Episode 31
Lesson Recap

How Do I Study Korean?

Key Points &
  • When you're learning Korean, try not to take the process too seriously

  • Find a study buddy

  • Study within a system and set objectives

  • When learning how to say new words, look to audio or video as the primary reference for learning

  • Focus on the usage instead of the literal meaning

  • Don't procrastinate learning grammar

  • 해 줘요

  • 해 주세요

  • 해 드려요

  • 습니다

  • 안녕하세요

  • 잘 먹겠습니다



Episode 31

Hello, this is Kay from Essential Korean. 안녕하세요. EK Kay샘입니다.

In today’s episode, I want to talk about the single most asked question I've gotten over the past year, which is "How do I study Korean?" I think this is an excellent question to consider for beginners and advanced learners alike, as newer learners should consider ways to effectively and consistently study Korean, and more experienced students should look for ways to improve their existing routine.

Though everyone will have a slightly different ideal answer to this question, I think a few general rules apply to everyone. I'll also be considering that, because you're listening to this podcast, there's a good chance that you use multiple resources to learn Korean, which is a smart approach since different resources have different strengths. If you don't currently have a system, we'll be discussing how you can use resources like Essential Korean's courses and, of course, this podcast to establish a routine. These tips are bits I've picked up / that fall under a comprehensive and overarching view I've come to hold / after over 20 years of experience as a Korean teacher, so rest assured that they are tried, tested, and true. With that, let's get ready to start this episode!

Before any tips related to studying, the first piece of advice I want to give is a shift in mindset when learning Korean. When learners first begin to learn Korean, one of the biggest challenges for beginners is wrapping their head around the differences of Korean from their native language. Naturally, they try to connect and fit all the words and expressions they come across in Korean with ones from their native language. I say that this works up to a certain point, until you find a word connected with the idea that's only present in Korean. Take 해 줘요, 해 주세요, and 해 드려요, as examples: if you directly translated all three into English, you get "Please do (something)," with the (something) being implicit, and all three having a long explanation on speech levels. By the way, if you need some review on speech levels, head over to Episode 16!

So, instead of trying to translate every word into your native language, treat Korean like an entirely new way of expressing your thoughts and don’t get frustrated when it doesn’t coincide with how things work in your own language. Instead, embrace the difference  as a fresh and new way of thinking and looking at the world.

You are learning a culture in which the target language exists and functions. Be observant of the cultural implications reflected in the language, and again, enjoy and embrace learning the new. Your goal should be gaining not only linguistic proficiency but also cultural proficiency as well. You don't have to know the language to gain cultural knowledge of one country, but you cannot be competent in a language without having cultural insights.

Returning to that example of 해 줘요, 해 주세요, and 해 드려요. Getting when to use each and being comfortable with the usage requires understanding the hierarchy perceived by the culture and individuals AND the socially appropriate language, on top of repeated observation of what situations and contexts natives use different phrases for fundamentally the same message.

What this tip boils down to, then, is making an effort to learn and understand Korean's cultural nuances while learning the language, and not trying to connect all aspects of Korean with your native language. This is my philosophy for teaching as well, and why all the content on this podcast is coupled with situational examples, where you can pick up situational and cultural cues absent in a basic textbook.

Ok, we have our mindset down: learning cultural aspects and not trying to translate everything, losing nuance in the process. Now, what about day-to-day studying?

My first tip for day-to-day studying is enjoy it!

Whether you're learning Korean for work, personal affairs, or love for K-pop or K-dramas, try not to take the process too seriously, and have fun with it! I include this as the first tip to set the tone for how to treat the learning process, as it's all too easy to get caught up in viewing learning as a chore rather than an opportunity to be excited about.

Recently, someone asked me if I have any tips for overcoming fear and nervousness when speaking Korean. Many of you are probably saying right now, 'I have the same issue….' It's not just you and not just with Korean, but most people struggle with the same issue when learning a new language, and it's more so when you're learning a language like Korean that’s so distant from English.

I had a similar experience when I was living in Japan with very limited exposure to Japanese. Before saying anything, I would get very nervous with the anticipation that they wouldn't understand what I tried to say, and I dreaded getting blank faces. So, one day, I told myself I'd just assume Japanese native speakers won't understand my Japanese the first time I say anything, and I'd simply be ready to communicate what I wanted to say in several attempts. I told myself: 'I will happily receive a blank or puzzled face from them as an opportunity to engage myself with native speakers.' Making that small adjustment in mindset made a huge difference in my experience living in Japan. It wasn't that my Japanese suddenly got better, but I got better at acknowledging that my Japanese didn’t have to be flawless. With that, I enjoyed interacting with the people, and as a result, I began making noticeable progress :)

This--enjoying the learning process--can take different shapes and forms. Find what YOU enjoy and start from there. No matter what interests and hobbies you have, or what manner you study Korean in, don’t forget the intention of learning though. The end result of being an observant, proactive learner is vastly different from being a passive learner in the long run.

Take K-dramas. Many of us enjoy their novel plots or delicate rendition of human emotions. If you also have the goal of learning Korean, you can both enjoy them and use them as an instructional resource! For example, watch a drama with subtitles first, and then try rewatching it without subtitles. You should already have an idea of what they're saying, so forcing yourself to watch without subtitles means you can entirely focus on what the characters are saying and how they're saying it in Korean/ as opposed to dividing your attention on reading the English. Or for 10 minutes or so, you can focus your attention solely on the sentence ending and see what you hear: Ask yourself, ‘Are they using the -요 ending? -다 ending? or 습니다?’ And observe what different contexts the speakers choose to adopt each verbal ending.

Ok. Here’s the second tip: find a study buddy. It could be someone you know, someone you don't know, or a local group you can meet up weekly to discuss K-culture: having another person to study with creates accountability, which is perhaps the single most important part to a consistent study schedule. I'll say it again: find accountability through others, so that the burden of maintaining a consistent study routine is not only on your shoulders. And, if you find the right person, the learning is all the more fun. Though having a native teacher is the best for identifying weaknesses, having someone else to talk with is a huge bonus for conversations.

The hardest part about this tip, though, is finding a good study buddy that's on your level and is working on the same content as you. If you don't know where to start, especially with finding someone at the same level as you, consider looking through the forums on our website, where you'll be able to meet others at your level and go through our conversations, lessons, drills, and practices with them. In fact, our courses, especially the conversations and practices and worksheets, are designed and created for collaborative learning experiences such as studying with a study buddy. Don't be afraid to say hello: everyone is working on learning Korean together, and just thinking that if you want to connect with others to study or share your interest, the chances are that others want to do so as well.

That gets us to our third tip, which is working within a system. What do I mean by this? Often, we hear "review flashcards every day!" or "make sure to complete two grammar lessons every week!" While those tips aren't bad, they often miss the point, which is the fact that "every day" is not the best identifier of when to complete a task. Instead, associate your Korean study with actions or events, making it harder to procrastinate or not study at all. Ask yourself, do you study best at the start of your lunch break? Turn on the podcast during your commute? Saturday mornings at 9am with a study buddy, so you are forced to wake up because of the weight of responsibility? -- Think about your schedule and when is the best time you can pick up to study regularly.

Then you can set long and short-term objectives, which is often easiest to do if you have a way of measuring your progress. Whether it's by new words or expressions to memorize, grammar lessons to learn, or courses to complete, create a system that allows you to see your improvement by the numbers as external motivation!

My fourth tip, especially for beginners: if you want to sound more natural when speaking Korean, don't trust the 한글. How would you say Thursday in Korean, out loud? If you only looked at the 한글, you would be tempted to say [ 목-요-일 ], when in fact, natives pronounce it [ 모-교-일 ]. When learning how to say new words, look to audio or video as the primary reference for learning and treat 한글 as the spelling system of the Korean language.

Next, the fifth point: When learning new phrases, focus on the usage instead of the literal meaning.

  • You've probably had this tip internalized since day 1 of learning Korean: let's consider 안녕하세요 and 잘 먹겠습니다. 안녕하세요 means literally, "are you well," but is used as the standard greeting to say hello. 잘 먹겠습니다 means literally "I will eat well," but this is a ritual expression to say before one starts eating, showing appreciation for the meal and/or the one who prepared the food.

There may be some teachers who may differ on the next point, the sixth one, but as much as I am all for a communicative approach for learning and teaching a language, I also advocate the importance of learning grammar for those who can understand grammatical terms. So, in short, don't procrastinate on learning grammar.

You're already halfway there by listening to this podcast since most of our episodes discuss grammar points, sometimes explicitly and sometimes more subtly. Still, I find that some students will opt just to study vocabulary and phrases, which isn't bad if you need to know Korean at a basic level, but limits your ability to make your own sentences, and I'd say, you miss out on the joy of the creative process, which is creating the language of your own. I explain to students that grammar is the basket in which all other parts of the Korean language are placed to communicate, so if you ever find yourself hesitating, throw yourself into grammar for your benefit long term.

Let's review the tips so far:

Tip 0: Shift your mindset when learning Korean.

Tip 1: Enjoy the process.

Tip 2: Find a study buddy.

Tip 3: Work within a system

Tip 4: Only use 한글 as a reference and use multimedia resources for imitating native speakers and for improving pronunciation,

Tip 5: Focus on the usage rather than the translation of Korean phrases and words,

And Tip 6: Don't procrastinate learning grammar.

A lot of this can be daunting to implement immediately, especially tips 2 and 3 with study buddies and working within a system: it's difficult and often unsustainable to try and do everything at once. I call it the New Year's Resolution Phenomenon, where we make grand goals and then give up after a few weeks or months; I know it very well because I'm also guilty of that!

But, with this episode, I'm trying to make it as easy as possible to implement the especially difficult tips, where the initial boost is the hardest part, and the payoff afterward lasts for months and years.

At essentialkorean.com, there are courses to get you started, plus more being released one at a time; and our community dedicated to learning Korean is growing. We’ll have a forum where you can directly ask me any questions about Korean, and I'll try my best to provide clear and accurate answers. I hope to see you all there!

Ok, with that note, I'll end today's episode here. I will be back with a new lesson. Until then, have fun studying Korean and stay healthy everyone!