Beginner’s Guide to Korean 📝

Sep 10, 2020

I’ve been requested by many learners who have just decided to learn Korean, to recommend the order of lessons they can follow. Or what exactly to start with.

So I am writing this post in response to those requests! :)

  1. Alphabets & Pronunciation

When learning any foreign language, it goes without saying that you have to start with its alphabets (how they are written and pronounced.)

Korean Alphabets are called 한글(Hangul).

There are five vowels and 21 consonants in English, whereas in Korean, there are 19 consonants and 21 vowels.

Here is the video lesson you can learn basic 한글(Hangul) with:

Other than consonants and vowels, there is another component called “받침(batchim)” in a letter. 받침 is a final consonant that comes at the very last part of a letter. Do you see ㄷ and ㅁ in each letter in the word “받침?” Those are what a final consonant is. They have different pronunciations from when they are in the first consonant place, so it’s important to learn how they’re pronounced correctly.

You can learn all about 받침(batchim, final consonant) here:

But here’s where 받침’s pronunciation rules get more complicated. There is such a thing as “consonant assimilation” where the pronunciations of a final consonant in the first letter, and a first consonant in the second letter, get assimilated. So with different consonants, there are different pronunciations and assimilation rules.

Actually, the same thing happens in English too. For example,

There are many cats here.

When s in cats and h in here are pronounced together, it makes “ch” sound.
So “cats here” gets to be pronounced “catchere” when read fast.

So it’s like that. Yes, it’s a “rule,” but there’s nothing to be intimidated about it, because you’ll realize it’s a natural phenomenon that happens when speaking fast. So these rules are actually for the sake of the comfort of your tongue, and it will gradually come naturally to you without having to cram all the rules in your head.

That being said though, it helps to go over each rule one by one. There are a few rules that might not make sense right away, and you will eventually get to wonder why certain words are pronounced the way they do. So it’s better to go over them as early as you can to prevent more confusion.

Here’s a video where you can learn about consonant assimilation:

And that’s not the end of 받침! Haha there’s one more left, which is a “double final consonant.” And it refers to a 받침 that has two consonants in it, like 닭, 값, 넓다, 삶 etc. You can see ㄺ, ㅄ, ㄼ, ㄻ in the final consonant, and that’s a combination of two different consonants.

And here’s where you can learn how to pronounce double final consonants:

So with these four lessons, you are roughly done with all the Korean alphabets and pronunciation. I said roughly, because taking these lessons doesn’t mean you will automatically become familiar with Korean. You will still struggle, get different consonants/vowels mixed up, pronounce it wrong, and forget the rules sometimes. And that’s normal. So no need to worry. Just know that it takes time, and make sure to practice reading many words and sentences by yourself, and also try writing them.

There’s a reading practice video I made, backed by many beginner’s requests,
and I hope this helps you practice easier:

Reading practice is not so that you memorize all the words you practice with. That’s actually not necessary. Of course it helps if you can remember all the words (and you will naturally remember some along the way), but it’s more to get comfortable with and used to Korean alphabets. Knowing the alphabets is one thing, and getting used to them is another. It’s only natural that you’re slow at first, and it takes time to get fully used to them. So it’s good to keep practicing until you become faster at reading them. You can also practice simultaneously while studying grammar. When you learn grammar, you inevitably encounter Korean words and sentences, and you can practice reading AND learn grammar at the same time with them.

You can also practice with books like “My First 500 Korean words” published by Talk To Me in Korean, or a free list of 6000 most common Korean words on Topik website. There are many other paid or free materials you can use, and you can research them.

Speaking of books, I get many requests for book recommendation. But to be honest, I don’t know that much about Korean learning books in the market. So I don’t know which one is the best to recommend for you. I did check out books from 5-6 big publishers (including TTMIK, Darakwon, SNU, Yonsei Uni, and Sogang Uni) and they are all great. Depending on what exactly it is you’re working on (is it reading practice? vocabulary building? basic grammar? or are you looking into taking TOPIK test?) and also depending on your learning style, there are different books that best suit your needs and preference. So just to be clear, I am not the best person to ask for book recommendation. The best idea would be to check out the books yourselves in the bookstore. You can also check the book reviews online to help you in your choice.

(I do plan to publish a book of my own too, but this likely won’t happen anytime soon, so I’ll talk about this much much later.)

If you are concerned about mispronouncing (or sounding like a ‘foreigner’) and wish to better your pronunciation, you can check out the videos below. They are made based on the most common confusion that learners experience in pronunciation.

But honestly, there’s nothing wrong with sounding like a foreigner. After all, Korean is a foreign language for you that you just started learning, so you don’t have to worry too much about pronunciation from the start. But I do understand your concerns, and it doesn’t hurt trying to correct and perfect it as much as you can. So these videos can be a good reference for the concerns you have about pronunciation.

Pronunciation is important not just in speaking, but in listening as well. You have to know how exactly a certain word or phrase is pronounced to actually hear that word used in a conversation or someone else’s speech. But once again, don’t worry TOO much about the pronunciation. Except for a few rules that don’t make sense right away, every pronunciation will come naturally as you keep practicing and hearing. You’ll notice it’s mostly catered to the comfort of your tongue and mouth, and it’s not a rocket science at all. It’s a natural phonetic phenomenon.

2. Basic Grammar

Now that you’re more confident and familiar with reading Korean alphabets and pronouncing them fairly okay, you’re ready to move on to the infamous “GRAMMAR.”

Korean grammar is known to be difficult to learn, but honestly English grammar is hard too… Native English speakers will never understand

My point is, grammar in any foreign language is difficult, especially when the word order is very different from your native language.

And Korean has a very different sentence structure from that of English.

Not just the basic order like:

Subject + Verb + Object (English)
Subject + Object + Verb (Korean)
I know you – English
나는 (I) 너를 (you) 알아 (know) – Korean

but also the particle’s order changes too:

I go to school.
저는 학교에 (school comes first, to comes next) 가요.

And these are just a glimpse of it.

I talk about 7 basic elements in a Korean sentence, and their order (sentence structure)
in this video. It will help you get the big picture of Korean grammar and get the hang of how a sentence is formed in Korean :

After this, you can also check out this lesson:

I hope these two lessons serve as a helpful starter for your grammar study. The first lesson is more like a map, and in the second lesson, I go in-depth about the “verbs” and also give you a chance to actually form sentences yourself based on what we learned.

After this, you’ll get the hang of specifically what you should start working on in grammar. And below are the first 6 lessons that you can take.

1. Basic Greeting, “I,” “You,” 반말(informal) vs 존댓말 (formal)

2. 10 Easy & Common Korean Phrases

3. What’s a Particle? & Subject Marking Particles 은/는 & 이/가

4. Verb conjugation in Present Tense

5. Verb Conjugation in Past & Future Tense

6. Verb Conjugation in Present Progressive Tense

7. Korean Adjectives (Conjugation & Modifying Form)

8. Irregular Verbs/Adjective Conjugation (Verbs that don't follow regular conjugation rules)

And by the time you are done, you’ll start getting the hang of how Korean grammar actually works and (hopefully) gain more confidence.

For next lessons, I listed them in the order I personally recommend here:

Korean Grammar Playlist

But honestly, there is no absolute order you should follow. Now that you are more confident about basic sentence structure and grammar rules after learning the basics, you can follow your own pace and pick whatever you’d like to learn first. Of course I don't mean you should jump to a completely far-off level, which will make you feel alienated. But you can start from whatever you're drawn to (that suits your level), and then expand from there.

You can also buy a grammar book. I personally recommend the one that covers all the elementary-level grammar in one book (and have them listed out at the front page.) That way, it’s easy to keep track of your progress and learn many grammar points/expressions within a short amount of time. One drawback of such books would be, they are not as detailed in explanation, and you’d likely have to use extra sources anyways to complement it. So if you prefer a book that covers the grammar points not necessarily in one book, but bit by bit in detail, as if explaining to you in person, you can definitely go with that. One drawback is, such books can be pricey. So if you plan to buy a book, you may choose one according to your own preference and learning style.

3. Take advantage of diverse resources.

This post is mostly centered around my own lessons and content. It is true that I did my best to be as specific and helpful as I can in each lesson, and I really hope my lessons would be of help to you.

However, I am not claiming that my channel is the only source to learn Korean with. I’m just offering what I can with the best I have. As you know, there are many other YT channels, websites, apps, courses, books and materials available just to help you learn Korean, whether free or paid. You can take advantage of that diversity.

Do a research, find several (preferably within 10, because too many would likely distract you) sources you find the most helpful or best suit your need/preference, and stick with them for a while. Whether it’s grammar, vocabulary, listening practice, speaking practice, writing practice, taking tests etc., do your best to pick up as much Korean as you can, but of course by following your own pace. I’m not telling you push yourself too much. A forced learning would not feel much fun, and you’ll likely quit soon.

For apps, I personally recommend Hi Native and Hello Talk. They are great apps to find a language exchange friend (or even a group) and ask questions you have while studying. I used them a lot back when I was studying Chinese, and found them really helpful.

4. Be an active learner.

It doesn’t matter how great of a teacher, book, or course you study with. At the end of the day, you’re the one responsible for your own learning, and whatever you study with, you take the credit for your own progress.

But for sure, what you study with to help your learning do affect a lot of your progress. That’s why “doing the research” part matters. You should find the sources and materials that work the best for none other than you, and you are the only one who can find them out. And that is the first step of an “active” learning, which is the most important thing for a learner.

As an English teacher, I experienced that my hard work and enthusiasm in teaching doesn’t always amount to my students’ progress. A student also has to be consistently willing and determined to do the work needed. If not, there won’t be much progress because learning happens in a student, not in a teacher.

That is not to say I underestimate or devalue the role and responsibility of a teacher. I do believe that teachers can inspire students to work harder and learn better. So I will try my best as a Korean teacher on YouTube to lead good classes and make helpful lessons. I appreciate the learners who follow my lessons diligently and are so keen to learn more. YouTube is quite a big platform, so I may not be able to cater to every learner's diverse requests, but please know that I’m trying my best, and I also try not to push myself too hard.

Anyways, that’s all the guidelines and some tips I have for the beginners. If anything else comes to mind that I want to share, I will make sure to add them.

Thank you for reading, and wish you all my best in your Korean learning journey! ❤️