Can anyone help me learn Korean

After two and a half years in Korea, I have TOPIK level 2 Korean. I took the test a year ago, after 18 months of living in Korea, and since then my Korean hasn’t improved much. I haven’t been studying. It’s probably around TOPIK 1.8 these days, if there were such a thing. I’m going backwards…

TOPIK Level 2 means I can theoretically “discuss familiar topics employing a vocabulary of about 1,500∼2,000 words”, which sounds about right. I can make small talk with taxi drivers and communicate my needs when I need to. When I talk with a student outside of class, it is usually about half in English and half in Korean, both of us code-switching constantly. I can have a conversation in Korean with a Korean – so long as they make allowances for my abilities, put effort into deconstructing my mangled grammar, and stick to easy topics.

This puts me ahead of about ninety percent of the English teachers here, and you know what? I think it is a pretty pitiful achievement on my part. Yes, Korean is a difficult language to learn for native English speakers. But that’s not the reason why my Korean is still ordinary, nor why most other English teachers here are even worse. The real reasons are that I – we – are lazy. And that we can get by without it, in our little English-teacher bubble. If most English teachers had to do normal things themselves – like finding an apartment or understanding a class timetable – we would quickly go to pieces.

When I took the TOPIK exam there was one room for people taking the beginner level: me and some other Western dilettantes. There were ten rooms for people taking the intermediate level, and they were full of South-East Asian factory workers and manual labourers. Those people need to study Korean for their jobs, their citizenship, their lives. We English teachers, however, can exist happily in our sphere of Western privilege, in which every Korean believes that they should be able to speak fluent English, is ashamed that they can’t, and will praise you if you manage to say hello in Korean without tripping over yourself*.

As for laziness – there exists an idea amongst Westerners that language is something you just absorb, with no real effort. Probable everyone who comes to Korea has had relatives who tell them, “You’ll pick the language up in no time once you’re there.” Well, you won’t. If you depend on this method you will be lucky to learn a dozen words in a year in Korea. Trust me – in my first year, after the first couple of months of middling effort, I tried this “method”, and went home after one year never having learned really simple, common words of Korean, like 진짜? (Really?) and 기다려요 (wait a moment). Maybe this absorption method works if you spend time in a country with a Germanic language – you probably don’t have to hear polizei too many times in order to remember it is the German word for police – but it doesn’t work at all for a language like Korean. “Police” in Korean is 경찰 – “gyeongchal”. Good luck absorbing that, or “picking it up in no time”.


Reviewed here are all the methods I’ve tried in my circuitous journey to TOPIK level 2 Korean, and how effective I have found them*. I’m going to start studying again, soon. Really I am. This blog article is preparation.

Teach Yourself Korean, by Mark Vincent and Jay Hoon Jeon

I bought this book before I came to Korea for the first time, and managed to learn the alphabet and the absolute basics of Korean grammar from it.

Unfortunately, having presented the Hangeul alphabet, this book then proceeds to not use it for much of the book. Even worse, they romanize Korean using their own cockeyed version of the outdated McCune-Reischauer system. A knowledge of McCune-Reischauer will come in handy if you are reading about Korean War battles, or if find yourself at an ancient bus terminal and wonder why there are no buses to Daegu, but plenty to some place you’ve never heard of called Taegu, but not for much else.

The method used in the book is the common one of presenting dialogues that introduce new vocabulary and illustrate grammatical principles. The dialogues are good, but I did find that the ramp-up in difficulty was really steep – lesson two, for instance, includes sentences like “No, this isn’t the Korean department. This is the Japanese department.” While it’s not a complex sentence, it’s a fair way beyond simple greetings.

That said, apart from the goofy romanizations, this is a solid book that will give you a good workout in Korean, if you stick with it. I – beginning what would become a long tradition – did not.

CURRENT STATUS: I never got past lesson 2, and left the book behind when I went back to Australia after my first year.

Learning from Korean-Australian friends at orientation

Orientation offered Korean classes, which I attended two of before abandoning them to go drinking with my new friends. Fortunately my new Korean-Australian friends said, “We will teach you!” (They wanted me to come drinking, too.) As a result I still have a notebook full of Korean swear words, insults and pick-up lines, along with meats, numbers, and Korean family relationships.

CURRENT STATUS: Ended with orientation, but definitely educational while it lasted.

Rosetta Stone Korean

Rosetta Stone is the bestselling method for learning a foreign language. You might assume that this is because it is the best method, or at least slightly useful, but it is neither of those things. It is the bestselling method because of its marketing.

Rosetta Stone promotes itself as a fun, immersive way of learning a foreign language “the way a baby learns”, with minimal effort, using something called the “Dynamic Immersion Method”.

I’ve already talked about the problems of immersion as a method for learning another language. Don’t get me wrong – being immersed in another culture while you learn a language, being able to hear and practice it every day, is tremendously helpful. But the idea of passive absorption is a joke – it simply will not happen. Babies are neurologically wired to learn languages at an extraordinary rate, an ability that disappears as you grow up. The idea that an adult can replicate this process with a stupid computer game that requires you to endlessly click on one of four pictures is ridiculous.

And that is what you will do with Rosetta Stone: you listen to a sentence and click on one of four pictures. Again, and again. Often the same pictures, for what seems like decades. There is an element of gamification to it, with scores, levels and progress bars, but that doesn’t stop it being unbearably stupefying.

Even worse, Rosetta Stone believes you can shoehorn any language into the same stages, without any explanation of grammar, just by changing the language of the sentences accompanying the pictures. This might be good for company profits but it is a disaster for learning a language with profound grammatical differences from English. An example: when it comes time to learn the numbers in Korean, both Sino-Korean and native numbers are presented together, without explanation of why they are different, or when to use one and when to use another. I don’t believe anyone could learn how to use the Korean number system from this type of presentation.

Another example of the terrible limitations of this system – for at least nine months I believed “book” in Korean was “책을 읽어요”, which is the polite informal present tense for “read a book”, due to there being no way to distinguish the two concepts based only on a picture. I even proudly used this word to a number of Koreans, causing what I imagine was a lot of polite bafflement.

I did, however, learn the words for man, woman, boy and girl, due to their interminable repetition.

CURRENT STATUS: I persevered long enough to go on a virtual hike with some virtual Korean friends as some sort of achievement badge before abandoning Rosetta Stone. But I do still think of it every time I see 여자아이들 책을일거요. (Yes, that’s a joke, although as it requires familiarity with English, Korean, and Rosetta Stone Korean, I’m not sure many people will get it.)

Language exchange with Koreans

At my new school I formed the first of many language exchange groups, with a couple of Korean teachers.

This went the way most of my subsequent conversation groups have gone, the way they go for most foreigners here: we would meet up, have coffee, talk in English, and sometime towards the end I would write down a couple of Korean words. I had a good time and learned very little Korean.

Why does this happen? Because:

  • Koreans who are learning English are generally better at it than waegukins who are learning Korean,
  • The Koreans want to practice their English,
  • The waegukins find it easier to talk in English, and
  • The waegukins are more interested in socializing than actually learning Korean.

It’s only our own fault. I’m sure they would be happy to teach us Korean, if we could really be bothered.

CURRENT STATUS: I haven’t managed to find a Korean with whom I can have a language exchange since I moved to this tiny Gyeonggi-do city, although I’d certainly be up for it.

Taking an actual Korean class

It wasn’t until I went back to Australia, and subsequently decided to return to Korea for something more than just a year abroad, that I decided to get serious about Korean. This seems to be a common pattern for people I’ve known here who have gone past the absolute beginnings of Korean – spend a year messing around and waiting to absorb the language, become appalled at yourself, and actually start studying it seriously. So, back in Sydney, I took the first of what has since become a number of Korean classes.

Taking a Korean class is not fundamentally different to learning from a book. Some people take in information better when they hear it verbally presented than when they read about it, but I’ve never been one of those people. I like to read. Still, there are definite advantages to taking a class:

  • You have a teacher who can help you with specific points which you might find confusing
  • You have a native speaker (your teacher) with whom you can practice, and a variety of other people at the same level as you with whom you can practice, study, commiserate, and secretly compete against
  • Perhaps most importantly: you have social pressure to actually do your work every week and prepare for the next class.

This is important. It is very easy when you study on your own to procrastinate by telling yourself that you will do it tomorrow, or that you are preparing to start studying again by writing really long blog posts about methods of learning Korean. But a language class is scary – you never know when the teacher will ask you a question in Korean that you can’t answer. With everyone watching. So, you find time to study. More than anything, it is this terror of being called upon that makes language classes valuable.

CURRENT STATUS: The “language classes” available in my current city are wonderful, but deserve their own section. See later.

Learning solo with flashcards

At the same time, I also started learning big chunks of vocabulary with flashcards. If you’re noticing a theme so far, it’s this: “fun, immersive learning with no effort” = bad. “Actually studying and memorizing” = good. It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but learning a new language is primarily a massive act of memorization. You can talk all you like about the communicative method, immersion, and making learning fun, but the single best way to memorize things is to, y’know, actually sit down and memorize them.

Ask a Korean blog, in his terrific post on the best way to learn a foreign language, makes the same point. And if you ever read the forums of people whose hobby is being polyglots, you will find they advocate a similar method: familiarize yourself with basic grammar, and then memorize the two thousand or so most common words in the language. This gives you a very large percentage of actual spoken and written vocabulary in a given language, and once you have that you can start intense reading and conversation with native speakers, and learn quickly. I’m not myself dedicated enough to have gone particularly far with this method, but I don’t doubt its effectiveness.

Speaking of memorization, you would be crazy to start without first familiarising yourself with mnemonic techniques. There are a lot of internet resources on this, and the specific technique is up to you, however the one method of memorization you should probably avoid is the one you are likely most familiar with: looking at a new word and repeating it over and over again in your head. This is a terrific way to forget a word within twenty seconds.

I use two methods:

1. Associating the word with an English word, and create a mental picture linking the concept

Earlier I mentioned the word for “police” in Korean is 경찰 (gyeongchal). This to me sounds similar to “King Charles”. So to learn this word I would think of a King Charles spaniel wearing a policeman’s cap. When I need to remember the word, the picture comes quite easily to mind; after a while, you don’t need the mental image any more. Of course, I still have to remember the slight differences between the two pronunciations, but this is infinitely more easy than trying to remember random syllables (it makes it much closer to trying to remember “polizei” as the word for police.)

2. Similar, but slightly different – break the Korean word into syllables, and create a mental picture of the pieces. Yellow, for instance, is 노랑색 – norangsaek. To learn this I imagined a forlorn person standing beside a yellow phone – “no rang”. (섹, the last part, just means “color”, which I already knew.)

It helps to make the mental image surprising or comical. A number of my mnemonics involve Jewish people doing bizarre or disgusting things, not because I am anti-Semitic, but because 주 is such a common Korean syllable.

As I learn more Korean words, I find it is possible to scaffold them – these days my Korean mnemonics are as likely to be made up of other Korean words as they are of English ones. I learned 계절 (season) simply by remembering that it “sounds a bit like 경찰” and picturing a policeman out on his beat in some seasonal weather.

CURRENT STATUS: to be resumed.

Watching Korean dramas

I also started watching Korean dramas at about the same time. I thought it would be a good way to practice Korean, but I was also  missing Korea, and looking forward to going back.

This is a very passive method of learning Korean, but good for reinforcement, and I have learned some vocabulary from it, like formal titles (선배, etc). I have also learned a lot about the intonation of whining in Korean. (Korean is a great language for whining. “엄마~~!” “선생님~~!” etc. It is all about extending the last syllable until it is as annoying as possible.)

CURRENT STATUS: After losing almost a week of my vacation to watching Boys Over Flowers, only to be enraged by its ending, I vowed to quit watching Korean dramas. However lately I’ve been backsliding with School 2013. The Amazon link is for my favourite Korean drama, the underrated Coffee House. Ham Eun Jung…

Hardcore Korean-style rote-memorisation test prep class

When I came back to Korea I took another Korean class at the Daegu YMCA. It was OK, but I found it very slow and thought I could have done as well by studying on my own. Then a friend, who had been taking the YMCA’s intensive course, decided to take their prep course for the Beginner TOPIK exam. He suggested I should do it too, saying “I will be going for level 2, but I think if you study really hard you could easily get a level 1.” This enraged me, so I signed up too and decided I would get a Level 2 just to spite him.

This involved me skipping an entire level of Korean, but I figured I could catch up as I went. (When it comes to taking a language class, I am a big fan of skipping levels. It makes you work like crazy to catch up.) The class was taught by a wonderful Korean teacher who treated us with great affection and absolutely no mercy. You remember how I said earlier that the best way to learn a language is to quickly memorize the most common 2000 words? On the first day she gave us a list of the 2000 most common Korean words. Without English translations. It was a 13 week course, so our job was to translate and memorize 153 words a week. Which we would be tested on the subsequent week. Oh, and do a bunch of practice tests, too. Language learning Korean style!

You know what we did? We translated them, and memorized them. Not perfectly, and only the easy way – from Korean to English (going from English to Korean is much harder, but not as important for the TOPIK test). My Korean skills improved tremendously in those 13 weeks.

A lot of foreigners here like to criticise the Korean education system. “It’s all rote memorization… robots studying for the test… no creativity or fun.” Meanwhile Korea continually tops international tables of educational achievement. There are problems with the Korean education system, but there’s a lot to be said for it, as well, and I think the foreigners who go on with that stuff really have no idea what they’re talking about.

While I’m talking about the TOPIK exam, here are two books I used while studying for it that I found incredibly useful:

1. Korean Grammar for International Learners

This is just a wonderful reference book. Often understanding Korean grammar points is difficult, even with a Korean teacher – they have a hard time explaining the grammar they themselves use instinctively. As an English teacher, I know how they feel. This book is comprehensive, and even better, it has an index. I don’t know how many times this has saved me.

2. Complete Guide to the TOPIK

This is basically a big book of practice exams. We used another book in class, but most of us ended up buying this one as well. The practice exams did a good job of mimicking the style and type of questions in the TOPIK exam, although I found the grading uneven – some tests seemed much easier than others. Its big strength, however, is the explanations of each question at the end. For each question there is a brief exposition of the key point, and any trick involved – and the TOPIK exam is full of trick questions. These explanations are succinct and clear, and very helpful.

CURRENT STATUS: Every one of us who stuck with that course got a TOPIK level 2. I was mentally exhausted and since then my language pursuits have been mostly frivolous.

Being taught Korean by volunteer high school girls

In my city there is a wonderful program put on by the local migrants’ center. It is free Korean classes, taught by volunteer high school girls. The people who go to it are mostly local Uzbekistanis; of the thirty or so English teachers in this city, only three come, which is not surprising.

It is very disorganized. The high school girls have a volunteer requirement at their schools, and have chosen this; they come erratically according to their test schedules. It rarely starts on time. The high school girls have no qualification for teaching Korean besides speaking the language, and they tend to be pretty bad at it. They are very cute and incredibly awkward around foreigners.

It’s great. There is usually one “teacher” per student. My teacher is a sweet girl called 인영. There are textbooks, and we have been going through one, but it’s as likely to veer off into random Korean conversations about school, tests and cell phones. 인영 is very embarrassed about her English (which is genuinely terrible), so the problem of “language exchanges” and talking in English doesn’t occur. Tricky points of grammar or language send both of us scrambling for our smartphones to look up the answers online.

I’m not sure how much Korean I’ve learned in these sessions, although I think they have improved my fluency. But I really enjoy them. They’re my favourite thing about living in this city.

Perhaps if I studied harder, they would be more effective. Tomorrow I’ll get out my flash cards, study my grammar book, think about starting to prepare for TOPIK level 3. I will run faster, stretch out my arms farther…. And one fine morning —

CURRENT STATUS: Winter hiatus.

Learning authentic slang from phrasebooks

A while back, I told the story of being mildly embarrassed in a Korean hostess bar by not knowing the Korean word for sex. (Actually, the story was about something else, but that anecdote did feature in a minor way). There are a lot of words that aren’t covered in most language courses, and, propriety aside, some of these words are important.

(Parenthetically, as a language teacher I made my peace with this issue a long ago. During my first few months teaching, a daring sixth grade girl decided to tell her friend “Puck you,” in my presence. I had to decide: what is the correct response to this? “That’s a bad word; you shouldn’t say that,” or “Ffff, ffff…”? I decided on the latter and also coached her that the emphasis should be on the second syllable – “Fuck you,” not “Fuck you”. Judge me if you like; I stand by my decision.)

One book that attempts to address this deficiency is Making Out in Korean*, by Peter Constantine and Gene Baik. This book has been around for a long time, and has been updated a couple of times to keep up with Korea’s hyper-accelerated changes in slang and technology. It was first published in 2004, and over the years has occasionally been a target for anti-foreigner Korean groups, such as in this attack (via Gusts of Popular Feeling):

The book, which can be bought at the foreign online bookseller Amazon and of course domestically at large bookstores, explains step by step how to meet, lure into bed and break up with Korean women and writes out in English phrases and Korean pronunciation. It is a book published which openly sees women as sexual objects.

The truth is much more mundane than that. The title aside, it is in reality only a Korean phrase book with some slightly racy chapters. Yes, it will give you Korean phrases for such expressions as “Take your panties off!” and “I don’t like to wear a condom”, and certainly these are the parts that everyone first turns too, and reads to their friends. But the majority of Making Out in Korean is everyday phrases that could only be tangentially helpful to getting laid. “I think this food has gone bad,” for instance, is not a phrase that is particularly likely to fan the flames of ardor.

The phrases and vocabulary are very simple; in fact, they seem to have been made as simple as possible. It contains no complex grammar, and thus it is very easy to wrap your head around the vocabulary and how to use it – including those words that you never learn in a language class. On the other hand, particularly because of the simplicity of its language, the one thing I would suggest it is not very useful for is attempting to make out with a Korean. Korean language and customs are circuitous – you dance around the point, never addressing it directly. At a certain point in studying Korean, it can feel as if every new grammar form you encounter translate literally as something like, “It can possibly be conceived that somebody, somewhere might be inclined to feel a certain way about this thing.” Trying to use these very direct phrases – in informal Korean, no less – to pick up is likely to end in disaster (the introduction does clarify this important point). Besides, memorizing phrases – or worse, reading directly from a phrasebook – just isn’t sexy. That said, if you treat it as a fun way to learn new vocabulary and language, Making Out in Korean is a helpful phrasebook, and it might save you from embarrassing yourself one day by not understanding something important.

(If you actually want to hook up with attractive Koreans, I instead pass on this advice, which was given to me by a friend who seemed to do alright with such things, and who speaks Korean much better than me. His advice for using your nascent Korean language skills to try to score was: don’t. His logic was hard to refute. “Let’s be honest: we don’t actually speak Korean very well! Not enough to be funny and charming and actually impress someone. So if you start off talking in Korean, the conversation is going to go nowhere really quickly. But if you start off speaking English, and then bring out the Korean later, it’s different: she’ll be surprised, you’ll have confounded her expectations about foreigners, and then she has to reconsider you.”

CURRENT STATUS: I did actually have the opportunity to try out some of these phrases with a Korean girl (we had progressed beyond the stage where she was likely to take offense at any of them, and I will stop at nothing to provide my readers with accurate research). The result? She laughed, and covered her ears, and told me to put the book away. I suspect that’s about the best you can hope for.

And finally:

Pimsleur Korean

If you’ve come in via google and read this far, you may be thinking at this point, “Where’s the beef? Learning from Korean-Australian friends at orientation and local high school girls may be wonderful, but how does it help me? I don’t have access to those things. OK, Rosetta Stone may be crap, but can’t you just recommend a good Korean course?”

Well – I think I’ve made it clear that the best method I know for learning Korean is to study with a grammar book and a bunch of flash cards. But I’ve also made it clear that as much as anyone I understand how difficult it can be to motivate yourself.

So, if you’re looking for a Korean learning course that will produce good results, I’d suggest this: the Pimsleur method.

Yes, Pimsleur – that old system from the seventies invented by Dr Pimsleur, with its audio tapes (now MP3s) and “Graduated Interval Recall” and “Principle of Anticipation”. Pimsleur, with his novel twist on the audio-lingual method. The Pimsleur method isn’t fun, and doesn’t come with a bunch of cute software, but I hope I’ve convinced you by now that “fun” and “easy” don’t go well with learning a foreign language. Pimsleur does work. It might not work in 30 days, like they claim, and of course there is also the seemingly necessary marketing hyperbole about “learning the way a baby learns” (which actually has nothing to do with the Pimsleur method at all). As both a student and a teacher of foreign languages, I know this method works, because it’s not so different from what I do in class every day to try to get my students to remember something of English.

It works for the following reasons:

  • New words and phrases are introduced, then repeated at gradually increasing intervals. This takes advantage of the way the brain lays down new memories and transfers information from short-term memory to long-term memory.
  • Do you remember how I said the best thing about a Korean class is how the teacher will put you on the spot, throwing a question at you? The Pimsleur approach does the same thing. It regularly asks you questions that demand a response. So instead of just passively listening and learning, you suddenly have to sit up and think.

For those people who find it difficult to study on their own, and want the flexibility of a course that lets you learn at your own pace, I think Pimsleur is the best way to go. I don’t use it myself, because I get enough repetition, and questions in Korean that put me on the spot, in my daily life, but for someone who doesn’t have access to that, I would recommend it:

Pimsleur Korean

The Pimsleur courses aren’t cheap, however. If they’re too expensive for you, then a pack of blank study cards will cost you a couple of bucks at your local stationary store.

My god – 5,000 words of this. I’m going to go study Korean now. Really I am…

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