Things Every New Korean Language Learner Should Be Aware Of

Learning Korean

If you’re just starting out with Korean or planning to move to Korea then this post today will help you.

I’m going to share a handful of fundamentals and things I’ve observed here that I believe everyone should be aware of when tackling the Korean language (some of it’s more cultural rather than language related).

I’ve been here in Gyeongsangbuk-do, South Korea learning the language now for an average of 4-6 hours a day, almost every day for the last 5 months (determined to be very fluent by the end of my 12 month teaching contract).

As I’ve said often before, my approach consists of roughly 15-30 minutes a day of actual study, focusing primarily on repeating natural dialogues and the rest of my time speaking with native speakers as much as possible.

Even though I’ve been heavily devoted to learning Korean, I write this as a new, fairly inexperienced Korean learner – by no means an expert.

If you’re experienced with the Korean language and culture feel free to add your own input in the comment section below. :)


The best Korean language series that I’ve seen anywhere

Here’s something you’re gonna appreciate! :)

The absolute best book series I’ve seen so far anywhere for natural Korean dialogue is one that was put together by Monash University (it’s Australian so it has to be good right?) called My Korean 1 and 2.

And the best part is it doesn’t cost a cent!

It’s freely downloadable right on the Monash website (click here) along with all the audio.

The reason why I say it’s the best I’ve seen is that it focuses on teaching you very colloquial speech (반말).

Here’s what the authors say about it:

“…we have broken away from the conventional method of using mainly polite styles of speech throughout the entire book, because this method tends to create highly unauthentic situations.

For example, this method created a very unlikely situation where two close friends used the polite style of speech to each other. Therefore, we have used different styles of speech which are appropriate to each situation, resulting in the use of close friend style of speech in most cases.

This style of speech is also more appropriate for our students because they can immediately use it when they talk to one another or when they talk to their Korean friends.”

The way people talk in the audio is extremely realistic and quite slang-sounding. It’s the way you hear friends talk to each other everyday here in Korea.

I wish there were more products made available for other languages that focus on this same style of conversation.

Now you can thank me. :)


Honorific forms and respect

Koreans take age, position and gender more seriously than I originally thought.

I mentioned a little while back that I had an incident where I tried to ask a middle-aged woman here for her name (just trying to introduce myself) and she wasn’t too happy about it.

Since then, I’ve learned a lot more about why this happened.

Even though at first glance Korea is very heavily influenced by Western ideas, there are so many layers of complexity in the way that Korean people interact with one another based on numerous social factors and this is reflected thoroughly in their language.

For me as an Australian this has been a huge learning curve.

In a country as egalitarian as my own, I could hypothetically meet a millionaire CEO for the first time who is twice my age and we’d still call each other ‘mate’, introduce ourselves by name and sit down for a few beers to chat about our personal lives. There’d be nothing unusual about it.

For most Koreans this would be absolutely inconceivable.

I’ve observed even in my own workplace here a real, deliberate distance kept between the 원장님 (director/boss) of the school and the employees. I have a great boss who is lovely but because of the difference in status there’s an almost tangible feeling of reverence and separation between her and the staff.

Foreign teachers don’t always understand this and will often talk to their directors as equals which I personally believe contributes to many workplace problems and terminated contracts here in Korea.

As far as the language is concerned, most Korean course material will focus on using the polite -요 ending which is simple enough to get your head around.

The tricky part however is understanding the way Koreans use honorific infixes when talking ‘about’ someone of a higher status. You could be using casual speech when talking to your friend but if you start talking about your mother for example, the base of the verb changes as a way of showing her respect even though she isn’t physically there.

There’s even honorific vocabulary where completely different words will be used to show higher respect.

I’m only just now starting to implement some of this in my own conversations but it helps to be aware of how important it is as you’ll hear it a lot.

I still innocently use casual speech (반말) every day even when I’m talking to old people and they’re usually just happy to see me making an effort so don’t stress too much about it.

As a general tip, remember that you’re a foreigner and people don’t expect you to know it all.

Be aware of honorific forms so that when you hear them you’re not as confused but my advice is to worry about them after you’re comfortably using the language.



As a follow-on from that point, get into the habit of referring to people by titles rather than names and avoid personal pronouns.

This relates not only to your workplace but in just about every setting.

I mentioned the title of director above (원장님), and you’d refer to your teaching colleagues as 선생님 or (which I think is a Gyeongsangbuk-do dialect shortening).

In fact, you can refer to people generally as 선생님 as one way of showing them respect (even the fellas at my gym who speak quite casually with each other address each other with this title).

I’ve seen a few instances here in Korea where foreign teachers innocently address their boss using their first name in Korean and the reaction they get for it. I don’t recommend you do this!

Even though they may be used to foreigner ignorance it’s best not to risk souring your professional relationship over it.

Use their English names or address them as 원장님.

There are plenty of other titles for other positions (as well as age-related titles that every course book explains) but these two are the most relevant for ESL teachers.


Understand adjectives as verbs

A quick word on adjectives in Korean.

Adjectives (e.g. describing words like big, pretty, yellow, crazy) are not really the same as we understand them in English.

With Korean you need to think of an adjective as an ‘active state of being’ – a verb.

For example:

The sky isn’t blue. It’s being blue.

The girl isn’t pretty. She’s being pretty.

The coffee isn’t hot. It’s being hot.

And so on.

If you keep this in mind, sentences will make a lot more sense from the outset.


The way girls and boys talk in Korea

Some people might not like what I’m about to say.

In every society there are significant gender-specific differences in the way people speak.

It may be a contentious issue for some people but the fact remains, girls and guys do tend to speak differently pretty much everywhere – even in English-speaking countries.

Some people would argue that it comes down to societal expectations (e.g. a man who uses feminine expressions or a woman who uses too much profanity are perceived negatively in many places).

Where I come from in Australia for example, to hear a woman use vulgar profanity like the word ‘c**t’ or speaking with a strong, broad accent is generally not well perceived at all, whereas this kind of language is pretty much part of the everyday vernacular of working class blokes (still a bad word though).

In the same way, certain terms are more likely to be avoided by men (especially where I’m from).

Whatever your opinion on the matter, the fact is it’s a feature of every language and culture.

It exists whether you like it or not.

For this reason, when learning a foreign language it’s something you should take into consideration when trying to learn how native speakers communicate.

So I started lessons with an excellent new teacher that I found through italki recently and the first comment she made about my Korean was, “You spend a lot of time with Korean girls, don’t you?”

I said, “Yea, my co-workers and most of my friends are female. How’d you know?”

She said it was obvious by my choice of certain words, politeness forms and my intonation that most of my language input had come from women.

I’m told for example that Korean men use the honorific forms more often in conversations and that as a male I should make sure to use them from time to time (I’m sure there’s an explanation for why this is the case).

There are several ways to say “very much” or “really” in Korean as well and according to my Korean teachers, men tend to say 진짜 less than girls and kids (정말 is preferred).

If an experienced learner can share some input on this or more examples it’d be much appreciated. :)

One thing you’ll hear a lot in Korea is this ‘cute’ whine that women often do (cuteness seems to be a generally desirable trait here in Korea for girls especially).

Kerri, who has a popular YouTube channel and speaks fluent Korean does a pretty good impersonation of it here:


Understand a thing or two about agglutinative languages before you start – it’ll save you a lot of confusion

Take a look at this simple example:


“if (you) go” (honorific form)

It’s a common enough conditional statement in English that we’d normally use 3 words for but 가시면 is a single word in Korean: go + honorific infix + conditional suffix (the subject is implied by context and use of the honorific).

Put very simply, a common feature of agglutinative languages is that many expressions are single words that have several affixes – units of meaning (morphemes) that represent what we would use as isolated words in English – prepositions, method, number, conditionals and so on.

The example above is basic but in some agglutinative languages there can be many affixes that create really complex expressions (in some languages a one single word can translate to a long sentence in English).

We do have some similar features in English as well – the ‘s’ in ‘friends’ is a suffix making it plural. We don’t really use infixes in English except when we say made up terms like ‘abso-fucking-lutely’.

Having learned Georgian two years ago I had a bit of a head start but I can see how someone learning Korean as their first foreign language would find it confusing if they didn’t know anything about it.

Starting off with a general awareness of how these languages work will help you make sense of Korean a lot faster.


Definitely a rewarding language to learn

The more time I spend with Koreans while learning this language, the more I’m falling in love with the place and not wanting to move on to my next destination.

It’s been such a rewarding experience and I’m glad I’ve put in all the time I have so far. Be encouraged to stick with it!

If you can add to what I’ve said here then please share it in the comment section below. :)


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Effective Strategy For Making Foreign Language Vocab Stick

Learning Korean

G’day all.

I’m so glad that this bloody Winter is almost over!

Even though it’s still only 5 degrees celcius here I actually braved it and wore a t-shirt outside today (being the Queenslander that I am I’ve been impatiently waiting for the warm weather to hurry up and get here). :)

The arrival of Spring means two things for me: it marks 5 months that I’ve been living in Korea on a challenge to become fluent in the language and it also means that I’ll be starting to venture out to explore the nooks and crannies of the country soon, sharing my experiences using Korean.

As I said before, my aim is to demonstrate that fluency in a language like Korean is not the difficult Goliath people make it out to be (it’s placed in the most difficult category for English speakers by the FSI alongside Arabic). With a language like this there are obviously major differences that take time to adjust to but like every language it has features that are simple compared to others too.

I’ve also had some success asking around about the possibility of meeting somebody from one of the most isolated nations on Earth – North Korea. If you ask enough people, eventually somebody knows somebody who knows somebody! I’m really looking forward to learning more about the dialect variations and hearing some stories from people who left NK.

My Korean is reaching new heights every week which has been great (hard work pays off!) but I’m realizing that I need to work on acquiring key vocab that’s been holding me back from going further in my conversations.

It’s true that when you’re a beginner everything in your target language is a bit of a road block but as you progress further it’s really the insufficient vocab that causes most communication breakdowns.

Today I thought I’d share some of my personal strategy for effective vocabulary acquisition – a few points that you might benefit from. In the last few weeks my vocabulary has improved a lot by sticking to this approach.

Don’t forget to share your thoughts in the comment section below! :)


Words and sentences are acoustic patterns – not writing

Written words are only representations, symbols or images of an acoustic pattern which has a semantic value (meaning) attached to it.

The familiar sound patterns trigger an interpreter in our brain, making us picture or sense the corresponding object/concept/emotion, etc. When we hear the sound pattern of the word ‘dog’ for example, we don’t need to visualize or recall the written word (D O G) but rather we conjure up a picture or a sense of the animal itself as soon as we hear it.

Writing is only something that we invented to record and transmit symbols corresponding to the sounds which in turn represent meaning.

Sounds a bit technical I know but it’s pretty straightforward!

Think of it in this order:

Interpretation -> acoustic representation (spoken word) -> written representation (written word)

Most people learn vocab in the reverse order.

Although I’m a visual learner and I benefit from seeing the transcripts of what I’m hearing, I believe that the idea of internalizing written vocabulary first is problematic (just as memorizing grammar rules is) because by doing so, you’re attempting to memorize a visual representation of a sound rather than the sound itself.

This is why written tests can be deceptive because they can convince you that you’ve learned a lot more than you actually have.

You may have noticed the difference between recognizing a written word that you’ve studied on paper and trying to catch the same word in a spoken conversation.

Use written texts as an aid to your audio material, not the other way round!

Because our goal should be to internalize acoustic patterns rather than written words, this means:

  • Vocab study should focus on audio material. By all means use transcripts if visual aids help, but remember that the acoustic pattern/sound is what you’re really aiming for. Just because you can recognize a few dozen written words in a stack of flashcards doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve learned those words.
  • Use it immediately and just small amounts at a time. Learn just a few new words at a time and use them relentlessly until the acoustic patterns become familiar. As I’ve said before, I’ll often spend an entire day focused on one or several simple language chunks that contain just a few new words. By the end of the day, that small amount of new content is completely learned – it’s much better than doing an ineffective, half-arsed job trying to learn a lot more. Know your limitations.


Don’t waste too much time studying vocab that can be elicited using basic or body language

There’s so much vocabulary that can be elicited using simple language or gestures.

For example, I may not know the word for ‘baseball’ in Korean (they have a different word for it here) but it’s such an easy thing to elicit using body language. If I ever needed to, I could simply say “I play” + pretend to swing a baseball bat and that will be enough for me to elicit that word from a native speaker.

When I lived in Egypt and I wanted to learn fruit and vegetable names, I went to the market to each stall and asked vendors what the name of the fruit was (I remember one street vendor holding up an orange and telling me its name was Ahmad :)). I could of sat at home playing with flashcards as an alternative but why miss out on fun opportunities to speak?

There are so many verbs, nouns and adjectives where body language is enough to elicit the term from someone. For many things, core vocabulary can be used to describe and elicit the words as well (e.g. “The place we go to eat.” – “Oh, you mean a ‘restaurant’?”).

When doing vocabulary study, try to focus on core, essential words and abstract terms that can’t be described or demonstrated but for everything else, aim to learn most of it through conversation.

I recently started using a little Sony IC Recorder that was given to me as a Christmas gift for recording new words on the fly. I was relying on pen and paper before but now having a slim gadget that records straight to MP3 has meant that I’ve been able to capture the way it’s pronounced by native speakers (good for capturing whole conversations too so they can be played back and analysed later).


Assisted readers/reading and vocab acquisition

I’m a big fan of assisted readers such as LWT and LingQ (I personally use LWT on my laptop).

I often use LWT as a translation practise tool for Arabic, for reading the occasional Irish article on and following along with the Iyagi episodes on Talk To Me In Korean.

It’s tremendously useful.

However, it’s important to again remember that these are written words and unless you have an audio file accompanying the text, it’s not the most effective way to learn spoken words.

My advice for those of you using assisted readers as a way to acquire conversation vocabulary is to make sure you have an audio or video file and shadow it (audibly read along with).

The other downside to reading as a way of acquiring vocab is that you can’t always guarantee the frequency of words. You may encounter a new word only once in a single article so it’s important to put that word to use immediately otherwise you’re less likely to remember it.


Memrise and memory hooks

I’ve always concentrated on using memory hooks to help me initially recall vocab during a conversation.

For example, the word for joke in Korean is nong-dam (농담) and in Aussie English a nong is an ‘idiot’ while dam in Arabic means ‘blood’. So I think of a joke about an idiot who falls over and starts bleeding.

It’s a memory hook I won’t forget.

The online tool Memrise basically works the same way in organizing these ‘hooks’ and turning it into a bit of a game, spacing study sessions by getting you to come back later and ‘water/harvest’ plants in a virtual garden.

It also does a good job reminding you when you should come back and go back over the words you’ve covered, using a mixture of multiple choice and typing exercises (typing as an output activity makes a big difference).

I must reiterate however: small amounts and use what you learn immediately (if you’re not in country, use italki).

It’s easy to get distracted by the game and its competitiveness by spending an addictive hour or more going over lessons on Memrise. Just like flashcards, it can become a distraction that fools you into thinking you’re making lots of progress when in reality you’re procrastinating.

Try to find lessons on Memrise that focus on targeted, relevant vocabulary and use it as a way to prepare yourself immediately prior to conversations.


What’s your strategy?

Ultimately, we all tackle things like vocabulary study differently and some people have better results than others.

I’d like to hear your thoughts!

Do you have a method that’s worked well for you when it comes to studying and remembering vocab? Share it below. :)



This was written by .

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Comments: If you’ve got something you’d like to add to this or some constructive criticism you can do that at the bottom of this page. Just please be respectful. Any abusive or nonsensical comments will be deleted.

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