For many people, K-pop wasn’t on their radar until Gangnam Style. We all remember when that song was everywhere and it became the first video ever to surpass 1 billion views on YouTube.
But what many people don’t realize is the Gangnam Style was actually a joke making fun of the lavish lifestyles of the affluent Seoul district and its flashy K-pop loving residents.
Whether you are a BTS fanatic, love the way G-dragon moves, or appreciate some old school Jinusean, there’s a lot to enjoy about K-pop even if you don’t speak a single word of the Korean language.
As far as learning materials go, however, K-pop can be one of the most exciting and unique ways to learn the Korean language. Even if you aren't a fan (and how couldn’t you be?), there are sure to be some tracks out there that you can enjoy and harness for your own goals.
Are you ready to use K-pop to unlock some Korean language insights? Here’s everything you need to know about learning Korean with K-Pop.
The 5 Best Ways To Learn Korean With K-Pop
1. Find The Music That’s Right For You
There are so many people who claim to hate K-pop. Our answer to that is you're not looking very hard for songs you like. Similar to any genre of music, there are some people who might be overrated and overplayed.
But there are so many great Korean musicians. You don't have to stay exactly in the bounds of the last ten years or the pop genre. There are excellent Korean rock, ballad, jazz, rap, and other artists. Take your time, explore, and you'll definitely find something that works for you.
Then focus on the music. Don't just keep an ear out for the random English phrases here and there. But listen to the words, the pauses, exclamations, and other features that make the songs unique.
2. Keep The Lyrics Handy
Many K-pop songs are ridiculously fast-paced. This isn’t just because you’re new to learning Korean, speed is often a part of the style. Fortunately, you can easily find the lyrics along with romanizations and translation by doing a quick Google search.
Select about five songs that you really like and print off the lyrics. It helps to have something physical in your hands. Of course, you might want to also opt for something a little slower like a ballad. Then follow-along. If it’s too fast for you, use tools that allow you to slow down the audio speed—YouTube is a great place for this. Although try not to get too much into the habit of listening to slow audio.
3. YouTube Is Your New Best Friend
On that note, you really can’t beat YouTube as a K-pop learning tool. There are so many people who’ve already gone ahead and written out the lyrics in video for you on well-timed slides. Between this and the ability to slow down the audio, you can really begin to master the lyrics.
However, do yourself a favor and skip the romanization and focus on the ones with Hangul instead. Romanization is actually more detrimental than beneficial because they don’t accurately reflect pronunciations.
By focusing on Hangul from the start, you’ll not only immensely improve your reading ability but also ensure you’re pronouncing Korean correctly.
4. Embrace The Noraebang
The 노래방 (noraebang) is a staple of Korean. Even when you go to the tiniest and most remote places in Korea, you can still find at least one of them. The noraebang isn’t exactly the same as Karaoke.
Whereas Karaoke is often in a public space like a bar, with noreabang you get your own room (hence the name!). All of them have tons of videos with interactive lyrics, special playback functions, and a huge library of tracks for you to enjoy.
They are excellent places to bring your friends and usually include tasty food and drinks and aren’t even that pricey. Even if you decide that learning Korean with K-Pop isn't exactly for you, don’t miss out on this authentic and amazing Korean experience.
5. Keep a Grammar Book Handy
I can hear you shouting from here “nooo…not grammar, I want to learn Korean the fun way.” First of all, grammar is fun. The thing is, if you actually do want to master slang and speaking like a native then you will need to have a foundation of the Korean grammar behind the way they are singing/rapping.
With a grammar book nearby you can understand how to not just repeat lyrics, but create your own sentences perfect to use with your new Korean friends.
Why Is K-Pop So Popular Anyway?
That's kind of a silly question. That's like asking why any country's pop music is popular. Of course, there is something unique about K-pop. Aside from American and British pop (and a few others), it's one of the few music genres that have scaled well beyond its original borders to reach global audiences.
K-Pop has an interesting history, as well as a little bit of a dark side, that is worth digging into when you have the time. To start, it is closely related to American pop. In fact, many of the top producers in Korea had experience working in the American pop industry or alongside leading figures.
One thing that stands out about K-pop to most people are the famous boy bands and girl bands that are reminiscent of the Backstreet Boys and Nsync back in the late 90s. You can't exactly call what happened in Korea a copy of this trend because leading figures in the music industry like Teddy Riley went to Korea to work with musicians there.
And this doesn't do justice to the fact that there is a distinct Korean flair of the idols of today. Things have accelerated and advanced so far in the music industry that supergroups like EXO and BTS are more products of the unique Korean landscape than outside forces.
Another reason K-pop is so popular is because that's what the Korean government wants. K-pop is a part of Hallyu or the Korean Wave. It not only includes music, but also film, TV (including all your favorite dramas), and more.
The Korean government uses Hallyu in a variety of ways to promote tourism, culture, economics, food, and even international relations. You can now find Korean culture everywhere from the most remote villages of Southeast Asia to the streets of London, New York, and Paris.
So you have a lot of people to thank for the kimbap restaurant in your neighborhood and the amazing K-pop you can hear just about anywhere.
Is It A Good Idea To Learn Korean With K-Pop?
Absolutely. But you naturally can't expect for it to help you build a foundation for fluency. Think of K-Pop as a supplement to whatever materials and strategies you're already learning.
The best comparison really is western pop music. Do you think that would be a great way to learn English? Not so much.
While K-pop is great for picking up slang, fine-tuning your listening, and practicing reading, it's going to have a lot of idioms and usages that either won't be appropriate in daily speech or that you might not be able to use correctly.
Let's take another song that was massively popular in Korean around the same time as Gangnam, “Fantastic Baby” by Big Bang.
You hopefully can understand the title since it's in English!
Let's take a look at one of the Korean lyrics:
아무것도 묻지 말란 말이야
Amugeotdo mutji mallan mariya
This roughly translates to: Don't ask any questions, just feel it
There is so much going on here grammatically that it would be tricky for any beginner to properly use this sentence.
But let's focus on just one part “말이야” (Mariya) and specifically the “야” (Ya). Ya an is an informal ending that you don't want to throw around too casually. Even with friends you have to be careful how you use it as it can be interpreted as rude.
In fact, that's why Big Bang is using it since they are a little bit edgy and cool. Using it on the street, at best, will get your strange looks or, at worst, might offend somebody.
This doesn't mean you should stop listening to Big Bang. Just be careful about anything you pick up from K-pop before you use it yourself.
Learn Korean With K-Pop
K-pop is such an amazing resource. Aside from the Korean alphabet itself, it is the best gift for Korean language learners. Few other languages have cultural items of such mass appeal that you can look them up in seconds on YouTube.
As a final bit of advice, there are several great online resources you can use to enhance the efficacy of using K-Pop to help with Korean. Be sure to check out the absolutely amazing YouTube channel Learn Korean with K-Pop, as well as some of the other resources that FluentU and Talk to Me in Korean provide.
Finally, enjoy. You’re on your way to fluency one awesome song at a time!