How Long Does It Take To Learn Korean? 5 Ways To Speed It Up

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So you picked up Korean?

You may have heard how tough learning Korean can be.

And I won’t sugarcoat it: Korean is indeed hard to learn.

It used to be a struggle for me until it became a little bit easier just recently. But it’s still hard because new challenges kept showing up to me.

It’s a given that any new language takes time to learn. But how long exactly does Korean take to learn?

With such a question having different interpretations, let me break down for you this concept of learning time for Korean.

To help you out in your journey, should you wish to continue learning it, I will give you some advice on how to shorten the learning time.

Sounds good? Then read on.

The Time It Takes: 2,200 Hours, According to FSI

FSI, or Foreign Service Institute, is the largest institution that was able to measure the learning times of the most common foreign languages.

They’ve been teaching thousands of students for over 70 years, that’s why they can measure the average length of time a student takes to reach proficiency.

Proficiency, in this context, corresponds to a score of “Speaking-3/Reading-3” in the ILR scale. which translates to around B2/C1 level in the CEFR scale. Such level is enough to enable you to use a foreign language as a professional at work.

Languages are classified into five categories, ranging from I to V (shortest to longest). As it turns out, Korean belongs to Category V, which makes it one of the toughest languages to learn as an English speaker.

The average learning time is: 2,200 hours or 88 weeks in the classroom.

This puts Korean on par with Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Arabic (all Category V languages).

To read the full information of FSI and its language difficulty rankings, head over to FSI’s page to see for yourself.

Main Factors Affecting Learning Time

What could cause Korean to be such a difficult language?

I’m no language expert, but from my experience as a Korean learner, there are several key factors that make it longer to learn.

1. The Unique Features of Korean

Every foreign language is unique in its own way.

But particularly with Korean, these features can feel like a stretch and would take a while to adapt to.

What makes Korean distinct are the following:

  • It has an entirely different alphabet
  • It contains new sounds that are different from English
  • The sentences follow a Subject-Object-Verb structure
  • It requires the correct use of honorifics
  • Korean is a fast sounding language
  • The grammar can often involve similar usages with subtle nuances
  • Their unique culture which reveals a lot about their language

Every item above would already take time to get used to on their own. But combine all these features in the language and you’ll realize why it can take longer to get used to Korean.

2. Your Language of Origin

Korean has distinct linguistic features. But it’s not the features that cause a problem. Rather, it’s how different your target language is compared to your native language.

There exists a language distance between the two. The farther the distance, the harder and longer it usually takes to learn the language.

The students who enroll under FSI are mostly English speakers. With English as the starting point, this is supposedly where the difficulty rankings are applied.

Korean, given that it’s classified as Category V, is considered one of the most distant languages from English. At 2,200 hours it’s no wonder that learning it is incredibly tough.

3. Your Learning Environment

If you have an environment that’s conducive for learning, then you’ll be able to learn Korean faster.

But the same is true the other way around: if your environment is NOT in your favor, then it will take more time to learn Korean.

Given the data above, I will just add that the FSI’s standard measure of 2,200 hours was measured based on students that are learning in their language classrooms.

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t learn Korean inside a classroom – I learned the Korean language using the Internet in the comfort of my own home, using techniques such as immersion, spaced repetition, and consistent habits to learn Korean more effectively.

However, even if my online environment is conducive for learning, my physical environment is surrounded with my native language. I realized that this can be distracting and can prolong the time it takes to make progress.

If you’re just starting out, realize that your tendency is to default to your native language. If you want to speed up the process, your learning environment is something that YOU can absolutely take control of.

I’ll show you in just a bit how you can influence your learning time.

4. Your Experience With Learning Languages

If this is your first time learning a foreign language, then expect to take longer with learning Korean.

Your brain has to adapt to the new language and configure it to take on the mental challenges. This varies from person to person and it can be influenced by your mindset – whether you believe you can learn Korean or believe that it’s impossible.

Furthermore, learning languages is a skill which one could develop. The linguistic principles that you’ll use to learn Korean are the same with learning other languages such as Spanish or French.

It could be worrisome at first, since you’ll be first learning the basics such as spaced repetition, comprehensible input, active recalling, shadowing, and a whole boatload of concepts. But after getting to a high enough level of Korean, you’ll gain the confidence to take on new languages and learn them faster.

5. Your Language Learning Goals

The bigger your learning goals with Korean, the more time and effort it will take to reach it.

The 2,200-hour estimate of FSI would take a person to an intermediate level of Korean, enough to work on a professional level. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll become fluent and master the language.

If any, there will be diminishing gains the further ahead you are into the language. That means you’ll be spending more and more time just to receive steady gains.

But it’s your call – how good do you honestly need to become with your Korean?

What particular objective did you set out to achieve when you started the language? Is it to take off the subtitles when watching a Korean drama? To hold long conversations with natives? Or to simply get by and survive your travel to Korea?

Are you planning to take the TOPIK (or EPS-TOPIK) exam and score high in it? Or are you the type who wants to achieve as high of a Korean as you can, the sky being the limit?

5 Ways to Learn Korean Faster

With Korean being such a tough language to crack, is it possible to speed up the learning process?

I believe it can be done. And the techniques are based on the factors mentioned above, since they hold clues as to how you can influence your learning time.

1. Reduce the Learning Scope

You don’t need 2,200 hours to feel the effects of your learning efforts. You may start to notice more Korean words already as you study more words every day. Or you may find yourself reading your first full Korean sentence without a dictionary.

This takes us back to the question a while ago: How much Korean do you actually need?

Because it’s a good idea to narrow down and be specific with your learning goal – maybe you just want to consume content without subtitles, or talk to Koreans older than you in a polite manner, or learn enough survival phrases for your next travel.

Any of these specific goals wouldn’t require a full spectrum of language skills in order to achieve. In my case, I just want to consume Korean content without translation or subtitles, so I can put off the writing and speaking skill until later.

But I’m also planning to take the TOPIK exam, so I might have to start honing my writing skills. Not only that, I would have to learn some tactics and strategies for taking the exam so I can score better in it.

By being clear with the scope of your learning goals, you’ll know what to focus on and what to put aside for later. This shortens your learning time before you even get started with it.

2. Increase Effort and Time

Obviously, someone who studies for 3 hours a day is going to progress faster than someone who casually attends to it for 15 minutes.

By putting in more time and effort with learning Korean, the more stuff you can put into your head. Particularly, you can gain more knowledge, insights, and breakthroughs at a faster rate than someone who does it less.

Also, the more time you immerse in Korean content, the sooner the language will feel like a part of you. Before you know it, you will start to sound like them the moment you practice speaking and writing.

However, not everyone has the luxury of time and energy to learn a new language, especially a hard one like Korean. But don’t worry, there are other ways to go around this deficit.

3. Build Learning Momentum

Cramming Korean for 10 hours in one day then not attending to it for a week doesn’t sound like a good idea.

It would be better if you can build momentum with your learning pursuit. The simplest way to do it is by starting small but consistent habits.

When you don’t have much time in your hands, consistency can be your weapon. Something about going steadily makes learning a language easier – it builds knowledge one day after another, plus it shows proof that you are committed to learning in the long run.

Does it cut your learning time? I think so. Because when you always start and stop, it takes much more time to build up new momentum. You can save time by not stopping at all and continuing to study in order to stay sharp and avoid forgetting knowledge.

4. Apply Effective Learning Strategies

In order to shorten the overall time it takes to learn Korean, it’s best to focus on effective methods that are relevant to your goal.

There are many techniques for learning a foreign language, and they come in different levels of effectiveness. Usually, you’ll know if it’s effective if the method challenges you more and would get you out of your comfort zone.

One of the techniques I use is to consume lots of comprehensible input content, which is a form of immersion where I learn the target language in its natural state.

In the case of Korean, I typically pick between videos, podcasts, articles, and other types of Korean media to immerse on. The key is to try to understand what I’m consuming, which in itself is uncomfortable and takes a lot of mental effort to be able to do.

As I’ve said, there are plenty of language tips and hacks out there, including talking to native speakers, doing active recall, shadowing, explaining what you’ve learned to others, and so on.

The more direct and relevant your strategy is to your specific goal, the faster and sooner you could accomplish that goal.

5. Learn About Korean Culture

Having background cultural knowledge of Korea and the Korean culture is going to help you learn Korean faster.

When you know little snippets of information such as the Korean traditional clothing (Hanbok), the various types of Korean food (bibimbap, kimchi, bulgogi), or the different places and cities in Korea like Seoul or Busan, when they appear in your Korean studies you won’t have to look them up anymore, which saves you time and sustains your momentum.

Back in the day, the first few words I noticed during immersion are places such as Gangnam and Seoul, as well as foods such as bulgogi or tteokbokki. There are occasional English words as well such as coffee and chocolate, which is quite a relief for us English speakers.

Culture is one aspect of the Korean language that you could consume in English whether you watch YouTube videos or TV shows, listen to podcasts, or read about it through online articles. The more you know, the smoother your immersion would become.

Learning Korean Takes Time, But It Can Be Enjoyable

That said, no matter how much you influence your learning time, success won’t happen overnight.

Korean isn’t a walk in the park – there are many challenges to face along the way. But for every challenge you conquer, you get one step closer to mastering the language.

It takes a while to start seeing the benefits, but it doesn’t have to be as long as the FSI estimates. You can begin to dig deeper into Korean culture in just a few hours.

Later on, once your brain figures out the majority of the confusion, everything will start to click. You gain access to more content suited to your potential.

With enough ability, you can then say that you’re proficient enough to take on a career out of Korean.

But hey…

You might as well drop the idea of learning time and just have fun. Time will pass by naturally when you simply enjoy your learning.

If you’re worrying whether or not you’ll get to your destination, I’ll be optimistic to tell you that you WILL reach it.

You will get there and it’s worth it, even if you’re still on the way like I do.

For now, I encourage you to begin (or resume) your Korean learning today. Good luck on your journey!

Let me know in the comments how far you are with Korean. Let’s hold each other accountable down below.

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