(Updated April, 2019)
Until recently, Korean was a rare language for Westerners to learn. But thanks to the rapid economic development of South Korea, and increasing interest in Korean culture in recent years seems to have led to more Korean learning materials being made available (I’m lookin’ at you, Korean Dramas and K-Pop).
Unfortunately, there are still less high-quality learning resources than you can find for learning Japanese or Chinese. That said, we did find some super useful books that helped us to get started with this challenging but beautiful language.
It’s true that textbooks are no substitute for immersion into the language via culture (movies, dramas, podcasts, music), not to mention practice speaking with native speakers. However, a good textbook gives you the foundations to work with, by teaching you grammar, how to construct sentences, pronunciation rules, and how to read.
Here are 10 of the best textbooks that we’ve come across for learning Korean.
The 10 Best Textbooks for Learning Korean
Elementary Korean is the gold standard for learning Korean by self study. It is the most thorough and all-round introduction to Korean that I know of, and the logical structure makes it easy to follow.
One thing that might turn you off is that it ‘feels’ a bit like a university textbook, in terms of the writing tone and level. All that said: this book will give you a comprehensive base in Korean. If you only buy one textbook for Korean, get this one. You get 384 pages of material and tons of practice exercises to boot.
As a companion exercise book, there’s the Elementary Korean Workbook, which is really good for putting things into practice. (Note: The reviews on Amazon for this one are a little skewed because of some people complaining that their audio doesn’t work on their device, but I never had any problems.)
- Lessons and grammar notes are clearly presented and in a logical structure
- You’re essentially forced to learn to read Hangul (it’s not that hard!), as the roman readings aren’t given from the fifth lesson onwards
- The pronunciation guide is better and easier to understand than other textbooks
- There aren’t a lot of pictures to break up the content so it can be a bit heavy reading
- Some people have trouble getting the CD or Audio to work
With its tricky pronunciation, complex grammar and elaborate honorific forms, the Korean language can present a daunting prospect. This was the first book I used when I started. It’s a nice option if you prefer a gentle introduction to Korean. It’s also entertaining with plenty of cultural information packed in. The $11 price (on Kindle) is quite reasonable when you consider that audio downloads are provided too.
Side note: this must be the first textbook I have seen that makes use of emoticons. The times they are a-changin’! ^_^
- Slower pace than Elementary Korean; good for learners that need more time to
- Lots of cultural information within the text
- The Authors focus on making the learning fun and interesting
- The slower pace might be frustrating to quicker learners
- Despite the title, the focus is more on learning grammar/structure than on speaking
- Not enough practice dialogues
This is another university-style textbook, developed by the University of Hawaii for its students studying Korean. It’s a very good textbook for a university classroom, which doesn’t always translate 100% to self-study, but this one does a pretty good job. It’s more of an academic approach, which might appeal to some people over the more ‘conversational’ textbooks above.
- Lots of examples of grammar points
- Some good cultural context and authentic materials within lessons
- Has 10 volumes, so if you like this style, you can follow it all the way to advanced.
- Can feel a bit too ‘academic’ or stuffy
- Outdated in places (older expressions)
- Avoid the Kindle edition! (missing pages and complaints)
- Some copies being sold don’t come with the audio
If you started studying Korean using online resources, you’ve probably come across the website Talk to Me in Korean — a site that’s been around since 2009. The team that run this website created this series of textbooks, and they’ve used their years of student feedback to get it right in textbook form.
As the title suggests, the focus is on speaking right away, with minimal focus on grammar or learning to read. There’s tons of accompanying audio for you to speak along with.
In this same series, there are also additional levels and a workbook with more exercises for each level.
- Made for absolute beginners
- Designed to get you speaking Korean fast
- Lots of audio you can use for shadowing and quizzing yourself
- Possibly too basic if you already know some Korean (it starts with greetings like ‘hello’ and goodbye’)
- Focuses on speaking, not so much on reading or grammar
- If you prefer learning online, you can access the same material without buying the book on their website
I picked this book up in Seoul so I thought it might be tricky to buy online (update: I found it for sale on Amazon).
- Probably the best Korean grammar textbook out there
- Focuses on understanding the structures and constructing your own
- Most people like the structure of the book (look up things on a need-to-know basis)
- Not for beginners — you’ll need a decent foundation of Korean before this will be useful
- You should know how to read Hangul before using this book
This is the most comprehensive Korean grammar book we could find. It includes all the grammatical forms in plenty of detail. The book is also based on the official grammar textbook that is used in schools to teach grammar in South Korea, so you can rest easy knowing that you’re getting the correct answer when you’re looking up a point.
One of the best points of this book is that each grammar point is packed with example sentences. Reading the examples really helps the reader to understand the point and see how it’s used.
- Comprehensive, and covers most grammar points you’ll need
- Not bogged down with too much technical language; instead uses multiple examples to demonstrate
- No romanized writing (you’ll need to learn Hangul first)
- Not for beginners of Korean
- If you don’t know English grammar to start, this might be difficult
If you studied French or Spanish in High School, you probably have experience with this style of verb conjugation book (and maybe not a pleasant experience…). 500 Basic Korean Verbs is an incredibly useful book for students of the Korean language.
You can check out our full review of the book here but here are the bullet points…
- Romanization is provided
- Example sentences to demonstrate verbs
- Smart layout and organization
- You probably won’t find the high-level verbs used in your favorite Korean Drama
- Unnecessary romanization (if you already know Hangul, it can be distracting)
- Example sentences difficult for true beginners
This book teaches you the most common 500 hanja by frequency of usage in modern Korean. It’s a good choice if you want to learn to read Korean literature or you’re simply curious about the Korean hanja like I was.
- Not for the average beginner
- Stroke orders included in the appendix
- Reading selections to demonstrate the hanja
- Covers mnemonics to learn the different characters
Living Language have always made top notch course materials, and Spoken World — their latest offering for Korean — is no exception. The focus in on learning conversational Korean in a comprehensive way, via listening and repeating, as well as the text.
There are six CDs included with a separate course book. The dialogues are easy to understand and introduced in a logical order. You won’t get much grammar from this one but it’s a nice little audio course. Highly recommended.
- Made for absolute beginners
- Good for listening while in transit
- Conversations feel natural and useful
This one might be a bit controversial (why so much hate on Pimsleur??), but here goes…
A lot of people find Korean a difficult language to pronounce correctly. The sounds are “different”, which can make listening quite challenging. In this respect, it was certainly much harder for me to get started than Japanese or even Chinese.
In this Pimsleur audio course, the Korean speakers break down every syllable of each word which helps train your ear. Keep with this course and you will be speaking and understanding whole Korean sentences within a few days.
You can try out Pimsleur Korean for free with an Audible 30 day trial. Download a taster course here.
Side note: Audible is AMAZING for learning anything, not just languages. I listen to audiobooks probably 30% of my day, when I don’t need to be 100% focused: when I’m on the train, doing the dishes, etc.
So there you have it. Those are the 10 best books we have found so far for learning Korean. Do you know of any other quality resources? Leave a comment below!
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