How long does it take to speak Korean fluently?
After hearing stories about people learning Korean in a year, I finally found a great and honest response about how hard Korean is from Quora.
I've been living in Korea for a year and still struggle to hold a conversation. After finding this answer below I feel so much better about the journey and am prepared to put time and work in for many many years!
I hope this helps you on your journey! :)
Answer Quoted below
“First of all, ignore the answerers who say Korean is easy and that the writing can be mastered in a week. That's just wrong. Korean may have only 24 letters, but just because someone can read the letters doesn't mean they can read. You could learn the whole Korean alphabet today, but that doesn't mean you'd have a single clue when you opened up Joseon llbo (one of the national newspapers).
Despite not being Korean, I graduated from Yonsei University Korean Language Institute, and I also scored Korean Language Proficiency Test Level 5 (advanced, 6,000+ words, university entrance level). I also lived in Korea for five years. I also passed the New York University Korean Language Exam with a perfect score of 16 credits out of 16 credits, and shortly before leaving Korea, I was offered a position as an interpreter. Therefore, I feel qualified to answer this question.
All told, I would estimate I spent about 1,500 hours in various Korean classrooms of one type or another, lived with a Korean woman for over a year (we spoke primarily Korean), and went about all my daily tasks in Korean for several years. After all this, I would only rate myself as "advanced, but not fluent," and my KLPT score backs this up. I am honest about my ability -- many people say they are fluent, but I highly doubt they could catch the majority of jokes in a comedy program, or listen to the president's speech and tell us exactly what he's saying.
Learning Korean to the level of an adult Korean (I assume you mean native speaker) would take literally tens of thousands of hours, and probably upwards of ten years in the country. Perhaps more. I am not joking. I have never met a single non-Korean, non-Japanese who accomplished this, with one possible exception -- her Korean was definitely better than mine, but I couldn't tell how much better because I myself am not native-level.
The US military, in its special Defense Language Institute (DLI) where it trains elite soldiers in languages has concluded the following: - It takes about 600 hours to master elementary Korean (DLPT Level 1). - It takes about 1200 hours to master intermediate Korean (DLPT Level 2). - It takes about 2400 hours to master advanced Korean (DLPT Level 3). - DLPT Level 4 (fluent) is almost never accomplished in a classroom setting and usually takes years of exposure after the initial 2400 hours of training. - DLPT Level 5 (native-level) -- they don't even bother to speculate on it.
Here are my guidelines on necessary vocabulary: Elementary: 1,000 words Intermediate: 3,000 words Advanced: between 6,000 - 8,000 words Fluent: 25,000 words Native: somewhere between 25,000 and 100,000 words -- since being "native" is a straw tower, there's no point in even speculating how many words it would take
I believe it is simply impossible to go higher than "advanced" without simply carrying out all your daily tasks in Korean for many, many years (which would require you to live in Korea, or perhaps in a large Korean community outside of Korea). That is the only way you can make the words stick without forgetting them faster than you learn them. 25,000 words is far too many to try to remember just as a "part-time" student studying with flash cards and a language class.
Writing is fairly easy to master. Of course, as a non-native, you will probably make mistakes fairly frequently no matter how good you get, but you should be able to express yourself fairly adequately after a year or so of study. Listening comprehension and reading, on the other hand, can take many years or even decades to acquire at a fluent level. You can express yourself quite well with 3,000 words, but unfortunately receptive skills are much harder to acquire because Koreans use the full range of common-use vocabulary -- about 25,000 words in common, non-technical usage, by my estimates.
I know what I am saying contradicts what Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, and many other Y!A answerers are saying. However, I know what I'm saying is correct. Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone, etc. are just claiming it's easy because they want to sell you CDs. The reality is that almost no one who claims to be fluent in Korean actually is, unless he/she is a native speaker.
Source(s):Five years in Korea, graduated from Yonsei University Korean Language Institute, pass the KLPT Level 5, the NYU Korean Language Exam (perfect 16 / 16), lived with a Korean woman for over a year, and after that, I'm just "advanced," which should let you know how much of an uphill battle it is.”
This was the best and most comprehensive answer that I read in all my years online! Passing it on so that it could help you too!
As you can see learning Korean to the level of a native adult takes almost 20 years of living in the country!!!
Thank you for sharing the Quora/Yahoo story regarding learning Korean. I agree with many of the points that the quote makes and I agree that fluency is more than memorizing few rules and a bunch of words.
On the other hand, I would like to point out some fallacies/inconsistencies with the quoted article:
The original article, OA, says that it takes 20 years of living in a Korean based culture to become fluent. Is it saying that a 10, 15 or 18 year old native Korean is not fluent in Korean? The point here is that no one, not even natives, are totally fluent in a language to the point that they can talk about any subject (see below).
One definition of Fluent (according to Oxford's dictionary) is:
Able to express oneself easily and articulately.
I suggest that 'many' people can achieve that level of fluency in 2-3 years. OK, Korean was not my favorite language course, so if I had to dig into the language, I may revise that number a bit but not by much! Nope, I will not provide you any metrics to back up this point.
The OA poster mentions of living with a native Korean for 1 year and that he/she spoke primarily in Korean . That in itself means nothing. One needs to quantify/qualify that interaction. Ie, was it 51% or 98% of the time? Was it 1 hr or 8 hrs/day? Also, were the discussions 'Hi honey, how was your day today' level discussions or was the person constantly learning new idiomatic/technical terms/expressions from her?
OA mentioned that DLI expects 2500 hrs of training required to reach advanced, DLPT level 3, and yet it claimed he/she reached it in 1500 hrs of 'formal' training! Obviously, there is a disconnect there! Maybe US soldiers have other duties besides language training, or maybe they don't have access to 1-on-1 personal training like the OA poster did, or maybe they did not study at NYU, or maybe the GI bill can be padded!! Most likely, the amount of immersion they experience compared to OA poster's is a factor.
OA poster mentions people catching the majority of jokes as a metric for measuring fluency. How many Americans do you know that catch/understand the majority of jokes told by all US comedians (insider jokes not included!) the first time around?
I do agree that jokes and presidential speeches could be used as metrics but the OA poster did not provide any percentages in their case!
I am sure that other counter points could be made about OA comments but, like most people, I do have a day job!
Anyway, I think the main point of the need to immerse in a culture in order to achieve fluency is well taken. Anybody who thinks he can sit at home and become fluent by doing Duolingo, is in for a surprise if/when he tries to immerse in the foreign culture. I do know 1 Eastern European who learned US English basically from watching US movies/shows at home (backed up by the typical elementary/high school ESL courses). When he came visiting US (as an adult), he spoke like a native! He could easily speak on many topics and was well understood by the natives. IMO, many immigrants, who lived in US for 20+ years, do not achieve this level of fluency! Was he fluent in English? Not by the OA poster's standards. Yes, by Oxford dictionary's standard/definition.
IMO (as a non-linguist amateur language learner), the point of fluency is not how much you know but how 'easy' it is to function in a foreign culture and to pick up/learn new subjects. Idiomatic expressions come and go in many cultures. They can be picked up as needed. Jokes is an interesting subject that merits its own study. Understanding political speeches should definitely be part of the metrics.
Edit Note: I could not get numbered bullets working properly, so I changed them to simple bullets. Also, I changed the contents to reflect the fact that Eric quoted an article rather than his own experience...
I'm not sure who the OP was and their circumstances but I found it to be a refreshing take on the difficulty of Korean acquisition in relation to Anonymous people claiming "learning Korean takes just a year."
That may not be your experience, but it was mine and it helps me be more patient with assimilating with locals while living in Korea.
Thanks for the thoughtful reply!
You are welcome!
BTW, there is plenty of objective data available. You just have to look for it. One source, (NOTE: the average user of these courses is NOT a typical user BUT then your OP was claiming to be an NYU linguistics grad...), can be found at:
So, it is possible to achieve an advanced professional level in 88 weeks on a decent schedule. Granted, the people taking these courses are diplomats...
In my personal experience, finishing the En-Kor tree was pretty close to the En-Viet tree (nowhere close to x2 as difficult/long, as above source states). Obviously, each person's mileage varies! Also, for what is worth, I did the Korean tree after doing the Chn-En (that was a bear!), En-Chn and the En-Jpn trees (in that order)! Finally, I found the Korean grammar (Duolingo tree wise) to be pretty straight forward. My main challenge was being too lazy to learn the 24 characters so I ended up going back and forth several times over them!
If I can encourage you, I would say: stick with the program of immersion by finding fun activities (shows, music, movies, etc) that are strictly in Korean and mix them with formal lessons of grammar and vocab/expressions memorization and next thing you know, you will find yourself in the advanced league! From there, it will be just a matter of time before you will reach Oxford fluency.
I have done this several times (in other languages) myself and it worked.
I wish you the best!
PS Telling people that it takes 20 years to reach fluency in a foreign language (be it level 4-5) was very depressing to me! Hence, I took the time to hopefully encourage others that one can do it much faster...
i am in complete agreement. I lived and worked in Korea for over 18 years. I studied Korean seriously. I finally came to realize (with great respect) that Korean is largely an idiomatic language by which I mean that over the centuries certain short phrases have come to mean more complex thoughts. I learned this in trying to translate thoughts from English to Korean. My friends would say that they don't say that idea in that way. I would ask them for the correct and what they said was often idiomatic. I would ask why they said it that way, and they answered "That's just the way we say it." So, as Eric says, not only do you have to learn the grammar and build a very large vocabulary but you also have to memorize thousands of idiomatic expressions. That, for me, is what makes Korean so difficult.
"Writing is fairly easy to master"-I beg to differ on this. I'd say, it depends on people and how you start acquiring a certain language. For example, I have been exposed to listening in Korean for about 3-4 years now. As a result, my listening skill is better than the other skills. My writing skill is the poorest of all. It's been only months that I can write in Korean without making many mistakes.
The opposite situation prevails in Spanish. My reading and writing skills are better than listening and speaking. The same can be said about English.
So, you see, mastering different skills varies from person to person and also from language to language.
This is helpful in that now I don't feel so bad about the time I've spent so far & still not "there" yet. Of course a good first goal is to pick up basic grammar and the most common 1,500 words or so; I think that is really possible. But past that, I've decided to not set the elusive and poorly defined, possibly unattainable, goal to learn the entire language (i.e. "pass as native" - NEVER HAPPENING! Who do I think I'm kidding on that one? LOL!), but decide on a more attainable goal. WHAT specifically do I want to be able to do in the language? Why am I doing this; what is my motivation? Whom do I want to be able to talk to, and what topics do I want to be able to talk to them about? And what plan of action will be best to get me from here to there? Then I can focus on the most important vocabulary needed for that specific goal. I think that would take significantly less than 20 years to achieve. In fact I'm hoping and expecting that just one more year might do it, finally. Good luck! :)
I suggest you aim at specific goals like 1. giving a taxi driver directions, 2. ordering at a restaurant, 3. describing your family make up, 4. talking about the weather, 5. describing what you do for a living. I am serious. Work hard at those. Get comfortable with them. That will give you a lot of confidence. A next step is to try to discuss what you like in terms of books, movies, etc. This is easy because a lot of US movies and books are popular in Korea. I think you get the idea. After a while you can converse and exchange ideas. Also, learn all the holiday and anniversary greetings. These are very important. I see you are at Korean level 8 so I feel confident this is good advice. Do not aspire to casual, free ranging conversation until after two years unless you spend 2 - 3 hours per day and practice a lot with native speakers. On the other hand, Korean is a beautiful language that can express any idea in complex ways, so it's worth the effort. You will be very 행복.
I get asked around these questions frequently- "Have you LEARNT Korean?", "Are you fluent in Korean", "How long are you going to keep learning Korean?"......... My responses to these people are, "Is language learning like taking tablets? You take a dosage for a specific period of time and after your dosage is over, baamm, you are fluent!!" No, there is more to it. Learning a language takes time. It's been about 20 years since I have started learning English, and I'd say, I still haven't mastered this language, I'm still learning.
So, in my opinion, people shouldn't use the term "learn' or "learnt" that lightly. People learn new things, new words everyday. So we are practically students all our life.
Hello! Interesting post! I have been studying only for one year and sometimes feel like I should be able to read more than I can. My friends on discord cheer me on and tell me I'm quite advanced for only having been studying for one year, which is nice of them for sure but I'm just hard on myself I suppose. :) My time is unfortunately very limited as I only get to study before i start work, during my 2 15 min breaks and when I get home and on the weekends. I'm starting to slightly feel the pinch of some burn out but I feel like I'm not studying hard enough. Is there a way to battle burn out without me losing my current duolingo streak? I seem to be starting to make mistakes on simple stuff unfortunately. I want to one day take the TOPIK exam. In fact I found some mock tests and tried out a few questions and realized it was quite a bit harder than I thought as I still have a lot of vocabulary to learn. chuckle I wish to one day visit Korea. Id get along quite nicely as I'm a huge fan of the cuisine there! There is a restaurant in my town that is a Korean restaurant so I've gotten to try many dishes I find very tasty! Any advice would be great. Thanks!
@Eric I do disagree with your point of view because myself as a native English speaker cannot say I know even 10,000 words and English is known as one of the most hardest language to learn even for us native speakers. I am 14 and in Grade 11 and sometimes I would not even understand some of the things that English teacher be saying. For instance the vocabulary for English is never ending not even if I lived a 1,000 years would I know it. Right now my average for English is between 70 percent and 80 and compared to when i was learning French which i got 80 percent (even though it was like grade 3 for French speakers I would like to say I could hold a conversation for a minute or 2 and order at a french restaurant or get a taxi ) I have been learning it for 3 years but I dropped it this year because I was uninterested and I am still a baby so my mind is developing. Many times I would talk to my mother and give her a joke and then she give me a straight face and I ask her if it is not funny and she would say I do not get it and when I explain it she would then laugh and she is older than me and is also a native English speaker. So I do not think it is about how much you study because i will never fully understand my language intact I am sure speakers who are learning English for about 5 hours a week for 4 years could match my level. In languages it is all about explanations with the words that you do know. I even learn a new English word today which I may forget tomorrow because it is not used continuously. I guess what i am trying to say is that learn the small and easy words so if you don't know what a word is, it could be explained..., eg... Any science subject you learn a new word every damn day and the meaning. At this moment I am interested to learn Chinese and my goal for the end of my first year is 1,500 to 2,000 because my memory is significantly better than others, Overall my goal is 10,000 words.