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Learn Korean with Korean variety shows

If you’re trying to learn Korean you’re probably already watching a lot of K-dramas or movies and listening to K-pop, and you’re not alone. But one of the best ways to immerse yourself in truly natural Korean is by watching Korean variety shows!

Learn Korean with Korean Variety Shows
Learning is fun with Korean variety shows

If you don’t live in Korea, you’re probably not surrounded by the Korean language on a daily basis. Some people may tell you that you absolutely must live in the country to get decent immersion. Please do not believe this.

Yes, of course it’s much easier to get listening practice if you can just leave your Seoul apartment and sit in a café. But while it’s the easiest way to immerse yourself in the language, it’s certainly not the only way.

You can get great listening (and speaking) practice by taking a Korean language class or by listening to YouTube channels that teach Korean. But if you’re looking to just absorb and listen, you may want to try some more immersive options.

Korean variety shows can work better than K-dramas for listening practice

I’m not going to lie here. Korean dramas are amazing for listening practice. I love watching a good drama or a movie. I can always find something that features a story I’m interested in so that I don’t feel like it’s a struggle.

And even though I’m usually watching to enjoy that story, I always find myself listening for words or phrases I can understand.

Also, since Korean and English sentence structures are opposite to each other, I like to try to guess what someone is about to say by reading the subtitles. And of course, the opposite is true, I will guess what the second half of the subtitle will be based on what someone just said.

I can pick up a decent amount of vocabulary from dramas. I also find that whenever I learn a new grammar structure, I can suddenly hear it in dramas. It’s like buying a specific type of car and then suddenly seeing the same color and model everywhere you go.

So there’s nothing inherently wrong with using Korean dramas for practice. But there are a few reasons why Korean variety shows are even better.

Korean variety shows have natural conversation

In a drama or a movie, everything is perfectly scripted and the language may be a bit more stiff than real-life conversation. This is true in any language.

It doesn’t mean that no one ever talks that way in real life, but people rarely speak so perfectly either. When you speak your own language, you probably trip over your words from time to time.

You might lose your train of thought halfway through a sentence. Or you suddenly forget the word or expression you wanted to use. These things rarely happen in dramas or movies.

OT5 SHINee on Knowing Bros
SHINee (Onew, Taemin, Jonghyun, Minho, Key) on Knowing Bros

However, a variety show is completely natural. It’s either unscripted or only very lightly scripted. Because of this, you get a chance to hear people speaking on the fly.

You’ll hear people slip up and correct themselves. You’ll hear someone stop half-way through a sentence, think for a second, and then re-direct their dialog. It’s so much more like real life conversations.

If you’ve ever thought the dialogs that come in your textbooks are dry and too, well, textbook sounding to feel real, you will love watching variety shows.

Realistic conversation patterns

Another thing that is unrealistic in scripted shows is that you don’t often hear people talking over each other. In your daily life, does anyone ever sit silently while someone delivers a three-minute monologue? Not in my house! And probably not yours either.

On the other hand, if you turn on a Korean variety show you will hear people talking over each other the same way you do at your kitchen table. People interrupt each other to ask questions. Or perhaps they get excited and burst in with their own thoughts before the first person is done speaking.

Just listen to this clip, everyone keeps talking at once! Just like real life!

It’s a much more natural setting this way. And it will help you prepare for real life group conversations.

Imagine if you only ever get listening practice from Korean podcasts or dramas. You always hear one person at a time speaking clearly and perfectly.

Then you find yourself in a group setting with several people speaking at once. You’ll be lost! Using Korean variety shows will set you up for success in your comprehension.

Subtitles AND Transcripts

Of course you can get subtitles with your favorite Korean drama. I don’t know many language learners who start off watching a show with no subtitles. That’s something that comes at a higher level, like upper intermediate and advanced learners.

So right now you’re already using subtitles. However, if you watch a Korean variety show on YouTube, you will almost always find a transcript too.

Transcripts are amazing tools. Here’s how I like to use them.

  1. I listen first, without any subtitles. Depending on the length, I may watch a whole segment or just five minutes at a time. I just want to see if I can understand with what I’m hearing and maybe some context on the screen. I will do this once if I feel comfortable with most of it, or a few times if I’m not.
  2. Then I re-listen with the subtitles if there’s anything I didn’t catch (there’s usually a LOT so don’t feel bad if you’re not understanding much of it).
  3. Then I use the transcript to read it all at once without any audio support. What I’m doing is getting familiar with the dialog so I can listen for it when I play it back again.
  4. Additionally, I look closely for vocabular and grammar that I already know but didn’t recognize when I heard it. I want to make sure I’m paying extra close attention to hear it when I play it again.
  5. Then I play it back twice – once while reading the transcript, and once without.

Using the transcript this way is so beneficial. Just listening can be challenging. Using the transcript helps you identify words you’re not recognizing while also giving you a chance to learn new ones.

On-screen phrases and repetition

In addition to the transcripts and the subtitles, variety shows often feature a lot of the phrases right on screen. Even if you want to leave your subtitles turned off, you can still quickly glance at the on-screen words if you aren’t sure of what you just heard.

I Live Alone
On-screen phrases

The variety shows typically pop really important phrases or words on the screen so you’re sure to not miss a key moment.

Also, if there is a very strong reaction to something that someone said, the show will re-play the same clip from different angles a few times while flashing the phrase on the screen in bold colors. This can be helpful for hearing a great expression more than once without having to rewind.

Make use of Shadowing

Shadowing is essentially repeating and mimicking what you hear. I do this regularly when I hear phrases that I know I can use in my own daily conversations.

It’s a fairly simple process. Listen to the person speaking, then pause it and repeat what they said. Rewind and do this a few times.

The key is to mimic the correct pronunciation and intonation. Intonation is a huge part of sounding natural when you’re learning Korean. Sometimes people focus a lot on trying to develop a Korean accent but what you really want is the proper intonation. That’s what will set you apart from your early beginner days.

As for pronunciation, shadowing is a huge asset for improving how you pronounce words. Not many things about learning Korean are easy, but overall, the pronunciation is straightforward and phonetic.

However, there are some sound change rules (받침 or batchim) that you need to learn. Several of them are obvious and you will start doing them without even thinking about them. For example:

막내 (youngest) is pronounced 망내

십년 (ten years) is pronounced 심년

These sound changes are easy to learn. Some, though, are more complicated and don’t come as naturally. You may not even be aware that a sound change is supposed to happen.

Shadowing is a great way to practice these rules.

(As an aside, this is where that transcript comes in handy too. You may not recognize something because there was a sound change you didn’t know about. Reading that transcript will help you identify it and recognize it easier in the future!)

Grow your vocabulary with Korean variety shows

Since Korean variety shows feature such natural conversation, it can also be an excellent way to expand your vocabulary. In particular, if you pick an episode that deals with things that are of interest to you already (music, cooking, hobbies, etc), you will naturally be able to learn words you would want to use in your daily life.

There are a few ways you can study these new words. Write them down as you go, or use the transcript (there it is again! So useful!) to pick out vocabulary that is interesting to you. Either make physical flashcards, add them to a vocabulary notebook, or put them into a spaced repetition program like Memrise or Anki.

You can go back to these vocabulary lists regularly to practice. Once you feel like you’ve retained them well, try listening to the same episode again. You’ll probably have a much easier time understanding now!

Gain cultural insight to learn in context

If you’ve read my blog for awhile you’ll know that I hold a very strong belief about language learning and culture. I truly believe you can not adequately learn a language without learning about the culture it comes from.

Learning Korean as a language can’t happen in a bubble. Understanding Korean culture makes it much easier to learn the language, especially when it comes to nuance and idioms.

Learn about culture including food on Korean Variety Shows

Watching dramas will obviously help in this area as well. But Korean variety shows are an even more engaging way to learn about the culture, traditions, and dynamics of Korean society.

Because variety shows can focus on specific topics and interests, you can gain a much deeper understanding than if you just tried to learn the words and grammar.

Korean variety shows are just fun!

I love watching Korean variety shows. The ones I like the most are often high energy and funny. I enjoy imagining how I would answer the questions being asked or playing the games to really get an immersive experience.

It’s also a great way to practice speaking. Of course no one is there to correct me if I make a mistake, but that’s okay. It’s still a way for me to challenge myself to express myself the way I would want to.

Then, listening to how the guests on the show or the hosts respond, I can fine tune my own responses.

Language learning can sometimes feel a little too serious when you’re only using a textbook or drilling vocabulary into your brain.

A good Korean variety show can lighten the mood a lot and remind you that this journey can be a lot of fun too.

Choosing the right Korean variety show for you

It’s important to pick a Korean variety show that isn’t going to be too far beyond your current language proficiency. If you’re still a beginner, that might sound impossible.

However, even if you’re a beginner you can benefit from this method. In the early learning period you will not be able to understand full conversations so don’t try – you don’t want to discourage yourself. Instead, listen for single words that you recognize.

Even if you’re intermediate, you will want to choose a variety show that aligns well with your personal interests. You’re more likely to hear content that you will understand because you’ve probably learned some of the vocabulary that will be used.

And if not, you will have the opportunity to learn new vocabulary that is relevant to you.

There are SO MANY Korean variety shows out there that I can’t possibly list them all. However, here are some of my personal favorites:


I Live Alone / 나 혼자 산다

Korean Variety Show "I Live Alone"

Out of all the Korean variety shows that I’ve seen, I Live Alone is my absolute favorite one. It’s considered a “Real-Variety” show, is completely unscripted, and features documentary-style techniques.

I Live Alone shares the daily life of single celebrities. Even though most of us do not live the same way rich celebrities do, there is still a strong relatability in this show.

Key and Taemin of SHINee; Key cooks dinner at Taemin’s apartment

Part of the reason I enjoy it so much is because I love seeing inside people’s homes (I look at real estate listings for fun when I’m bored!).

I Live Alone Key and Minho

I may also be a little biased because SHINee is my favorite K-Pop group, and SHINee member Key is one of the cast members. The clip above shows Taemin and Key together in Taemin’s (spectacular) apartment overlooking the Han River.

Because I Live Alone features daily life and apartments, you can easily pick up a ton of useful vocabulary that you would use in your own day to day living.

Note: Although 나 혼자 산다 literally translates to I Live Alone, you may also hear it referred to as Home Alone in English. They are both the same show, even though one English title is more accurate than the other!

Running Man / 런닝맨

Korean Variety Show "Running Man"

Running Man has been on the air since 2010 and has almost 700 episodes so I guarantee you can fill up a lot of time with this variety show if you like the style. It features competitions in the form of games and missions. They also regularly have celebrity guests on the show.

Girls Generation/SNSD on the show

I enjoy this one because of the competitive nature. They also don’t just let celebrity guests win. If the celebs want to beat the main cast, they’d better come prepared to bring it!

Running Man

The other reason it’s fun to watch is that there is such great chemistry among the hosts. If I found out all the hosts were best friends off set and spent a lot of time together. it really wouldn’t surprise me!

Knowing Bros. / 아는 형님

Korean Variety Show "Knowing Bros"

I think anyone who has been interested in Korean entertainment culture for awhile has heard of Knowing Bros. which has been on the air since 2015. This show is extremely popular for good reason – it contains a wide variety of content formats. The fact that so many celebrities appear as guests is probably another reason for its popularity!

Twice and JYP on Knowing Bros.

The basic setting is a classroom environment with the hosts and the guests posing as students. Part of the show features an interview with the guests. The rest of the episode can feature talent shows, games, or improv.

SNSD/Girls Generation on Knowing Bros

It’s just a really fun show to watch and you will gain so much real-life vocabulary by listening.

(Side note: That scene in the video is from a game called Shouting In Silence and I nearly passed out from laughing. Enjoy!)

Countless other variety shows to choose from

If you’re not interested in the three options I listed above, that’s okay! Go to YouTube and search for “Korean Variety Shows + your favorite idols” and you will find tons of episodes to choose from.

Some K-Pop groups actually have their own variety shows such as BTS’ “Run BTS” and so on.

Not into K-Pop idols? No problem! You can also try searching for specific topics or games instead of idols.

There is no shortage, so give one a try and see how you like it! You’ll have so much fun watching that you won’t even realize you’re learning at the same time!

Will you try Korean variety shows as a language learning tool? Which one will you watch first? Leave me a comment and let me know!

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