Review – Different Ways to Learn Korean

Learning Korean is fun, frustrating, difficult, and satisfying.  While I wouldn’t recommend anyone start off the way I did – by moving to Korea to teach English with only the little amount I learned on the plane ride – there are plenty of options available.  This post will attempt to cover the ones I’ve personally tried over the past few years.  Instead of just giving you the different options (a quick Google search can do that for you), I’m going to give a brief explanation of each option along with my option and rating of them.  The list won’t cover everything of course, as I’ve definitely not tried all the options yet, but it will give a good overview of what’s out there.  I’ll admit, I’m not the best student and my studying has been rather haphazard until 2011 when I decided to take it more seriously.  I’m actually studying more now than when I lived in Korea (and I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing).

Why am I learning Korean?

Beside the obvious reasons of wanting to talk to my Korean friends in Korean as well as English, there are a wide variety of reasons I want to learn Korean.  I love K-pop and would love to be able to sing them easily in a noraebang (Korean singing room, similar to Karaoke but in a private room).  Oh yeah, it would also be great to understand more than the occasional word in Korean dramas and movies so I could watch them without subtitles.  And as I write more about Korean culture and events in Toronto, it would be nice to be able to read the Korean newspapers and websites here for background information for my stories.  It would also make shopping on Korean shopping sites easier.  Plus, it’s just fun (if hard work)!

How have I tried to Learn Korean?

Move to Korea 

Like I said above, my journey learning Korean started when I moved to Korea to teach ESL.  Being thrown in the deep end – my moving there was a snap decision and I knew absolutely no Korean before I left Canada – made learning survival Korean essential.   I only knew what I learned from a travel guide on the plane when I arrived but living in Ulsan, I quickly learned the basics.  Living in a foreign country or traveling in one (to a lesser degree) is a great way to increase your language skills but not necessarily the easiest way to start learning a new language.

  • Rating: 2/5 for ease of learning, 5/5 for effectiveness
  • Cost: depends (for me it was free as I was moving for work)

Take a class at a Korean academy or institute in Korea

I took classes at a Korean academy in Seoul for a month and while my experience wasn’t great, learning at a good academy or institute can be a great way to learn Korean in an organized school-like setting.  My personal experience wasn’t good because the instructor didn’t speak any English and at the beginner level (my level at the time), knowledge of the student’s native language is essential (or at least a common language, although their native language is best).  At the intermediate or higher level it’s not necessary but still helpful to have some knowledge of where they are coming from – my ESL teaching become more effective as I learned Korean because I understood why my students were making certain mistakes. The only thing I remember from my month-long class was the grammar rule about 은/는.  However, even though my experience wasn’t great, I know several people who highly recommend this option and I would definitely try it again (especially now that my level is a little higher).  Ask for a friend’s recommendation first, as not all academies are created equal.

  • Rating: 1/5 for ease of learning (4/5 based on my friend’s experience) and 1/5 for effectiveness (4/5 based on my friend’s experience)
  • Cost: $200-500 a month (from what I remember)

Take a class at the local Korean Consulate 

The Korean Consulate in Toronto offers free beginner and intermediate Korean classes three times a year (fall, winter and spring).  I know from online friends that there are similar classes in other countries as well.  I signed up for their class last spring (to read more about my experience, click here) and as it was so fun (and quite effective), I signed up for the fall classes which will start in September.  The classes are taught by actual Korean teachers – always a bonus – who speak great English so when the students weren’t able to grasp a grammar point in Korean, they could easily explain it in English.  I highly recommend these classes! For more information, check out their website.

  • Rating: 4/5 for ease of learning (class sizes are limited to 30 which is nice) and 5/5 for effectiveness (I learned a lot about verbs and grammar in the 10 week course)
  • Cost: free

Join a language exchange group 

This is a great option for anyone above the beginner level.  It’s probably not the best way to start learning a new language, but once you have a basic grasp of Korean, it’s a great way to both improve your language skills and to meet new people.  Meetup is a great website to find a language exchange group in your hometown but there are other options too.  However, this option does depend on the quality of the participants (your language exchange partner and you) and your ability to practice too. [Full disclosure – I am one of the organizers for Say Kimchi, the Korean-English language exchange Meetup group in Toronto].  

  • Rating: 4/5 for ease of learning (I’ve had some great partners and it’s always lots of fun), 3/5 for effectiveness (I need to review the material afterwards for it to be effective)
  • Cost: Depends, there’s generally a small cost to join ($5 for my group) and a small cost for each class/exchange you attend ($2 for my group) to cover the lessons/printing

Get a language exchange partner 

This option is similar to the one above except you’re not in a group setting.  I’ve found this can be a great way to make friends.  I did this several times in Korea and we generally ended up as friends which was fabulous and one of the reasons I had more Korean friends than foreign friends in Korea.  As a way to improve my Korean, it was less effective as we generally talked in English but for those with a higher level, a language exchange partner can help you become more fluent.  The site I used most (and recommend highly even though they’ve changed recently) is Hanlingo.  I’ve just started using recently Conversation Exchange, too recently to make a recommendation but I will let you know what I think soon.

  • Rating: 5/5 for ease of learning (it’s one-on-one and you can decide what you want to learn), 3/5 for effectiveness (this can depend on the partner)
  • Cost: free, although people often meet in a café so you might want to buy a coffee or tea – tea for me please 🙂

Get a private tutor

This is the best option as your classes are entirely tailored to your needs and level, although it can also be expensive.  Of course, not all tutors are created equal.  It took me almost a year to find a great tutor in Seoul (I haven’t tried this option in Toronto yet) but once I did, my level improved significantly in the short time we spent together.  I believe if I had a year with a good tutor… my level would be amazing 🙂  Look for a tutor who is either a teacher or who has at least a year of tutoring experience.  Other criteria that are useful include: their English ability (for explaining difficult grammar points or new vocabulary), compatible teaching style (to your learning style), and friendliness.  Also look for recommendations from someone you know.  However, I would caution you from hiring a friend as money is involved.

  • Rating: 5/5 for ease of learning, 5/5 for effectiveness (with a good teacher)
  • Cost: $20-$50 a class (although I have seen some offered for $15) and you can often get a discount for two students if you have a friend who also wants to learn

Use Talk to Me in Korean (TTMIK) 

I discovered them a year or two ago and their podcasts (with accompanying PDFs) are fabulous.  This is a great way to start learning Korean as they have lessons from the absolute beginner (how to say “hello” in Korean) to intermediate dialogues.  I highly recommend them as an entertaining and effective supplement to more traditional classes (although I know some people who use them as their primary “class”).  You can find them through their website and on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and as a podcast on iTunes.

  • Rating: 5/5 for ease of learning (you can listen/watch the lessons at your convenience), 3/5 for effectiveness (I find them a great supplement but I learn better in a more organized fashion)
  • Cost: most of it is free but there are some components you can purchase at a small cost (under $10)

Use other online resources 

I’ve tried a few but most have an upfront cost or don’t stay in business long enough to be effective.  I have no problem paying for a good education but I’ve been burned by some bad ones in the past so I’d rather try the product/lesson/website before I pay.  That being said, I just signed up for the daily emails from Korean Flashcards and so far, this looks like a great way to increase my vocabulary.  Okay, weekly emails would be better for me because I don’t have enough time to memorize a dozen or more words everyday right now but it’s still a great idea.

  • Rating: depends on the website (sorry I’m not more exact)
  • Cost: depends on the website but they seem to be from $0-$150 from what I’ve seen

Buy a program like Rosetta Stone

I’ve only ever tried the demo version of this but it seemed a very natural method of learning a new language.  It’s based on how children learn their native language.  Very easy to use and the demo seemed fun too.  Would love to try a full version but it’s not in my budget at the moment.  They also have an online version, for more information check out their website.

  • Rating: 5/5 ease of learning, 4/5 for effectiveness (from the demo)
  • Cost: $179 for each level or $399 for all three levels

Ways I Haven’t Tried but Come Recommended

Take a class at a Korean (or Canadian) University

I didn’t go this route but I know some friends who did in Korea and their Korean improved faster than those of us who didn’t take the classes.  Many Korean universities offer both regular courses and intensive programs.  If I ever move back toKorea– always an option – I would love to take one of the intensive programs.  Language immersion is always effective!  Plus I’m one of the odd people who loves school/university.

  • Rating: 3/5 for ease of learning and 5/5 for effectiveness (based on friend’s experiences)
  • Cost: Depends on the program length and type as well as the university

Take a class at a private academy in Canada

I’ve never tried this option yet but am seriously tempted to.  One option that’s available is Hansa Canada.  They also offer private lessons.

  • Rating: none available at this time.
  • Cost: $375 per level (three levels), $375 for 10 hours of private lessons
What methods have you used to learn Korean?  Which do you find the most effective?  Which is the most fun?  Which would you recommend I try?

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday – this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it’s taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I’m the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

12 thoughts on “Review – Different Ways to Learn Korean

  • September 5, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    At the risk of tooting my own horn… 🙂

    E-book – an e-book offers some of the benefits of studying online or buying a textbook and self-studying. Korean Made Easy ( costs $7.99 (USD) and comes in PDF format – read it on your Kindle, smartphone, iPad, or anywhere you read PDF’s.

    This is for the absolute beginner – no previous Korean knowledge assumed or required.

    A few things covered:

    Getting the pronunciation right – the locals are picky about this
    About formalities and honorifics – a big deal in this Confucian-based society.
    Getting to know people – everyone from co-workers to your students
    The holidays Korea really celebrates – including the ones you WON’T find on your calendar.
    Eating – with a special section for vegetarians and those with allergies
    Korean alcohol – some of the most potent stuff around
    Curses – the words and phrases that’ll make the old people blush
    Handling your students (if you’re an English teacher)
    Talking to your boss and co-workers (if you’re a businessperson)
    Traveling around Korea – how to read the maps, get help, and get around without a guidebook
    What to say when you feel like crap
    How to make your way around a Korean jimjilbang
    Lots of Korean expressions – stuff some locals have never heard from a foreigner’s mouth.

    One link’s enough – look up if you missed it.

    • September 5, 2011 at 10:52 pm

      Sounds like a great book for “survival” Korean. Kinda similar to Lonely Planet’s Korean Phrasebook (which stayed in my purse for my first year in Korea). But I can’t endorse it without reading it 🙂

  • September 14, 2011 at 12:59 am

    I agree with you on language exchange! Just this past year I replied to a kijijii ad and it’s been a great way to brush up on my beginner Korean outside of Korea. 🙂

    Also, is the shiznit. They just keep getting better, and they’re so much fun. I <3 their scenario films on youtube.

    • September 14, 2011 at 7:43 am

      Hi Colleen, welcome to Life’s an Adventure 2! Yeah, I love Talk to Me in Korean, I need to make more time to watch them regularly.

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  • March 6, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    Have you used conversation exchange yet? I made a few friends through it but nothing much happened.

    • March 6, 2012 at 7:16 pm

      Yes, it took me a while to find a good language exchange partner (although I made some friends while looking) but I did find a good partner after about six months.

  • June 13, 2012 at 12:49 am

    If there is someone who wants to learn Korean I would be a help. I am staying in Toronto now and will stay until this Dec. I am a Seoul National university student who has 3 yrs experience of teaching (Math, English, Korean writing skills).
    And I don;t want much money for this. I just need to earn some experiences. But It would be great if i got some references or recommendations for my career as well.
    It there is someone who has interest in this pls contact me.

    • June 13, 2012 at 8:06 am

      Hi Yeojoo, that’s a great offer! I would love to meet you and discuss a volunteer teaching opportunity (references would be provided in English and Korean for it). I’ll email you later today 🙂

  • January 23, 2013 at 12:37 am

    Here are some other methods you could use to learn Korean:
    Get a word frequency list online that includes the top 500 or 1000 most commonly used words in the Korean language. These words will make up about 75 to 80 percent of the language, thus you will get to understand Korean much quicker in this way.

    Another method you can use is to simply find a Korean song you like, download the lyrics, print them out, and write down the words you do not understand right beside the lyrics. This works pretty well because we are able to remember words much quicker when they are accompanied by a melody. Also, in songs many words are repeated over and over again.

    3) Another method you could use is to download a Korean software. Although it is not the most cost efficient way, it is one of the most effective alternatives.

  • January 23, 2015 at 8:01 pm

    Hi Cindy,

    I would like to add ‘Beeline Language Korean’ to your list (

    Beeline Language teaches conversational Korean through an online video series. We teach through situated learning, meaning we teach the Korean necessary to go to a restaurant and order a meal or to take a taxi or book a hotel room.

    Included in our series are 12 videos teaching how to read and write Hangul (Korean).

    Please have a look and let us know what you think!

    • January 23, 2015 at 11:16 pm

      Hey, thanks for the recommendation but I can’t add anything to my list that I haven’t tried and when I visited your site – which looks nice – there didn’t appear to be a way to try a lesson without paying. Just an intro video (which was interestingly set in Toronto).

      Looks like something I might try but I don’t know – and certainly can’t recommend it – without at least seeing a lesson.


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