Normally, Automatic Language Growth (ALG) theory says you do 800 hours of listening, then you start speaking, and you do writing and reading last. The reality is, however, if you are not at the ALG school in Bangkok, it is nearly impossible to arrange these type of lessons for yourself. And it takes two years with strict ALG to learn a category three language, such as Chinese, Thai or Korean. Most people working in a foreign country can’t invest two years into learning, particularly if they are on a one year or two year contract.

So, I modify ALG when I am doing my own learning and writing.

Next, the founders of ALG were concentrated on how to teach Thai to foreigners. In taking ALG out of Thailand and applying it to other countries, my personal feeling is that the game changes a bit because, unlike Thai, Korean is not tonal and the pronunciation is simple consonant vowel, consonant vowel. And second, the Thai writing system is extremely complex and you really shouldn’t learn to read until you have a very functional knowledge of the language. But in the case of Korean, Hangul is one of the easiest and most perfect writing systems ever developed.

Most people can learn Hangul in about a week. After that, you can read literally anything in Korean. Normally, I tell people to read last, because when you read you have an internal monologue which will be imperfect if you haven’t done sufficient listening first.

What I suggest, to speed up the process, but to also learn the language well, you should buy a university level Korean textbook, and hire a private tutor. Korean teachers will generally want to spend the first several lessons on the alphabet. Don’t let them. Don’t worry about the alphabet for a few weeks. It is probably better to hire a young university student who you can intimidate into teaching you the way you want to learn, as opposed to hiring an experienced teacher who only knows one way and will argue and fight with you.

Have your tutor read the dialogues in your book again and again. At home, listen to the audio CDs for the book. Do not start by having the teacher teach you the symbols or the characters of Hangul. Just follow along with your finger while the teacher reads. Do this for two or three weeks. You will begin to make guesses about what the different characters should sound like. You will begin to recognize words. You will slowly gain a rhythm for the language.

After several weeks, then you could spend a single lesson on the alphabet, to ensure that you know what each letter sounds like and how to recognize them. After that, you can read on your own.

At night, follow the written words on the page while you listen to the CDs. You can start writing at this point. It will help reinforce what you are hearing and learning. But remember, listening is still the key to learning a language and to avoid fossilizing mistakes. Never write an assignment and allow the teacher to take it home and mark it. You go over every assignment, verbally with your teacher, a number of times before you go home and write it. The next day, you should go over your homework verbally, with your teacher. Again, the teacher reads and corrects. You just listen and write. Think about your homework as a talking point, something to help you focus and contextualize your listening.

Don’t speak yet.

What I did with the Korean language was I bought as many level-one textbooks as I could find. There are about three or maybe four series of Korean textbooks sold in Korea. So, I bought all of them. I chose one that I only did with my teacher. The others I did on my own. You can get level one textbooks for free; just ask other foreigners who gave up on learning Korean. They will often pass the books on to you. Just write in them and fill them with ink, writing and rewriting each exercise.

My teacher and I went on like this for about a month or six weeks. Everyday, she read for me. In the evenings, I listened to the listening for that book and the listening for the other books which I read on my own.

Eventually, when I started speaking, I only read out my answers from my main textbook while my teacher and I marked my homework.

With the Korean language, the listening/speaking is not difficult in the sense of getting the pronunciation right. Actually, Korean, like Mandarin, has only a couple of sounds that we don’t have in English; but the listening is difficult because of the complex Korean grammar and registers of speech. So, when you first start “speaking” it should really be just reading grammatically correct and appropriate answers from your book. I did this for hours with my teacher. Occasionally, she would ask me something that wasn’t in the book, but I would refuse to answer. You don’t want to start “creating” speech until you are ready. Stick with canned speaking practice for several more weeks.

Finally, you can start speaking. Again, it would be best to wait till the end of 800 hours, but this is not a reality for most people living in the country. So, maybe you start speaking at the end of two months of lessons. My vocabulary was already 2,000 words when I began speaking. And even then, I kept my speaking limited to what was in the book and, eventually, variations of what was in the book. You should move your reading and listening away from the book and into the real world pretty early on. But your speaking needs to stay in the sterile book world or you will create mistakes that you will never, ever be able to shake.

With all of my languages, once my listening gets to an acceptable level, I encourage people in the real world to talk to me in Korean, but I answer in English. The longer you stay at that level and the more total listening you do, the better your Korean will be when you open up your mouth and start speaking.

If you jump right into speaking, as most teachers want you to do, you will most likely never approach fluency. You will make errors of grammar and appropriateness of speech. Depending upon how early you start speaking you may even make mistakes in pronunciation which is truly sad because Korean is so perfect and easy to pronounce.

The keys to language learning are: dedication, hard work, listening, and discipline to avoid giving in to the temptation to speak too early.