K-Dramas — they’re so addictive! Especially if you’re learning Korean.
The stories are riveting, the characters are dynamic, and you really get an inside look at the Korean language and its culture. There’s just so much to take away from every episode.
But is it possible to use Korean Dramas to learn Korean? Can they be something more than your reward for a productive language study session?
The answer is “yes!”, and in this article, I’ll show you how to use your favorite shows to learn Korean. That way, you no longer need an excuse to sneak away to binge watch Oh My Ghost or Descendents of the Sun. And before you know it, you’ll be able to immerse yourself in your TV time without the need for subtitles.
Can You Really Learn a Language by Watching TV?
Before we get into specifics, let’s tackle the age-old question. Can you really learn a new language by watching TV?
The short answer is “yes”.
However, if you plan on pressing play and sitting back, this isn’t going to work for you.
Think of it like this. Let’s say you have a bunch of lumber, a hammer, some nails, and a ton of other house-building essentials. You’ve even gone as far as picking out some fancy new curtains. Owning those things – those tools – won’t build a house for you. They’ll just sit there. It’s up to you to pick them up and put them to use.
Language learning resources – including TV shows – work the exact same way.
You have to pick them up and use them to build that house.
TV is a language learning tool like any other. But in comparison to other more “traditional” tools, there’s more danger. The risk with TV is that it’s easy to use passively. But passive learning, while it has its purposes, isn’t the best use of your time.
Plus, there’s not a lot of guidance out there about how to use TV or movies as a way to learn languages, so most language learners just don’t know where to start.
When you know how to use it, however, television can be an effective way to pick up a new language. And it’s not just new words and grammar that you’ll learn. When you watch TV, created in a country that speaks your language, you get a peek at the culture. This includes body language, mannerisms, gestures, facial expressions, personal space, and so many other elements that all add up to steering you towards becoming a successful speaker of your language.
What’s more, TV is fun! That means you’re much more likely to stay engaged so you can wave (most) other boring language methods bye-bye.
So how do you make sure that your TV time doesn’t become passive?
Learning a Language Through Television: The Active Approach
Movies are long.TV series are even longer. Especially if you watch more than one episode per sitting. To learn from television, you need to make sure that you’re paying attention and not just passively listening. That means you need to break them down into something more digestible.
Benny illustrated his steps to making use of TV as a language learning tool in another article, but I want to touch on them again here.
It’s easy to leave the TV on in the background, especially when it’s in Korean and you don’t understand everything that’s going on. It’s also easy to miss a lot of what’s happening on screen if you’re busy trying to catch all the subtitles as they appear.
Unless you focus on what’s happening and what’s being said, you won’t learn much of anything.
At the end of a television learning session, you should feel a bit tired. After all, you’re studying! And while using your favorite TV show to learn Korean is a fun way to study, it still involves a bit of work to stay focused.
In order to keep your focus, it’s best to watch a Korean movie or TV show in segments, rather than trying to watch it in a single sitting. That way, you can fast forward or rewind as many times as you need to make sure you really understand what you’re hearing. nd have the chance to write down any useful vocabulary or phrases.
Once is never enough. If you really want to make the material your own, you’ll want to watch each segment more than once. Watch it once without subtitles, then again with English subtitles, then again with Korean subtitles. Write down the phrases you find useful in Korean, and then watch it again with English subtitles to check your translations. Finally, watch it once more without subtitles. Mix it up and dive deep.
When using a movie or TV show as a resource, engaging with the material is a good way to make your study time active rather than passive. Mimic the actors, fill in parts of the dialogue with your own responses, or even copy their body language.
5. Don’t Be Afraid of Subtitles
As the Language Encourager at Fluent in 3 months, I’m often asked about whether or not it’s okay to use subtitles when watching TV in a target language. My answer is always: “yes!” There is a time when you should turn the subtitles off to test your comprehension and to focus on listening, but that doesn’t mean that subtitles need to be off all of the time. If the subtitles are available to you, by all means — use them!
Is It Worth the Work to Learn Korean from K-Dramas?
If you can’t sit back, relax and watch your favorite TV show and just absorb Korean, is it worth all the extra effort to use TV and movies?
Definitely. Here are just a few of the benefits:
- You likely watch TV anyway, so why not watch something in Korean? That way you get exposure to the language at native speed rather than the learner speed of most other resources. And you make better use of your TV time.
- You’ll pick up on repetitive words and vocabulary. And unless those words are unique to the TV series, there’s a good chance that they’re “high frequency” in day-to-day Korean conversations, too.
- You’ll give what you’re studying a new context. The more places you see or hear what you’re learning, the better chance it has of sticking.
- You’ll want to learn. Especially if you’re dying to know what happens next in that new K-drama series you started.
- You get to more fully enjoy the Korean TV shows and movies you watch because you begin to rely less on the subtitles. You get to pay more attention to the show itself rather than the words flashing across the bottom of the screen.
How to Use K-Dramas to Learn Korean
Step 1: Learn to Read Hangul
Some of the later steps in this process require that you use the Korean subtitles for whatever you’re watching. These are written in Hangul and this means that you’ll need to be able to read Hangul in order to complete this step.
But don’t worry! The Korean writing system is very intuitive and easy to learn. Plus, it will give you access to far more Korean learning materials down the road.
If you’re not sure where to go to learn the writing system, this is the Memrise course that I used to get started.
Step 2: Choose Your K-Drama Show or Movie
There are dozens and dozens of high-quality K-Dramas that you could watch. There are several that are really popular, but you don’t need to watch something just because it’s popular. Instead, I recommend finding something that truly interests you. Korean Dramas include everything from period dramas to comedy, romance, action, or even crime, so you’re sure to find something that’s right up your alley.
Here are just a few recommendations:
- Oh My Ghost – Oh My Ghost is a show about a woman who is possessed by a ghost. She works in a kitchen with a famous chef, so there’s lots of vocabulary about food and cooking. 맛있어요 (masisseoyo, “delicious”)!
- Heirs – This series is about a group of high school students who are preparing to take over their family businesses.
- Running Man – This variety show features Korean celebrities who compete in tests of strength and endurance. They get up to a lot of hilarious hijinks along the way.
- Black – This TV series shares the story of a grim reaper who investigates cold cases.
- Descendants of the Sun – A romantic tale about a doctor and a soldier who fall in love.
Step 3: Read Up on the K-Drama You’ve Chosen
Before diving in and watching your newfound Korean Drama online, be sure to read a summary of both the episode you’re about to watch and the show in general. That way, you’ll have a little context before you get started.
Step 4: Watch the First Episode in Whole (Or the Movie in Whole)
Watch the first episode of the K-Drama you chose, or the film you’ve chosen, in whole before breaking it up into segments. That way you get a sense of continuity. It will also help you pick up a lot through context.
Step 5: Break It Up Into Segments and Watch Again (and Again)
Repetition is key. The more times you watch a movie or an episode, the more time the material has to sink in. You’ll not only better understand what’s being said, but how it’s being said.
Step 6: Put It Into Your Own Words
One of the best ways to internalize what you’ve worked on is by putting it into your own words. I’ve found that if I summarize an episode I watched in Korean within a day of watching it, I’m much more likely to remember any keywords or phrases I learned during that study session.
Bonus Tip: Get Fancy with Subtitles
I’m a jazz musician, and jazz musicians improvise. We make up what we play on the spot.
When a jazz soloist does an amazing job improvising, other musicians transcribe the music. They write it down so they can play it, too. That way, they can bring some of that magic into their own improvisation later on.
I like to think of using subtitles as being the same as using transcriptions in jazz. A lot of what we do with transcriptions can also be done with subtitles. For example jazz musicians:
- Listen all the way through to get an overall picture of what we’re working on before sitting down to work.
- Find someone else’s transcription and read along. That means we find what someone else wrote down and play along with the music. In language learning, this would be when you have the subtitles on in English and you’re following along so you understand what’s being said. This is very similar to a language learning technique called shadowing.
- Find a chord chart and read along. This is about the same as when you read a summary of the movie or episode in English, then turn on the Korean subtitles. You have an outline of what’s going on and then you try to deduce the rest from the context that you’re given.
- Use a chord chart as a prompt. Rather than copy what someone else did, we use it to create our own responses. This means that when a dialogue happens in the show you’re watching, you can pretend you’re one of the characters and create your own responses to what the other person is saying. If, for example, one of the characters asks: “Let’s go for kimbap.” and the other replies, “That sounds delicious.” You can instead reply, “No, it’s hot, so I feel like having naengmyeon.”
- Transcribe the music ourselves. That means that we listen to the album and write down what we hear as best as we can, note for note. Or, with learning a language from a TV show, word for word. This is done without the subtitles.
- Pick out key phrases. If we don’t really want to learn every part of a song, we learn to isolate key passages or phrases we think will be useful and learn only those.
- Have our work checked. Often this is done through a tutor or mentor — we show them (or perform) our transcription. In the case of language learning, it’s easier. If there are any phrases you’re unsure of, you can share them on the italki notebook feature and get corrections. I recommend capturing the audio segment you’re struggling with and sharing it along with your transcription.
Where to Find K-Dramas
There are lots of places you can watch Korean shows online. Here are just a few:
Tools to Help You Take Learning with K-Dramas Further
If you’d like to use video as a key source for learning Korean, but you need a little extra help, there are two fantastic tools you can use to do exactly this:
FluentU is a language learning app and web-based system that uses videos sourced from YouTube to help you learn Korean (and other languages). You watch videos with interactive subtitles, then study the new vocabulary that you learned
Viki Learn Mode
If a TV show or movie has subtitles in Korean on Viki, you can use Viki Learn Mode to study Korean while watching your favorite series. This feature includes replay mode and interactive subtitles.