How to learn Korean vocabulary

Some fellow Korean learners say that it is difficult to remember all the vocabulary out there. I personally don’t find it challenging at all because I have an effective way to expand my vocabulary.

Before I dive into the tips on how to learn Korean vocabulary effectively, we should ask ourselves at which stage of my Korean learning should we be focusing on vocabulary, which type of vocabulary and why.

I have seen a language blogger sharing that she crams a list of fruit names in romanisation before even being familiar with Hangul (The Korean alphabet). I wonder what is the use of it. Without a grasp of even basic Korean grammar and sentence structures, how likely do you run into a situation where you need to know the Korean word for aubergine? In order to become fluent, is it really necessary to know the Korean word of pineapple at the beginner stage? I don’t believe that is the most effective way of learning Korean vocabulary, or even the Korean language for that matter.

I started keeping a study notebook when I was a beginner. One section of the notebook was dedicated to vocabulary where I jotted down the words that I come across. The benefits are two-fold: (1) It helped with the practice of writing the Korean alphabet and (2) I can refer back to my notes when I come across the same word again. However as time goes on, when I reached intermediate level, there are just too many new words and I was too lazy to keep track of all of them. This is because I knew that the next time I see the same word, I can easily check it up in the dictionary to refresh my memory, which is actually quicker than if I had to refer to my unorganised notes. I also found it much easier to remember Korean vocabulary when I became more advance in my Korean studies. Maybe that was because I had got used to the Hangul and the sound of Korean words. Therefore it is really not necessary to be in a rush to cram vocabulary at the beginner stage.

Now let me introduce my approach for learning Korean vocabulary and some good practical tips on how to go about it. The good thing about my approach is that it involves no flash cards, no rote memorisation. When I got to intermediate level I didn’t even bother to keep a notebook for vocabulary or separately work on building my vocabulary. It is just an integral part of my learning.

1. Repeated exposure and context

We have to understand that the human brain works best by association. It is usually very hard to remember someone’s name if you don’t know anything about this person and have not met him before. Now if you have met this guy John in person, knows that he is your sister’s husband, he has helped you fix your computer because he works in Dell. Then it is much less likely you will forget John’s name when you next meet him in a family gathering. If you still find it hard to recall his name, imagine after meeting him three times on different occasions, by then John’s name should be etched quite deeply in your memory. Compare this with repeating John’s name 50 times in your head. I would believe memory by association is much more effective.

The same goes for remembering vocabulary when you learn any language. Take the example of how I came to know the word 가시 (thorn or pointy things that can hurt you).
The first time I came across this word is when I was reading a book. That chapter talked about digging the ground for gold and it wouldn’t be worth it if the ground was covered by barbed wires (가시 is the spike on the barbed wire). I had to check the dictionary to know its meaning. Then I didn’t even bother to jot it down anywhere and move on with my reading.
If two days later you asked me what is the Korean word for thorn, I probably couldn’t answer you. So I had to wait for the next time I come across the same word to reinforce my memory.
A few months later I was watching a cat video where someone was feeding fish to stray cats. Some people left comments expressing concerns that the fish bones (가시) would hurt the cats. I vaguely recalled that I have seen that word before. With the context of feeding fish to cat, I could already guessed that 가시 means fish bone. I could also choose to double-confirm by checking the dictionary again.
The third time I saw this word was as the name of an old song by a band called Buzz. The moment I saw the song name 가시 I went, ‘I know it means thorn!’
This is the point when you know that this word will be stored in your memory quite permanently because you have wrapped ample context and association around the word to support your memory of it.

What if I don’t come across the same word again?

To be effective in expanding your vocabulary, you would want to prioritise vocabulary commonly used in day to day conversations. Using just flash cards or rote memorisation alone, you never know if you are wasting time and effort on obsolete word that no one really use. In contrast, with this approach, it basically guarantees that the words you have the strongest memory of are the words that are used the most often. If you come across a word and never come across it a second time, that is good evidence that the word is not in common usage, so why do you care?

But using this method alone will take a long time to build up my vocabulary?

From my experience I don’t feel that it takes any longer than rote memorisation. For me I can only remember by context and exposure; rote memorisation simply does not work for me. If you feel that the flash card type approach works well for you, you can also combine this method with the flash card methodology. Say the first time you see a new vocabulary, you copy it down on a flash card or a vocabulary notebook. Then periodically you review these vocabulary and try to recall the context it was jotted down in. Over time you will come across the same word again in song lyrics, dramas or readings. Your memory is then reinforced in the same way.

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I love this approach and highly recommend it to anyone wanting to learn a new language simply because it is fun and easy! It doesn’t feel like work at all. You are simply enjoying the song or the show with only the back of your brain noticing if there are any new words or words you have seen before but not yet familiar with.
This approach guarantees that your effort is spent on the most commonly used vocabulary only. This is also the most effective because the human brain memory works best by association. The best of all is that it gives you an excuse to watch more dramas! (I am just studying Korean!)

2. Reading out loud

When I come across a new word and check it in the dictionary, usually I also listen to the dictionary pronunciation and read it out loud after it. This is important too as it combined visual with audio memory. The sound of the word is another layer of context that you wrap around the word you are learning. This is why usually it is much easier to remember lyrics than a standalone passage.

3. Choose materials that are right for your level

As a beginner, if you pick up a Korean newspaper, very likely all the words in one sentence are new vocabulary to you. Obviously you wouldn’t use such material to improve your vocabulary. Ideally you should use materials that contain only one to three new words so that you can enjoy the passage at the same time pick up new words along the way. Throughout the Miss Elly Korean self study guide, I will recommend the right resource to use at each stage of Korean learning.

4. Be familiar with the different forms of the same word

Similar to how “standard“, “standardise“, “standardisation“ are all variants of the same word in English, Korean words also behave in the same manner. First familiarise yourself with the rules how Korean words change into other variants, then it will dramatically simplify the effort you need because you will only be remembering the basic form of all the variants.
Below is a non-exhaustive list of different variation patterns of the same word that I find useful to know early. I may cover the exact underlying grammar rules separately as it is not the subject of this post.
(Someone/ something being) missed
Basic form: 그립다
Present tense in a sentence (informal): 그리워
Active / third party: 그리워하다
Noun: 그리움
Nature
Basic form: 자연
Adjective (with natural characteristics): 자연스러운
Basic / dictionary form of the adjective: 자연스럽다
Solve / untie
Basic form: 풀다
Passive voice: 풀리다
Good
Basic form: 좋다
Become good/ improve: 좋아지다
Sparkle
Adverb: 반짝반짝
Verb (continuously in a sparkling state): 반짝거리다 / 반짝반짝하다 / 반짝대다

5. Don’t use flash card type tools or rote memorisation

I do not recommend flash cards or flash card types of app such as Memrise. Also I do not suggest creating artificial context just to remember the words e.g. I saw a website teaching you to remember 집 (home) by picturing a jeep parked outside your house. First I find remembering the artificial context even more difficult than remembering the word itself. Second it depends on romanisation of the Korean word which is a very bad habit.

I hope you will find these tips in learning and remembering Korean vocabulary useful. If you have any other suggestions please feel free to leave a comment below. Subscribe to get more helpful Korean learning tips and advice!