(Before we begin this topic I’d like to put a HUGE disclaimer here to say that this is by no means the way that you SHOULD study Korean or any language for that matter. This is simply what I am doing.)
How I Study Korean
I started studying Korean in October of 2015 so I’m coming up on two years since day one of my Korean language studies. However the first year of that was while I was also finishing up my senior year of college and trying to juggle school, plus a teaching job, plus a teaching internship all at the same time.
All that to say the amount of time leftover to study a language was minimal. But once I graduated in June 2016 I moved back home for 6 months before I came to Korea, and in those 6 months I started to study pretty seriously. As a consequence of being a little bored in my hometown and the impending reality of soon living in Korea, I spent a lot of time in my favorite coffee shop trying to sort out the beginnings of Korean grammar.
When it comes to studying a language the best way to study is the way that you will study. What I mean by that is, it doesn’t matter what you do so much as the fact that you do it and do it consistently.
I’m one of those weirdos who actually really enjoys studying. Like the act of studying in and of itself. Sitting somewhere with a coffee pouring over grammar explanations and making up example sentences to practice vocabulary is something I enjoy doing. Which puts me in the minority of people, I know. (It also has given me a disproportionately large base of grammar knowledge and next to no speaking skills. But that’s another issue.)
As per usual it seems I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the beginning shall we?
And for Korean, the beginning should always be Hangul.
Hangul is the Korean alphabet. Koreans are very proud of it, as well they should be. Many many moons ago everyone’s favorite King Sejong invented Hangul with the purpose of widespread literacy in mind. Spoken Korean already existed, but because the written system still used Chinese characters it was only really accessible for those in the nobility. Hangul was created so that everyone could write. And for that reason it is incredibly simple, scientific, and intuitive.
Trust me I know that for English speakers it looks more like code than meaning, but once you get comfortable it’s incredibly easy to use. Hangul can pretty easily be learned in a few hours and I’d say you can be comfortable writing it in a few days. It’s simple, I promise.
A lot of books and learners start off trying to learn Korean by writing out the pronunciation in English letters, which I did in the beginning as well. But it’s good to abandon that as soon as possible because it creates more confusion than it’s worth because of the plethora of ways that Korean can be Romanized.
(For example I live in a city called 대전 which can be written in English as Daejeon, Daejun, Taejeon, Taejon, and basically any variation of those letters. And they’re all simultaneously correct and incorrect because there is no perfect way to capture Korean pronunciation with English letters. There exist rules for how to write Korean words in English but not everyone uses them. So again, more confusion than it’s worth.)
So after I learned Hangul I started out with a beginner textbook and spent about 6 months working through the whole thing and the work book that accompanied it. I don’t regret using it, as I do think it was a really good solid place to start, but every time I would show my Korean friends what I was working on they would point out something in the book that was weird or awkward. I also think the book over simplified things a bit. So recently, as I’ve been getting into more intermediate grammar stuff, I’m starting to realize that there are some big gaps in my knowledge base that I think are due in large part to that book.
All that to say, I started off with a textbook and work book. For the most part it was great because I got the basics down and it gave me lots of opportunities to practice the stuff it was teaching.
During those beginning months I didn’t practice speaking at all. In fact it wasn’t until really recently that I’ve properly started seeking out opportunities to force myself to have conversations in Korean. And even after studying for about 2 years now it is incredibly difficult.
This is another thing to note about Korean. It’s fun, and not nearly as hard as people would think learning an Asian language would be. (Or hard in the ways people think it is.) However, for me at least, the time between learning the basics and the time when you first hear a sentence in spoken conversation that you can actually understand is huge. And the time between when you start to understand bits of conversation and when you can actually respond even longer.
Because of the way Korean works you have to first learn the stuff that no one really uses.
I remember learning how to say “This is _____.” Like this is an apple, or this is my book, or this is a university. And thought, okay those are pretty common phrases I’ll probably start to hear those in conversation now. But it turns out that “blah-blah이에요,” which is pretty much the only thing you learn in the beginning, is not used a ton in conversation. There are a billion other more common ways to end a sentence. A billion ways that I do not yet know.
I’ve gone off on a tangent again.
I finished up that textbook right before I left for Korea and so when I arrived here I was at a bit of a loss as to how I should continue. I thought that I wouldn’t need to study as much because I was now surrounded by the language all day every day, but in fact the opposite was true. Despite have studied on my own for about a year, I arrived and was able to read well but could hardly speak anything other than ordering food and coffee.
It wasn’t until I started searching random grammar structures when I heard my co-workers saying them that I found HowtostudyKorean.com.
There are a lot of popular Korean learning websites like TalktomeinKorean.com, 90dayKorean, and many others. But HowtostudyKorean has by far helped me the most. As I mentioned before my particular learning style is suited to studying and taking notes. The author of the website is a native English speaker and because of that is able to provide incredibly detailed and complete explanations of the more nuanced parts of Korean grammar.
It’s not flashy or gimmicky (I don’t mean that in a negative sense) like TalktomeinKorean. TTMIK is really good for beginning when you need that kind of motivation to keep going. But these days I absolutely love the long, thorough, super detailed grammar explanations. I can’t even imagine how long it took to start piecing together that site. The order that it follows is really natural and introduces you to the structures you need, exactly when you need them and no sooner.
I enjoy reading and taking notes on the grammar so much that I’ve gotten way ahead of myself and now I know too much grammar and hardly any vocabulary. So these days I’m taking a little hiatus from grammar to focus on memorizing words. Because grammar is great but useless without any vocab.
One of the ways that I’m focusing on vocab is by trying (key word being trying) to read the book The Giver in Korean. I’m exactly 9 pages in and it’s taken me about 3 months to get there. But there isn’t any more authentic way to see vocabulary and grammar in use besides reading. So I’ve found it to be really fun and helpful.
And because I write out the translations of the words I don’t know on the page I can also see how I’ve improved. The first page and a half I did about 3 months ago when I first got the book. And at that time I needed to translate basically every single word. Then I didn’t touch it for about 2 months and when I came back recently I found that I didn’t need to translate nearly so many things.
But the way that I usually practice vocabulary is by writing down a list of words and then trying to make up sentences I might actually say in my life with them. This helps to ground the vocab in reality and also practices using all that grammar I have theoretical but not practical knowledge of. Usually I’ll work on one list of words during the day and then once we finish out classes ask one of my co-teachers to correct them for me.
The last piece of the puzzle I have yet to mention is speaking practice. Probably because it still scares me.
I don’t know why, but if I know someone can speak English I’m super embarrassed to speak Korean in front of them. Maybe because I know how much easier it would be for everyone involved if we just spoken English. Or maybe because, having full knowledge of both languages, they can pick out exactly why I’m making the mistakes that I’m making.
Either way up until the last 2 months or so I never spoke to my Korean friends in Korean. Which is incredibly stupid I know. And now that I have started to, I can see how helpful it, and how much more practice I really do need.
I’ve started meeting up with a few people specifically for language exchange and I can already tell how helpful it’s going to be.
This past weekend in Seoul was one of my better ones as far as Korean progress goes. I had a pretty solid conversation with a taxi driver on the way home from Hongdae Saturday night, and Sunday night I told my two Korean friends who I was with to speak to me only in Korean.
Sunday night was particularly fun because I didn’t expect how proud it would make me feel to be able to speak a little bit with them even a little bit. We were in a pretty tourist-y area where there are lots of foreigners and lots of English. This was also the first time I’ve ever really used Korean in public where lots of random people could hear me in passing. And as silly as it is, the fact that other people could hear my friends speaking to me in Korean made me really proud. Which is not the reason I study Korean but it was motivation nonetheless.
One of my friends who I was with hasn’t had to use English in a really long time, since she was my student in the US two years ago, and so she felt like her speaking had gotten a little rusty. But for the first time in my life she could ask me in Korean how to say something in English, and I could both understand and reply. That was huge for me.
It means that my Korean is getting to a place where it can be a bridge of communication. In places that I lack, they can make up for in English. In places that they lack I can make up for a little bit in Korean.
I could see how much more comfortable she was speaking to me in Korean rather than English and that is why all of this, these past two years of studying, the endless pages of grammar notes, and hours spent at school straining to understand office talk, has been worth it. It was worth it to hear her call me 언니 and to be able to speak, even just a little bit, in the language that their hearts minds speak.
Thanks for reading!
If you too are studying Korean, let me know how you’re doing it in the comments! 화이팅!