Instructions for those who want to learn Korean from scratch. Learn about beautiful Hangul and the peculiarities of Korean grammar.
This article is for anyone interested in Korean, whether you need it for work, study, travel, or to understand what V is saying to Jimin. The reason doesn't matter. The only thing that does is your love for Korean. Here you will find tips and materials for learning it. 파이팅!
Features of the Korean language
Two Koreas and two languages. The long division of the countries contributed to them forming their own dialects. North Korean is called 조선어 [chosono], and South Korean is 한국어 [hangugo]. Both languages use the same alphabet, but the letters look slightly differently. Pronunciation is also different, the intonations change. Plus, the DPRK and the Republic of Korea have their own cultural and social peculiarities, so the same words can have different meanings. For example, the Korean War is called 한국 전쟁 in the South and 조국해방전쟁 in the North. The 해방 part means ”liberation.” Therefore, in the DPRK, the Korean War is associated with liberation, but in the Southern version of the word there is no such connotation. In general, Seoul and Pyongyang Korean are more dialects than separate languages. Residents of these countries can easily understand each other.
South Korean dialect
North Korean dialect
Learning to be polite. Respect for elders and a clear hierarchy are exceptionally important in the Korean culture. There are seven styles of politeness in Korean, on which the conjugation of the verb depends. As a rule, the more respectful the attitude towards the person, the longer the resulting phrase will be. The styles differ not only in declensions, but also in the words used. For example, the word “home” in ordinary speech is 집, and in formal speech it’s댁.
Formal speech 존댓말
Informal speech 반말
아빠 / 아버지
엄마 / 어머니
Variety in numerals. Koreans use two types of numerals: local and Chinese. The latter are actively used in everyday speech to designate the dates, amounts of money, addresses, phone numbers, and numbers larger than 100. Korean words denote age and number of objects. To make sure you do not get bored, even the time is pronounced with two numerals at once: hours — in Korean, while minutes and seconds — in Chinese.
Hanja. China has had a huge impact on the culture of modern Korea. Hanja is the name of Chinese characters in Korean. They are rarely used in everyday life: as a rule, they are mostly seen in literature and newspapers. Some Korean words can be represented as hanja. For example, the verb 독서 하다 — “to read” — is written like this: 讀書 하다.
Not mine, but ours. In Korean, it is common to use the possessive pronoun 우리, which means “we.” This is a display of the collectivist culture of the country. In Korea, you can often hear not “my father” — 나의 아버지, but “our father” — 우리 아버지, even if the person is the only child.
No gender — no problem? There is no concept of gender in Korean grammar. Sometimes it is not even clear whether we are talking about a man or a woman. For clarification, special words are used, denoting the sex of a person. For example, 남자 is a man, 여자 is a woman; 남동생 is a younger brother, 여동생 is a younger sister.
A language without a family. Korean belongs to a special group of “isolates.” This means that it isn’t a part of any larger language family. There are suggestions that it is related to Japanese and originates in the Altaic languages. However, these are only hypotheses.
Konglish. Modern Korean is filled with English words. So many of them have appeared, that they have been classified as a separate style with a funny name — Konglish. Moreover, they are written not in Latin, but in the Korean alphabet — Hangul. For example, “coffee” would be 커피 [khopi], orange would be 오렌지 [orenji], and sausages would be 소시지 [sushiji]. Congratulations, you now know your first Korean words.
How to learn Korean on your own?
The answer to this question depends on your goal. If you are planning to study or work in Korea, the answer is "No way." Seriously. Find a good tutor right away or sign up for a language course. Korean is not the language that you can master yourself to a decent level. However, for the amateur level, you can try. How to do it?
Learn the alphabet. We start from the basics, like preschoolers. The Korean alphabet is fundamentally different from the usual Cyrillic and Latin alphabets. Before embarking on your language-mastering journey, you need to learn the Korean alphabet — Hangul. This is not as difficult as it seems. We'll explain why below.
Try different things. Learning mustn’t be boring, otherwise there is no hope of succeeding. Look for what will be of personal interest to you. Came to Korean from K-pop and want to understand what are they saying on Bangtan Bomb? Great. You can learn the language from songs, TV shows or interviews. But even if you have a more serious goal, such as passing TOPIK, choose the study materials that you like. Fortunately, Korean has a lot of them — its native speakers know how to make even the simplest things extremely exciting.
Set a goal. Perhaps the hardest part of learning a language on your own is discipline. No one is following you around, giving you homework, or checking your progress. It gets especially hard when you are faced with difficulties — you feel like giving up, and a little nasty voice inside says: “I'm tired.” To avoid such situations, try setting a goal for yourself in advance. Not just a vague “I want to know Korean,” but something more specific. For example, pass TOPIK on the 3rd 급 (gyp) by the end of the year.
Immerse yourself in the culture of Korea. Learning a language without understanding the culture behind it is difficult because the two are inseparably connected. This requires reading and listening to a lot of content in Korean. We describe how to do it correctly below.
Hangul — the Korean alphabet
Start learning Korean with its unique alphabet called 한글 [Hangul]. It did not appear naturally in the process of language development, but was created by scientists. Hangul is simple and logical. This again has to do with its origin. Initially, it was invented for the population who could not write and understand hanja. Therefore, the Korean alphabet is one of the easiest ones to learn. Unlike Japanese and Chinese counterparts, it is composed of letters. They look unusual, but are still understandable. If you are already preparing to relearn to write from right to left, relax. In Korean, writing is done horizontally, from left to right.
Hangul consists of 14 simple consonants and 10 vowels. Additionally, there are 5 doubled consonants. It will take no more than one or two days to master the entire alphabet. Next is the writing practice, which is also quite simple in comparison with other Asian languages.
Now that you know that Hangul is not that scary, you can move on to practice. Let's take a look at how Korean words are spelled using the example of the adjective "happy" — 행복한. The word consists of 9 letters, which are grouped into blocks: 행 + 복 + 한 (somewhat similar to our syllables). You just need to understand the logic of how they are composed, not memorize them like hieroglyphs. Each block is formed from 2-3 letters. Let's say we have: ㄷ, ㅏ, ㄹ. It looks strange, right? Now let's put them together and get the word 달 — “moon.”
Hangul is easy enough to learn. You can do this on your phone through dedicated apps. For example, Write Korean or Easily Speak Hangul. But we advise you to go the traditional way and write everything by hand. This is how you develop motor skills. In addition, later it will be easier for you to recognize the words you’ve written in other texts.
A good site with a comprehensive alphabet breakdown; also explains the rules of formation of letter blocks.
Basic Korean pronunciation
The second element that is pivotal to learning the Korean alphabet is pronunciation rules. English speakers have difficulty with it because of the unusual sounds. Our advice is that it is better to study immediately with a Korean or with someone who speaks the language at a high level. Only with their help will you really understand the difference between the letters ㅗ and ㅓ, ㅍ and ㅂ, etc. Among other features of Korean phonetics are:
ㅎ, which is often muffled a lot;
Double patchim — two consonants at the end of a syllable. There are separate reading rules for them;
Doubled and aspirated consonants. For example, the letters ㄱ, ㅋ, and ㄲ. There is not even a transcription that can show the difference in pronunciation. You need to listen to this;
Diphthongs are compound vowels consisting of two simple ones: ㅜ + ㅣ = ㅟ, or ㅕ + ㅣ = ㅖ.
The pronunciation in Korean must be done correctly right away. Otherwise, you may end up with completely different words. For example, 18 in Korean is 십팔 [shiphal]. It is similar to another very bad noun, the translation of which will be inappropriate here — 씨발 [shibal]. You don't want to confuse them in speech with a native speaker. To the same bunch, you can add "shoes" — 신발 [shinbal]. There are a lot of such words, so take pronunciation seriously. Moreover, it is necessary not only to passively listen to Korean speech but also to say everything aloud. This can be done by repeating after native speakers. For example, on the channel Conversational Korean.
Second life hack — pay attention to where you put your tongue and teeth in order to get the right sounds. How accurate your pronunciation will be, depends on it. Not only listen to what Koreans are saying, but also watch their articulation. You can find special study materials, where the position of the tongue is explained in detail. For example, here.
The main rule is to never memorize Korean words through English transcription. In this article, we provide it only as an example for beginners. This is actually bad practice. If you associate Korean sounds and letters with the English ones, then you will only get something in between — not the proper pronunciation.
Korean audio dictionary — learn how to read correctly.
In this section, we will talk about the main features of Korean grammar and give some tips on how to master it.
The verb at the end of a sentence
Korean language is surprisingly logical in its structure. The verb is always placed at the end of the sentence. The phrase is built according to the following scheme: subject + object + predicate. It doesn't matter how many other parts of speech you use, the verb will be at the end. The advantage of that is the predictability and clarity of grammatical structures. The downside is that to understand someone, you have to wait until they finish.
The written and spoken grammar in Korean is slightly different. In ordinary speech, it is simplified as much as possible: the subject or predicate is often omitted. For example, when Koreans order food, they say "I chicken" — 나 치킨, or “I pizza” — 나 피자. Everyone perfectly understands what the phrase is about, without the need for a verb. The same thing happens with subjects. There are phrases in Korean that express a whole sentence in one word. For example, 어떡해 can mean a lot of emotions at once and translates to “what am I supposed to do?”
More on speech levels
Judging by their grammar, Koreans should be the most polite people on the planet. Indeed, they have invented as many as seven different styles to express grades of respect. It is important to know them (at least 3-4 basic ones). First, because the ending of the verb in the sentence depends on them. Secondly, so as not to embarrass yourself when communicating with a Korean. Addressing someone older than you in a disrespectful manner can be insulting. Of course, a foreigner will be forgiven and explained, but it is better to know the theory in advance. Here's how the word "do" looks in different “polite” styles:
하나이다 — very formal polite (archaic, not used in life);
합니다 — formal polite (addressing strangers or people of higher status and age);
해요 — casual polite (most common in the modern language);
하오 — neutral or semi-formal (used by the older generations);
하네 — so-called familiar style(not very common in communication, used by people over 60);
한다 — formal impolite (simple conversational style, third-person expressions);
해 — casual impolite (conversation with children and close relatives).
As you can see, there is no shortage of material to learn here. Therefore, the best option is training with a native speaker. Find yourself a pen pal online. You can do this in apps like Hello Talk or on the website Friendly Korea. If possible, visit Korea as a tourist or as a student of language courses. You can study the styles of politeness at home, but you can fully understand the logic of their use only through immersion in the language environment.
When learning Korean, one should progress gradually. Start your studies with the most common constructions:
이다 — linking verb meaning “to be”. The root of the word is 이. Its ending will change depending on the conjugation (level of politeness, tense, form, etc.). Example:
To be (polite form)
This (is) a book
있다 — the verb “to have”. The root of the word is 있. Example:
Have (polite form)
I have a pencil
However, the "I" part is not pronounced in Korean. It is clear from the context. And if you say the same sentence with an interrogative intonation, you get a different meaning: 연필 있어요? — “Do you have a pencil?”
하고 싶다 — a form for expressing the desire to “want”. The 고 싶다 part is added to the root of another verb.The result is 먹고 싶어요 — “I want to eat.”
Korean has many similar morphemes that are added to the root of the word. They are used for the formation of tenses, cases, expressions of different shades of emotions, desires, denial, and so on. The time will come for them to give you a good beating. The main advice here, as with all languages — understand the logic. As soon as you understand the uniform typology for phrase construction (and it is there), everything will become easier. If you can’t understand it yourself, ask the sonsennim for help.
Textbook on Korean grammar. There are books for Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced levels.
Learning Korean words
It is impossible to master a language without expanding your vocabulary. The secret is to make it fun and interesting. This makes Korean words easy to remember. What to look for when learning vocabulary?
There are three major word groups in Korean: local, Chinese, and English. The latter are the easiest to learn because they sound similar to the original forms. Some Korean words are already familiar to you. However, do not forget about their special features. After all, they are written in Hangul and pronounced in the Korean manner. In addition, sometimes they gain new meanings:
Go on, everything will work out
Korean words are easy to memorize using flash cards. If you have already had experience learning another foreign language, you have heard of this method. These are sets of cards organized by topic. Each of them has a word written in English on one side and that word in Korean on the other. If you prefer visual learning aids, we recommend looking for picture cards. You can buy them in a store, make them yourself, or find them on the Internet. In terms of efficiency, it's best to write (or even draw) them yourself. As you make them, you will already memorize new words. However, this takes time and energy. If you don't have either, check out Quizlet.
Look for patterns that make it easier for you to memorize new words. For example, in Korean, "eye" is 눈 [nun], and “water” is 물 [mul’]. Can you guess what happens if you put them together? The answer is 눈물 [nunmul], which means “tear.” All the names of the months are based on the same principle.
The word "month" — 월
Name of the month
1 — 일
January (1 month)
2 — 이
February (2 month)
3 — 삼
March (3 month)
4 — 사
April (4 month)
5 — 오
May (5 month)
As you can see, Korean is quite an understandable language even in terms of vocabulary. Of course, it is not easy to learn, largely due to the unfamiliar writing rules, phonetics, constructs, and structures. However, you can make it easier for yourself. There are two ways: mindlessly memorizing words or paying attention to their structure, thinking about their origins and application. The second method requires more effort, but it will pay off over time.
Also, be sure to pronounce all new words. Learning Korean while silently moving your lips is not an option. Each phrase must be said aloud. You will tune your speech apparatus, and it gradually gets used to new articulation.
Diversify your learning — memorize the lyrics of your favorite songs. Not everyone, but many people become addicted to Korean because of its culture: music, TV series, manhwa, cuisine, etc. If you are one of such enthusiasts, use it to your advantage. As you probably know, Korean is not all about K-pop. There are many other genres out there: ballads, hip-hop, rock, etc. Take any song that you like, dissect it and translate all the words.
This method is more suitable for those who already have knowledge of Korean because it will be difficult to do from scratch. There are even special textbooks for learning the language from K-pop.
A platform for vocabulary learning using flashcards. You can create sets yourself or use ready-made ones.
Listening in Korean
Moving on to the most enjoyable part of learning Korean — listening. Be prepared that it will be tough at first. Not understanding up to 40% of speech is normal. The more you practice, the clearer Korean speech becomes for you. What can you do to develop your language comprehension skills?
Dramas and films
Watch Korean dramas and films untranslated, with English or Korean subtitles. The latter option is for advanced-level learners. And in general, this method is suitable for those who already have knowledge of the language. Of course, you can start studying with films, but they will work best for the consolidation and expansion of the existing vocabulary.
Korean dramas come in great variety. You can start with classics like Reply 1997 and Boys over Flowers, or move on to the recent Descendants of the Sun and World of the Married. Sometimes Korean dramas can get extremely boring: episodes are 60 minutes long and there are up to 25 episodes per season. If you can't stand such dragged-out flicks, watch web dramas instead. They are shorter, comprehensible, and generally easier to understand. There are many websites for watching Korean TV shows.
As to Korean cinema, it’s easy to find what to watch. The name of director Bong Joon Ho and his Parasites are on everyone's lips right now. But this is far from the only movie from Korea worthy of attention. Watch Oldboy, Mother, Train to Busan, and so on. Original TV shows and movies make good practice for understanding Korean. The main disadvantage of this method (especially in dramas) is that colloquial vocabulary is often used there. If you plan to take TOPIK, pay more attention to news and podcasts.
Podcasts and radio
For those looking to work or study using Korean, it is better to take the more serious approach of listening to radio and podcasts. They improve your knowledge of specific topics. There are various platforms on the Internet specifically for Korean language learners. For example, Sponge Mind or the app Korean Listening Practice. Easy podcasts for beginners like Real-Life Korean Conversations and Survival Korean Phrases are also good. Listen to radio KBS, MBC, or Arirang. Remember the main part — select the material according to your level. Start with small recordings, no more than 3 minutes long. At advanced stages, you can try writing down what you hear. It is difficult, time-consuming, but extremely effective. This is how you understand every word in speech and practice your spelling skills.
Listen to Korean music. We have already mentioned this method as an option for vocabulary learning. It can also be used to get accustomed to Korean speech. However tempting this may sound, you won't be able to learn a language just by listening to K-pop. Plus, English words are actively used in songs. And the pronunciation is sometimes incomprehensible to the Koreans themselves.
Platform with different podcasts in Korean. You can adjust the speed of recordings.
Reading in Korean
For many people, working on their reading is the last thing to do. Usually, first you want to learn to speak and understand, and only after that — to read and write. This path is suitable for those who are learning Korean for travel or just for the love of culture. If your goal is to study and work there, you need to start reading right away.
Initially, books for children and fairy tales are most often read by learners. They help you understand how sentences and text in Korean are constructed in general. The easiest option is the stories that you already know: Little Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, etc. They can be found in Korean translation. A more difficult option is original Korean fairy tales. They are surprisingly interesting. Plus, it will be useful for you to learn the country's folklore, because it is reflected in many aspects of its modern culture. At levels A2-B1, look at literature for older children: primary and secondary school compulsory reading.
Our tip for learning Korean is to read aloud. Of course, first make sure that you got the pronunciation rules right, otherwise you’ll just reinforce your mistakes.
News is a good way to improve your reading skills. It is especially useful to those who want to take TOPIK. Through the news, you will learn relevant vocabulary, important events in the country, and immerse yourself in the life of Koreans. The advantage of news is that they are short and follow a uniform pattern. Start with the resource 어린이 동아. This is a special newspaper for children, so all texts are written in a simple language. Yes, the topics there are not the most interesting for an adult, but for practice, it will do. At a higher level, you can read other materials: Naver News, Seoul Newspaper, Daily Economics.
At the Upper-Intermediate level, start reading full-length works. You can pick a book translated into Korean. Alternatively, choose something you've already read in English.
We also advise you to read Korean authors. It's much better than translations. This is how you get to know the literature and culture of the country. Among the modern writers, Lee Moon Yeol, Kim Seung Ok, Kim Yong Soo, and others, are worth checking out.
When choosing material for reading, remember three important things:
Choose a book not only by your interests but also by your ability.
To put it simply, manhwa (만화) are Korean comics. They are convenient because the plot is delivered through pictures more than through text. Therefore, even if 80% of words are unfamiliar, the plot will be clear to you. There are genres for every taste: horror, romance, history, school life, and so on. You can read manhwa in Korean on the Naver website.
A website with books in Korean. There are both paid and free options. Registration is required.
So we finally came to what many people learn Korean for — speaking. What do you need to know about spoken Korean? First, it is easier than the written variant. Korean themselves simplify it. We have already said how they omit the subject and predicate. Secondly, Korea has six regional dialects called saturi — 사투리.
Choose a dialect
Although Korea is a small country, each region has its own accent. And native speakers clearly distinguish between them. The most unusual dialect is that of the inhabitants of Jeju Island. It is so different from mainstream Korean that some researchers have identified it as a separate language related to it.
Hi, how are you?
Seoul Korean is considered the norm in the country. It is what a foreigner should look up to. Therefore, pay attention to what materials you are listening to. Immediately accustom yourself to the norm accepted in the country.
Communicate in Korean
The key part of speaking is practice. Or, since we're learning Korean, 연습. Find a conversation partner with whom you can practice your speaking skills. It is good if they are Korean, but a person who speaks the language at a high level will also do. To chat with a native speaker, use HelloTalk, Slowly, or Tandem. Specifically for finding Korean speakers — Korean Friends and KakaoTalk. The latter is Korea's mega-popular messaging app. There you can simply connect to the general chat and meet people.
Speaking clubs in Korean are also an option. As a rule, they are found at language schools. Remember that you must already have at least A2-level proficiency in Korean to communicate properly.
Speak out loud
You don't need a conversation partner to speak Korean. It may look strange from the outside, but who cares. Especially if it helps improve your language skills. The vocal apparatus must get used to correct articulation. To do this, it needs to be constantly trained. Get in the habit of calling things around in Korean. You can do this as a game. For example, a friend says to you: "I see something metallic on wheels," and you answer — 차, etc. Another option is to simply walk around the house and announce your actions out loud. If you don't want to come up with sentences, open a book or tutorial and read from there.
Who likes to listen to themself in a recording? No one. But when you're learning a language, having a voice recorder is extremely useful. It is difficult to objectively assess your pronunciation during a conversation, so hit recordon your mobile, and then listen to your beautiful voice. This is a good way to test yourself.
In 2020, Korean became the world's second fastest-growing language by popularity. More and more people are eager to study it. This is largely due to the "Korean wave" — Hallyu. However, this is far from the only reason why people want to learn Korean. Proficiency in this language is a useful skill for work, study and travel.
The government of the Republic creates good conditions for foreign students. It provides dorms, financial support, job opportunities, and more. In addition, South Korea offers one of the best study scholarships — the Global Korea Scholarship. It fully covers the costs of accommodation, meals and tuition.
To enter a university, you must prove your Korean proficiency level. This can be done by passing the TOPIK international exam. The standard requirement is Level 3. If you are studying Korean to go to a university, study with a teacher — in courses or individually. It is much better to entrust such an important matter to a professional. You will need to take TOPIK in any case, and it is not easy to prepare for it on your own. Find a person who has already passed it — let them share experience and give you advice.
Korean for work
The good news is that you don't have to be fluent in Korean to find a job in Korea. Being above the basic level is enough. The bad news is that you will only get odd or poorly paid jobs this way, often involving manual labor. Therefore, if you want a managerial position in a Korean company, learn the language, take TOPIK, or even better, enter a local university. After graduating from a Korean university, the chances of finding a good job are greater. First, as a result of your studies, you will have experience of interacting with Koreans. Secondly, it will help you regularly practice the language and become fluent.
If your country is mostly familiar with European corporate culture, keep in mind that Korean companies are not like that. Many foreigners cannot handle work there precisely because of the differences in mentality. For example, in Korea there is such a phenomenon as nunchi — the ability to understand the non-verbal signals of other people. Locals have been learning it since childhood. For example, if your boss calls you, you need to speed up. Or you must lower your eyes when you are being reprimanded.
Koreans are also an extremely hardworking nation. It is a characteristic of their culture that allows them to constantly evolve. But sometimes it also manifests itself negatively. For example, employees of a company are expected to remain in their places until their boss leaves the office (even if the work day is long over). Not exactly comfortable. Therefore, if you want to work in Korea, be prepared to work hard.
Korean for immigration
Life in South Korea attracts many people. It is a developed, technologically advanced country with high quality of education, medicine, and social security. However, moving there for permanent residence is not so easy. If you graduate from a Korean university, you will have more opportunities. Student visa holders are allowed to change their status after graduation and stay in the country to look for work.
Another type of immigration is skilled labor. Then you move there as an "on demand" specialist. To do this, you need to obtain an invitation and permission from a Korean employer.
Migrants in Korea face a number of challenges. Yes, Koreans are known as a polite and welcoming nation. But at the same time, their culture is extremely homogeneous. Migrants make up only 2.3% of the country's population — a very insignificant figure. The main question is your level of language proficiency, your willingness to work and assimilate in a foreign culture. The latter is the biggest obstacle for many.
Korean for travel
Learning Korean for traveling might not seem like the brightest idea, since there are only two countries where you will need it. And one of them is, well, you know — that one. Besides, it is extremely difficult to get a visa to the DPRK. However, though in practice only South Korea is open before you, do not underestimate its diversity. This is a country with beautiful nature and unusual landscapes. Each region has its own charm. Do not forget that there is also Jeju Island, which is significantly different from mainland Korea. Many Koreans see it as a different world.
For traveling in Korea, A2 speaking skills will be enough. For those who like to travel, the option of language courses in the country is perfect. You can choose Seoul or see "other" Korea, such as Busan or Namjeju.
Korean for yourself
You don't need a practical reason to learn Korean. Interest in a language can arise from its sound, the culture of the country, its cuisine, or music. Whatever attracts you to Korean, it’s great. After all, it gives you the motivation to learn another language. This will at the very least help you develop your miscellaneous skills, train your memory and just learn new things.
TOPIK — International Korean exam
To confirm the level of proficiency in Korean, you must pass the international exam TOPIK — Test of Proficiency in Korean. It is divided into two levels: TOPIK I and TOPIK II. Each has sublevels called gyps (급). There are six of them.
To obtain a level, you need to score a certain number of points. If you take TOPIK II for the 5th gyp, but do not do well enough, you will be given a confirmation of the 4th gyp.
TOPIK I consists of reading and listening, while TOPIK II adds writing. There is no speaking part in the test. But even without it, preparing for the exam takes effort and requires the help of a specialist. Find a tutor or sign up for a course. Especially if this is your first TOPIK — in addition to the material, you need to study the very structure of the exam.
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