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Photo: Poetprince

Sarah Shaw’s firsthand tips for building expertise in what is a pretty difficult language for English speakers.

THIS IS FOR ALL YOU WAEGUKINS out there who’ve accidentally ordered a nose bleed (ko-pi) instead of a coffee (keo-pi), or tried to tell your Korean language partner your cat wanted to eat, but instead said you wanted to eat your cat.

1. Take advantage of online resources.

Talk to me in Korean

Pros: TTMIK has an excellent array of material and multimedia resources categorized into several levels of lessons, beginning with the simplest words and phrases. Each lesson consists of an mp3 file (also available as a podcast), an accompanying PDF, and a page in the online workbook to practice. Instructors respond to your practice sentences, questions, and comments below each lesson, as well as your homework videos on YouTube.

Cons: Nobody will tell you to do your homework.

Sogang Korean Program

Pros: Sogang University puts out a series of lessons in this online database. Each includes a section for reading, listening, vocabulary, grammar, and simple practice exercises. If you plan on taking an intense full-time university course, these lessons will help you prepare. There’s also an entire chapter on Korean culture and history.

Cons: It’s not nearly as engaging as “Talk to me in Korean.”

2. Take a class run by volunteers. (In Seoul)

The Korea Foundation

Pros: These classes meet once a week on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, from 7-9pm, fitting in nicely with a full-time work schedule. Each class lasts for four weeks, and if you pass the test, you can move on to the next level. The teachers are friendly, and you have a chance to meet other foreigners who are interested in learning Korean.

Cons: The class is mainly based on grammar and drilling, and because you only meet once a week, you won’t have much time to practice speaking or to be creative with the language.

The Seoul Global Center

Pros: These classes meet twice a week on Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday, for an hour and a half at a time, and last for an entire semester. You’ll be able to get to know your classmates a bit better than at the Korea Foundation, and there are more in-class role-playing and speaking activities.

Cons: Many classes are held in the morning, which overlaps 9-5 work schedules. Also, the evening classes cause scheduling conflicts for hagwon (private cram school) teachers.

3. Apply for a scholarship to take a full-time university course.

Geumgang University

Pros: This Buddhist university is located at the base of Gyeryong Mountain in Nonsan, 200km south of Seoul — ideal for focusing on your studies. The scholarship includes full tuition, cafeteria meals, and room and board. There’s also an opportunity to tutor English a couple hours a week for a small stipend.

Cons: The location is relatively hard to reach, and you’ll be pretty isolated from major cities.

International Korean Adoptee Service (INKAS) program

Pros: If you were adopted from Korea, you can choose from eight of the top universities in the country to study Korean language full-time, including Seoul National University, Sogang University, and Yonsei University. These programs are intensive — if you attend all the classes your skills will progress quickly.

Cons: Only Korean adoptees are eligible to apply.

4. Find a language exchange partner.

Pros: Meeting a Korean language partner one-on-one gives you the opportunity to learn from experience, rather than burying yourself in a textbook alone in your apartment. By forming relationships with native Koreans, you will inevitably learn more about Korean culture and society.

Cons: Beware of partners who merely want a free English tutor.

5. Attend Korean / English language exchange meetups.

Language Cast

Pros: Language Cast is organized by the founders of “Talk to me in Korean” and is held once a week at a coffeeshop in Seoul (Gangnam and Hongdae) and Busan. It’s a great way to meet Korean friends and practice speaking Korean in a relaxed setting.

Cons: Like one-on-one language exchanges, some Koreans may only be interested in improving their English skills. Don’t be shy to speak Korean to them.

6. Stream Korean movies and dramas.

Drama Crazy

Pros: Stream thousands of Korean movies, dramas, and TV shows with English subtitles and learn conversational vocabulary that can’t be found in your textbook.

Cons: The video quality varies, and the subtitles are usually translated by volunteers.

7. Find a Korean boyfriend / girlfriend.

Pros: You will learn how to speak like a native.

Cons: Unless you only communicate in English.

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About The Author

Sarah Shaw

Sarah Shaw is a travel writer and artist, currently teaching English at a public elementary school in Seoul, South Korea. She’s originally from Maine, but throughout the past six years she has lived on four different continents, and spends her days getting lost, petting stray cats and embarrassing herself in foreign languages. She is a MatadorU graduate and blogs at Mapping Words, where she explores life as a traveler and expat.

  • Agness Walewinder

    Awesome post. I remember myself studying Chinese. It was difficult at first but then I was getting better and better. I spoke a lot with my Chinese friends, watched Chinese movies and keep talking with locals. All for free :)

    • Sarah Shaw

      Thanks, Agness! Sounds awesome, are you still studying Chinese? Why not come to Korea? :)

  • The Indie Traveller

    Good links! I’ve been studying Korean for a year and a half now and miraculously reached intermediate conversational level :D I used most of those things here. Sogang was so useful at the beginning. 4 and 7 also helped a tad :P


      It reminds me of China and times when I studied Chinese :)

    • The Indie Traveller

      Chinese is hard! I’m a fan of non-tonal languages LOL So does it mean that 你会说中文吗? :P

    • Sarah Shaw

      Thanks! Congrats! I took a break from studying for a few months, but now I’m getting back into it. Hopefully I’ll be studying instead of teaching next semester. ^^

  • Ceele Chile

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