However, if you want to become fluent, you’ll need to learn speaking skills from a native speaker via a language exchange.
As Korean media and culture have spread across the world in the last decade, more and more people have started learning the Korean language. However, not everyone can afford to move to Korea or take formal classes with a teacher.
Although there are plenty of books, apps, and web series designed to help Korean learners study, most students wonder if it’s truly possible to self-teach Korean.
Before you start downloading or buying every Korean learning app and textbook, read through this guide to understand what you can expect from learning self-taught Korean.
We’ll explore what makes Korean so difficult, how much of the language you can expect to learn in just a few years, and then guide you through some of the commonly used study tools.
How Difficult Is It to Learn Korean?
The US State Department keeps a list of languages ranked by how difficult they are for native English speakers to learn. This list is divided into four groups. Category I and II languages are similar to English, Category III languages are classed as “hard”, and Category IV languages are classed as “super-hard”.
You’ll find Korean safely nestled among Arabic, Mandarin, Japanese, and Cantonese in the Category IV “super-hard” languages. I.E., expect to spend thousands of hours studying Korean if you want to become completely fluent.
However, don’t let that number scare you off. Korean may seem difficult at first, but once you have the basics down, the rest will come naturally.
To understand what makes Korean such a difficult language, we’ll have to break it down into its basic components grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary, and script.
Korean grammar is hands down the hardest part of learning Korean. Compared to English grammar, you’ll struggle to find anything similar. Here’s why:
- Korean is an SOV language – In Korean, sentences are structured with the subject at the beginning of the sentence, the object in the middle, and the verb at the end. In English, we place the subject first, the verb in the middle, and the object at the end of the sentence. For example, the Korean equivalent of “I walked to the park” would translate literally to “I to the park walked”.
- Korean is an agglutinative language – Agglutinative languages, such as Korean, function grammatically by attaching word particles to both verbs and nouns to alter their meaning. Korean uses more than 100 of these grammatical particles to subtly change the inflection of their sentences and string together complex ideas that, in English, we would break into multiple sentences.
- Subjects and Topics – One of the most difficult concepts non-native speakers struggle with is differentiating subjects and the topics in their sentences. In Korean, you must clearly denote both for your sentence to make sense. In English, we often do not think about these grammatical functions, so when we study Korean, it’s difficult to keep subjects and topics straight.
If you’ve listened to spoken Korean, either in a K-drama, a vlog, or in real life, you’ll know that it doesn’t really sound like any other language.
It can sound high-pitched and whiny, silky smooth like butter, or deep and booming like a cannon. Mastering the variety of sounds inherent in the language can take time and, without clear pronunciation, Korean speakers may struggle to understand you.
Here are some of the most difficult parts of pronouncing Korean words:
- Aspirated consonants – Compared to English, Korean uses fewer consonant sounds, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’ll be easy. Korean uses five aspirated consonant sounds ㅃ, ㅉ, ㄸ, ㄲ, andㅆ that sound as if you’re being smacked in the face with a B, J, D, G, or S, respectively. They can be difficult for a Korean learner to master in context and will take lots of practice to ace.
- That weird R/L sound – It’s no lie that some East Asian languages struggle to differentiate their Rs and Ls; Korean is one of them. Korean uses a sound (ㄹ) that lands somewhere in between both an R and an L. Depending on where it goes in a word, it could sound like either.
- Deep vowel sounds – The deep booming quality of Korean comes from its highly specific vowel sounds. Korean uses very deep U and O sounds, as well as an EO sound that isn’t always easy to differentiate from a long O.
One of the main reasons why Korean doesn’t sound like any other language is because it isn’t like any other language. Korean is considered a linguistic isolate, meaning it can’t be traced back to an older branch of language. You’ll notice this in the vocabulary.
Many Korean words find their roots in Chinese written characters but that’s about the extent of their origin. Despite their link to Chinese characters, Koreans still have their own unique way of saying the words. Therefore, don’t expect to find anything similar to English or even Japanese and Chinese.
This isn’t actually a difficult point. Although Korea uses its own writing system, it’s arguably the easiest form of writing on the planet. Unlike Japanese and Chinese, Korean uses a phonetic alphabet system that can be learned in just a few weeks.
In fact, there’s an old saying that a wise man can learn to read 한글 (Hangul, the name of the Korean alphabet) in a single morning and a fool can learn it in a week!
Can You Learn Korean in 2 Years?
If you seriously want to learn a foreign language and are dedicated to language learning every day, you can learn a surprising amount of Korean in just 2 years. Self study will help you learn new words and grammatical points and prepare you to practice with a language partner.
You can watch K-dramas or listen to music to enhance your listening skills. Additionally, there are plenty of apps available to help you study new words and practice reading and typing in Hangul. As you continue learning, you’ll have a solid base of knowledge to work with.
Is Duolingo Korean Good?
Duolingo is an excellent language learning app for many languages, including Spanish and French, but when it comes to Korean, you may struggle to learn much from it.
Duolingo Korean is a good practice tool for anyone who has mastered the basics but, if you are a complete beginner, you’ll likely find that it scales up too quickly and doesn’t explain grammar points very clearly.
Alternatives to Duolingo Korean
If you want to study the Korean language as a beginner, we recommend using these learning materials:
- The Memrise Korean mobile app
- The Talk To Me in Korean book and podcast series
- The Korea Immigration & Integration Program textbook series
- The Naver Dictionary mobile app
Once you have a basic understanding of how to read Korean and form sentences, you can then graduate to Duolingo and benefit from their teaching format.
How Long Does It Take to Finish Duolingo Korean?
Duolingo Korean consists of 64 total skills broken up into five units. If you did one lesson a day, it would take you roughly 8 ½ months to finish all of Duolingo Korean.
However, if you work hard to complete a full skill every day, you’ll finish the course in about two months.
However, even after finishing Duolingo Korean, you’ll still only have a beginner’s level of understanding. You’ll then need to find other study tools to further your progress. Treat the app as a launchpad into a deeper world of studying.
Learning Korean or Chinese
Many beginners hoping to learn a new language often wonder whether they should learn Korean or Chinese. The answer depends on you!
Benefits of Learning Korean
If you want to study Korean, you’ll open yourself to a world of living, studying, and working in South Korea.
Once you reach a native language level, you’ll be able to fully engage with the abundance of Korean media and communicate with the vast diaspora community located throughout Asia.
You’ll also be able to work internationally for Korean shipping companies, banks, and as a Korean translator.
Benefits of Learning Chinese
If you learn Chinese especially Mandarin you’ll be able to work in mainland China and Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia without trouble.
Mandarin also offers more business opportunities. However, learning Chinese will require a different set of skills.
Compared to reading Korean, Chinese characters take years to master. On the other hand, Chinese grammar is far simpler than Korean.
Whether you want to learn Korean as a hobby or wish to someday live and work in Seoul, you can easily pick up some basic Korean through self-study. In just an hour a day, you’ll master the Korean alphabet, basic grammar structures, and elementary vocabulary. From there, you can use a host of learning materials to improve your overall knowledge.