‘Elementary Korean’ textbook review

I already mentioned I like trying out Korean textbooks in an endless search for one that suits me the best. You can imagine my pleasant surprise when publisher Tuttle offered to send two books pertaining to Korea for me to review – one of which was the Second Edition of ‘Elementary Korean’, a textbook for beginner learners of Korean language.

Once I received it I was glad to see right away that it satisfied the two most important requirements I have for a Korean textbook:

  1. Korean is written using Hangul, no Romanization save for the first few chapters before the student masters the alphabet, and
  2. it comes with accompanying audio in the form of MP3 audio CD, because what’s the use of learning a language if you can’t say anything in it.

Tuttle Elementary Korean MP3 CD audio language textbook

The book itself is sturdy, its signatures bound by stitches; which ensures the pages won’t start falling out, like they sometimes do when they are just glued together, even if the book gets a lot of abuse.

The book is printed in all-black text on thick plain white paper, with no pictures, and very few black and white illustrations. So if you find those things distracting you will welcome this plain layout. Even my infantile brain which enjoys cute cartoons and colorful illustrations admits that contents are more important that the design, ESPECIALLY when it comes to textbooks.


So, how about the contents?

‘Elementary Korean’ is aimed at both learners working on their own and students working with a teacher. Those who are self-studying will be satisfied to know that there is an answer key for most exercises so they can be done autonomously. They are designed primarily as a written homework, not as oral exercises.

The main focus is the contemporary spoken Korean, but the book highlights the differences between spoken and written language as well, so it does not aim at oral competence alone.

The authors predict that it will take between six and ten hours for each lesson, of which there are 15. Since I already knew the basics before I got this textbook I went through it much faster so it’s difficult for me to judge, but I would say that it sounds reasonable.

Hangul isn’t taught right away. First two lessons teach basic expressions using audio and a broad transcription method (not Romanization) that authors came up with for temporary use, although Hangul is supplied in parallel as well. If you don’t like the idea of transcription, you can ignore it and just use audio until you learn Hangul in later lessons.

The idea is that you first get used to the sounds of Korean, before you get taught Hangul in lessons three and four. Hangul is so straightforward and takes a short time to learn that I would always choose to learn it before doing anything else, but maybe it’s not such a bad idea to start by learning a few basic expressions by heart so you already have the sound of Korean language in your mind when you tackle the alphabet.

The layout of each lesson follows the same pattern:

  • Dialogues,

    which, while simple enough, I found to be less stiff than in most other textbooks. Words such as ‘아이구’ (‘aigoo’) which you can hear in everyday Korean as a part of colloquial speech found their way into dialogues. The audio CD contains all the dialogues.
    The audio is clear and speakers speak at slow enough rate for beginners to follow. I would prefer if the textbook had a little icon to mark on page which part of the text has audio accompanying it so the reader knows when to use the CD, but that’s just a small detail.
    I did run a few times into sentences that differed a bit from those written, but I had no trouble figuring it out even though I’m still a beginner. I’m not sure if an absolute beginner might get confused, but these differences are a rare occurrence enough that it shouldn’t pose any problems while learning.

  • Vocabulary,

    introduced in each lesson covers a lot of new words, which may seem a bit tedious but it is a necessary step and without it learned grammar becomes useless. As I mentioned before, words are grouped in logical way so they are easier to memorize. The textbook introduces some 1000 vocabulary words in all, which were chosen by authors, rather than taken from statistical frequency lists. Learning most frequent words is good, and I even recommended it in previous posts, but it is true that those frequencies are calculated from news articles and don’t reflect well which words you will most commonly need if you come to Korea as a tourist, student or on business.
    One thing I really liked is how authors introduced the vocabulary by presenting it in logical units. For example, if they introduce ‘노래’ (‘a song’), famous ‘노래방’ (‘noraebangs’) or Korean karaoke rooms are immediately introduced as well, along with the expression ‘노래를 불러요’ (‘to sing a song’). This makes memorizing easier and logical as words are not just hanging out there in vacuum, but are connected to related words and sample sentences right away which aids memorization quite a bit.
    Hanja is included for all Sino-Korean vocabulary in the glossary at the end of the book.

  • Lesson notes,

    the main content of the book, teaches grammar and language patterns and supplies plenty of sample sentences, which is another point I really liked. When I study just bare grammar I always feel like I understand it but when the time comes to apply it I get stuck if there had not been enough examples provided to actually see it in action.
    Grammar explanations in ‘Elementary Korean’ are lengthy, but this makes it simpler, not more complex, because here more text just means more in-depth explanations, not more contents to learn. I really appreciate this. Keeping it short doesn’t necessarily mean keeping it simple when it comes to textbooks, especially those that are meant for self-study where you don’t have the luxury of a teacher ready to answer all your questions. If you come across something you don’t understand, it will either drive you crazy or you will spend hours trying to find explanation elsewhere.
    I much more enjoy textbooks that have elaborate explanations which read more like a novel, than short ones where you have to spend long time wrecking your brains over each sentence.
    One thing that took some time getting used to is the reverse approach to analyzing verbs compared to the previous textbooks I used. While I was used to starting from a dictionary form of the verb and then changing it and adding endings as necessary, ‘Elementary Korean’ starts from Korean infinitive. Authors claim that this kind of treatment of verbs leads to one less rule that needs to be learned, and disposes of the notion of irregular verbs in Korean. I will show these two approaches on an example:

    1. the basic form of the verb ‘to be hot’ in Korean is the dictionary form ‘덥다’ and when an ending which starts with a vowel is added (as in present informal polite style –어요) the ‘ㅂ’ is dropped and ‘ㅜ’ is added which yields ‘더워요’.
    2. This textbook goes about it the opposite way. It starts from base (which is defined differently than the base in the other textbooks) ‘더w-‘ and forms dictionary form by changing ‘w-‘ into ‘ㅂ’ to end with ‘덥다’.

    I’m not too fond of mixing Hangul and Roman letters when defining Korean words, but if it reduces the number of rules needed to learn and makes it simpler, I guess it’s worth it. Once you are familiar with one of these styles the other one takes some time getting used to, but if you are starting from scratch, I don’t think there’s much difference.
    As far as the speech styles and honorifics go, the book introduces 해요, the Informal Polite style first, and I agree this is the best one to start with, as you will certainly use this style the most, as well as reduce your chances of inadvertently offending someone.

  • Exercises,

    which I usually found lacking in other textbooks, are so abundant here that I found myself actually considering skipping a few. Exercises are crucial for self-learners (and still quite helpful for those that use the textbook in classroom). You won’t know which part you misunderstood or didn’t memorize well until you are forced to reproduce the knowledge. ‘Elementary Korean’ has a few pages at the end of each lesson packed with exercises, and just as importantly, while few exercises are of the type which can’t be checked on your own, for example building your own sentence or having a dialogue with a partner, great majority of exercises are of the type that CAN be checked and ALL of them have answer key at the back.

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One thing I would like to highlight is that this textbook had a few items which I saw being asked by beginner learners quite often and which I have wondered about myself, but never saw explained in a textbook before. Basically, ‘Elementary Korean’ gives a lot of extra information for the basic syllabus it teaches and I just love this.

Few of such examples would be: Recognizing if a Korean given name is male or female. (Something I have asked quite a few Koreans and even they didn’t know how to explain it to me.) Adding ‘–이’ to a person’s name to make a cute diminutive out of it. (This used to confuse me because I was familiar with ‘-이’ only as a subject particle, so when I would see ‘NAME이가’ I didn’t understand why suddenly two subject endings were attached to the name one after the other; they weren’t, of course). The order of all the types of adverbs. The existence of separate pattern instead of ‘–고 싶어요’ for third person! etc.

If you have attempted to learn Korean before, you will agree these explanations are not easy to find.

And the particles, my personal bane of learning Korean, are finally thoroughly explained. It seems that since it is difficult for students, teachers try to gloss over it so as to not intimidate. But I much prefer having it explained extensively right away as opposed to feeling like I missed something, and the authors of this book did not shy away from detailed treatment of particles.

Used Elementary Korean language textbook for beginners

In my hands the book became well-used in just a few weeks

If you like this book you don’t have to stop your learning there, ‘Elementary Korean’ has a matching ‘Elementary Korean Workbook’ by Insun Lee, as well as a sequel ‘Continuing Korean’. There are numerous online self-study resources accompanying it which supply more audio, vocabulary exercises, and Flash animations for the dialogues which are located in “Korean 102″ section.

In conclusion, while there are some minor errors, and the backwards verb treatment needs some time getting used to if you have learned Korean before, ‘Elementary Korean”s clear in-depth treatment will undoubtedly propel the beginner learner forward in their quest to master the Korean language.




10 thoughts on “‘Elementary Korean’ textbook review

    • Right now I only have the textbook and there is definitely enough exercises in there to be self sufficient. But getting the workbook would certainly be a nice bonus.

      I’m actually thinking of getting the workbook myself, and if I do, I will review it here as well.

  1. I go to UBC and the author of this book (Ross King) is the head of the Korean department here. Insun Lee was my first year Korean professor! It’s nice to see this textbook getting more recognition — it’s definitely one of the best out there. I’m currently using the Continuing Korean in my intermediate class and it’s just as good, if not better, than Elementary Korean. It’s nice to see my professors being recognized! Makes me proud of my university haha.

    • It’s great to hear from someone who knows these people personally. For us from the rest of the world, they are just abstract people. It must be great having professors who are so good at what they do that they can even publish books about it :)

  2. If you plan to buy Continuing Korean, the word from Dr. King is that the new, improved edition will be out very soon, and the old one has a lot of typos (true, as I’ve read it)….AND they are putting out a 3rd book around the same time, Advanced Korean, which I will definitely be one of the first people to buy! These books are solid, no question about it. (I agree about the treatment of the verbs, though…weird! I think that most people can handle “dictionary forms” (i.e. 덥다, 고맙다, etc.)) but then I’m not a professor with a PhD so what do i know?? kk

  3. i am studying korean on my own. i am able to read hangul now but i do not necessarily understand all that i’m reading. is this book geared towards learning hangul or more towards actually learning how to speak and converse in korean? thank you!

    • As I said in the review, the book has 15 lessons and only lessons 3 and 4 teach Hangul.

      The authors predicted that the book supplies between 90 and 150 hours of studying, so maybe that can help you judge how far along in learning Korean you will come.

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