Studying Korean 한국어을 공부해요 – Some Sources for Beginners

I’ve been studying Korean off and on (with some intervals of intense studying) for a while now, so I thought I should do a quick blog about some of the materials and sources I’ve used and/or am currently using.

I started studying Korean using the Teach Yourself Korean book and audio files.  The book starts easy, but then it throws a lot of vocabulary halfway through. The dialogues are good for getting used to the flow of the language. The dialogues get longer and more comprehensive, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the problem of learning vocabulary in this book is tied to the use of romanization throughout the book.

Although the book spends a bit of time in the introduction teaching you the hangeul, the romanization is prevalent.  The romanization system used is based off of the McCune-Reischauer, but there is now a standard romanization system in South Korea called “Revised Romanization of Korean”. Consequently, the McCune Reischauer will be useless if you obtain Korean language learning materials using the new romanization. The Korean-English vocabulary at the back of the book is organized using romanization as well which is a little annoying once you’ve spent the time to learn the hangeul well. It is best to obtain a Korean-English dictionary that lists the Korean entries using hangeul and not the romanization.  There is no hangeul next to the Korean entries in the vocabulary at the end.

In each unit, the dialogue is given in hangeul with the romanization following the dialogue, while the English translations of dialogues are found at the end of the book.  The list of phrases and expressions in each unit is given in romanization only, which makes it annoying to look up the phrases when you are reading the dialogue using hangeul. It also makes the learner prone to learning the phrase only using romanization which means that when the learner comes across it while reading a later dialogue in Korean, the learner won’t immediately recognize the phrase or expression.

The vocabulary list in each unit does include the hangeul, but second to the romanization. It’s not easy to ignore the romanization when looking at the vocabulary as native English speakers automatically read English where it’s present. The romanization makes it hard to learn the Korean vocabulary when the learner just wants to learn the vocabulary using hangeul, not romanization. Basically, it was helpful at first, but once the learner has a good handle on hangeul, the romanization just turns into a big crutch. Romanization is best used as a pronunciation guide, not what the Korean language learner should be reading.

The book has grammar points throughout, but no grammar summary at the back. Since I’ve decided to learn another language (I studied French in school), I’ve noticed that I will go look at a grammar summary because it gives me an idea of what to expect from the language. Some grammar points could be explained better, but this book does a decent job with the grammar. For a study of grammar indepth, I think it’s better to find a source concentrating on it.

This book provides a decent introduction to Korean language and culture, but once you get used to the hangeul, I’d recommend switching to a book with no romanization (I used Active Korean 1 – see below) as the romanization detracts from practicing reading hangeul. I suppose there are those who don’t care to learn the hangeul, who only want to speak the language and understand what they are hearing, in which case these people will love having the romanization (for them, this book is a good recommendation). However, I don’t see the point in not learning how to read a language. Korean is an Asian language, but it is not Chinese. The Korean writing system is technically phonetic (while the Chinese isn’t), although the words are put in syllable blocks (similar to the Chinese system). The hangeul isn’t that difficult to learn and there is an explanation as to why the language is written the way it is (see “Origin of Hangul”).

This book would be better if either:

a) they include hangeul with the list of phrases and expressions, and in the vocabulary at the end of the book; they put the hangeul first and the romanization second in the vocabulary list; they include hangeul in the grammar sections; they put more exercises in hangeul (I ended up skipping most of the exercises because the answers were in romanization – I wrote them out in Korean); and they drop the romanization at some point (maybe a quarter of the way through; they could keep the romanization after the dialogue as long as it doesn’t interfere with reading the dialogue in hangeul as I’m aware that a learner might use it to check if they are reading the dialogues correctly);

or

b) they put in more exercises to help learn the hangul and replace the romanization throughout the book with hangeul; they could keep the romanization after the dialogue.

This material is not ideal for anyone who knows the hangeul well as the romanization is a hindrance more than an aid at that point. The most anyone with proficiency reading Korean could use this material for is to practice reading and listening to the dialogues. They may want to read the grammar points, but there is romanization in the grammar explanations not hangeul, and there are better grammar books on Korean available (I’ll cover a few of them below).

Since I was a little frustrated with the persistent romanization in the Teach Yourself Korean, I switched to using something with no romanization. Active Korean 1 is a good beginner book that teaches you the hangeul upfront and has a decent amount of vocabulary without having the learner feel overwhelmed. The material is put together by Seoul National University Language Institute. There are grammar points throughout as well as a grammar summary at the end. The exercises are straightforward, and there is some effort to make learning the language fun. This book is great for practising reading Korean. It will be pretty easy to get through if one already knows the hangeul. I highly recommend this for beginners.

After Active Korean 1, I went through Korean Through English 1. This material was also put together by Seoul National University Language Institute. It consists of a little more material than Active Korean 1 and contains good explanations of the dialogues on the audio tracks. It teaches the hangeul first, and there is a good amount of exercises to go through before digging into the dialogues. There is a glossary of the Korean vocabulary at the end. The appendix includes a linguistics essay on the Korean language. Like Active Korean 1, this book is great for practising reading Korean and is pretty easy to get through if one already knows hangeul. I obtained an older version of this material and the audio files. I’m not sure if you can obtain audio files for the book listed on amazon.com, but if you can get the audio to go with the book, I recommend this material for beginners.

Some other beginner sources I have include:

  • My Korean 1 and 2 (text and audio)
  • Integrated Korean (beginner (text and audio), intermediate and advanced (audio only))
  • Colloquial Korean (book and audio)
  • Elementary Korean (book and audio) and Continuing Korean (book and audio)
  • Living Language Korean (book and audio)
  • Beginner’s Korean (book and audio)

I’m thinking of continuing my Korean studies with My Korean 1 and 2 (text and audio), which can be found online (see link just above). My Korean has romanization in the first unit, then the hangeul is taught in the second unit (using the Revised Romanization of Korean). Starting in unit three, romanization is dropped and is only provided for the dialogues after the dialogues along with the English translation. In this respect, My Korean is what Teach Yourself Korean could have been. I will have to see how well it explains grammar.

Of the materials listed above, Living Language Korean and Beginner’s Korean seem to be the least useful for me. Although Living Language Korean teaches the hangeul and does not use romanization after lesson five, I felt that it did not give a good explanation of the grammar points in the first lesson. It doesn’t explain honorifics and speech levels well and confuses honorifics with formal speech level. In the first lesson, one of the exercises is to fill in the topic particle, but one of the answers is a subject particle instead. In terms of amount of vocabulary, Living Language Korean is similar to Teach Yourself Korean, in fact it has quite a bit of vocabulary in the first lesson. If I get a chance to use this material, it will be for practising reading and listening to Korean and for vocabulary build-up. I will probably either ignore the grammar in the text or skim it; and I’m not confident about the exercises being well designed.

As for Beginner’s Korean, it uses romanization (Revised Romanization of Korean) throughout. In fact, it’s more of a nuisance as the romanization is put right below each line of dialogue (Living Language Korean uses this format for the dialogues in the first five lessons). The vocabulary in the lessons and at the end of the material is listed with hangeul first, which is better than in Teach Yourself Korean. As for grammar, it has grammar points throughout and a grammar summary at the end. This might be useful for a review of grammar points. While listening to the dialogues is always good practice, I probably won’t use this material to practice reading Korean since the romanization is right below each line of dialogue.

In regards to listening material for languages, I’ve heard about Pimsleur and have seen it in the bookstores, but as posted in “Pimsleur Language Programs – Save Your Money”, I think the Pimsleur material will be a waste of time for me considering there are other good sources for studying Korean. In fact, I think it’s more likely I’ll use the Korean for Dummies as listening material before I use the Pimsleur material. I almost forgot about Korean for Dummies. It is definitely not recommended for learning Korean if you want to know how to read Korean. It does not teach you hangeul and the book uses only romanization. It’s kind of funny that it puts in a pronunciation guide next to the romanization. That being said, it’s a mite better than the Pimsleur Korean material as it’s cheaper and has more content than the Pimsleur material. In any case, I doubt I’ll use the Korean for Dummies any time soon (although I suppose it could have interesting tidbits about Korean culture throughout).

I also should not forget about Rosetta Stone. I definitely think it’s worth using, but in conjunction with other learning materials.

That’s about all the beginner Korean material I have to mention for now. I have some other material that I would consider intermediate to advanced, and I have yet to get to that material.

If you’re really into Korean and making your way through whatever material you’re using, you will definitely need a good Korean-English dictionary. This will be difficult as you should get a Korean-English dictionary that lists Korean entries using hangeul and not romanization. The problem that exists is that so far there aren’t many Korean-English dictionaries listing entries in native Korean that have extensive vocabulary on that side of the dictionary. This is the case with the Hippocrene Practical Dictionary Korean-English English-Korean. It just doesn’t have enough Korean entries. The Collins Gem Korean Dictionary is a better option. A Korean dictionary by Samuel E. Martin, Yang Ha Lee, and Sun-Un Chang was published in 1967 by Yale University, and is a must for Korean language studies. It uses the Yale romanization for the pronunciation guide.

If you have to settle for a romanized Korean-English dictionary, I use Berlitz’s Korean Concise Dictionary. As long as you are willing to learn the McCune-Reischauer romanization, it has a good amount of entries. I originally bought this dictionary to help me with Teach Yourself Korean. I use it now when I can’t find an entry in Martin’s A Korean Dictionary or in the Collins Gem one.

For grammar, I’m currently making my way through Basic Korean: A Grammar and Workbook by Andrew Sangpil Byon. Then, I will make my way through Intermediate Korean: A Grammar and Workbook by the same author. I also found 500 Basic Korean Verbs quite useful for explaining speech levels, honorific verb form, along with verb tenses, and a variety of verb endings. It uses the Revised Romanization of Korean instead of listing verbs by native Korean, but this appears to be the only good book out on Korean verbs. A couple of other Korean grammar books to look out for are A Reference Grammar of Korean by Samuel E. Martin and Korean: A Comprehensive Grammar by Jaehoon Yoon and Lucien Brown.

Finally, the last few materials I have are flashcards – Tuttle Korean for Kids Flashcards and Tuttle More Korean for Kids Flashcards. I found these two packages at a used bookstore, so I thought I’d give them a try. They, unfortunately, have romanization on them on the front, but at least the Korean is in larger print than the romanization. The flashcards Korean in a Flash is ideal for anyone who is serious about learning to read Korean and a good addition to your current Korean material. I will have to get these at some point.

안녕히 가세요!
~~~C

Leave a Reply