Category Archives: books

Book review: 500 Basic Korean Verbs

In any language, verbs form the vital medium for effective communication. Korean is no exception. Its tricky verb conjugations and challenging grammar present tough obstacles for learners. 500 Basic Korean Verbs is an invaluable reference that breaks down 500 of the most common Korean verbs. I recommend that all serious students of Korean pick this one up.

Continue reading Book review: 500 Basic Korean Verbs

The 10 Best Korean Textbooks for Self Study

(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

1. Elementary Korean (Second Edition)

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.)

The higher levels in the series, Continuing Korean and Advanced Korean are also highly recommended.

Pros:

  • 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

Cons: 

  • 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

 

2. Korean for Beginners: Mastering Conversational Korean

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’!  ^_^

Pros:

  • 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

Cons:

  • 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

 

3. Integrated Korean Series

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.

Pros:

  • 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.

Cons:

  • Can feel a bit too ‘academic’ or stuffy
  • Outdated in places (older expressions)

Notes:

  • Avoid the Kindle edition! (missing pages and complaints)
  • Some copies being sold don’t come with the audio

 

4. Talk to Me in Korean Series

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.

Pros:

  • Made for absolute beginners
  • Designed to get you speaking Korean fast
  • Lots of audio you can use for shadowing and quizzing yourself

Cons:

  • 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

Notes:

  • If you prefer learning online, you can access the same material without buying the book on their website

5. Korean Grammar in Use

This book is the next logical step after Korean for Beginners. It goes into the grammar in more depth but still in a digestible form.

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).

Pros:

  • 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)

Cons:

  • 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

 

6. Korean Grammar for International Learners

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.

Pros

  • Comprehensive, and covers most grammar points you’ll need
  • Not bogged down with too much technical language; instead uses multiple examples to demonstrate

Cons

  • 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

 

7. 500 Basic Korean Verbs

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…

Pros:

  • Romanization is provided
  • Example sentences to demonstrate verbs
  • Smart layout and organization

Cons:

  • 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

 

8. Klear: Korean Reader for Chinese Characters

While it’s not for the beginning student (you don’t really need Chinese Characters until later), this book is a solid introduction to the Chinese characters (hanja) used in Korean.

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.

Notes:

  • Not for the average beginner
  • Stroke orders included in the appendix
  • Reading selections to demonstrate the hanja
  • Covers mnemonics to learn the different characters

 

9. Spoken World: Korean

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.

Notes: 

  • Made for absolute beginners
  • Good for listening while in transit
  • Conversations feel natural and useful

 

10. Pimsleur Korean

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!

If you would like to keep up with our updates, follow us on Facebook 🙂

How to learn any language

“To have another language is to possess a second soul.” 

– Charlemagne

Learning another language can be a lonely and frustrating process. Sometimes we need a gentle push to give us a break and boost our motivation. In this post, I am going to introduce a couple of books that serve as inspirational and practical resources for those who want to forgo expensive and ineffective language classes and go it alone in learning any language.
Continue reading How to learn any language

The Kindle Paperwhite: A godsend for Japanese learners (if you’re in Japan)

EDIT: The situation has greatly improved since this post. Please read this update on how to find good Japanese content for the Kindle.

Happy New Year everyone! I don’t know about you, but the New Year has got me motivated to get back to studying languages and reading more Japanese. I also plan to take the N1 this summer. I will touch on that in future posts. Another of my long-term goals is to become more literate in Japanese and to read books that Japanese people read.

I like reading Japanese news and blogs like Itai News on my PC and iPad but I have always wanted to read more Japanese content offline. It’s more relaxing with a book and looking at a screen all day makes my eyes sore. However, I hate looking up kanji and new vocabulary manually. It takes a lot of time and distracts me from the book I am reading. This and a lack of space in my tiny Japanese apartment has meant that, over the years, I haven’t bought that many books in Japanese. Up until now, there haven’t been many Japanese e-books available either. Well, I have finally found my solution.
Continue reading The Kindle Paperwhite: A godsend for Japanese learners (if you’re in Japan)

Two great Chinese readers

1. Chinese Breeze

This is a great choice for those starting out reading Chinese. The Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series was recommended by one of our users in response to our best Chinese books post and I have to say that I am really impressed with it so far. It is published by the Peking University Press. I bought a load of these books during a recent trip to China although it is also available on Amazon and other sites. There are 8 levels in total with level 1 covering 300 characters and level 8 apparently going up to 3500!
Continue reading Two great Chinese readers

The 10 Best Books To Learn Japanese

(Updated April 2019)

Japanese language students are lucky:  There’s so much competition for Japanese learning materials that the quality of Japanese textbooks out there are extremely high compared to some other less-pursued languages (even compared to Korean for example).

In the 10+ years I’ve been studying Japanese, I have bought piles and piles of Japanese language books, always with the idea of looking for the one to rule them all. In the end, no textbook is perfect: all have their strengths and weaknesses, but there are clearly some that are exceptionally well thought out, and will help you get you the best ‘bang for your buck’ in your Japanese study.

Without further ado, here are the 10 best resource books we’ve found for Japanese self-study.

The 10 Best Books to Learn Japanese

1. GENKI I: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese

If you took Japanese in University, this is probably the textbook you used. And love it or hate it, it’s still probably the best beginners Japanese textbook out there.

There are no shortcuts with this textbook — you have to put in the time to learn and absorb the material.  If you can work through to the end of this textbook, you’ll the necessary foundations of vocabulary, grammar, hiragana, katakana, and some basic kanji to build on.

The book is divided into 2 sections:

Conversation / Grammar focuses on learning vocabulary, sentence structure and culturally useful expressions via studying dialogues.

Reading / Writing focuses on teaching you kanji and reading comprehension via lessons that correspond to the Conversation part of the book.

Overall, while the Genki series still has some flaws that other textbooks have (for example, it teaches ‘Sayonara’ for ‘goodbye’, which isn’t very commonly used day-to-day in Japan), it’s still the best book out there to start learning Japanese on your own.

Pros:

  • Accompanying CD for practicing pronunciation
  • Lots of exercises to practice at the end of each chapter
  • If you finish this textbook, you’ll have a fairly large vocabulary (about 50 words per chapter)

Cons: 

  • Unusual standard of romanization:  ie. kiree instead of kirei
  • Doesn’t include stroke order for kanji
  • Sometimes not 100% logical in its presentation (ie. teaching 5 color words, but then skipping the rest)

Notes:

  • If you get Genki, we also recommend you get the workbook too.

 

2. A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar

There’s a reason why this book is known as the “Yellow Book” or “The Bible” among Japan expats. It is probably the best Japanese learning resource I have ever come across. Clearly and thoroughly written with great example sentences. If you are at a more advanced level, check out the “Blue” and “Red” books by the same authors.

Pros:

  • Comprehensive and thorough
  • Grammar points are explained clearly and with helpful examples
  • Learn the difference between similar and often confused grammar points

Cons: 

  • This book is not a textbook — think of it as a dictionary of grammar (as the title says)

 

3. Remembering the Kana: A Guide to Reading and Writing the Japanese Syllabaries in 3 Hours Each

In this book James Heisig applies his mnemonics method to learning to read and write the Japanese writing systems of Hiragana and Katakana. I found it really helpful when I was starting out.

Pros:

  • Mnemonics that really help to remember each character
  • Can teach you how to recognize hiragana and katakana in 3 hours each

Notes:

  • If you already know kana, skip this one and jump ahead to Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji book
  • If you’ve learned some kana without much difficulty, you may find this book ‘overcomplicates’ the learning

 

4. Kodansha’s Furigana Japanese Dictionary

This has to be the best Japanese-English dictionary in print form. Kodansha really gave a lot of thought to the layout and functionality of this dictionary — and it shows.  This furigana dictionary is a must-have in the library of any serious Japanese learner, from beginner to N1.

Pros:

  • Great section on how to conjugate regular and irregular Japanese verbs
  • Example sentences to show how words are often used

Cons: 

  • If anything, it’s not big enough for some more intermediate or advanced users
  • No information on intonation

Notes:

  • Organized alphabetically by kana, not the roman alphabet
  • No romaji, all furigana

 

5. Remembering the Kanji, Volume 1: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters

Heisig’s Remembering The Kanji is an invaluable book for mastering kanji, and this book should be required reading for all serious learners of Japanese.

My personal anecdote about this book: I struggled terribly with remembering Kanji before I came across this book years ago, and it helped me immensely. Although I’ve forgotten many of the mnemonic ‘stories’ I first learned, I still remember the meanings of most kanji.

Pros:

  • Learn the ‘parts’ that make up a kanji
  • Teaches you how to remember the meanings of hundreds of characters

Cons: 

  • Some of the keywords chosen in the book are ambiguous or strange (ie. rarely-used English words instead of its regular-use equivalent)
  • You’ll only learn the basic ‘meaning’ of the kanji, so without further study you won’t be able to ‘read’ Japanese kanji or compound words

Notes:

  • Some people report not being able to view kanji stroke order on the kindle version. Buyer beware!
  • Most people pair this book with Anki flashcard software. I did this and 100% recommend it

 

6. Kanji in Context

So this is another kanji-related book. Kanji in Context allows you to build a strong vocabulary after using Heisig’s book.

Pros:

  • Over 150 lessons that teach kanji within the context of writings

Cons:

  • Might be hard to find or expensive outside of Japan

Notes

  • Not for beginners — more intermediate to advanced

 

7. The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary

This is the best kanji reference dictionary that I’ve come across.  The newest edition has the most common 3000 kanji, in a book that almost could fit in your pocket. An invaluable resource.

Pros:

  • A visually appealing, well layed-out dictionary
  • The ‘SKIP’ method used to look up kanji is quite ingenious
  • Up to date, reliable definitions and examples

Notes

  • Some people find the lookup method unintuitive (however I think this is rare)

 

8. How to Sound Intelligent in Japanese: A Vocabulary Builder

This book is aimed at students who already have a good grasp of Japanese and want to be able to sound, well, smarter by building their vocabulary with intelligent sounding words. If you’re looking for words and concepts that would impress a native Japanese with your ability, this is probably the one.

Pros:

  • Good structure and categorization
  • Fun learning for advanced students

Cons:

  • Often vocabulary is quite specialized and difficult to use

Notes

  • Recommended for N3 or above (not lower).

 

9. Making Out in Japanese

Ok, so not really a serious one, but you’ll definitely have a lot of laughs with it!

Pros:

  • Fun and entertaining (and possibly useful, if you end up in Japan)

Cons:

  • You might consider the phrases ‘too lame’ to use in real situations

Notes

  • Contains language not suitable for younger readers

 

10. Pimsleur Japanese

Not strictly a book, but it’s a great audio course for starting out in Japanese. Gets a bit too corporate for my liking towards the end of the 3rd series, but you will remember and be able to use what you learn with Pimsleur. You can sample Pimsleur Japanese for free with a Audible 30 day trial. Download the taster course here.

Notes

  • A lot of people hate on Pimsleur (Why???), but it’s really good for beginners to get you speaking.  Try it out if you’re just starting Japanese!

 

Honorable Mention: Kanji Study Cards

This is not a ‘book’ per say, but flash cards.  Kanji study cards that accompany James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji (above). It is definitely nice having all 2048 kanji with their readings in one set and it saves you the effort of making the cards/notes yourself. If you’re lazy like me it’s a no-brainer!

Pros:

  • Very helpful if you’re using Heisig’s method for learning the kanji

Cons: 

  • Expensive and difficult to find (used to be $100 on Amazon, now difficult to find retail)

Notes:

  • Only useful in conjunction with the Remembering the Kanji book
  • Cards haven’t been laminated so you can write your own notes on the cards. The downside of this is they can become ‘boro-boro‘ quite easily

 


So there you have it. There are probably more (I have spent a lot of money on Japanese books over the years) but those are the books that stood out for me. Enjoy!

Update: We have since posted up some more helpful books for studying Japanese. Check them out here.