Though I’m including an introduction to Korean as part of my K-pop Starter Kit, I don’t believe knowing or speaking it is necessary in order to be a K-pop fan. I’m nowhere near fluent, and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying myself for over five years now. That being said, the reason I made it a monthly topic is because I think people who spend a lot of time listening to K-pop could easily become interested in studying Korean. So, these posts are intended to serve as a starting point for those who want to learn. Since I’m going to be covering some basics of the Korean language, I thought I’d start by sharing some information and advice from my own experiences that I think could be helpful for beginners.
My journey in learning Korean has been a bit all over the place. Actually, I didn’t really start in earnest until about three years after I became a K-pop fan. Before that, I mostly just picked up a lot of random words and expressions from listening to songs and watching variety shows. When I got a job in South Korea as an English teacher, I started officially studying with a tutor. I got up to somewhere between high beginner and low intermediate before I left, but I had a few setbacks once I arrived – mainly due to a lack of opportunities to practice speaking and a hectic schedule that doesn’t allow for consistent self-study. (I’m technically not supposed to speak much Korean at work because it confuses the students.) So, my main method of learning since I’ve been here has mostly reverted back to active listening.
Because of this, my exact level in Korean is hard to pin down. In terms of listening, I’m at least intermediate or maybe even high intermediate. I can pretty much understand anything within a school or classroom context, and I can get the general idea of most discussions or short videos. Reading could go either way – I usually need Google Translate or Papago, but I can usually figure it out. However, my speaking level is almost exactly the same as when I started since I can only really practice at places like stores and restaurants (which I haven’t been frequenting because of the pandemic). I’m fine with basic interactions, but I can’t hold a conversation outside of certain topics. So my listening and reading comprehension are pretty good, but my ability to speak is significantly lower… and that’s a really frustrating place to be.
I’m sure many people say this, but I’d definitely go about learning Korean differently if I could go back in time. So for the beginners just starting out, I have some advice I’d like to share. Half of it comes from my time as both a Korean learner and an English teacher to Korean children, but the other half is more general and could be used for learning any language. It is a little personalized to my own experiences, so I don’t know if everything will apply to you or not – but I hope at least some of it will be helpful!
Focus on Hangul, not Romanization.
Hangul is the Korean alphabet, and it’s absolutely essential to know if you eventually want to be fluent. It’s a phonetic writing system, so the advantage of learning it means you’ll be able to read and pronounce many Korean words even if you don’t necessarily know what they mean. (Excluding Hanja which is based on Chinese characters, but that’s advanced stuff I’m not getting into.) Meanwhile, Romanization is a way of converting Hangul into Latin Script for those of us who are more used to that alphabet. For example, “Seoul” would be the Romanized spelling of “서울.” This isn’t unique to Korean, by the way – there are other languages with unique writing systems like Chinese and Japanese that can be Romanized as well.
There are many Korean learners and teachers who will recommend avoiding Romanization altogether, especially teachers who are native speakers. This is because Romanization is not 100% accurate at transcribing Hangul in a way that makes sense to English speakers (or speakers of other languages that use Latin Script). If you watch those fanmade lyric videos of K-pop songs on YouTube – the ones that show Hangul, Romanization, and an English translation – you’ll probably notice that the Romanized spellings you see don’t necessarily correspond with the words you hear. Romanization can be correct for certain sounds, but sometimes I feel it’s more like it’s showing you the closest match rather than an exact one.
More importantly, most Koreans I’ve met don’t know the specifics of Romanization since they don’t really need to. Though there is an official system with rules and guidelines (called Revised Romanization), my Korean coworkers and students often use whatever spelling they think sounds best or looks nicest. As a result, a lot of Hangul letters actually have more than one common Romanization. For example, there’s a member of NCT and a member of TREASURE who share the name “정우” – but one spells it “Jungwoo” and the other spells it “Jeongwoo.” And actually, the word “Hangul” itself should technically be Romanized as “Hangeul” – which is closer to its true pronunciation – but most people write it the first way because that’s how it was originally Romanized. So if you rely on this system too much while studying Korean, you could just end up getting more confused.
Personally, I agree that Romanization isn’t the best way to learn Korean… but I DO think it can be useful in certain cases. I spent three years in the K-pop world before I started studying Korean, and I became really familiar with many idols’ Romanized names. So when I was first learning Hangul, matching the letters to those names helped me better connect the dots. (Which, incidentally, is what I’ll be doing in upcoming posts.) And since I’m writing a blog and not making videos, I obviously have to Romanize most names and words so everything reads smoothly. I think that as long you’re well aware of the limitations Romanization has, it’s possible to use it to supplement your learning. But if you’re a total beginner and you’re starting from scratch, I’d suggest focusing more on getting Hangul down and using as little Romanization as possible. It might be more frustrating in the beginning, but I guarantee it will make things easier in the long run.
Don’t worry *too* much about getting the exact pronunciation at first.
As a native English speaker, I think a great aspect of Korean is that it has very consistent rules on how to pronounce things. English can be a super random language where spelling and pronunciation have no rhyme or reason, but Korean doesn’t really have this problem. There are always some exceptions, but most words will be pronounced exactly the way the Hangul letters indicate. So once you get a basic idea of those rules, you rarely have to think about them again. However, the difficult part about learning Korean as a native English speaker is that many consonants and some vowels are pronounced in a way that either doesn’t exist in our language or is pretty rare. Several Korean consonants actually sound somewhere in between two different English consonants – like g/k, d/t, b/p, and l/r.
What’s more, sometimes it sounds like every Korean person you listen to pronounces words slightly differently. It can be a regional dialect thing (known as “satoori”), but I think it also has to do with how people personally choose to stress or emphasize certain letters. For example, the Korean version of the letter “h” is much softer than the English one – there are many times when it’s technically there, but you don’t actually hear or say it. So when it comes to some idols like Sehun or Donghae, I’ve heard Koreans pronounce their names three different ways: one where you definitely hear the “h,” one where you sort of hear it, and one where you don’t hear it at all. So I sometimes get stressed out because I still don’t know which is the “correct” pronunciation I should be focusing on.
When you’re just starting to learn Korean, you might find all of these different sounds overwhelming and difficult to correctly produce. And if you’re like me, you might have trouble figuring out the “official” pronunciation of some words and names. Truthfully, it will probably take some time to start sounding like a native speaker – I still usually don’t. But while you should always try to be as accurate as possible, you really don’t have to worry about getting everything *exactly* right. In my experience, Korean people still have understood me perfectly fine even if I couldn’t quite pronounce words the way they would. (Actually, they usually understood me better if I didn’t try to sound like a Korean and just rolled with my noticeable American accent.) You’ll be able to nail those pronunciations with plenty of time and practice, so don’t stress too much about it in the beginning!
Practice speaking as much as you can and don’t be shy!!!
I can say from experience that if you don’t practice speaking a foreign language, your skills will plateau at some point. No matter how much grammar you study or how many vocabulary words you accumulate, you risk losing that knowledge if you don’t use them regularly. But of course, it’s difficult for some of us to be confident in speaking a language we’re still learning (myself included). Messing up often comes with high embarrassment potential, and I have tons of stories of awkward moments that made me feel discouraged and hesitant to speak Korean to others. So really, I get that it’s not easy because I have trouble following my own advice. But even though making mistakes sucks, it’s really important for improving our skills. We can’t be perfect all the time, and we can’t grow or get better if we’re shy and let our timidity take over.
One of the most important things I’ve discovered both as a language learner and an EFL teacher that it doesn’t matter if you have a noticeable accent or if you don’t get the grammar exactly right – what’s important is if a native speaker can understand what you’re trying to say. So if you can, try to create a “safety net” situation for yourself where you can feel free to practice without stressing over mistakes. In my time here, I’ve found that a number of Koreans – especially younger ones who have studied English at some length – are quite sympathetic to people learning their language because they know it’s hard. So find another Korean speaker whom you feel comfortable with: a friend, an online conversation partner, a teacher/tutor, etc. Make your own judgment-free environment and just let loose!
You might want to take a break from learning other Asian languages.
This is more specific advice that comes from my own circumstances, so it might not apply to you – but I’ll still share it just in case there are others in similar situations. Once upon a time, I had the same comprehension level in Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. Not through formal studying (except for Mandarin way back in high school), but mostly by absorbing words and expressions from listening to music and watching TV shows. These three languages are obviously different in many ways, but they have enough in common that I wouldn’t recommend studying them simultaneously.
If you’re already advanced or fluent in one of those languages, then this probably won’t be as big of a problem. (Actually, it might help you in some ways.) But for me, the issue was that I was essentially the same level for all three of them and that level was “beginner.” So even though I was aware all these languages are different, I’d still constantly get confused and mix all the words and rules together. It’s hard to explain exactly how it tripped me up, but it mostly boils down to concentration issues and having trouble knowing what to focus on. For example, there was a popular survival show called Produce 48 a few years ago that had both Korean and Japanese contestants – I had a lot of trouble watching it because my brain couldn’t switch between the two languages as fast as the editing did.
Another factor in this kind of situation is how much of an active listener you are and how good you are at controlling it. Whenever I watch something in a different language – even one I’ve never heard before and don’t understand at all – I’m always subconsciously trying to absorb as much as possible and figure out which words mean what. Even if I’m just watching for fun and not trying to learn, I just can’t turn off that part of my brain. It’s kind of an all or nothing deal. Because of this, I eventually had to take a complete break from listening to or watching things in Mandarin and Japanese. And to tell the truth, I’ve only really been able to start up again recently. So if you’re like me, it might be better to focus on Korean until you’re a little more advanced.
K-pop and K-dramas are helpful, but be careful using what you learn.
Like I’ve said before, watching and listening to things in another language is a fast and easy way to learn it. BTS’s RM is excellent at English, and he’s told stories about how he became fluent by watching Friends. Consuming media in a foreign language shouldn’t be the only learning method you use – otherwise you’ll never make progress in speaking like me – but it’s definitely great for improving your overall comprehension. And if you want to study Korean, it seems natural to turn to things like K-pop, K-drama, and variety shows for practicing your listening skills. But while you can learn a lot of words and expressions from those three, it’s important to make sure you really know or understand what context to use them in.
One of the most essential things to know about Korean is that there are specific ways to talk to people depending on the formality of the situation – something that doesn’t really exist in English. I’ll cover politeness levels in more detail later on, but here’s a brief breakdown of the three main ones. The most formal speech conjugates verbs using “ㅂ니다 (-mnida).” One example you might know is “감사합니다 (gamsahamnida),” or “Thank you.” Polite speech – the one you’ll probably use most often – uses “요 (yo).” When you greet someone in Korean and say “안녕하세요 (annyeonghaseyo),” you’re using polite speech. Finally, informal speech drops verb endings all together. So to say “hello” in a casual way like with a friend, you would just say “안녕 (annyeong).”
While people occasionally use more formal language in K-dramas and variety shows, you’ll most likely hear a mix of polite and informal speech. Variety shows in particular will stay on that polite middle level so the hosts and guests can feel comfortable talking and playing games together. A lot of K-pop groups often have their own variety shows, and you’ll probably hear them speaking informally since they’re all close and know each other well. So if you learn words from these shows, particularly verbs, make a mental note of how the person said it and whether it was in a casual or more polite context. Chances are some of the words you’ll pick up probably aren’t the best choices to use when speaking to Korean coworkers or strangers. Though Koreans are usually pretty understanding and don’t expect you to know everything about politeness levels, doing this will save you from some potential “foot in mouth” moments. And yes, this is coming from personal experience.
If you’re just beginning to learn Korean, I hope that you find some of my advice useful! At the very least, I hope some of my stories and examples can provide some perspective. Feel free to share your experiences or ask any questions here, and I’ll answer them as best I can. And if you’re not a beginner but are reading this post anyway, feel free to share anything else you wish you’d known when you were first starting out! Best of luck to everyone with their Korean studies!
NOTE: The featured image is a custom design I requested from my friend specifically for this blog and this column. Please do not alter it, repost it, or re-upload it without my permission. If you want to see the artist’s work, you can go to to her Instagram account here and/or her website here. The other images in this post are ones I made myself, so please don’t reuse or repost them without my permission either.