I’ve wanted to learn Korean my whole life. That sounds dramatic, but it’s not meant to be. I grew up listening to my mom on the phone with my 할머니 (halmeoni, grandma) and aunts, speaking on and off in Korean. When we visited, we always stayed at my grandparent’s house. We had our own ways of communicating in pantomime and a handful of words in English and Korean, but I wanted to be able to understand what was asked of or said to me. This was especially true when 할머니 was telling a story – she’s a great storyteller, using her voice, hand motions, and idiomatic expressions – by the end of a story, she’d have everyone in tears of laughter. My mom humored me and would translate what was said, but there’d always be something that only made sense in its original tongue.
Why didn’t I learn Korean before I was 34, when my malleable child brain would have learned quicker? Korean wasn’t offered in school. The only character based language that was was Japanese. I opted for Spanish (probably because I didn’t want to be fetishized by all the white kids obsessed with manga in the Japanese class) and because my Japanese-American best friend also wanted to take Spanish, so we did together. I loved learning Spanish and it was helpful because it gave me a little bit of insight into Italian and other romance languages. I’ve travelled to Mexico and Colombia — and while far from fluent, I can read a menu or eavesdrop and loosely understand the main points.
Aside from school, opportunities to learn Korean were few. I never attended Korean school on weekends — my parents worried my sister and I wouldn’t be accepted by the “full-blooded” Korean American children. Perhaps we wouldn’t have been and were saved from further othering (as we definitely got enough of that in our predominantly white school district).
I tried a handful of computer-based language programs (Rosetta Stone – remember how expensive that was?!) and books. I’d always get stuck in learning Korean vowels (for whatever reason, the materials I tried to learn with always started here). I found it extremely difficult, slow, and boring. I’d give up after a couple pages or lessons – not being able to remember the difference between the romanized versions of the vowels.
In September, I visited my 할머니 for her 89th birthday. My uncle, aunt, & cousin were also there – which was a treat as they live in Korea and I only get to see them every few years. And so, with my mom’s side of the family gathered, I again wished I could understand what was being said. On my way home at the airport, I sat waiting for my flight. I thought about what I knew of the Korean alphabet — in the Joseon era, the 한글 alphabet was created so that everyone could learn to read. Meaning the alphabet was designed to be learned easily and by everyone. So, it should follow that I could learn 한글 at least to be able to read labels at H-Mart. That was my goal. And so I google “learn hangul alphabet” and found a YouTube video that promised I could learn the alphabet in 30 minutes … and I did. A main difference being that I was learning Korean characters, not their romanized versions and the helpful memorization tips for each character like ㅁ is m for mouth or the shape you make with your mouth to pronounce it or ㄴ is n for nose as it looks like one.
Below is a list of resources I used and am using to learn Korean. While I’m still working on being able to read labels at H-Mart, my goals have expanded to include learning vocab and reading children’s books, completing TTMIK levels 1 to 3 at the minimum, and being able to eavesdrop on Korean conversations ;p
Learn Korean Resources
Below are the resources I used, in the order I used them to teach myself Korean. I’ll also note that I study Korean most mornings (not all) for 30 mins to 2 hours (if it’s a weekend or I don’t have plans). Language doesn’t come easy to me, so you might be able to move through all of these much faster!
- Learn Hangul 한글 (Korean Alphabet) in 30 minutes on YouTube by 빅키샘Miss Vicky
- Miss Elly Korean Alphabet practice sheet (downloadable PDF)
Instead of flash cards, I practiced for a couple days tracing all the characters on this sheet. I’d cover the “sound” column and trace all the characters and also write down which roman letter or sound they corresponded to. You can print this sheet out to practice, but I have an iPad with the app Notability and Apple pencil. This is how I took notes in grad school and it works great here too – you can save a PDF into the app and then trace and erase as many times as you’d like.
- Eggbun App (1 free lesson a day or you can purchase a monthly or annual subscription)
- My First 500 Korean Words by Talk To Me In Korean
As my primary goal at this point was to learn how to read, I wanted to work through vocabulary. I search Amazon for Korean vocab books and found this one by Talk to Me in Korean (TTMIK). What stood out to me was that each day or lesson used 10 words in a story which helped give context when memorizing. For 2 weeks, I worked my way through the first two lessons – quizzing myself each day on the 10 words I was working on memorizing. The book includes practice activities, as well as an app with audio. I also practiced writing the words down from memory in 한글 and the romanized forms and then quizzing myself on the meaning.
Looking at the stories in “My First 500..” I started to wonder how to create sentences and more about grammar, as I could only pick out the words I was learning and the order of words in a sentence didn’t make sense to me. When I did my initial search on Amazon, the other book I really wanted to get was TTMIK’s Level 1 book. Since I was enjoying the book I had, I decided to get this one. Again, the lessons are short – which makes studying most mornings easy to do. And, on the TTMIK website, there are podcasts that accompany each lesson (I’ve linked to the SoundCloud, but recommend creating a login on TTMIK website because there is accompanying written explanations you can use to follow along or not even buy the books, if this works best for your learning style). I’ve found this to be an easy way to learn – I’ll read the lesson first and then I’ll listen to the podcast (which helps with my terrible pronunciation) and make notes for myself on how to pronounce words and phrases. I’m almost done with Level 1 and wish I had bought all three in the above bundle. There are also accompanying worksheet books, though I haven’t tried them.
Also, watching Korean shows or K-dramas has definitely helped my listening! Especially Hometown ChaChaCha — as I learn new words and phrases, I’d then hear them on the show when before it would have gone over my head. I’ve finished both shows, so let me know your K-drama recommendations and what I should watch next!
- IYAGI – Natural Korean Conversations For Learners by TTMIK on Apple Podcast (there is also paid subscription on TTMIK with accompanying course materials but I want to improve my listening abilities with this podcast)
- Easy Korean Reading For Beginners by TTMIK
- Real-Life Korean Conversations (Beginner + Intermediate) by TTMIK
- And maybe one day I will be able to read and listen w/o English-subtitles to my favorite Korean vloggers/influencers, whom my mom and cousin introduced me to their YouTube videos: @hami.mommy @honeyjubu @haegreendal