How to Learn Korean Without an Immersion Program

Language learning tools are abundant—combine them with these techniques to create your own DIY home study program

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Learning a new language can be intimidating. It can be overwhelming trying to find a way of studying that fits well with you, and many methods require you to buy expensive software or travel for weeks. Neither of those was an option for me, so I had to find my own way of learning a language.

A little over four years ago, I started learning Korean by myself. Today, I’m able to read articles and watch TV in Korean without subtitles. I can write letters and hold conversations with native speakers about my everyday life, my favorite shows, music, and other topics. I accomplished all of it without using expensive software or teaching programs, and without any travel or any immersion programs.

While the methods I used won’t get you “fluent in three months” like some programs promise, if you keep with them, you’ll achieve steady day-by-day progress — it may move slower, but it will stick with you longer. You also have more freedom to tailor your learning towards your interests, so you can focus on the goals that are more important to you — whether that means focusing on conversation or developing your reading and writing.

Begin your lesson mindfully—and with fun

The easiest way to keep doing something is to have fun doing it. And that goes double for any type of skill you’re trying to pick up. Language learning requires a big time commitment, whether you’re cramming it into a full-time immersion course or learning it more slowly through a little bit of practice each day. If it becomes something you dread, you’re much more likely to stop giving it the attention it needs or even give up entirely.

I started my practice each day by reminding myself that learning Korean was something I wanted to do. Not a chore, but an opportunity. I also reminded myself of my goals: being able to watch a show without subtitles and understand what people were saying. Taking a few moments to remind myself of these two things put me in a more open and excited mood for learning and made me look forward to the day’s practice.

While having fun is important, it’s not the same thing as goofing off. The first helps you commit to your studies, the second leads you away from them. To be successful, you have to have a disciplined approach.

Audio Lessons and Note-taking

My second journal entry for Korean based mostly on copying a conversation from the day’s lesson. (Contains some mistakes). Photo by the author

I started learning Korean from a website called Talk To Me In Korean, and while there have been some updates to the site since I used it, the core of the program is 10 to 20-minute audio lessons, accompanied by worksheets that summarize the information contained in the audio lesson.

For every single lesson, I made sure to write down all the important notes by hand in a notebook—even though I could have just printed the day’s worksheets. Taking notes forced me to pay more attention to what I was hearing.

Studies have also shown that taking notes by hand, rather than typing them, improves your memory recall of them later. Taking notes by hand forces your brain to engage more with the information, rather than simply typing it verbatim. In order to keep pace with the speaker, you have to summarize and think about what’s being said and parse it down into key bits of information.

For that reason, I never paused the audio lessons while taking notes, and treated each recording as though I were hearing it live. I didn’t sweat too much about missing some points in my notes, because I knew I could always go back to the audio file or the provided notes if I really needed to. In fact, I very rarely reviewed my written notes at all. In most cases, the act of writing down the information the first time was enough to make it stick, although I know I would have forgotten a lot more if I hadn’t been writing anything down at all.

The second step I took after the lesson was to make a short diary entry in Korean that incorporated whatever I learned that day. In the beginning, my “diary” wasn’t even a diary. I didn’t know enough Korean for that. Instead, I just wrote down some of the conversational pieces I’d learned that day. Later, I was able to write some sentences about what I’d done, but only in the present tense. As I learned more, my diary began to become more natural sounding and I’ve actually grown to prefer writing diary entries in Korean.

Manage Your Expectations

Nothing makes you give up faster than the feeling that you’re going nowhere. Sooner or later, you’re going to hit a slump in your studies. You need to be ready for it when it happens and understand that language learning, especially when you’re doing it on your own, takes time. The phrase, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” is cliché but definitely applies. It will take time for you to build up your vocabulary to a level that you can say anything beyond very rehearsed phrases.

Depending on the language you’re studying, it may take weeks (or even months) before you can properly hear the differences between certain sounds in the language. That was my situation when I started learning Korean. Korean has a lot of sounds that aren’t used in English, and the way they differentiate their consonants is different than English.

Without getting buried too deep in linguistics: to a native English speaker, the Korean consonant ㅂ can sound like a p or b depending on the situation. The consonant ㅍ (an aspirated consonant) almost always sounds like a p to English speakers, but Korean speakers hear a distinct difference between ㅂ and ㅍ. The consonant ㅃ is a tensed consonant that sounds different from the first two but is still in the same b/p sound family. If that weren’t confusing enough, the same pattern of plain, aspirated, and tense consonants repeats for g/k, d/t, and j sounds.

Not every language has a sound inventory as far from English as Korean does, but it can be really disheartening to listen to words over and over and not hear any difference between them, even as native speakers distinguish them easily. When I started, I wondered if I would ever be able to hear the difference, and for a while I was really stressed out about it. It was hard to feel like I was progressing in the language when I had so much trouble just hearing differences in the alphabet. Luckily, my next method helped me press through my fears and doubts.

Embrace Your Mistakes

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Nobody likes making mistakes, but you’ll never get anywhere without making a few — or in the case of language learning, a lot. Unfortunately, most people’s main experience with learning a foreign language comes from having to take a course in high school or college. In both cases, you get punished for every mistake you make. Consequently, it’s natural to want everything you say or write to come out perfectly. You may even develop a fear of saying or writing something wrong because you think you’ll seem foolish.

Languages aren’t meant to be tests. The best speakers and fastest learners aren’t the ones that know the minutiae of every grammar rule; they’re the ones that keep trying and forge ahead, knowing they aren’t getting everything right.

Instead of thinking of language learning like a school class, think of it as a video game. The important part isn’t finishing the game with full health and a perfect combo score; it’s just about finishing the game. Ultimately, the goal of using a language is to understand what others say and to make yourself understood in return. I can guarantee that you make multiple mistakes in speaking and writing your native language every day and I would bet that you don’t let any of them bother you as much as the mistakes you make when you’re trying to learn a new language.

“Progress, not perfection,” became my motto when I started learning Korean. It’s what I repeated to myself when I’d spend hours worrying about not hearing the differences between sounds, or forgetting a word when I was writing or listening.

The funny thing was, the less I stressed about being perfect, the more natural my progress became. I stopped trying to force myself to hear differences in the sounds, and one day I started to hear them naturally. Not all of the progress you make in language learning is at a conscious level, and you have to trust your brain to carry on without you sometimes.

Listen With Purpose

My self-designed curriculum had two main focuses: grammar and free reading/listening. Because I was learning Korean for fun and not as a work requirement, I had a lot more freedom in how I wanted to focus my learning. I focused on a grammar lesson each morning, and in the evening I usually watched a movie or TV drama episode in Korean.

While this would have been difficult to do years ago, the internet has made seeing content from around the world easier than ever. Netflix currently has several dozen Korean TV dramas and movies, and they’re even producing some exclusive dramas for their service.

Viki is another great site which offers TV and movies from around the world for free. Programs on Viki are subtitled via crowdsourcing, and as your language ability grows you can help translate shows just after they air. Viki also recently added a feature called “Learn Mode” to some programs which lets you see subtitles in both English and the program’s language — and to click on unfamiliar words to see the translation.

When I was studying Korean, I didn’t choose any particular show or movie because I thought it would facilitate the greatest improvement to my language learning. I have seen advice that says talk shows and reality shows are better for picking up natural-sounding conversations, and while that is true to a certain point, I think it’s much more valuable to watch something you want to see, rather than trying to always optimize your learning efficiency. Watching these shows each night was the fun part of learning.

While listening to music and watching shows in your target language is common advice, it’s very easy to do incorrectly. When you first start learning, you should always keep the subtitles on the program in English (or whatever your primary language is if they’re available). You need to read the subtitles to understand what’s going on, but try not to let your reading take the focus away from your listening.

The best way to focus when you’re watching is to repeat back what the characters say in your head. Saying each line out loud is another way to practice, but in my experience, it’s too distracting to be effective — especially for the length of a tv episode or movie. Repeating their words in your head reinforces what you hear and makes sentence patterns more familiar to you.

When I first began doing this, I was more or less mindlessly parroting what I heard. But as my studying progressed, I began to find times when I could recognize when the subtitles matched up to what the characters were saying, and times when they didn’t. It’s a very encouraging moment when you’re able to finish a character’s sentence before they say it. Or, when you realize you understood what was said before looking at the subtitles.

After you’ve made some progress in the language, the next best way to practice is to watch a program with the subtitles in the same language as the one you’re learning. I think this works best when you re-watch a program that you’ve already seen. Make sure to pick one that you enjoyed, so that you’re better able to focus. Not only does this method improve your understanding of vocabulary and sentence structure, but it also greatly increases your reading speed in the language. When I first started, I rarely was able to finish the caption at the same pace as the speaker, and often became lost. But after doing it for a couple of weeks, I realized my reading speed in Korean had increased much more significantly than it had in all the weeks I spent reading at my own pace.

Finally, you can try watching something in your target language with no subtitles at all. But before you start, please remember that you’re not going to understand every word that is said, especially in the beginning. It can be jarring to think that you’re doing well with comprehension, only to be completely lost once you lose the comfort of the subtitles. Once again, the important thing is to focus your attention on listening to the language and repeating it in your head. If it starts to feel draining, take a break or go back to using the subtitles. And don’t forget to congratulate yourself on the parts you did understand.

Talk to Yourself (And Others)

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I know a lot of language instructors are going to think I’m crazy for not making this the very first piece of advice. And they’re right in a certain sense because talking with a native speaker is the fastest and most effective way of improving foreign language skills. But most people don’t have the money or opportunity to book a month-long stay in a foreign country and converse with the locals. And, let’s face it, nothing scares an introvert away from a project quite like telling them to talk to strangers in a language they barely understand.

So here’s the antisocial method for language learning. To be clear, I still recommend finding a conversation partner eventually, and apps like hellotalk can help you find a language partner for free. I just don’t think that it’s necessary as a first step. I think that it’s fine to do most of your early learning by yourself if that’s what makes you more comfortable. Just remember to be conscious of what you’re doing, and realize that you may pick up some bad habits or pronunciation when you speak because you don’t have a more knowledgeable person to correct you.

In any case, you need to make sure that some of your talking practice is done alone. Language learning is about muscles and muscle memory almost as much as it is a mental thing. You have to train your tongue to move into new positions and to get used to new combinations of sounds. If you’ve ever taught yourself a tongue twister, you know how it can take a lot of repetitions to get your mouth to move in the right way.

As part of my learning, I wrote short diary entries in Korean each day. As I wrote it, I said each word out loud. I also sometimes read short articles or book excerpts and recorded myself to play back later. In the beginning, those books and articles were beyond my comprehension level, but saying the words helped improve my pronunciation and helped sentences sound more natural when I heard them.

Understand Skill Plateaus

When you first start learning a language, it’ll feel like you’re picking up tons of new information with each lesson. But sooner or later you’ll hit a point where it feels like you’re putting in the same amount of work, but not getting any results for it. You feel stuck — like you’ve learned all you can learn and you’re not going to get any better. It’s easy to give up at this point and decide that you’re just not built for learning languages.

My own confidence in my abilities felt like a rollercoaster for months. At first, I was excited about my successes and being able to understand a few short phrases. But over time, my insecurities — especially about understanding pronunciation — dragged me down more than learning new vocabulary and grammar pushed me up. Despite my misgivings, I kept at it. Even if I didn’t have the huge returns I felt in the first few weeks, I found myself having some smaller successes that kept pushing me forward.

Part of the reason for the slowdown is that while you only need a few words to say most basic communication, you need a lot of words to understand intermediate and advanced communication in a new language. For example, in English, about 75% of conversation is made up of only 800 different words. But you’ll need to more than triple that to understand most TV dialog, and you’ll need around 9,000 words to understand everything you read. Looking at the numbers, it’s easy to see why we feel like we hit plateaus when it comes to vocabulary.

Before you start, recognize that there will be a time when your progress slows, and be ready for it. But at the same time, don’t let yourself get complacent either. If your practice has become rote and boring, or if you can feel your mind disengaging from the task, you may need to do something to make your studying more challenging. This is a good time to try switching the subtitles on a program around or try reviewing past diary entries for mistakes (you’ll find a lot) to see how far you’ve come.

Have Fun

From the beginning, I’ve emphasized having fun because there’s no greater motivator than having a passion for whatever you want to accomplish. There’s no escaping grammar lessons, but there are ways to make learning more interesting.

Apps like Duolingo or Memrise give you points for your progress in their lessons and have more game-like features. Both reward you for daily progress, which can help build your self-discipline and keep you on track.

When it comes to increasing your vocabulary, you’ll have more fun learning how to talk about one of your other hobbies or interests than you will with trying to memorize a list of random words. Find articles about one of your interests, or one of the TV shows your watching and learn unfamiliar words.

If full articles are too far beyond your reading level, another fun place to start is comics and webtoons. Naver Webtoon has a huge selection of webtoons in every genre available free to read. One of my favorites is a story called “Checkpoint” about a gambler who can travel back in time to the last “checkpoint” he set.

As much as possible try to overlap your other interests with your language learning. If you enjoy cooking, for example, you’ll probably be more interested in learning vocabulary for food and cooking terms. When you’ve progressed a bit further, trying following a recipe written in the language you’re learning. The more you make your language studies useful to your everyday life, the more you’ll remember them.

While I strongly recommend doing a little practice each day, don’t do it to a point that it makes you sick. There was a period a few months into studying Korean where I hated the idea of having to sit down and focus on it. I gave myself about a week off from it, and by then I was ready to come back with renewed energy.

However, if you find yourself frequently wanting to take breaks and pushing away your study time, you may need to adjust your learning in some way. Take things slower if you’re confused or speed things up if you’re bored.

I truly believe that anyone can learn a second (or third) language if they commit themselves to making slow but steady progress toward their goal.

Learning Korean has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It gave me more confidence in myself, and it opened me up to new cultures and new ways of thinking I never would have experienced. Whatever language interests you, and whatever level of fluency you want to reach, I know you can get there.