of Korean language, from alphabet to grammar, among Korean vocabulary games I find those that help you learn Korean numbers the most useful.
Learning numbers is not difficult – even Korean numbers which use two different systems. But sitting calmly and jotting down numbers from a textbook where you have all the time in the world to recall each number is very different than hearing the numbers spoken in conversation and recalling them fast enough to be able to follow what is being said.
I was very proud for getting 100% correct each time I translated numbers. But the first time I tried to understand someone saying a number I was in trouble. “Was it 3 or 4? 삼 is 4. No, wait, 3. 사 is 4. Ok, so that was 3… What did she say next? Ten thousand, I think. Ah, 30 thousand… Wait, slow down! Which number did she say next???”
The most efficient way for me to speed up was to use Learn Korean numbers games. They are fast-paced and force you to recall numbers quickly which is great exercise for real life.
I liked these the most, but apps appear and disappear all the time so feel free to just search “Korean numbers” in any app store and choose the one you like:
|LEARN KOREAN BUBBLE BATH FREE|
|This app only covers Native Korean numbers. The bubbles in the game start from the bottom of the screen and float upwards. You have to select them one by one and match them with numbers in the margins, whether it’s Korean to English, English to Korean, Romanization to English, etc. As you progress through the game the bubbles speed up. You start off with 5 health points represented with hearts. If you lose all five of them you have a chance to retry that level.
Numbers are pronounced every time you select them, and there is a mode where nothing is written on the bubbles and you only get to hear them which is good for honing your listening skills. The last level is mixed audio and text.
There are options to choose the difficulty, which as far as I could tell, influences just the speed of bubbles.
The app overall is the most pleasant one I encountered, both in the sound and picture quality, as well as Arirang background music. It is unfortunate that it covers only native Korean numbers up to 10. But it does have other word categories too like animals, body parts, etc.
|Out of all other app games this one forced me to be the most concentrated and had the best selection of game modes. However, it is also the least pleasant to look at and actually made me nauseous a few times even when I turned off the background and slowed the bubbles down. I did play on a large tablet screen so maybe that won’t be an issue on smaller phone screens.
The options to choose from are Native Korean numbers, Sino-Korean Numbers, both of which run up to a hundred, and colors. There are 4 different options, either from 1 to 10, or from 1 to 99. And they go both ways Korean to numerals or numerals to Korean. This app keeps your score and has high score list.
Settings offer different speeds, number of questions in each round (5, 10, 20, 50), and backgrounds, including a blank black one.
|This app has a short explanation about Korean numbers as well as two beginner lessons where by clicking you can hear the correct pronunciation of Native or Sino-Korean numbers.
Practice of Native Korean numbers runs up to a hundred, and Sino-Korean numbers all the way up to ten million, the largest I ever encountered in an app. Every exercise has audio. You can turn on or off English Romanization displayed alongside Hangul.
There are three modes of practice: from numerals to Hangul, from Hangul to numerals, and from Korean audio to numerals. The big downside is the lack of automatic checker for the first two modes. You are given a number and a hidden answer which you reveal by clicking a button. It would be very nice if you could input your answer and have the app automatically check if you were correct as well as track the percentage of correct ones. There is also an extra practice in telling time.
Learn Korean Numbers is available on Android, iPhone and the Apple iPad.
|This app is a take on the viral 2048 game. While you may have fun playing this game it is unlikely you will learn much as there is no audio for pronunciation, no Native Korean numbers, and you can just match the tiles visually without even having to consider which numbers they actually represent. Still, a nice fun past-time while giving you the feel like you are not venturing far away from your Korean studies.|
9. Language settings
Changing device language is really fun, if not a bit unnerving, but it feels eat to get real-world experience with Korean language. This is not beginner stuff, this is the real deal that native speakers themselves actually use. Just make sure you know enough of the language before you make the switch so if you get in trouble you are able to change the settings right back.
Making the switch on Windows 8 and 10 is really easy and not overwhelming because all programs will remain in the same language they were before, and all your file and folder names will remain unchanged as well. Names of default folders like 사진 for “Pictures”, 데스크톱 for “Desktop”, 파일 for “file”, 홈 for “Home”, date format, OS commands, etc. will be in Korean. Not only are these words short and easy to learn, but most of them are derived from English so it won’t be difficult to guess their meaning even without a dictionary. And you probably already memorized the layout of icons and basic commands by now.
What you will encounter when you make the switch on Android is similar. Some apps will change their name to Korean while some will remain the same. System controls and settings will all be in Korean. And all your folder and file names will not change.
10. Korean dictionary
I list this last not because it is the least important, but rather because you will use it as a supplement for finding the meaning, pronunciation and usage examples of the words you discovered using the other nine methods listed here.
There is a way, however, to use a dictionary as a tool for discovering new Korean vocabulary, and not just as a tool for Korean words translation of the ones you have already found.
As you can imagine, trying to randomly pick out Korean words to learn from a dictionary is a really bad idea. Even worse is learning the words one by one alphabetically.
When searching for the meaning of a word you have discovered using the other nine ways, make sure to look at the sample sentences provided. Seeing the word used in a natural Korean sentence helps in truly understanding its meaning. Some sentences are too complex so feel free to ignore them as a beginner. Most are simple enough. And when it happens that you don’t understand only one or two words in a sentence, write those down (have you tried calligraphy?) or add them to Memrise. While you are looking up the meaning, just repeat the process: find sample sentences, pick the ones where you only don’t know a word or two, find those words, and so on. You can continue this process for a long long time, so make sure to actually take the time to memorize the words at some point.
There is probably no reason for a beginner learner of Korean to go and invest money in a dictionary. Naver online dictionary and Daum online dictionary are free, available online and enough to satisfy the needs of any beginner.
Example of how to find the sample sentences can be shown with the word 준비 in Naver dictionary. Scroll down to 영어사전 and click on the first blue link which is located above English translation.
The same word 준비 in Daum Dictionary has sample sentences listed under the tab 예문.
There you have it, the 10 best ways to learn Korean vocabulary I have discovered so far. Do you have another efficient or fun way to enrich your Korean vocabulary list?