Starting Smart & Small: Reading in Korean


I recently discovered a wonderful and unexpected resource – the library. While yes, the avid language learner can go search out grammar guides and Korean-English dictionaries, and maybe find a set of old CDs that teach tourist-level phrases, there’s something much, much better hiding in your library.

Children’s books.

That’s right. Cute picture books with simple sentences, simple grammar, simple vocabulary. While there are also lots of chapter books available in non-English languages, children’s books are 대박. Grab those first, and don’t even think about eyeing those bigger books even though you really want to feel accomplished with your level of Korean.

Why? 왜요?

Think about how you naturally learn a language as a child. You learned your native tongue from adults speaking it around you constantly. You might have watched TV shows that solidified what you heard from adults, as well as introduced you to a larger world than your house, backyard, and preschool. But one of the other ways you learned was by reading with an adult. Children who read a lot from a young age tend to have more natural writing skills. If you want to learn to write well in Korean, start small, and start with reading. Even if you think your Korean is relatively advanced, don’t just head straight for the chapter books. If they’re too hard, they might discourage you and you’ll feel frustrated. Don’t give up!

Children’s books still provide a fair challenge – and as a bonus, depending on the book, they introduce you to stories that native Koreans grew up with and still remember fondly. I discovered that my Korean friend and I read the same book as children – yet she read in Korean and I, English. She had me read the Korean book aloud to her and translate it. While I still struggled with some meanings, it was encouraging and I finished the book with a stronger understanding of general sentence structure and a few words added to my vocabulary. Not to mention, I fixed some pronunciation with my friend’s help!

The next time you’re wandering through shelves looking for a good read, head for the foreign titles section, browse through the Korean selection, and choose the easiest-looking picture book you can find. To make more enjoyable, choose one that you read in English as a child – it’ll be more meaningful and since you’ll remember the general story, understanding the Korean will come easily.

Start smart. Start small. And soon you’ll be reading in Korean like, well, a five-year old.

But still, a five-year old Korean reads much better than an English-speaker who can’t even tell which Asian language is written on the cover of a kid’s picture book. Think of it as your first step, your first book as a child that you tried to read by yourself; if you pursue it and practice, your Korean will “grow up” into those big chapter books and open a whole new world. Just like your first language did.