Learning Korean in Three Months: Recap and Next Steps

Share this:

We spent three months in Seoul, South Korea, learning Korean (in my case), or improving it (in my partner’s).

Korean is the ninth language I’ve tried to learn (properly, with books and lessons), and it’s Jo’s mother tongue — though one that as an American-born Korean she has always wanted to get past the “home” level.

Prior to getting to Korea, I had tried learning Korean on-and-off for about two years. I was defensible at basic Korean, so I went in with some basics, too. I also knew Mandarin Chinese, which gave me a lot of homonyms or etymological roots. Jo obviously had a foundation in Korean, but wanted to become a lot more comfortable with her mother tongue.

With that in mind, here’s a recap of our efforts in learning Korean.

Seoul Historic Centre - Learning Korean in Korea in Three Months cover image
Seoul Historic Centre – Learning Korean in Korea in Three Months cover image

How Much Korean Did We Learn in Three Months?

Here’s an overview of the amount of success we had in learning Korean over three months in Korea.


  • I’m a non-Korean speaker, but I previously learned Chinese (Mandarin) to an advanced level.
  • Jo’s an American-born Korean who mostly spoke English

Generally speaking, after three months of learning Korean (or improving it), I think we’re both somewhere in the vast field of “intermediate” Korean. Jo’s quite good, and I’m a bit good. She has better comprehension, as a native, and I have more vocabulary, as an obsessive reviewer.

Things I could do comfortably at the end of three months

  • I mastered the greetings in a natural way.
  • I could buy anything at markets (from kimchi / banchans to various market foods, including vegetables and fruit), and make chit chat with the store owners about myself and themselves.
  • I did my martial arts classes in Korean and mostly knew what was going on, though I got lost when it went into a lot of detail.
  • I could have most everyday conversations with people, like “How long have you been here?” “What work do you do”, etc.
Living in Korea buying banchan from local market
Buying kimchi and banchan from local market

Things I still struggle with after learning Korean:

  • Comprehension in general. I need to practise a lot more listening.
  • Watching TV shows is still out of my league. I have to pause for so long on every subtitle.
  • (And everything beyond those things)

I think it puts me roughly at B1 in the standard scale. The textbooks I work off all say “Intermediate” on them.

I feel like I’ve gotten over the main hump of learning Korean. I now know how hard it is, and I’m prepared to keep working on it.

My main challenge now is listening. I am trying to augment listening practise by listening to audio sources like conversations, before I go further into listening to radio and TV (which are gibberish to me now).

Jo is clearly better at Korean. She has the native speaker advantage, so she has to work far less to understand. She can watch TV shows and knows what’s going on, but if I ask her what a word means, she might not know.

Jo, as a Korean-born American, was previously uncomfortable speaking to strangers.

But after her time in Korea, Jo feels comfortable with Korean in everyday interactions. Previously, when she’d meet a Korean-speaking business person in the west (for example the staff of a Korean bakery, or in a Korean restaurant) she’d usually speak English. Nowadays she has no hesitation in speaking Korean with them. This is a huge win!

See this guide for some useful phrases for speaking Korean in a Korean restaurant.

How Hard Was Korean to Learn?

When I first started, I thought learning Korean wouldn’t bee too difficult. As time went on, I realised just how difficult it was, and I revised my article of “How hard is Korean to learn for Foreigners” from “somewhat hard” to “quite hard”.

Learning Korean seems easy at first blush because it’s reasonably easy to pronounce and it has a phonetic alphabet. There’s one obstacle down. In that sense, it seems easier than Chinese or Japanese (with Kanji).

But that impression of easiness is an illusion. Personally, I think Korean is the hardest language I’ve ever tackled.

This impression of the difficulty of learn Korean includes Chinese (I speak Mandarin Chinese quite well, and can still read and write — I’m rusty, of course), and Arabic, with which I had a more natural affinity because lots of words sounded familiar (as I grew up with Persian).

This opinion of Korean being hard surprises a lot of people I tell. And that’s why it surprised me, too.

The main reasons I find learning Korean so hard is because

  • The language is low-information
  • Koreans use grammar (rather than additional words or tone of voice) to express mood
  • Formality levels are bedevilling

I’ll explain more of this below.

Korean Writing is Low Information

Learning Korean is, in some ways, harder than learning Chinese because the writing system is quite low-information.

Like most written systems (e.g. that for English, Arabic, or Hebrew), Korean’s “Hangul” writing system just describes how the words sound. It’s up to you to know what they mean.

This is unremarkable if your base language is one that’s written in a latin alphabet. But it’s interesting to me because many Korean words have Chinese roots. So by moving to Hangul, the words are similar to Chinese words in that they’re brief (usually 1-2 syllables), and made up of limited phonemes (clusters of consonants / vowels).

Below are a few random examples of Korean words with Chinese roots. When learning Korean words, you just learn the way they sound. But if you were learning Chinese, you’d learn the pronunciation as well as the characters. (Note that these are not Hanja, but rather simplified Chinese):

  • 운동 (undong) means “exercise” (related to 运动)
  • 자연 (jayeon) means “nature” (from 自然)
  • 문화 (munwa) means “culture” (from 文化)
  • 공기 (gong-gi) means “air” (from 空气).
  • 대화 (dehwa) means “conversation” (from 对话)

The Chinese characters for each of those words are rich with meaning. When you see them, you know the meaning without even thinking of the sound. You even know their associations.

For example the first character in “exercise”, 运, means “transport” or “move”. I also know it in words that mean “luck”, “operation”, and “transportation”. So I have a general sense of its meaning.

Spoken Chinese also has tones, which while confusing at first, give you a bit more information about the word.

When you learn Chinese, the characters are both a curse and a blessing. They’re hard because there are so many of them. But they also help, because when you learn any word, you instantly learn the etymology of it, too. Tones add a bit more crucial information in a language with limited phonemes.

But when learning Korean, no such luck! Sure, there might be other words with “un” or “dong” in it, but I’d be making an educated guess, at best. I’ve even heard Korean teachers incorrectly describe the etymology of words. It’s just too hard to keep all the information on characters fresh when you don’t use them every day.

The result is that in Korean, it’s super hard to memorise words, and very easy to confuse one with another. It’s a classic case of a language where if I get the pronunciation slightly wrong, the person I’m speaking with can rarely guess what I mean. It’s super annoying.

I think if I were a native speaker of Chinese or Japanese, I’d do a lot better with Korean vocabulary, as the connections would be more obvious.

The Nightmare of Korean Grammar

The second reason I found learning Korean really hard is the grammar.

Korean is interesting in that it conveys a LOT of nuance in the grammar itself. For example, if I have a piece of cake and think it’s pretty tasty, I can say “This cake is tasty.”

But I can also convey nuance to “It is tasty” by adding one or two-syllable endings that mean: It’s tasty, and I didn’t expect it to be; It’s tasty, by my personal experience of having tasted it, or it’s tasty, and that’s why [I ate all of it]. There are many others.

This is tasty.맛있어요mas-iss-eoyo
This is actually quite tasty!맛있군요!mas-issgun-yo!
It’s is quite tasty, isn’t it?맛이지?mas-iji?
It’s tasty, isn’t it?맛있네요?mas-issneyo?
Would it be delicious?맛있을까요?mas-iss-eulkkayo?
(muttering to self) “This is tasty.”맛있다, 맛있다mas-issda, mas-issda
Because it’s delicious…맛있어서…mas-iss-eoseo…
It’ll probably / I suppose it’ll be delicious맛있을 텐데mas-iss-eul tende
Examples of conveying nuance in Korean grammar

The above table isn’t intended to be a list of things anyone would study when learning Korean. The translations are rough, and you can say they have different English meanings depending on the context. The table is just an example of how you express something in Korean with just a few little particles on the end of a word, rather than whole other words. The particles themselves don’t have a meaning.

After years of learning Korean, I’m still regularly coming across new ways of conveying nuance. I wonder if it’ll end anytime soon.

Formality levels are bedevilling

Learning Korean to speak to an Elderly Korean man sitting in Hallasan park

Lastly, learning Korean formality levels are quite difficult for someone who isn’t a native.

Some aspects aren’t so hard. In a textbook sense, I can get by knowing there are generally three formality levels, and the one in which words end in 요 is most useful for me. I rarely use the informal 반말 (half-talk) style, other than joking with my partner.

But the challenging part of learning Korean formality levels is that so many TV shows are mostly in the informal style, so watching them is just a constant stream of new words and phrases in a style I’m not familiar with and can’t use anywhere else.

And secondly, one of the pleasure of learning Korean is getting to speak to strangers. But when strangers talk to me, they sometimes use the next level up formal style, the one I would use with my grandparents (or maybe parents) if they spoke Korean.

This more formal Korean only changes the way words are conjugated; it changes some of the entire words. For example, there’s a “polite form” word for words like sleep, to eat, food, and other common things.

Challenges of Learning Korean in Korea

One of the main challenges I faced in Korea is that people would often speak to me in English.

This is partly because my level was only ever intermediate (lower intermediate when I got there, and intermediate by the time I left). However, compared to most places I’ve travelled to, Koreans were most likely to switch to English with me after I spoke Korean first.

I think this is because of a few reasons. Firstly, it’s safe to say that foreigners (or people who look foreign) probably don’t speak Korean, so it’s hard to get over the mental hurdle to speak Korean to someone with the wrong face. Secondly, many Koreans don’t mind using English for transactional work, and may be far more proficient at it than I am in Korean, anyway.

To cope with this, I developed a few tactics for making sure people would know I spoke Korean. I got used to speaking first, and speaking loudly and clearly. It worked quite well.

There are more reflections and tips on dealing with the “They keep switching to English!” situation here.

What I’ll Do Next

My main goals are to communicate with people without any obstacles. To get there, I’m going to have to do a lot more listening to natural Korean conversations.

I’m still working with a Korean teacher, but less often. With her, I’m going through a TTMIK book on natural Korean conversations, which I find quite useful.

Over time, I will keep building up confidence and fluency. Next time I’m with Jo’s family in the US, I’ll speak even more Korean with her mother.

How We’d Learn Korean Again

We actually tried a few different ways of learning Korean. Never mind what we did so much; here’s what we’d focus on next time.

I’m always torn about whether one should learn grammar or not.

If you go to a school or get a teacher who is trained in teaching Korean, they’ll take you though many grammar exercises.

I used Korean teachers and language partners online, and just tried talking to them. I also did the thing I usually do in each country of making local friends via hobbies and sports. (I found a little MMA club called Cube MMA and signed up for three months with them. They were tough!)

You absolutely need a Korean teacher.

Jo actually tried going to a school for a month. This involved a few hours of classes a day, and then homework every day. It was a full-time job. It really helped, and wasn’t prohibitively expensive, but it also worked quite well.

In the past, I got the most success learning Chinese at a full-time language institute. I studied there for eight months, doing three hours of class a day and 5-6 hours of homework. It was really necessary.

If I manage to free up my time a little more, I would consider taking a month off and doing a course. But right now, between my day job and my other hobbies, that would be a luxury. One day!

Share this:

Similar Posts

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments