Most of us learning Korean language, while looking for a way to memorize basic Korean vocabulary as quickly as possible, have come across that list. The list of most common Korean words. Whether you discovered it in Memrise courses or on the unofficial TOPIK blog, what you were looking at all come from one source – research published by National Institute of Korean Language. And…
I’ve found it.
- How to download the official list of 6000 Most Common Korean Words
- How to use the list
- Is the most efficient way of learning Korean vocabulary to learn the most frequent Korean words first?
- How to learn Korean vocabulary quickly
How to download the official list of 6000 Most Common Korean Words
On the webpage of National Institute of Korean Language there is a section with countless downloads available. To download the original list click the link and search for either this
or more specifically this
한국어 학습용 어휘 목록,
which I believe means “Vocabulary list for learning Korean” (or something like that?). Once you click the search button you will be presented with this screen:
It’s the same list in three different file formats. There’s no pdf and since I’m on Android I’ve only managed to download the Excel file. This is what it looks like:
The leftmost column is the frequency rank (순위) of the word. Next column is the list of Korean words (단어). The center column is the part of speech (품사). Column to the right of center contains additional explanations (풀이), if needed. Finally, the rightmost column is the difficulty rating of the word (등급).
I was glad to see that this is more than just a list of words since I had some issues when learning the first 1000 Most Common Korean Words on Memrise, issues which I will talk about further down.
How to use the list
Here’s more info on what each column contains:
- Frequency rank (순위) is pretty self-explanatory. If it says 26 in front of the word for “year” (년) then that word is the 26th most common word in Korean language. Confusingly, frequency rank starts skipping numbers at some point, for example, number 369 is missing, and later in the list it skips by a few thousand. I’m not sure what that’s all about. If someone knows please let me know.
- List of Korean words (단어) is the main star here. Those are the words we need to learn. Although, I am not sure what the numbers 01, 02, 03, etc. concatenated to the word mean.
- Part of speech (품사) is the category to which the word belongs to: nouns (명사), verbs (동사), auxiliary verbs (보조동사), adjectives (형용사), etc. There are words in Korean that are spelled the same but are different part of speech and have different meaning. For example, adjective “to be cheap” (싸다) and verb “to pack, wrap” (싸다) have the same spelling but appear with different frequencies, so this column resolves the doubt which one the list is referring to.
- Additional explanations (풀이) contain all kinds of useful information to disambiguate words when they have different meaning despite being the same part of speech. “Word” and “end” and “horse” (말) are all nouns, so to resolve the uncertainty additional explanations column gives a phrase it could be used in for “word”, its Hanja for “end”, and says it’s an animal for “horse”. There are other types of explanations a word can have, for example, words transliterated from English have the English word in this column such as “program” for 프로그램.
Difficulty rating (등급) ranks words into three classes: A, B, and C which probably correspond to beginner (초급), intermediate (중급), and advanced (고급). I am guessing that everything marked with A is considered basic Korean vocabulary. I do wonder how it corresponds to TOPIK levels. Level C can be found as early as word #69 and level A among much rarer words, so simple Korean words are not always the most common ones and the other way around.
The question remains…
is the most efficient way of learning Korean vocabulary to learn the most frequent Korean words first?
On one hand, a lot of linguistic research has shown that learning roughly 1000 word families (give or take depending on the language) will enable you to understand 75% of words spoken in everyday Korean conversation.
Word family (also known as lemma) is a basic word and all its inflections, for example: 지나다, 지난, 지나면 etc.
(You can take a test to find out how large your current Korean vocabulary is)
On the other hand, this was my personal experience with it: it didn’t work.
1. Lemmas (or word families) don’t mean much to an absolute beginner. For example, look at the 97th most common word in Korean language:
“To pass by” (지나다) is marked as a verb (동사) and listed as 97th most common word in Korean out of tens of thousands.
Koreans must be passing things by much more often than other nations.
Actually, now that I know Korean better, I’m pretty sure that the reason it is listed as very frequent is that another form of that word is used often. In expressions such as “last month” (지난 달), “last weekend” (지난 주말), “last week” (지난주), “last year” (지난 해) the conjugated form “last, previous” (지난) is used.
Those time expressions are certainly something used very often.
As an absolute beginner I had no idea that by removing -다 and adding -ㄴ one could convert a verb found at the end of a sentence into a word that describes a noun and is placed before it.
To put it simply: learning “to pass by” (지나다) didn’t help me at all to recognize “last, previous” (지난) as belonging to the same word family, nor to guess its meaning.
Still, once I saw 지난 used enough times and knew the verb 지나다, my brain made the connection by itself, and that kind of knowledge is stronger and memory longer lasting.
2. I also find that the most common words usually carry the least amount of meaning.
Take for example the sentence “I will drive my convertible to the drugstore.”
Which one gives you more information on what’s going on:
“I will _ my _ to the _.”
“_ _ drive _ convertible _ _ drugstore.”
In the first one you get 62.5% of the text and that text is made up of the most common words. In the second one 37.5% of the text, with much rarer words. And yet, you are clueless about what’s going on in the first example, while you can be pretty sure what’s going on in the second one.
3. Learning words out of context turned out to be pretty useless. If I know word for a “seat” and “taken” I still can’t ask “Is this seat taken?” because that’s just not how you say it in Korean. Nor would I ever be able to guess that “Does a person exist here?” actually means “Is this seat taken?” in Korean even though I understand every word in that sentence.
You need context to know how to use the word and that means going through Naver dictionary and pulling out sample sentences for each word even though most of them are too complex for a beginner (yes, I actually tried that too.) It took way too long.
Aside from not having the context, this is another issue I had learning the most common Korean words from Memrise courses: the official list doesn’t have English translations of Korean words, so one has to find them in the dictionary to make a Memrise course. Whoever made that course is obviously a lost beginner like myself and struggled with words that are spelled the same. For example, 하다 is only listed once in the Memrise course, but appears twice on the list at #2 and #7, once as a verb and the second time as an auxiliary verb.
How to learn Korean vocabulary quickly
Everyone has a different learning style and in language learning there are definitely different roads to reach the same goal.
For me, the most efficient way turned out to be giving up on learning the most common words.
Instead I learn the words as they are presented to me in my beginner textbooks and lessons because they come in context and in grammar forms I am familiar with.
I also learn words that I come across in different Korean sources: websites, children’s picture books, webtoons, etc. Despite those words being advanced sometimes I find that acting according to my own curiosity, as opposed to having the words chosen for me, helps me memorize them faster and retain them longer.
That doesn’t mean I completely gave up on the list. My plan is, once I’m done with the beginner level Korean textbooks, to go through first 2000 words in the list (that should roughly cover TOPIK I) and learn any words I don’t know yet. To make sure there are no holes in my knowledge. It should be a lot more manageable when I already know most of the words, and when I better understand Naver sample sentences.