Are you ready to hit the books and study some Korean?
If you answered “yes”, then at some point you’ll probably want to head over to the bookstore to buy a Korean textbook! While having the best Korean textbook isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of studying Korean, choosing a book that is suited to your needs can help speed up your learning significantly.
Motivation is another important factor to consider when choosing a textbook. If you choose something that is too dull or something with poor explanations, then you can become demoralized very quickly. The popularity of the Korean language has increased dramatically over recent years and there is now quite a large selection of books for learning Korean written by some very talented teachers.
However, there are also many old textbooks in bookstores which teach out-of-date or overly-formal Korean. Korean language is wrapped up in Korean culture, so the best Korean textbooks aim to explain the cultural nuances of the language along with the language itself. For example, there are about half-a-dozen different ways to say ‘thank-you’ in Korean, and it is important to know which one to use in order to avoid offending somebody.
One final thing to consider is how long you intend to study Korean. Once you choose a textbook series, then it is best to stick with that series in order to prevent you from studying the same thing twice or missing out on an important subject. With that in mind, if you plan to study Korean for a long time, then it is best to choose a series of books that goes up to a relatively high level.
Below are some of the best textbooks currently available, with an explanation of the type of student that they are likely to be suitable for. Let’s get to it!
Korean Made Simple
For beginners who are just starting to learn Korean, this book is well structured. You will be able to say quite a lot early, on as it focuses on modal verbs and questions first. Because of how segmented the book is, it works for learners that need some assistance structuring their studying. You won’t have to bounce around sections or “go with the flow” if you commit to studying this book.
If you want to reach a decent standard of Korean ability quickly, then this book would be useful. The explanations in the book are in-depth. However, there may be a little bit too much in the way of explanation in some areas, particularly the section explaining the alphabet. Feel free to skim some of the more detailed explanations if you feel like you’re not getting anything out of them — they’re very interesting and can sometimes help you remember concepts through providing context that you’ll remember, but they’re not absolutely necessary unless you want some additional knowledge.
Honorifics aren’t tackled until the second book (Korean Made Simple 2) which helps prevent confusion early on. It was published in 2014 so has up-to-date content and will provide you with relevant examples of conversation.
This series goes all the way up to a lower intermediate level, so it is good for anybody planning to study Korean for a long period of time. It works best if you have a tutor to help you when using it, but the explanations are very clear. It is written by the Seoul National University Language Institute, so you can be sure of its quality.
All of the material inside has been tested on students before publication, and the contents have been well thought out. If you are studying on your own, then this book is easier to use than the Sogang series of book, and you can be sure that you’re receiving a quality text book education due to the extensive forethought and planning that went into putting this book together.
However, in the later books it does cover some content (such as reported speech) a bit too quickly. Therefore, you need to be careful to ensure that you fully understand and have assimilated content before moving on. If you continue through the series and come across content that you don’t full understand with the textbook explanation alone, you should consider supplementing your studying with online and video resources that can help you understand higher level concepts.
This is the textbook written by the University of Hawaii and is used to teach Korean at SOAS (the leading place in the U.K. for Korean Studies). It can be used on its own without a tutor, and explains everything in detail, but may feel too stuffy and academic for some learners. Some of its content also feels outdated, and some rarely used phrases seem to crop-up more often than they should. If you’re interested in a book that focuses on more modern conversation and current Korean cultural trends, consider a different textbook.
Korean Made Easy
Designed for self-study, this book has great reviews and is well thought out. The author is a current teacher at Sogang University and a writer of several of the Sogang books. This book is easy to use and is a good choice for beginners, especially if you prefer to work through a textbook without skipping around from section to section.
If you want a series of books that will take you from beginner to advanced, and you have a tutor and plenty of time on your hands, then these are the books for you! There are twelve levels (1A up to 6B), each with a workbook, so there is enough content for years of study.
Sogang focuses on speaking, and these textbooks are designed to be used with a tutor or in a small class. As a result, they may not be the best choice if you plan to study alone — it’s hard to nail correct pronunciation if you don’t have a tutor to practice speaking with. It’s also way easier to become better at understanding spoken Korean when you’re working with a tutor rather than watching videos and listening to dialogue that way, because you can’t break down the conversation you just heard with the speaker if you’re watching a video.
The books don’t contain a writing section as this was only added recently to the Sogang University course itself. However, they’re still very extensive and a great series to commit to for serious Korean learners, so consider supplementing the books with an additional Korean writing resource rather than passing them by altogether.
2000 Essential Korean Words
Not strictly a textbook, but using this book for learning Korean in conjunction with a quality grammar-based textbook and the ‘2000 Essential Korean Words’ list on Memrise.com is a great way of boosting your vocabulary. It contains many words that don’t translate easily into English so it is a useful tool for giving yourself a solid Korean vocabulary. If you’ve recently found yourself trying (and struggling) to translate a phrase or word into Korean from English (or vice versa), you should have this book by your side.
Korean for Beginners: Mastering Conventional Korean
While most textbooks start with ‘My name is Steve, I’m a student, I’m from England’, the actual first bit of language you are likely to need is going to revolve around ordering food or finding the bathroom. The fact that this textbook starts by talking about food is a welcome relief. It also covers Korean emoticons rather early on (before teaching the Korean alphabet in fact) and is written with a sense of humor.
Like ‘Integrated Korean’, this textbook has a more of an academic feel to it. Although it was published quite recently, a lot of the book was actually written around two decades ago! It still tops ‘best Korean textbook’ lists because of how well it is structured and how thorough it can be in its explanations without being too wordy.
This series of textbooks published by Ewha Women’s University in Korea covers six levels of fluency, so if you decide to invest your time studying this textbook you’ll have five subsequent books to take you step by step through your Korean language journey.
The Ewha textbooks are great for self-study — every aspect of the book is designed in a clever and well thought out way that can be enjoyed without a tutor. From the table of contents to the illustrations and explanations used to introduce and explain concepts, this book was designed for a self-starter that wants to learn Korean fast, but the right way.
Another thing that sets this textbook apart from others is that rather than dividing up sections based on grammar, tenses, and other aspects of language, the book is divided into real world scenarios that you’ll encounter like making a daily schedule and making meals, and then you learn different things about the Korean language through activities and conversations centered around these tasks. The flow of the book is very narrative, so it’s great for readers that get bored with books that are too dry.
Consider investing in this textbook if you want to practice speaking Korean but you don’t have a tutor — there are very brief “try what you learned” speech sections at the end of each chapter that give you an opportunity to try out the phrases you’ve been reading.
Once Upon a Time in Korea
The Once Upon a Time in Korea textbook is the perfect textbook for learners that are just beginning to venture into learning Korean, or for learners that aren’t entirely committed to learning Korean. The book is fun, colorful, and anything but boring, so it does a great job enticing readers that are true beginners or readers that are on the fence about committing to their Korean language journey. You won’t want to put it down!
Rather than being structured around different aspects of the Korean language, this book uses the unique approach of centering each of its sections around a different story from Korean folklore. Folklore is a great way to become familiar with a new culture because you’re not only exposed to the language that the story is written in, but also the morals and values that are being passed on for generations through the story. This can reveal important aspects of Korean culture that will provide some interesting context to your studies.
Learning Korean Through Traditional Fairy Tales
If you’re not a fan of straightforward vocabulary lists and you want to experience a little bit of magic while you’re studying, this is the textbook for you!
It’s way easier to feel motivated to sit down and study when you’re following a story, so this textbook’s ability to interweave traditional Korean fairy tales with concise and pointed language direction is a great introduction to learning Korean and keeping you motivated.
This textbook also has an interesting approach to introducing new vocabulary that helps ensure the learner will retain the information. Rather than listing a word and a definition side by side (which, face it, makes it easy to quickly forget a word), this textbook introduces a new word by providing context to help the reader guess the meaning of the word. Then, after providing the meaning of the word, there is an activity that asks the learner to practice the word. It’ll definitely be hard to forget new vocabulary after that!
Remember, when choosing a textbook, it is important to consider how you plan to study. Some textbooks are designed for self-study whereas some are designed to be studied with a partner or a tutor.
This list of the best Korean textbooks is by no means a list of every textbook out there, and most language schools produce their own textbook.
You will also have noticed that there are no textbooks mentioned that focus on the TOPIK test. This is partly because studying for a test is different than studying for fluency. Also the TOPIK test was recently changed, rendering most of the books on the market out-of-date (you have been warned!).
Best of luck with your studies!