Improve Korean with just one hour a week.

Five steps to improving Korean or other foreign languages quickly and effectively.

In mid-2012, I started to learn Korean.

It’s 2017 and what I’ve achieved thus far is to have a conversation in Korean. I noticed that more than a year ago, I could have a short ten-minute conversation before running out of things to say. Now I can ask questions and say some simple things. Still, I’ve achieved what I wanted, which is to have a conversation in Korean without using English or stuttering too much.

The biggest problem that impeded my progress was that I had too little time spent immersed in the language. I wasn’t in Korea.

I worked on this solution for more than a year before finding the right rhythm to achieve my goal.

Here are 5 steps to improving Korean with only one hour a week, without having to be in the country itself.

1. Find a good private tutor.

First of all, a new language isn’t difficult to learn. Get that out of your head! It’s hard to perfect, but not difficult to learn.

Find a tutor who is able to sit down with you one to one. The tutor should ideally be able to do these things:

  • Not say “It’s just like that” when you ask him/her why is a phrase said or used in a certain manner. This really frustrates me. There’s always a reason for everything, and knowing the history behind why certain things are said makes it easier.
  • Explain the meaning of vocabulary in your native language with appropriate context. He/she should be able to explain firstly, the definition of the word, and secondly, when can you use a particular word and when you shouldn’t use it. Ideally, he or she can translate the foreign word into your native language so you can use that to get a feel. Many fantastic tutors are expensive, but they can barely do this. Being able to speak English doesn’t mean that the tutor is competent in English and therefore can explain the meaning of a word. It’s important to find a tutor who is actually good at the language, rather than a tutor who is good at handling a class of 10 students and make a lesson entertaining. I am willing to have an inexperienced teacher, with self-directed learning.

2. Devote at least an hour a week to the language. During the lesson, read a long passage aloud.

One hour is just right. Too little and you won’t build stamina.

I use Yonsei Reading Book 3. Hangukdrama reviewed book 6 here. Before you study reading book 3, I recommend that you have completed up to level 3 of grammar books, such as the Sogang series. You can buy them here. After learning grammar, you’ll find it easier to read the text and understand the structure.

I read a passage aloud to my tutor.

Part of a passage in Yonsei reading book.
Part of a passage in the Yonsei reading book.

During the first reading, I will highlight vocab I don’t know and ask for quick definitions along the way. I form an idea of the passage I am reading, so I am not just making sounds with my mouth.

3. Translate everything you read into your native language.

The founder of Talk to me in Korean, an excellent learning resource which I don’t use, once said that if you can’t translate it, you don’t understand it. At first, I thought, how could it be the exact translation? All languages are different. However, as I improved in Korean competency, I realized that he said the truth. If you are good, no matter how complex a sentence is, you can translate it.

After reading a paragraph, I translate every single line verbally to my tutor. My tutor will check if my translation is correct and accurate while explaining the nuances to me. This is why I included section 1 of this article. Having a right tutor is so important!

The book has vocabulary at the bottom.
The book has a vocabulary list at the bottom. I also write down tricky stuff or questions.

4. Re-read the passage with the tutor.

The tutor, who is a native speaker of the language, will read the passage with me and correct my pronunciation. The tutor should also be able to tell you how to correctly pronounce a word – what you see isn’t always how it ought to be pronounced, or how the natives do it! For example, here’s a list of Korean pronunciation rules for different spellings.

One of my favourite weird pronunciation rules is 음료수 (eum-ryo-su) becomes”음뇨수” (eum-nyo-su). When I found that out, I felt so buzzed. When I finally spotted something similar I felt amazed.

5. Do the exercises and write a short passage!

I do the exercises behind the passage to test my understanding of the passage and revise it. Also, I write a short paragraph to practice writing.  I write the exact meaning I want to convey next to it so that my tutor knows what I am trying to say and will teach me the right way to write it. Through this, I also learn how to convey my opinions, emotions, and tone.

Writing is important for TOPIK exams too.
Writing is important for TOPIK exams too. This is the first paragraph which I wrote that had minimal corrections.

Results

These five steps take up only an hour week. It’s meant to be short, intensive, and effective for people with a budget like me.

At first, one hour a week would be sufficient. It’s also more realistic. You won’t be able concentrate on anything else afterward. It’s like training for a marathon, you can’t run the full distance immediately. Over time, you can increase your lesson time to 1.5 hours and more. 😀

This method isn’t just applicable to Korean, but also, many foreign languages. It took me about a year and a half of private lessons, with more than half a year of using this method to finally achieve some competency and confidence. But with this method, I improved leaps and bounds quickly.

After this, you can do some passive learning yourself, like watching videos or reading some grammar points. Because this method is so intensive, I find that I remember new grammar points much more easily when I come across them casually.

When I first started doing this, I sounded like crap. Had an old recording of myself doing it. Now I think I’m way faster and more natural sounding. I can even read Naver comics quite quickly now! Previously, I couldn’t even complete a quarter of the comic. Now I was able to finish one in 10 minutes.

Other resources

Before you start learning a new language, you may have to understand how to learn a new language.

I recommend reading this to understand what it takes to learn a new language.

I also read Noam Chomsky, such as his theory of linguistic structure, to understand what is language. It’s also good to read about the subject-verb-object concept, since Korean and Japanese are SOV languages and knowing this will eliminate many mistakes. Old habits die hard. You’ll be able to build on this knowledge to understand – and accept – quirky bits about a foreign language.

After reading these, I file away my knowledge into the different components, which speeds up my learning and application. I learned about this concept here. I pluck the word out and modify it accordingly to fit the purpose.

  • Subject: Made up of noun phrases (S)
  • Predicate: Made up of verb phrases, either active or stative (P)
  • Object: Made up of noun phrases (O)
  • Adjective phrases (AjP)
  • Adverbial phrases (AvP)
  • Conjunctions (C)
  • Exclamations (E)

Drop me questions!

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