Why Can’t I Learn Korean Vocabulary? (+ what I’m doing to fix it)


The more languages you learn, the more you learn how different they are. One of the things that has struck me (and Shannon) about our recent experiences with Korean is how difficult Korean vocabulary can be.

When I mentioned this to Simon from Omniglot at the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin, he described Korean vocabulary as ‘slippery’ in his experience. And I couldn’t agree more.

So with that in mind, I set out to experiment with Korean vocabulary and share what I’ve learnt with you so far in this post.

Let’s get stuck in to this slippery business. Ew.

It wasn't long after I started learning Korean that I was asking myself, "Why can't I learn Korean vocabulary?!" Here's what I've done to fix it. Click through to get your free Hangeul Page! >>

What do I normally use?

I am a huge Memrise fan and normally use Memrise most days to up my vocabulary in various languages. This has always proved successful for me and I enjoy doing it, which is so ridiculously important.

So when I started Korean, I was really disappointed when the words just weren’t staying in my brain with Memrise. Boo!

Time to think back, way back, to a time before smartphone apps and fancy SRS language learning tools. Oh hello, 2006, how’s it going?

When I was studying for my A levels in French and Spanish, I would spend my free periods using up pages and pages of my notepad writing and re-writing loads of vocabulary, because, clearly, I was a cool kid who knew how to make best use of those free periods.

This worked, I guess. But it was long and repetitive. And, in contrast to our first point about Memrise, kinda boring.

I needed something different.

What is that something?

That something is a few things.

Something 1: Distilling the Notebook

It wasn't long after I started learning Korean that I was asking myself, "Why can't I learn Korean vocabulary?!" Here's what I've done to fix it. Click through to get your free Hangeul Page! >>

I’ve not yet fully tried the Goldlist method for vocabulary, mainly because of the time it takes and the time it would take me to see if it works for Korean for me. That’s not to say it’s a bad method or even that I’m lazy! Who knows, it may be something I try in more detail in the future.

However, after speaking to Shannon in one of our weekly study buddy chats and sharing that I’d filled up my little notebook and was feeling stressed about starting a new one because I felt I didn’t know anything, she mentioned that she had tried the Goldlist method and took from it the idea of distilling.

I’ve adapted the idea slightly from the original use in the Goldlist method. A few people have asked about this on Instagram so I’ll explain.

Once you’ve filled up your notebook for a language, before adding any new vocabulary to your shiny new notebook, open up your old one on page one.

Take a look at all your notes and write down anything you don’t remember and is still relevant aka, not including those silly words that you wrote down feeling keen to learn every word and become like a native in the language.

There’s a time and a place to learn how to say ‘what extraordinary dungarees’ or ‘she invigilated the exam’. Heck, there may not ever be a time or a place to learn some things you’ll find in the depths of your notebook.

Keep going throughout the old notebook, ignoring the unimportant or the stuff you know, until you’ve been through the whole first notebook and re-added the stuff you don’t know to your new notebook.

There’s a couple of reasons I loved this.

Number 1: it gave me a break from the “hardcore” new study time. I’ve found Korean really difficult in comparison to some other languages I’ve studied so this was definitely appreciated.

Number 2: it made me realise how much I do know. Feeling that Korean was difficult led to me feeling that I knew nothing, which of course isn’t true. When I started, all I knew was ‘annyeong’. And that was only from Arrested Development. In other words, I knew next to nothing.

But distilling the notebook has renewed my confidence that, actually, although the process is understandably slower than when I’ve learnt other languages in the past (languages related to others I know), I am learning Korean and I do know some stuff. Yay!

Number 3: it’s given me a fresh start. I’ve now got this renewed confidence with my studies and am looking forward to filling up my new notebook!

Something 2: Writing in Romanisation

It wasn't long after I started learning Korean that I was asking myself, "Why can't I learn Korean vocabulary?!" Here's what I've done to fix it. Click through to get your free Hangeul Page! >>

Ok, yes. I’m completely aware this one will be controversial and it’s definitely not ‘advice’ that I’m sharing with you here, just what I’ve found helpful.

Yes, if you want to learn Korean it’s essential to learn Hangeul. But the truth is Hangeul was slowing me down, confusing my re-reading of my notebooks, and not proving very efficient to my overall studies.

It’s not a case of “Hey! Let’s learn 50,000 Korean words a day! Pro! Pro Pro!” but more a case of “So…I actually can’t string a sentence together yet and I definitely couldn’t order in a restaurant right now. I think I need to focus on getting that in my brain first.”

It was kind of painful to switch from writing the Korean accompanying my English translation in Hangeul to the romanisation because I absolutely LOVE Hangeul. I think it’s beautiful to look at, I enjoy the process of writing it, and I recognise its importance.

So why do it? There are a couple of reasons I love this.

Number 1: it speeds up my study time. One of the big problems I was having with Korean was that it would take me for-ev-er to do one tiny task. For example, if I’m watching a video from Sweet and Tasty and making a note of the new vocab, it would be a case of stopping the video, writing down the whole thing in Hangeul, romanisation, and English, and then stopping it again two seconds later. However, when I’m focusing on just getting the new stuff down and not on writing it correctly in Hangeul, I’m learning more.

Number 2: it makes my re-reads easier. One thing I noticed from re-reading my old notebook during the distilling process was that the pages where I’d written just Hangeul and English were no where near as useful to me after that initial process of writing stuff down. Whereas now, it’s a joy to be able to go back through my new notebook.

Number 3: it gives me another study task for later! Once this book is full, I’m going to use my final notebook in the set to distill again and this time re-write everything in Hangeul.

What about Hangeul?

It wasn't long after I started learning Korean that I was asking myself, "Why can't I learn Korean vocabulary?!" Here's what I've done to fix it. Click through to get your free Hangeul Page! >>

Of course, there’s going to be some time between now and me filling up the second notebook and starting my Hangeul notebook.

I’ve thought about this time gap and what I can do to make sure that the Hangeul is not forgotten. There are a few things I’m working on to keep Hangeul fresh.

Thing 1: Keep reading Hangeul

I’m making sure not to ignore Hangeul when I come across it in my resoruces. In fact, I still make an effort to read Hangeul before romanisation.

Shannon wasn’t a huge fan of this course of Coursera but I like its slow pace and the fact it doesn’t use romanisation, which is proving really useful at this stage in my studies.

Reading Hangeul the main thing that helps me to keep Hangeul in the front of my brain instead of gathering dust at the back.

Thing 2: Write specific Korean words in Hangeul

When there’s words going into my notebook that are difficult to translate, such as food, or little grammar words, such as particles, I write these in Hangeul and English without romanisation.

Generally these words are small and so it’s easier to quickly understand and then say them out loud when I’m re-reading my notebook.

Thing 3: Reading the Hangeul in K-drama

This may sound like a super tiny way to keep Hangeul fresh but I want to include it here because everything helps!

There’s always bits of Hangeul on buildings and classroom boards in the backgrounds of K-dramas. This is great practise because they’re normally short bits of text to say out loud or translate in my head.

Little and often, right?

I hope this post has given you an insight into how I’m shifting my vocabulary learning methods for Korean right now. I’ll be sure to update you if I try the full Goldlisting method or anything else and find it works well.

My Current Progress

If you’re a little more visual, here’s where I’m at right now in video form…

Your free Hangeul Page!

If you’re ready to get started with Korean and want to learn Hangeul, click below to download your free Korean Hangeul Page to give you a heads up.

What do you use to learn vocabulary? What’s your favourite method? Share in the comments!

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About Lindsay Williams

Why hello there! I'm Lindsay and I do Languages. I blog, vlog and teach all things language. I blog about languages right here at Lindsay Does Languages, and about travel over at Mundo Trundle. If you're looking for language learning inspiration then stay a while. You might find just what you're looking for. :)
  • I’m glad that distilling is working so well for you and I agree, I’ve given up on writing things out in the Korean alphabet for now. It was also slowing me down way too much.

    • It really helped! I’m totally looking forward to getting back to Hangeul but I’m definitely taking more in this way at this stage. 🙂

  • Whitney Chakara

    I have a problem with Romanization not that I think its bad to use and I use it when trying to type in Korean learning chat rooms because it is faster. I just find it hard to read and understand when I’m trying to understand a text. I like to read words in context I find that it helps me to remember the word and be able to use it better. When I see a word I know in Hangul written in romanization I can’t really make the connection. I also need to start going back more and solidifying things in my past notebook before moving on.

    • Yes! I agree. I think because there’s no standard Romanisation (or not that I know of?) for Korean, it can be tricky sometimes. It’s definitely helping me to pick stuff up right now before revisiting it later 🙂

  • Julia Miller

    It’s a great idea to distill your notebook. I am currently doing it with my Italian- sort of creating a notebook aka my own advanced phrasebook plus separate one for the words that just don’t stick, apart from my regular notebook I have for tutor sessions. Even though I have created my own Memrise course with the vocabulary, unfortunately I am not reviewing it systematically and writing it again in a new notebook( I love stationery) makes me repeat it more and hopefully to instill the vocab more. Great post as always!