Everyone has their own method for learning a language. My method will not necessarily be the same as yours nor will the things that worked amazingly for me necessarily work amazingly for you…but I have had so many requests to talk about how I started learning Korean that I must, at last, give in. So here are my hints and tips for anyone interested in starting to learn Korean.
I am writing this post with the assumption that people reading it have little, if any, knowledge of Korean. I will soon be uploading posts for intermediate and higher intermediate learners so if you fall into that group, please stay tuned as the advice in those posts is different!
So, first of all – congratulations! In deciding to study Korean, you’ve picked one of the hardest languages in the world. If you’re reading this blog post, I’m assuming you’re probably studying on your own or with little classroom support – that’s a big challenge so well done, I wish you all the best and with that; let’s get started!
1. Don’t bother making a Korean friend – that comes later.
When learning languages, people often say that the best way to learn a language is to befriend a native. This is true and befriending a native can have a hugely positive effect on your grasp of the language…but only if you actually have a grasp of that language. If you don’t even know your ABC’s, how can you expect them to help you? You want them to teach you? They’re your friend – not your teacher – and if you force them to try and be both, you risk losing both.
2. Watch Korean dramas and listen to K-pop.
Yes, it’s your dream come true. I’m telling you that a fantastic way to study Korean is to watch TV and dance around your room to K-pop (but you have to sing-a-long!) As children, we listen to our mother tongue for around a year before we start producing words. We get a feeling for the language…we start to recognise words and as we grow up, we learn instinctively what sounds right or not. The same thing works here. You don’t necessarily have to understand what is being said (thank god for English subtitles) but the point is to start opening your ears to the sounds of Korean….with the hope that when you actually start speaking Korean, you’ll sound ever so slightly more Korean!
A lot of people ask me why my pronunciation is so good (and while it makes me a little embarrassed to hear things like this), the only reason I can think of is that I spent a good year and a half listening to friends speaking in Korean, watching Korean dramas with friends and dancing around with my friends to K-pop…without understanding a word of it.
For those of you who like watching dramas, the sites listed below are great places to find a new Korean drama to watch. If you’re less into the fairytale dramas that Korea is renowned for, check out Korean reality-style TV shows. KBS World uploads a number of it’s popular shows onto Youtube with English subtitles. Some of my favourite shows include Mamma Mia (a show where Korean celebrities appear with their mothers), The Return of Superman (what happens when the kids of Korean celebrities get left in the care of their Dads…!) and ultimately Gag Concert (Korean comedy show).
3. Get a good textbook.
Now, I really hate recommending textbooks because everyone’s learning style is so different. A number of textbooks that were recommended to me when I started learning Korean were used for about a day (if that!) before they were placed on the top shelf where they have been collecting dust ever since. In my next post I’ll be posting a more in-depth review so in this post I’ll just be giving a light introduction to the books.
I don’t really like picture books or colourful books, I like books which give me the facts. With that in mind, I love the Seoul National University Language Institute textbooks. They’re not particularly pretty but I felt that they gave me a really good grounding in the basics, they were clearly set out and easy to understand which is always useful when you’re studying on your own. I used most of the first two books….I admittedly skipped books 3 & 4…but I have them in the Chinese version just for kicks…you know, to read when I’m bored…or something. Yes.
The book below is actually the intermediate level book but I’ve used the beginner level one too so I can vouch for it as well. I like this book because it does exactly what it says on the cover. It provides a number of listening activities at the beginner level using useful vocabulary in useful situations so that hopefully, after some good studying, you should actually be able to have your first shaky conversation in Korean – which at the end of the day is what we’re trying to achieve!
Initially I didn’t like this book. The introduction is far too long for my liking but part of this is probably due to the fact that by the time I bought this book, I was already in a class for intermediate Korean. I bought the book to supplement my studies since having gone straight into intermediate level Korean at university, I had big gaps (potholes) in my Korean knowledge which needed to be filled and fast! This book was really helpful and with hindsight, for a beginner studying Korean, this is a really good book. The introduction is dreadfully long but it’s worth working through to ensure that that you get a strong foundation in Korean and don’t end up like me; in a class where I was expected to run, when in reality I could barely walk. (For those of you who are interested, this is the textbook used for Elementary Korean modules I & II at SOAS).
Finally, for those of us who like to measure our achievements in certificates and awards, we have the Complete Guide to TOPIK : Beginner. TOPIK is the Test Of Proficiency In Korean, administered 5 times a year (3 times domestically and twice internationally), the test intends to provide Korean learners with benchmarks to assess their progress. At present the test is marked according to 6 levels. Levels 1-2 indicate beginner level, levels 3-4 indicate intermediate level and this is generally the minimum requirement for university level study in Korea and levels 5-6 which indicate near fluency in Korean and are normally used as a requirements for graduate level study or work in Korea. To give you an idea, I am currently preparing for the intermediate level and I think it is HARD. That said, as of this summer the test format will be changing so I will post an update about TOPIK then.
This book prepares learners to take the beginner level exam. A mix of listening, reading and writing questions leaves the reader with not only an enhanced understanding of the Korean language but also with a strong awareness of the format of the exam. All in all – I like it because it does what it says (I’m easy to please~!) so I’m happy.
4. Little and often.
I recently learnt an interesting proverb in my Chinese class “三天打鱼，两天晒网” which means “to fish for three days and to dry the nets for two days” – or in plain English it means to work in stops and starts – and it is used to talk about people who don’t persevere and who don’t get a job done.
With a language, unless you have to spend all day studying a language because you have a million assignments due for that one class the next (i.e me today), it is much better for your language learning to do a little and do it often. It is much better to do 30 minutes every day than do 2 hours every three days because in that 3 days, you forget things and end up spending an hour of that time recapping things you should already know.
Make a timetable, stick to it but don’t overdo it. By pushing yourself to hard, you’ll turn your interest into a chore and once you’ve killed your interest in learning Korean (whether you realise it or not), the rest of your time will be spent banging your head against a brick wall, going nowhere.
5. Study online.
You might be studying on your own but that doesn’t mean you’re the only one studying on your own. Outside the confines of your bedroom is a world full of people, like yourself, trying to learn Korean. Talk to them. Communicate with them. (I’m one of them and you’re free to drop me an email anytime!).
There are a number of websites online which promote Korean language study – especially at the beginner level. One of my favourite resources is Talk To Me In Korean (TTMIK). They provide fantastic little lessons, long enough to properly cover a set of vocabulary or a key grammar point and short enough that you can finish it without losing interest. These digestible little chunks of Korean language learning are the key to success! They also have videos for the visual learners among you!
Seoul National University offers online lessons through the “Click Korean” section of its language centre page. While these lessons aren’t as pretty or exciting as those on TTMIK, it’s still a good website providing strong coverage of the basics so it’s definitely worth checking out (even if only used as a supplementary resource).
Forget buying a Korean dictionary. At the rate which Koreans borrow words and make new ones, like most languages, your dictionary will be out of date before the card payment has gone through. Instead become acquainted with the dictionaries of online search portals like Naver and Daum. Personally, I have a preference for the Naver dictionary simply because it has what I need more often than Daum does but check them both out and see what you prefer~.