10 best ways to learn Korean vocabulary, part 1

Learning even 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 is it that you know how to name all the bones in human body in Korean when you can’t even greet someone yet (unless you’re a doctor, but even then it might be nice to greet your patients first) .

There are two organized ways to go about this. One is to start learning the most common words in Korean language. The other is to start learning the words that pertain to your interests.

I recommend you do both.

Luckily for you, Korean language does already have a compiled list of the most common words circling around the internet. It’s not perfect, since it was made by counting words only from news articles, which use somewhat different words than people do in everyday speech, but it’s a great place to start.

As far as the second way is concerned, well, most people are learning Korean language because some aspect of Korea interests them. And exploiting that interest will both give you the vocabulary you personally will need the most, and, just as importantly, make learning a lot more fun.

10 best ways to learn Korean vocabulary

1. Memrise (or ANKI)

Memrise KoreanMemrise is an online learning tool which uses spaced repetition and mnemonics in order to help your learn most effectively. That means it automatically spaces out word practice over longer and longer intervals of time so you don’t see the words too often, nor wait so long that you completely forget them while you practice. It also means you get to use mnemonic devices which are created by the community which considerably saves you time when recalling words.

You can create your own flashcards or you can use the ones others have already created.

I believe the best place to start is the list I already mentioned above, of the 1000 most common Korean words that others have already transferred to Memrise. It even has audio included for each word, which might be difficult to get when you’re making your own flashcards.

This 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, and came up with mnemonics so you don’t have to. Of course, nothing is stopping you from coming up with your own if the existent ones don’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.

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

Talk to Me in Korean Vocabulary with PicturesThere are many video lessons for learning Korean vocabulary, majority of which 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…

The upside of the videos is that you get both the audio and the visuals which help you jog your memory and help you use the words correctly. 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 return to the video regularly, which I think most of us don’t do.

3. Magazines

Korean magazine Hangul vocabularyMagazines may seem 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 something you are really passionate about, something that gets your heart racing, and instead of being faces with boring lists of endless vocabulary you need 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 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 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 bigger 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. The recent one I found was “퍼스트룩 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 aprox. 2cm thick and weighs almost 1,5 kilogram!

A 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.

4. Books

Korean book Hangul vocabularyNow, this is a bit of a scary part for a complete beginner. Maybe you need to be a bit crazy to buy a whole real book in Korean when you only know a few words.

Well, I’m crazy.

I mentioned a while ago that I will tell you all about the first Korean drama ever that I liked (and I will soon). When I found out that drama 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 in a way I already mentioned above, when you are passionate about something, you are going to be much more daring and stubborn, both of which are necessary when tackling a huge task like learning a language. And having that book on my shelf, apart from it being a really pretty decoration, is having one more reason to want to learn Korean.

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 Korean online malls like Gmarket and 11st again. But more and more small Korean online shops pop up all the time and it’s getting easier to buy Korean books and magazines. The most recent I found was Hey Eonni which seems to be owned by Sun Kyunwoo’s wife from Talk to me in Korean, but I haven’t had a chance to order from it yet.

This page contains Amazon affiliate link. If you make a purchase on Amazon using these links you help support Loving Korean, at no additional cost to you.

5. Online comic books

Korean comic from naver ArteComic books 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).

Downside is that comic books have somewhat of their own language which may not be applicable in everyday conversations, but at the same time a lot of it is more modern than books and magazines.

But it is still a fun and easy way to learn new words. And in case of Korea, free!

I was really surprised to see a whole section of Naver dedicated to comics, or webtoons as they call it (웹툰). Olleh also has comics.

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 make it a lot less 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.

Korean comic cartoon manhwa Naver free

Click to enlarge


So, those are 5 out of 10 ways I have to learn Korean vocabulary. I will include the rest in the part 2 of this post, and will use the Kpop song you voted as the best for that, as promised.


Continue to 10 best ways to learn Korean vocabulary, part 2 ->


30 thoughts on “10 best ways to learn Korean vocabulary, part 1

  1. This post really comes to a right time for me, bcz, as the lazy ass I am, I still haven’t started learning Korean properly and a few days ago I’ve indeed asked myself what’s next once I’ve learned the alphabet. Starting to read the post I already went to memrise to see what’s it all about, someone posted up to 5.666 most common Korean words, wow!!!! That’s really a great help. Of all these listed options I think that memrise is the best for me… and, btw, I’m crazy too, I’ve bought the first Harry Potter in Japanese while I was in Tokyo lol ^_~ thank you very much for your effort!!! Looking forward to the next post ^^

    • I tried using it yesterday and the problem with the lessons is that many of the words don’t have audio and there is no on site keyboard for Hangul symbols. I hadn’t practiced in a long time so I had forgotten some of the sounds that go with the symbols. To learn basic Hangul I just used the Wikiproject. It walked you through the basics and even gave you the correct sounds for the symbols. That is a huge help before you even begin to try and speak Korean. Then for practice I used a site called SayJack. It has a game style practice where it gives you the sound in audio and you have multiple choice symbols. I used to sit and play with it for hours but I’ve gotten rusty.

      • I REALLY REALLY recommend that you learn Hangul well first. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to learn Hangul if you want to learn Korean.

        Also, you should really set up a Hangul keyboard for your computer. It’s insane trying to type Korean by clicking on the screen, it will take forever! You are a very patient person ^^

        1. Set up a Korean keyboard
        2. Learn to type with all ten fingers
        Those two will change your life :)

        But the Memrise lesson I linked does have the audio for 99,9% of the words. I made sure of that.

        • I will either order an overlay or pick up a white marker for my keyboard. If you dropped me in Korea I could get by with the skills I’ve already learned. I can sound out Korean words even if I don’t know what they mean. I do get a bit confused with some of the more complex words. I can ask where things are, count money and time. I know left and right, How to ask for the bathroom, important anywhere you go. I can order a beer or a cup of tea. Make small talk, like nice weather, how many kids do you have, thank you, sorry, hello and goodbye. I think I have a fairly good pronunciation at least I’m told so by my Korean friend.

    • Yeah, I think Memrise is the most organized and the most serious approach to learning vocabulary.
      The thing that it’s missing is the context. It’s easy for words like “a tree” and “a cup” but later on the words get more complex, have multiple meanings, etc. With magazines, books and comics you get the word used in a natural sentence right away.

      To be honest, I think it’s best to use everything available ^^

  2. I was having some trouble with vocabulary lately… I learned a lot of grammar rules but have no words to use it and exercise it properly. :( now I’m using Ankidroid (an android app for Anki https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.ichi2.anki&hl=pt_BR) and I already managed to learn a lot of new words! I had memrise on my phone too, but I think Anki was slightly better ^^
    I bought some korean magazines on ebay and even though they’re really expensive, they are indeed a good way to get new vocabulary. I have an exemplar of CéCi Korea and it is almost 1,5cm thick and it’s reeeeally heavy, so the shipping fee was really high ㅠ__ㅠ But it’s worth it! It has some articles about some artists that I like and a looooot of great articles about makeup and fashion, which are some of my interests ^^ I even posted about my magazines and recommended them as a good vocabulary source, even for beginners :)
    I tried Naver’s and Daum’s app for webtoons and they’re really good! I try to read when I’m on my way to work and even though I’m a beginner, I can understand almost everything because of the images :3
    I didn’t tried books yet, I think they’re more than I can handle for now >__< Maybe in a few months ^^

    • Ebay is the worst for buying things that are made in Korea. They are always SO expensive. The magazine I featured here, the one that’s 2cm thick, I bought on another site, I paid only $2,5!

      • I totally agree! But in that case, it was the easiest place for me to buy that magazine and I wanted it sooo much that I didn’t think twice :( I’ll try buying on Gmarket on the next time, but anyway, the shipping to my country is always expensive, since it’s on the other side of the world… ;-;

        • Yeah, I know what you mean there are some things I just have to get my hands on as well. :) Like that book above. But luckily it was really cheap ($6 if I remember correctly) and also really light. But the magazine was SO heavy.

          Yeah, I live on the other side of the world from Korea as well.

  3. So much good stuff! Thanks.

    In terms of books, worth mentioning that bilingual books exist. So you can buy a book with Korean on one page and English on the facing page.

    As far reading an article and highlighting the words you know and making flashcards from it, LingQ.com does that. There is also foreign language readers, or Google Translator Toolkit. I can’t even make a complete sentence yet, and I am dabbling in trying to do some reading of Korean. Seeing words in context and how sentences are put together in real world context is powerful.

    Will International pen pals/chats/skype etc. make it into the second half of your life? Mindpasta is one of my tools for gaining vocabulary. Great social site for Korean language learners. Socializing as a way to improve your vocabulary is fun.

  4. I started out wrong because it is much easier to at least start out learning Hangul. However it does you absolutely no good for actually speaking Korean if you do not use a site that gives you the corresponding sounds. A friend of mine gave me the CDs for beginning and intermediate Korean with the Pimsleur Method. I used them in my car for months travelling to and from work. Later I discovered that Wikipedia had a Hangul learning program through the Wikiproject.

    • I would say it’s not just easier, it’s necessary. When I listed the best sites for learning Hangul I made sure they all had audio.

      It’s pointless without it. If you use romanization to learn Hangul pronunciation, you will end up sounding to Koreans the way they sound to us when they use Hangul to write down English :)

      Did you manage to learn anything with Pimsleur? I found it very frustrating and didn’t learn anything from it.

      • Pimsleur is a very good method even without Hangul. It breaks down every word and phrase with the correct pronunciation. It also uses repetition and recall to reinforce what you learn. For an English speaker the biggest problem I have with Korean is that so much is “implied”. The use of pronouns is limited. Many phrases can be used as statements or questions based on context and inflection. Then the fact that the language uses so many compound words. It’s a very different language than English so I really have to concentrate in Korean when I practice. I go around the house practicing and talking to the dogs. Now my dogs sit or hurry inside whether I tell them in English or Korean. You’re right about romanticization, it does not fit well, especially with English.

        • I find it really interesting that you benefited from Pimsleur. It drove me crazy!

          For example, the part where they teach you how to pronounce 합니다 – they say: “hap – ni – da”, and then repeat “hamnida”. I wrecked my brain why I was hearing ‘p’ at first and then ‘m’. Was I hearing wrong? Is it a different word?

          I went to a textbook, found out that ㅂ before ㄴ is pronounced ㅁ, felt appeased and never looked back at Pimsleur.

          • I never noticed that, but I think it helped. Did I learn things I didn’t need to learn? Yeah, I’d say I did. Do I notice that when I watch dramas or variety or listen to music in Korean I pick up on some different pronunciations? Yeah I do. It was good for me because I could use it during a time when I wouldn’t be interrupted and it only required me to listen and repeat. I did get caught a couple of times at stop lights talking to myself in Korean. Once a lady in an SUV next to me asked me what I was doing. I told her learning Korean with a CD. She gave me a thumbs up.

      • It’s pointless to learn any language with any script, native or not, without good quality recordings and a sound guideline to pronunciation. On the other hand, if someone intends to learn to conversational fluency, he or she will certainly want to be prepared with the native writing by the time the course is finished. How does one wander around Seoul, finding stores, reading menus, etc. without reading to go along with speaking? But I see no need for Hangeul to be developed with the same central intensity as the assimilation, recognition, and production of good pronunciation, syntax, register, usage and the like.

        In my course, my classmates (this was an intensive elite university program in beginner’s Korean, most of them already had Chinese and/or Japanese at advanced levels), were jotting down all kinds of cheat sheets to bring to class for group conversation practice, and they sure weren’t in Hangeul; they weren’t even in very good Romanization, for that matter.

        • Hangul can be learned in a few hours. Learning Korean pronunciation means learning how sounds of letters change depending on their position in syllable, word, and sentence. This can take up to few weeks. I believe using your own language and script to pronounce Korean will lead to a very bad accent.

  5. Thank you for this really good article.
    Though i’m a big anki fan, using it to learn multiple things (from math to korean), i didn’t know memrize. So i tried it yesterday, and found it maybe more.. entertaining, so thanks for that :)
    Also i didn’t thought about comics to learn korean… i guess i’ll have to wait a little for that as i’m just beginning in korean. :)

    • I started out with Memrise and even though I wish some things were different in it, I’m pretty satisfied.

      Yeah, some things like comics may be too advanced at the beginning, but from my experience as soon as I find something that piques my curiosity my retention also improves.

  6. Memrise typing bothers me because I have no use for typing yet. Too bad course makers insist on it and users can’t disable it.

    • Maybe no direct use, but having to input letters rather than just choose already suggested words aids memory a lot. Being able to recognize a word and being able to produce a word are two different levels of memory.

  7. Does memrise cost something? I wanted to register after I didn’t see anything about costs when I went on the website but after I read the conditions of use (terms of use?), it stated some things about costs so I wasn’t sure if you have to pay to use this website.

  8. I have a question. I recently got the add-on togeki on my browserwhich is kinda like an online dictionary that pops up once I hover over a Korean word. Only, I discovered that a lot of sites on Naver and Daum don’t enable you to select words.. do you know any that do or perhaps know of some other not too complicated sites about I dunno, foodie stuff, culture, travelling?

    • Hello,

      I know what you mean, I’ve had issues copy-pasting words into a dictionary too. Even worse is when the text is embedded in an image.

      Anyway, the first thing that comes to mind is Korean wikipedia. It may seem daunting to consider reading an encyclopedia but many articles, for example about food or celebrity profiles are quite simple to read (considering it’s real Korean, not adjusted for learners), and you can find anything that interests you there.

      There is a also a native Korean version, called Namu Wiki. Since it’s new I haven’t used it much and thus can’t vouch for its contents, but it seems to put a bit more emphasis on articles about popular culture, such as games and comics.

      I’ll let you know if I think of anything else.

      • Thanks for the tip. I will use it once I am a bit further along. I think at this moment I don’t yet know enough grammar and vocabulary yet. Perhaps in a few weeks.
        I did find Korean version of a fairytale in my library though. Grammarwise it seems pretty simple so I’m going to try my hand at it this week!

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