How to Learn Korean from K-Dramas (“Kill Me, Heal Me” Edition)

Study Korean with Ahn Yoo-Na!

I love foreign languages, so this is a post for my fellow language geeks.

I started trying to learn some Korean last May, because I was watching dramas a few hours a week. “Learning Korean” sounded like a great way to rationalize my new, very sedentary hobby.

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I know I’m not the only one. Lots of drama fans pick up some Korean phrases and words from watching K-dramas and hanging out on forums.

But there’s a difference between picking up a few phrases and learning a language. If your goal is to watch and understand a drama without subtitles, that’s going to require a ton of skills—and watching by itself doesn’t prepare you to talk to people in Seoul. So if you’re a drama fan and want to study Korean on your own, what’s the best way to do it?

A few things I’ve figured out:

Simple is not the same as easy.

Here in America, we often think it’s impossible to learn a foreign language as an adult. In reality, adults all over the world learn new language skills all the time. It’s impossible to learn a foreign language without an accent as an adult, but with practice, adults who really want to can minimize their accents and speak a new language.

The simple thing about learning Korean without a teacher is that dramas are fun. And when you fall in love with a good story, you can use some of that obsession to power your learning. If you want to understand badly enough, you can learn an enormous amount with a basic grammar book, a dictionary, and internet access to a good show.

(Hard-core drama fans eventually get into a situation where they’re desperate to know what happens next, and the subtitles aren’t quite ready yet. This is one of those moments when you feel extremely motivated to learn.)

asia-globe thumbnailBut it’s not easy to follow through. I’ve studied a lot of languages over the years—for fun, for school, for career. Italian, French, Japanese, German, Spanish, Arabic, Turkish, Norwegian, and now, Korean.

Of all the languages I messed around with, the only ones I speak and understand well are French and Arabic—the languages I studied at university. For the rest, which I studied on my own, my knowledge ends at basic phrases and the lyrics to a few pop songs.

The reason I haven’t mastered any languages without a professor grading me isn’t because it’s impossible to learn on my own. I just don’t have much self-discipline. I love some aspects of language learning, but not others. I get a huge thrill out of talking to a stranger in broken German or Italian. No matter how little I understand and how limited my vocabulary is, I love the feeling when you suddenly realize, ah! That’s what he’s saying!

But I don’t get excited about memorizing verb conjugations, which is why I usually need teachers to force me to practice. Dramas themselves motivate me a fair bit, so I’m already further in Korean than in the other six languages I tried on my own (six? yikes). But I can’t only watch dramas. I have to review vocabulary sometimes, for instance.

So simple isn’t the same as easy. I suspect if I want to learn Korean from dramas, I also have to do hard things like practice vocabulary occasionally.

learn korean alphabet hangul_logo_sizedLearn the alphabet.

Hangul, the Korean alphabet, is one of the easier alphabets to learn. And the only way to know if you’re pronouncing the name of your favorite actor correctly is to know the alphabet.

I used a free app called Tengu Go. I compared it with a few other apps, and this one had the clearest explanations. (They also have an app for Android and apps for a few other languages, like Arabic and Japanese—Hiragana and Katakana—but I haven’t tried these out.) It’s still available for free and these links will get you to the version for Android or the version for iPhone.

It took a couple days to get the letters in my head. Then I practiced reading syllables to see how the letters look in different positions in the combination syllables.

One way to do this practice is to pause the credits of your current drama and practice reading the names. I got pretty excited when I could sound out syllables this way. “Hey, 지성! That means Ji Sung! I love him!” You get the idea. I’m easily amused.

(I also tested myself on recognizing syllables with the “Hangul Quiz” under “Study Tools” at Korean Class 101, which I talk about below.)

learn korean from zero smallPick up a basic grammar book.

I’m using Korean from Zero (by Trombley, Bullen and Bong), which is designed for people learning on their own. I’ve used two Korean self-learning texts, but this is the only one I use most.

The other book I use, Korean Made Simple (by Billy Go), is limited because it only teaches polite speech. Polite speech is important, but I also want to understand how informal speech sounds. Korean from Zero has the advantage of including polite plus informal grammar.

I’m glad I have two books, though. Korean Made Simple is great for getting a “second opinion” when I’m confused about something or I just want more explanation. With languages, the more tools you have, the better.

Speaking of having lots of tools, Korean from Zero begins with a thick chapter on learning the alphabet, so you could start with this book from the beginning. I enjoy using as many different tools as possible, though, because I get bored fast. Also, Korean from Zero‘s alphabet chapter goes into a lot of detail about sound change rules. These rules didn’t make sense to me when I first learned the alphabet. They didn’t interest me until I’d seen them in action.

Instead of immediately mastering everything related to hangul, I recommend learning the basics of reading, then learning some phrases and a little grammar. After you’ve gone through a couple lessons, you’ll notice that the book sometimes tells you to pronounce letters in irregular ways. If you’re wondering why, now’s the time to go back to chapter one and read about sound change rules.

After the alphabet, Korean from Zero introduces basic phrases and the numbers. It’s a little boring to memorize this stuff, but as soon as you do, you’ll be hearing these words in dramas all the time. “What is your name?” came up a fair bit in Kill Me, Heal Me, for instance.

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Start hoarding vocabulary.

Pick a system to start your word hoard. I tried paper flashcards, Quizlet, and Korean Class 101’s flashcards.

I’m really good at losing things, so the paper flashcards are now under the furniture all over my apartment. Quizlet is great—I love its wide variety of tools for reviewing and testing myself—but to get the cards ready I had to create them myself or find a public set of flashcards that just happened to line up with what I wanted to learn. This worked sometimes but not always (maybe I’ll write later about how I’ve used it).

Now I use Korean Class 101’s flashcards the most, even though at first I didn’t want to pay for them. Korean Class 101 has a lot of great resources available for free, but their well-designed system for learning and reviewing vocabulary is only available to “premium members.” Premium membership costs $10 a month.

Flashcards are my nemesis, though. My hands-down most detested part of language learning is writing out paper flashcards, and typing up computer flashcards is almost as bad. I went with the Korean Class 101 membership and it was worth it for me. The site has thousands of basic words ready to go, and it regularly re-tests me on vocabulary in a system called spaced repetition. The spaced repetition is particularly useful when I’m having trouble remembering a word. The site keeps nagging me until I get it right.

I use the site’s “word-bank” as well, which allows setting up a personal vocabulary list. When I start watching a new show, I often look up a few words I think we’ll be hearing a lot and I add them to my word-bank and flashcards. For example, if it’s a legal thriller, I know I’ll hear the word for “prosecutor.” If it’s Kill Me, Heal Me, I bet I’ll have a chance to learn the word for “psychiatrist.”

(Update: if you want to make your own computerized flashcards and review them with spaced repetition, you can use an amazing piece of free software called ANKI. Check out Gabriel Wyner’s amazing resources at Fluent Forever for a guide to setting up your own ANKI flashcard system. Developing your own flashcards is arguable the best way to remember words. Imagine having vocab flashcards entirely made up of drama screenshots!)

Whatever system you choose, start adding common words and phrases that you might hear in dramas, and learn new words like crazy. I recommend writing down the words you’re learning a few times, too, for practice with the alphabet. My handwriting’s awful, so I picked up one of those tablets for first graders who are learning to write. The lines force me to at least try to write the letters correctly.


Watch with Korean Subtitles, Read, Repeat. Then do everything all over again.

I now have a process that I repeat every few days. Or whenever I feel like it.

1. I’ll do a lesson or two in Korean Class 101. These lessons are very short (ten minutes each) and focus on practical, spoken Korean. The common words and phrases here come up in dramas a lot. I’m learning to recognize a lot of basic grammatical structures from these lessons, although they don’t go into any depth about the grammar.

2. I’ll read one of the short chapters in Korean from Zero. I do the exercises and check the answer key in the back. Then, I re-do the exercises I messed up and try to figure out what I did wrong.

3. I’ll study the vocabulary from the audio lesson and Korean from Zero.

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4. Now the fun part: I look on Viki for dramas that I’m familiar with and that have Korean subtitles. You can find out if they have Korean subtitles by clicking on the list of languages in the upper right hand corner. Lots of shows don’t have any Korean. Others have Korean subtitles for 100% of the first episode, and then the Korean subtitles peter out.

And Kill Me, Heal Me? This is unbelievable, amazing, epic. It’s the first show I’ve ever come across where every episode is 100% subbed in Korean.

That’s twenty hours of Korean language learning videos starring Oh Ri-Jin, Yoo-Na, Perry Park, Shin Se-Gi and the lovely Cha Do-Hyun. This is way too cool.

Then I look for scenes where I’m likely to hear the vocabulary and grammar I’ve just learned about.

For instance, chapter three in Korean from Zero introduces the numbers. Lesson 5 in Korean Class 101 gives sentences for saying what time it is. I’ll take a look at the chapter and the lesson and then go to the end of episode one of Kill Me, Heal Me, when Shin Se-Ki says, “10 o’clock.”

I’ll watch with Korean subtitles while listening to the Korean.

I’ll try to hear the words I think I should hear.

I’ll pause the video and read the hangul subtitles to find the words I know.

Usually, I have to watch a short clip several times before I even hear the word I’m looking for. Even though I know when Shin Se-Ki’s is going to deliver his immortal line, “Remember! 10 o’clock!”, it still sounds like total gibberish the first time I hear it.

I’ll hit pause again, remind myself what I think “10 o’clock” is in Korean, and slowly read the subtitle, looking for my word. This sentence is actually full of numerals, because it includes the year and date as well as the time. I don’t recognize all the words in the sentence, but I can listen for the numbers.

Then I do whatever I have to in order to get something out of that sentence. I’ll read it out loud a few times (badly). I’ll listen to it a few times, trying to hear each word. And I’ll repeat out loud what I’ve heard.

Viki is a wonderful site for all this repetition because it has that button that allows you to rewind ten seconds. If you study the same ten seconds a few times, you’ll train your ear, practice speaking and reading, and reinforce vocabulary. And you’ll be able to say you learned Korean from movie stars.

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I’ve also used subtitles in a more informal way as I’m watching. For instance, one of the first lessons in Korean Class 101 included the words for “novel” and “mystery novel.” When I’m watching with English subtitles, if I see the word “mystery novel” in a dialogue with Oh Ri-On, I’ll go on alert for the Korean word.

If I’m feeling ambitious, I sometimes replay a few lines of dialogue to listen for a word. I don’t use the words “mystery novel” much in my everyday life, but luckily Oh Ri-On uses them a fair bit, so thanks to him, the word’s pretty fixed in my head now.

And thanks to the hangul subtitles, I can practice the grammar I’m learning, too. I’m on pretty simple sentences right now, for example, “It is that child.” Since the sentence “It’s that child” comes up a lot in Kill Me, Heal Me, I’ve got that sentence structure down. I can easily hear Shin Se-Gi’s voice in my head when I want to compose a sentence in that structure. Whatever vocabulary you’re learning, when you hear it in a drama, it suddenly sticks in your mind in a whole new way.

Have fun.

In case it sounds like I’m systematic about this, let me admit that I’m not. I just keep messing around with the language and having fun. I follow my curiosity when I want to know what a word means, or when I want to figure out a sentence. It’s just me watching dramas with a grammar book in one hand and some flashcards in the other. And I mutter to myself sometimes. In Korean, of course.kill me heal me episode 16 hwang jung eum ji sung railraod large opt

If you’ve watched a few dramas, you’ve already heard certain Korean phrases many times. One of the first things I did was nail down some of the common stuff. Since I had already heard “thank you” and “really?!?” a lot, I just had to learn to spell them in hangul to be able to check them off my list. This gave me a big sense of accomplishment at the beginning.

Without a teacher, it’s hard to stay on track. Sometimes I study ten hours one week and forget to do any Korean the next week. I gotta work on being more consistent.

But the dramas themselves serve as a teacher. Because the final exam is always the same: watch the next episode of the show you adore before the subtitlers get to it. How much did you understand?

There’s your grade.

As they say in Korean, bingo. ♥

Please let me know if any of my ideas help you, or if you have other methods for learning through dramas!

3 thoughts on “How to Learn Korean from K-Dramas (“Kill Me, Heal Me” Edition)

  1. I see KMHM obsession is still going strong here… It’s comforting because I feel the same, haahahah!
    I started to learn Korean sometimes ago but I dropped it… way too difficult for me to learn by myself (I switched back to Japanese that I learned in university so already have the basics) but KMHM gave me the taste to go back to Korean 🙁 …
    Ottokke? What should I do??? Aigo!
    I suspect KMHM would be wonderful to study the different levels of speech used by the same character. From what I can hear uri Cha-kun changes quite a lot his level of speech during his healing process, starting from extreme politeness (even with his subordonates…) to finish with banmal.

    Bonne chance!

  2. Fine fine! stop nagging I’ll try, you show off! Haha just kidding. Thanks for the tips! They’re wonderfully detailed. I’ll have to try one of these days.

    Besides ‘thank you’, and ‘really’, the easiest phrases I’ve picked up are curse words. But I don’t think they’re always translated exactly. I know in some languages the same word has varying severity, mild term to swearing, and I’m guessing Korean is like that too. It’d be clearer if I could read hangul. Any resources on this?

    Not to mention if I’m going to become a Korean hip-hop aficionado (ambitious, I know) I’ll need to know the language so I can systematically refute some dubious claims by kpop fans which I know are wrong even without translations. Underground ftw! As much as I like dramas, that lights the fire under my butt more since coherent translations for lyrics are a rare white elk according to google *cries*.

  3. @ Emmanuelle — It’s true, I can’t move on! I’m weaning myself off KMHM by watching everything Ji Sung has ever been in, which is a major project. The guy’s prolific. When it comes to language, the thing that stymies my efforts is the difficulty of finding a grammar text for self-learners. I got frustrated on that end when I tried Japanese. This Korean FZ book gives good explanations, though, (as does the Language 101 site), so if I try Japanese again, I’ll try the FZ series. One thing I like with Japanese is that when I started learning Kanji, I could see them all over.

    I love listening to the politeness levels in KMHM. It’s a simple thing but it changes my understanding of the story a lot. Since I’ve only studied European and Middle Eastern languages where politeness is a minor thing, it amazes me that Korean and Japanese are so specific about something we’re incredibly vague about. And then their language is vague about stuff our language is careful with. I didn’t catch everything going on in KMHM, but I loved that scene in ep 19 when Cha Do-Hyun is talking to Ri-Jin in banmal, and she’s like, why are you talking like Shin Se-Ki? And I’m thinking, finally! I wonder what gave him the nerve to go casual with her.

    @ Muse — You’ve got a ton on your plate already, I think! But if life ever gets boring, there’s a lot of foreign words out there. I just got my tech head on, and posted the correct link to the free Hangul app that I like, up above. Hangul is ridiculously logical. It took me a full month to learn the Arabic alphabet, in the bad old days when there were no tools for learning besides brute memorization. So when Korean letters made sense to me after a few days, I couldn’t believe it. Totally amazing. King Sejong really killed it.

    It would be so awesome to be able to argue with the K-pop fans! You play great music on your site, stuff that I would never find otherwise. You have to go for it!

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