8 tips on how to learn Korean (and stay motivated!)

Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 10.33.00 AM

I recently spoke with a young Australian who a few months ago started learning Korean in Seoul. We keep in touch regularly about his progress and his life in Seoul – inevitably I am jealous of his experience –  my first year in Korea (as was my first year in China) was a very significant and memorable experience for me.

He was feeling frustrated that his Korean hadn’t been improving the way he had liked and ask me for some hints – so with that, I have written a small list of the key philosophies that I believe are important when learning Korean and to an extent any language.

1. Learning Korean (or any language) is not a race

So often as language students we erroneously get caught up on the time we have been learning a particular language. You might be watching Korean TV one day only to see a young foreigner busting out Korean like he is Sam Hammington but then under his name badge it says he has only been in Korea for 6 months. “How is this possible?” “He must have learnt Korean before coming,” or you meet someone who is only in level 2 at your Korean language school while you are in level 4 but somehow they have better comprehension and speaking skills than you did?  Viewing your language progress in a sense of time is destructive to your learning process. I have always found it weird that there are those who put so much concern into their language test scores and level progression at schools like Yonsei.

What is great about language learning is that it is unique – there is no pass or fail, or deadlines to meet. The end result someday for everybody is the same – the ability to speak the language. It’s true some will pick it up quicker but by giving yourself a time frame to learn a language is to place unfair expectations on yourself – which if you fail to meet will only deter your enthusiasm to continue learning the language, or worse lead you to question your ability to learn a language at a “mature” age at all. You won’t learn Korean in a year, 2 years, or even 3 years. I am going on nearly 5 years now and there is a lot I still have yet to learn. I make pronunciation and grammar mistakes regularly and there is probably 60% of the vocabulary that I still have yet to learn. Learn at your own pace without the restrictions of time frames and tests.

2. Don’t compare yourself to other Korean language learners

Similar to the point made above – comparing your Korean skills to another Korean language learner is more destructive than it is helpful. Some might argue that it motivates them to study more but from my perspective, the worst thing you can do is compare your Korean language level to another learner. It will only lead to a loss in confidence, possible jealousy and pointless rivalry. Think of it this way; as an English speaker how often do you go around and compare your English ability to other native speakers? You don’t because nobody gives a s*&% as long as we can communicate.

The problem is however that while in Korea, whether you like it or not, people around you will forever be comparing your Korean to others. They will speak about some foreigner they saw on TV who spoke Korean better than you and even worse is better looking than you too! (Thanks for the confidence boost 친구!) They will compare you to their other foreign friend who speaks fluently or the other foreign worker in the department who joined the company after you. There are a plethora of situations in which you will inevitably be compared to another foreigner learning Korean – the trick being is to not buy into it.

Korean society is as we all know is hyper-competitive in many facets and particularly in social status. Ignore the haters; ignore the comparisons and learn Korean the way you want to at your own pace – there is nothing to be gained by comparing your own abilities to another foreigner because we all have our individual strengths and weaknesses, cultural background, educational background and other circumstances which make our language journey unique. Embrace other Korean language learners rather than view them as competition – those that think that way have unfortunately bought into one of the less attractive parts of Korean culture.

Sam Hammington, a foreign celebrity in Korea with super Korean skills!

3. Don’t buy textbooks for self-study

Yonsei, Sogang, SNU, Kyeonghee – or any textbook in Kyobo books, if (like me) you have seen all of these books then you will realize one thing – they are basically the same and are all very ineffective. I understand that some people prefer textbooks for studying but even still you are wasting your money on “official” textbooks when the internet and Korean language bloggers have provided an endless amount of information in a more natural and easy to understand terminology, such as Talk to Me in Korean. Obviously, as part of a language program, it is impossible to avoid buying the textbook but for personal study, but I would give them a miss if you plan to study in your own time. Unless you are learning Korean from the linguist perspective and endeavour to either teach Korean or translate professionally, then there really is no need to buy a Korean language textbook. As I stated there are so many good Korean blogs written by people just like us learning Korean who can explain it in a more natural tone and for FREE!

4. Don’t just focus on the language! Balance it with culture

Probably the biggest issue with Korean language learners and certainly an issue for some of the more mature Korean language learners is the focus of the language without the culture. You need to understand Korean culture – the food, the music, the dances, the literature, the TV shows, the movies (and sort of enjoy it as well). Keeping in touch with the cultural aspects will inevitably provide you with topics of conversation, keep you up to date with changes in Korean trends, teach you jokes and phrases you never knew, and provide context conversation! It gives you something in common with which to bond and make Korean connections, which are ultimately the best source for developing your Korean language to the next level.

5. Watch entertainment programs, not dramas. Read online news not newspapers

A specific tip for those currently learning Korean. While watching, listening and/or reading anything in Korean is beneficial there are certainly more suitable forms of Korean media to help you develop your skills. A lot of people enjoy watching Korean Dramas for language learning and even with English subtitles, they will be useful toward your study. However, I would recommend you ditch the dramas and focus more on entertainment programs and/or chat shows like Running Man, 1박2일 (Two Days, One Night), 무한도전 (Infinite Challenge), 안녕하세요 (Hello Counselor), 마녀사냥 (Witch Hunt) etc. The reason being that dramas with their convoluted plot lines (every Korean drama is ridiculous in its plot) and overacted scenes often have difficult to understand dialogue and don’t always mimic how the average Korean approaches a conversation. This is the same for news programs – when Koreans write a script they inevitably employ much more high-level vocabulary. Entertainment and talk shows, however (although scripted) are much more useful to observe how everyday Koreans interact and converse. Better yet it introduces many common phrases and slang words as well as providing Korean subtitles while watching! Even if you can’t understand every single word, the key points are often placed in subtitles so that you can keep up with the context. The same goes for looking at a newspaper over reading an online news outlet or blogger. Formal newspapers are unnecessarily complicated in their vocab while an online source will employ a much more standard approach to typing and help you to learn how to properly structure your own written Korean documents (like email).

6. You will hit the language wall multiple times

Studying for 6 months and don’t feel like you are improving? Moved from level 2 to level 4 but somehow you speak at what appears to be the same level you were at 3 months ago? Don’t stress. I know it is frustrating as hell but you will hit the imaginary language wall multiple times in your life (I assume we all do but some might contest otherwise). It certainly doesn’t help when those around you will sometimes make comments such as “Your Korean level seems worse, you should study more” (thanks again for the confidence boost!). I do not honestly have a solution to avoid hitting the wall just that while you may feel your level is not improving or that you are getting worse you are probably in reality completely wrong. Perception is just that – it’s certainly not concrete evidence to suggest you are somehow “losing” your language ability. #Keepthefaith I’m sure you are doing fine. Persist and in a few months, you will feel as though your Korean has greatly improved.

7. Don’t focus too much on the ‘rules’ – communication is the goal

When you begin Korean you are hit with a barrage of grammatical structures and rules which is overwhelming and hard to soak in all at once. During this stage of your study, I believe it’s important not to get too focused and bogged down with the “correct” way to speak. Yes – eventually you will need to study all the appropriate grammar structures but in the beginning, it can inhibit you from experimenting and trying! The goal of any language is communication and when you start letting correct grammar intervene in your conversations you will lose confidence, hesitate more when speaking, and ultimately practice less. Even your Korean teachers will agree – the goal of level 1-2 is to just practice and speak as much as possible. The other facets will fall into line over time.

8. Throw yourself in the deep end every once and a while

Particularly useful when you have hit the above-mentioned wall – sometimes you just have to put yourself in a situation where it’s Korean or die! Good examples are sitting down with a friends/partners parents and having a conversation (talking with a friend’s dad while having a few shots of soju did wonders for me); attending a class completely in Korean whether that be academic or physical activity; joining a Korean sporting team (Taekwondo is a favourite for many who are trying to improve), heck – even challenging yourself to engage more with convenience store attendants and taxi drivers couldn’t hurt!

Those are my tips, but remember that everyone will inevitably learn in their own way. So find what works for you. Oh, and check out these other tips on our site for some more language learning inspiration:

The following two tabs change content below.
Michael Kocken lived, studied and worked in Korea for 4 years and now currently works for a Korean multinational company in Australia while providing freelance Korea-focused business consultancy to Australian companies. He also runs a blog called “The Sawon” which focuses on Korean business culture and job opportunities for non-Koreans in Korea.

Leave a Comment