How We Learned Fluent Korean in 6 Months

Hangeul Day by The Republic of Korea

Learning fluent Korean in a 6 month timeline was one of the first challenges we took on back when we started Road to Epic – it was a big success and a lot of what we learned during the experience has influenced our articles on language learning since.

Recent renewed interest in the challenge has made me realize though that I never really did a satisfactory job of outlining exactly how we did it. That was a big oversight on my part, so I’m posting this to make up for it and lay out exactly what all we did to meet our six month deadline successfully.

I’m going to split it into three sections because that’s essentially how we broke things down.

The Vocabulary

Even when I’m not working under the constraints of a deadline, I don’t like to waste time. There are just way way too many words out there to try to learn all or even most of them – particularly in 6 months. Thankfully, you don’t need to know much vocabulary to be fluent.

We applied the 80/20 principle and focused on the most commonly used couple thousand words only, that way we were learning the words that we would be most likely to hear and use the most first and ignoring extraneous vocab like ‘defenestration’ that probably won’t come up much.

In my experience having a good handle on the first 3,000 most common words or so gives you the tools to have a fluent conversation 90% or more of the time so that’s what we focused on. 3,000 words divided into six months comes out to about 17 words per day which is totally reasonable. We learned 1,000 words in one month for a bit of a sub-challenge and, while definitely a bit work-intensive, it wasn’t all that painful to accomplish. 3,000 in six months isn’t bad at all.

To do the actual learning part we used a combination of memory hooks and spaced repetition system (SRS) learning.

At the time we mostly used Anki which you can download here.

Anki uses a spaced repetition system to show you flashcards in tailored intervals to maximize long term retention. There’s a huge library of pre-made flashcard decks and we simply chose the best looking deck of the most commonly used Korean words.

While we didn’t use it at the time, Memrise has since come out with a free iOS and Android app that uses a similar spaced repetition system but with crowd sourced pre-made memory hooks so you don’t have to come up with your own.

I currently prefer Memrise to Anki, mostly because of the convenience factor, but there’s no reason you can’t use both or whichever one you personally prefer.

Once we had our SRS program and our decks of the most common Korean words we scheduled set times everyday to practice on them just like we set scheduled times to work out.

The Grammar

For the grammar we were really only concerned initially with the very basics. Like with the vocab we made a point of focusing on the most common grammatical points first (simple present tense declaratives, interrogatives, etc.) and worried about the more complicated stuff as it came up (conditionals, subjunctives, etc.).

One of the biggest helps was one of our Korean friends who was kind enough to translate a bunch of example sentences for me that I wrote specifically to tease out some common grammatical points. I have a background in linguistics, so I knew what to look for and wouldn’t necessarily recommend this approach for most people unless you’re into grammar on its own. If you do want to find someone to translate some example sentences for you but don’t know anyone who speaks your target language I recommend iTalki and Lang-8 which we’ll get to in the next section on practice.

What I would recommend is a combination of Talk To Me In Korean and Monash University’s My Korean.

Talk To Me In Korean (henceforth TTMIK because I’m lazy) is one of my absolute favorite resources for Korean language learning. On their site at TalkToMeInKorean.com they have a ton of excellent grammar lessons. We jumped around quite a bit since we knew what we wanted to target first and had the most questions about, but you can do the lessons in order if you’re not concerned about specific things.

My Korean is a free textbook put out by Monash University. You can download it here for free. We used My Korean similarly to how we used TTMIK, mostly jumping around and targeting things we specifically wanted to practice or learn. Again though you can go cover to cover and get a ton out of it. It’s one of the best Korean textbooks we’ve come across.

Like the vocab practice we had an hour or so set aside each night of our six months to either go back over a grammatical point we were still struggling with or to learn a new one that we hadn’t gone over yet.

The Practice

Last but absolutely not least comes the actual practice.

If your goal is fluency, i.e. being able to carry on a casual, fluid conversation with a minimal amount of breaks, then practice is just as important as the other two above. Speaking a language is a skill and just like how you can’t learn to swim by reading lots of tutorials and never getting in a pool you can’t learn to be fluent by doing all studying and no practice.

In our case we made heavy use of our native Korean speaking friends alongside the sites iTalki and Lang-8.

iTalki is an excellent resource that you can use to find native speakers to practice with or even dedicated language teachers you can have remote lessons with over Skype.

In our case we used a pretty even mix of both. We didn’t have time scheduled everyday for Skype sessions, but we had them as often as possible and filled in conversations with our local friends as much as we could.

We used Lang-8 as often as possible as well by writing posts on there using whatever grammar item we were learning at that point as much as possible. That gave us a way to practice them while still putting a little thought into things and get corrections from native speakers in a written form that we could save long term.

In addition to these three areas there was a lot of passive learning (watching Korean media, listening to Korean music, reading Korean news and books, etc.) but I don’t consider these things to be nearly as important a the dedicated and focused learning and practice.

Have any other questions about what we did or any suggestions of things you’d add to help other learners? Any good resources for people learning something other than Korean? Share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: The Republic of Korea

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com

  • BS

    I would love to see your lang-8 posts, Mr “Fluent.” You may be able to have very basic everyday conversations after six months, but that is it. When the layperson hears the word “fluent,” they think more along the lines of being able to maintain and develop relationships using Korean alone, or being able to speak about and study a favorite hobby or subject in Korean alone. I do approve of your suggestions, just not the “Fluent Korean” you so proudly tout in your title.

    • dannyR

      I don’t wish to violate the TOS, but I’m not seeing any evidence on this site, or a link, that the man has learned any Korean whatsoever, although he apparently learned a bit of Chinese.

    • ArtisticWatermelon

      I agree, but you have to admit for just 6 months he accomplished a lot

  • BS

    정말로 한국어를 유창하게 말할 수 있으신가요? 저는 유창하다는 말이 적당한 말이 아니라고 생각해요. 아마 “6개월 이내에 기능적인 한국어를 배우는 비법”은 더 적당한 제목이 아닌가요?

  • Nina

    Hello! First of all, congratulations and good luck on your trip to learn Korean! Thank you very much for sharing your experience, ideas and thoughts. I have one question. How many hours a day did you study? I would also recommend the website “how to study Korean” to all the learners of the Korean language. This is the best website for learning Korean (along with TTMIK). Greetings from Poland!

  • Vincent Cap

    Be fluent in korean take at least 1 year for the smartest of us, more likely 2 for the vast majority. Since i’m into language learning too i see this kind of nonsense everywhere online and always wondering why this guys are always writing in english and never translate in the “i’m showing off about my X language skills”.. I think everyone can guess why..

  • Sydney P.

    Did you just memorize the vocabulary from a book? Or did you memorize them with grammar/examples? I tend not to know how to know how2 to use the words I learn… Will this fix itself as I learn more grammar?