Back when I started learning Korean in June 2021 I remember thinking how grateful I am for the Internet. There’s no way I would have been able to find so many ways to learn Korean for FREE before the Internet made everything so accessible. At best I might have found a book at the library but even that’s doubtful. Now there are so many options that I wanted to share to help you find ways to get started.
Please keep in mind that these are certainly not the only ways to learn Korean on a budget. They’re just the ones I have tried and loved. Some of them are completely free; others have free elements that I’ve used and offer paid levels as well.
How to learn Korean for FREE – yes, really!
There are SO MANY amazing resources. Here are some I’ve personally used myself.
The Jeju Korean Learning Center
This was where I started, back in the middle of June, 2021. I had been listening to K-Pop for several months by then, and I had gone from idly wondering what lyrics meant to really wanting to know what they meant. That was what first sparked my interest (though it’s grown a lot since then). However, I remember saying “I don’t want to try to learn to read it though – that’s way too hard!”
Yes, at first I thought I just wanted to parrot phrases and somehow manage tiny dialogs. Little did I know that:
a) there are very few sites that will teach you Korean without first teaching you to read it, which is because…
b) Romanization – the practice of spelling out Korean words in an English alphabet) actually sucks. It’s often inaccurate and it makes each word so much longer than it should be. And,
c) despite what you might think at first glance, 한굴 or Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, is actually fairly easy to learn. In fact it’s the easiest part of learning this language!
Social media algorithms worked in my favor and placed an ad in front of my eyes. It was for the Jeju Korean Language Center, offering a free 3 day class (each day’s class being about 50 minutes long) with a live teacher vs a recorded video. My 선생님, or teacher taught a small class of us how to read each letter in the alphabet.
By the end, I was very slowly – but happily – reading labels on food in my kitchen, signs in the background of videos, etc. I didn’t know what many words meant yet, but being able to read Hangeul was such a huge confidence booster. I absolutely urge you to learn this alphabet – I promise you, it was literally designed to be easy and accessible, and I know you can do it!
The Jeju Korean Language Center is located in beautiful Jeju-do and they have offered in-person classes but online is the way to go right now, especially in a pandemic! There are further classes you can pay for at different levels and tiers, but this three day class is totally 100% free.
You can find out more here!
Coursera – First Korean and other free courses including one on culture
As soon as I was done with my three day Hangeul class, I scoured the Internet for recommendations on next steps for me to keep learning. It turns out that Coursera has several Korean language and Korean culture courses – all free of charge.
I enrolled in First Step Korean. It has 5 weeks of classwork, but it’s self-study so you can take less or more time, depending on you. The course is not taught by a live teacher, everything is pre-recorded. However, it is taught by a Yonsei University professor and she was fantastic. She starts with – you guessed it! – Hangeul, which was helpful to really be sure I understood how to pronounce everything.
From there she teaches you basic greetings, family, time & date, and daily life. There are PDFs, quizzes, and unit tests to help you track your progress.
If you want an actual certificate you can pay for it, but it’s not necessary. I really enjoyed this course and I plan to take a couple of other ones. I’m especially interested in cultural courses on Coursera, because what’s the point in learning the language but not the culture that goes with it?
Talk to Me in Korean
Talk to Me in Korean – also known as TTMIK – is one of the best and most comprehensive Korean courses I could have ever imagined. Honestly, if you can only choose one option, I would recommend this one. While TTMIK is not 100% free, they have so much free material available on their website that it’s honestly unreal.
The one downside if you are a beginner is that there is no free Hangeul class, but once you have learned that, you have an incredible number of free courses to work through. There are currently ten levels in the free section; level one has 26 mini-classes and all the others have over 30 of them! Each mini-class can range from under ten minutes to about half an hour.
It’s taught podcast style, not video, but also has written notes to follow. You can listen at your desk or download the mp3 files and PDF notes on the go. The only thing unavailable to you is the sample dialog and the review quiz for each class but you will still have so much information that you will be fine.
On top of that, they also have free videos on YouTube and a Discord server where you can chat.
If you choose to pay the membership fee (which is frankly a reasonable price, with the best deal being $97USD for a one year premium membership as of the time I am writing this post, October 2021), you have access to even more. There are additional videos that further break down the concepts you’re learning, listening practice, writing practice, cultural notes, and so much more.
You can also purchase textbooks and workbooks through their shop. I have not yet tried them but I have purchased e-book versions on Amazon of My First 500 Korean Words (you learn much more than 500) and My Daily Routine in Korean. I am working through the first one now and will post a review when I’m done or at least further along.
I am currently on Level 2 of TTMIK which is a mid-level beginner (1-3 is beginner, 4-6 is intermediate, and 7-10 is advanced). I recently won a 3 month premium membership to the site through Arirang Radio’s show #DailyK. It’s a great way to test out the paid features. I’m sure I will find it worthwhile though and will likely purchase an annual membership in the new year.
Please do yourself a favor and check out Talk to Me in Korean to get started! (Reminder – you will need to already know how to read Hangeul if you are not ready to pay for membership)
Memrise is one of my absolute favourite ways to study vocabulary. It uses spaced repetition to help you remember what words mean. What’s spaced repetition? Basically it shows you new vocabulary and meanings multiple times, in different ways – for instance it will show the word in Korean and ask you to select the correct definition in English. Then it might show you the English word and ask you to choose the correct Korean vocabulary word. It will also play the audio and ask you to pick the correct spelling of the word/phrase, and will later ask you to spell the word out in Korean.
Once it’s shown you the word repeatedly using those varied methods, as long as you’ve consistently gotten it correct, it will phase it out and not show it as often. However, it will use specialized calculations to estimate when you are on the verge of forgetting the vocabulary – and then it will show it to you again. As you progress, it will create a nice mix of introducing new words and reviewing old ones.
However, if you get it wrong it knows you need a little more time and it will show up more frequently again. It is SO helpful!
You can create a free account and search for either a language or a specific textbook, reading book, course, etc. Almost every official textbook out there has an associated Memrise course. I find it helpful to do a quick intro to the upcoming vocabulary in my reading book or my textbook, so that I’m already familiar with the words we’ll be using.
What’s extra cool is you can create your own vocabulary lists as well. Whenever we learn any new words in my Sunday morning Korean class, I take a bit of time later in the day to add them to my ongoing list. I use it to review the vocabulary a few times during the week. Then, when we do a quick review at the beginning of class, I’m more likely to remember a significant portion of last week’s vocabulary.
How to Study Korean
I don’t use How to Study Korean consistently as lessons. I’ve heard it’s a very good course, but I don’t want to be taking too many classes covering the same thing. I do, however, use it for its fantastic reputation for grammar. I have gone there on many occasions to check out how to conjugate something if I’m not sure. It’s also useful when you read or hear something and don’t understand the grammar behind it.
I’ve also heard that while most of it is free, you can purchase a unit for $10 that is the equivalent of one TOPIK level. (TOPIK is the Test of Proficiency in Korean exam.) Again, I only use it as a reference tool so I’m not sure how that part works or if it’s even still available. Feel free to check into that if you’re interested.
YouTube is a wonderful resource for learning Korean. There is no shortage of videos and channels. You can find anything and everything (that sums up YouTube in general, doesn’t it?) you might ever want. Just do a few searches and see what you find that looks appealing to you.
Among the many – MANY – language related videos I have watched, I have seen vocabulary lists (from TOPIK lists to just common vocabulary you might need in conversation on vacation), pronunciation guides, teaching videos, motivational, tips and tricks, resources, study guides, and even study with me videos.
Study with me sounds like a strange theme for a YouTube video if you haven’t used any yet, but I find them so helpful. I like to put them on my TV on the Roku while I study a lesson or go over review materials. The music , if there is any, is always non-intrusive and sometimes they have background coffee shop sounds or rain storms. The camera is either facing the person studying or focused on their desk, and it kind of makes you feel like you aren’t studying alone. It’s really nice for me.
The best part is that when it comes to study tips or ways to stay motivated, you aren’t limited to just Korean videos. I watch videos from people learning Spanish, Bulgarian, Tagalog, and more. They’re still very helpful for getting ideas on how to organize your notes or how to focus when you’re trying to learn new vocabulary.
Another useful type of video you can find is Korean dialogue videos. Listening is a huge part of language learning. It’s one thing to recognize the language in writing. It’s a whole other thing to be able to recognize it when someone is speaking it. If you can’t hear the words and understand them, you’ll have trouble communicating even if you know the language well on paper.
If you’re listening to dialogue videos, make sure you take advantage of the ability to slow down the playback speed (see image above). If you feel overwhelmed trying to follow along at natural speaking speed, don’t be afraid to slow it down. Once you get comfortable, you can bump it back up again later.
I’m putting together a post with my personal favourite YouTube channels that can help you learn Korean for free, so stay tuned for that!
(In fact, if you’re interested in knowing when that post goes live, you can sign up for my email list – I won’t spam you but you’ll get notifications of new posts and any interesting tips that I come across that I don’t have in a post yet. You can sign up for free RIGHT HERE.)
There is no shortage of ways to learn Korean for free!
Which ones have you tried and loved? Is anything missing from my list that you think I should try out? Let me know in the comments, or tell me which one you’re going to check out first.