When Hanae Kim began teaching Korean nine years ago, most of her students had some kind of personal or family connection to the region. But as South Korean pop culture exports have surged in popularity, so too has interest in learning Korean, she says.
“These days, a lot of my students are really interested in K-pop and Korean dramas,” says Kim, the Korean basic language program coordinator at the University of Illinois in Chicago, where she is also an adjunct lecturer. “They want to visit one day, and they want to be able to read signs and order food in restaurants.”
Across the country, interest in learning Korean is growing. U.S. enrollment in Korean language courses at the university level increased 95% between 2006 and 2016, to more than 13,900 students; Korean is the 11th most-studied language in U.S. colleges, according to a 2019 report from the Modern Language Association.
Read on for an overview of the basic components of learning Korean and see how online classes, apps and other resources can aid you in your quest to speak the language.
Thanks to Korean films like the Oscar-winning “Parasite,” Korean pop groups like the boy band BTS and even Korean cosmetics, worldwide interest in Korean pop culture has spiked. This so-called Korean wave, known as “hallyu,” has been a motivator for many aspiring speakers.
Beyond pop culture, South Korea’s economic strength – it is the world’s 11th largest economy – makes Korean a practical language to learn if you’re interested in business, says Yeonhee Yoon, a Korean language and culture professor and the Korean language program coordinator at the University of Notre Dame.
“If people know the Korean language and culture, they can get a job in South Korea at a leading globalized company, such as Samsung, Hyundai or LG,” she says. “They can also get government jobs in the U.S. because Korean is one of the United States’ strategic languages.”
Learning to read Hangul, the Korean alphabet, is a great first step for beginners, Yoon says.
“Hangul is a phonetic alphabet whose letters represent the individual sounds of consonants and vowels,” she says. “The individual consonant and vowel letters of Hangul are combined into syllable blocks to spell Korean words and sentences.”
The Korean alphabet has 24 individual letters – two fewer letters than the English alphabet – and 16 letters made of combinations of individual letters.
Unlike the English alphabet, Hangul letters are combined into syllable blocks, within which letters can be placed both horizontally and vertically. Every block represents one syllable.
For example, South Korea is called Hanguk in Korean. It is spelled 한국. The first syllable, 한 (han), contains three letters, two on top and one underneath. The second syllable, 국 (guk), contains three letters placed vertically.
Before Korea’s King Sejong the Great invented Hangul in 1443, Koreans read and wrote using difficult-to-master Chinese and Chinese-based characters, Yoon says. Hangul was meant to serve as an easier alternative and a way to boost the country’s low literacy rate.
Today, Hangul is a source of great pride among Koreans, who even have a holiday to celebrate the alphabet: Hangul Day, which is Oct. 9.
To practice reading and writing Korean once you learn Hangul, you can take advantage of a number of free resources. Yoon recommends these Korean newspapers for more advanced readers:
North and South Korea have seven geographically based dialects, which are similar enough that speakers from different areas can understand each other, Yoon says.
Richard Yoon, a Korean language educator at the Chicago Korean Education Center, recommends learning Seoul Korean.
“Seoul Korean is what is taught throughout South Korea,” he says. “Seoul is also the cultural, financial and governmental center of South Korea. It’s like New York, D.C. and Hollywood combined.”
More than half of South Korea’s population lives in the Seoul metro area.
Formal vs. Informal Speech
Korean is an honorific language, meaning that speakers use different forms of expression and different speech levels, depending on the person they are talking to and the person they are talking about. Because of this, when speaking Korean, you must understand your social relationship with the person you’re speaking with as well as anyone you’re talking about in terms of age, social status and kinship.
In total, Korean has seven speech levels, but nonnative speakers do not need to learn them all, especially when first learning the language, Kim says.
Kim teaches an informal level that can be used with colleagues, at stores and at restaurants and an honorific level that someone would use when speaking with a customer or teacher. “But it is still hard to learn two levels of formality for speaking,” she says.
Practicing Speaking Korean
Finding a native language partner is the best way to practice speaking Korean, says Richard Yoon.
“My goal is to have all my students find a language partner,” he says. “When you have a language partner, you have an incentive to improve. You can help them with English, and they can help you with Korean.”
Beginner, intermediate and advanced learners can try trading with their partner: one hour of Korean followed by one hour of English, he says.
To find a language partner, Richard Yoon suggests Korean language learners look for a local Meetup group to join. They can also create a profile on the free HelloTalk app, which works like a dating app that helps people find language partners.
“The grammar is very different,” Kim says. “And the sentence structure is very different as well. In Korean, the verb is always at the end of the sentence. It’s very difficult for people to remember that.”
She adds that her students often struggle with Korean noun particles – an extra part of speech to remember and include in sentences.
While Korean is a challenging language, Yeonhee Yoon says it’s not too hard to learn if students are motivated, have good teachers and find fun ways to practice, such as by making Korean friends and listening to K-pop.
Becoming proficient in Korean takes an average of 2,200 class hours, or 88 weeks of studying several hours per day, according to the FSI. To compare, the FSI says you can learn Spanish or Italian in a fraction of the time.
While different people will learn at different paces, Yeonhee Yoon provided general timelines for learning Korean at four levels:
- Beginner: At least two semesters (32 weeks or 180 hours of classroom instruction). This is typically enough time to pick up the basic phrases you need to communicate in Korean while traveling, such as ordering food at restaurants and reading signs.
- Intermediate: At least six to eight semesters (96 to 128 weeks or 540 to 720 hours of classroom instruction).
- Advanced: At least eight to 12 semesters (128 to 192 weeks or 720 to 1080 hours of classroom instruction).
- Fluent: More than 12 semesters.
Those who are highly motivated, participate in an immersion program or study in South Korea will likely learn more quickly than those who don’t devote as much time to studying.
If you’re looking to learn Korean fast, Kim recommends in-person classes. Having a teacher to answer questions and a peer group to support you are enormously helpful, she says.
Interactive online classes may be a good alternative if COVID-19 social distancing makes in-person learning impossible. And if classes aren’t available where you live, Kim recommends finding a language partner who can check your pronunciation and answer questions.
Studying a language in a country where it’s the official language can be one way to learn it more quickly. There are several Korean immersion programs in South Korea, such as Yonsei University’s Korean Language Institute and Korea University’s Korean Language Center, but Kim recommends studying the language at least a little bit in the U.S. before beginning them. She says some of her students who did them without studying Korean beforehand found the immersive teaching environment difficult to follow.
Watching Korean dramas can help, too. “I had one student who took four Korean classes at my university,” Kim says. “I was amazed by how good she was. I asked her how she got so good, and she said she watched a lot of Korean dramas.”
Some of the most popular dramas are “Mr. Sunshine,” “Goblin” (also known as “Guardian: The Lonely and Great God”), “Crash Landing on You” and “Kingdom.”
Yeonhee Yoon says students trying to learn Korean quickly should not be afraid to make mistakes and try to use new words and new grammar points every day.
Many Korean language resources are available online, from formal courses to apps to instructional videos.
If you’re looking to supplement an in-person or interactive course, a Korean language app could be a good fit.
- The King Sejong Institute’s mobile app. Created and operated by the Korean government, it has tons of free materials for learning Korean.
- Duolingo. This app offers short, personalized lessons. Its basic version is free, and it costs $6.99 a month for a premium account, after a free trial.
- Memrise. It offers both free and paid lessons. A subscription to the app costs $89.99 annually.
Another resource is the Arirang TV show “Let’s Speak Korean,” which provides basic Korean reading and speaking lessons. You can stream episodes for free.
If you’re looking for a formal course, here are some free options:
- The King Sejong Institute offers lectures for beginner and intermediate learners.
- The Cyber University of Korea offers a Korean language curriculum.
- Essential Korean courses are available for free through Talk to Me in Korean. Premium lessons and other resources are available via a subscription, which costs $12.99 per month or $93 annually.
- Loecsen offers a course that’s geared toward beginners.