Learning Korean through K-pop

안녕하세요 여러분! Hello everyone!

I am back! This month, I am sharing with you my experience with possibly the most common way of learning Korean, or any language for that matter, and that is, studying through songs! Many people are learning Korean for various reasons and there are various methods to do it too! But for those who were drawn to Korean music first, learning the language through songs is a natural way to start. It is also easy to keep on doing once you’ve started.

How To

It might be a bit silly how I’m writing a How-To for this method, as it should be one of those things that you just start doing naturally… but just bear with me. These are not step-by-step instructions but rather recommendations and tips. 🙂 Here we go!

1. Start by picking a song that you like, and select a few new words to add to your vocabulary.

Just stick to a few words first. Pick just one verse, e.g. the chorus, or the hook in a song. If you keep singing that part out loud or in your head, you’ll retain it and be more likely to use it in the future. I tend to pick the opening verse of each song. I am a visual learner too, so I like taking notes to make me remember things better. I keep a notebook with different words that I gathered from song lyrics. I force myself to write it in Hangeul instead of romanization and I use Google Translate and Naver Dictionary apps on my phone to find the translations. Some lyrics sites will actually give full translations of songs, but will not give you word per word translations, so you’ll still have to do some investigative legwork.

2. Learn the basic grammar rules (at least the main Korean particles and tenses)

If some people think that listening to K-pop 24/7 will be more than enough to learn the language, they’re gravely mistaken. Unfortunately, you’ll have to eventually study some grammar! 🙂 There’s no way around it. But once you’ve gathered enough words (nouns and verbs) and have a good grasp of basic grammar rules, song lyrics will no longer just be strings of names of things and set phrases. You’ll be surprised that one day, you will listen to a new song and you can actually comprehend some or many portions of it. Or you might hear someone say a word or phrase, and your brain will just click and remember the same thing from a song! It’s quite amazing.

My go-to place for learning grammar is still Talk To Me In Korean (TTMIK), but you can study with a grammar book or study apps as well. There are also some blogs that write about simpler grammar topics, and those can be useful resources too, ie. a friend I met on HelloTalk writes short lessons on grammar but she also writes some posts in full Korean in her study blog.

3. Then lastly, if you’re an eager beaver, dabble into studying idioms, proverbs, and metaphors!

These expressions are also widely used in song lyrics! But these expressions do not make sense literally. So even if you know what it translates to, you won’t interpret it correctly until someone tells you the meaning. Slang, buzzwords are also interesting. If I suspect that a word is a slang word, I go to openslang.com to find a meaning.

Let’s Try It!

Since G Dragon is coming to Toronto this July, I thought of revisiting and dissecting one of his famous songs. He is in fact an amazing lyricist, composer, and producer who made a lot of hits known worldwide! When I encounter a Korean song that I like, I’d like to know the meaning of the words and the message it is trying to convey. So because I like GD and Big Bang a lot, I’ve studied their songs more than other singers/bands.

Below, I picked the opening verse of Crayon, a hit song from GD’s 2012 album “One Of A Kind”. The lyrics and translations are from colorcodedlyrics.com but the tips and comments are from me. I hope you will find these useful for your learning too!

“CRAYON/ 크레용”(ONE OF A KIND, 2012)


머리 어깨 무릎 발
swag check swag check
머리 어깨 무릎 발
swag check swag check

아직도 꿀리지 않아 yes I’m a pretty boy
난 날아다녀 so fly 날라리 boy
난 바빠 오빠 나빠Baaaad boy
I’m a G to the D Gold N Diamonds boy
누가 아니래 U know I beez that
오늘의 DJ 나는 철이 너는 미애
아가씨 아가씨 난 순결한 지용씨
이리와봐요 귀요미 네 남자친구는 지못미
넌 마치 닮았지 내 이상형 so give me some
김태희와 김희선 oh my god 전지현


English Translation:


Head, shoulders, knees and toes
Swag check swag check
Head, shoulders, knees and toes
Swag check swag check

I’m still second to none yes I’m a pretty boy
I fly around, so fly, I’m a delinquent boy
Mon, Tues, Wed, Thurs, Fri, Sat, Sun,
I’m busy, I’m a bad oppa, bad boy
I’m a G to the D Gold N Diamonds boy
Who says I’m not? U know I beez that
The DJ of the day, I’ll be Chuli, you be Miae
Hey lady, hey lady, I’m the innocent Jiyong
Look here cutie, your boyfriend is jimotmi
You resemble my ideal girl so give me some
Kim Tae Hee and Kim Hee Sun oh my god Jeon Ji Hyun

Let’s Break It Down

GD starts by using a children’s rhyme to check his swag! By doing so, he tells us the names of main body parts too

머리/meo-ri = head
어깨/eo-kkae = shoulder
무릎/mu-reup = knees
/pal = feet

Then GD tells us the days of the week in the 3rd line of the first verse:

월화수목금토일/ wol-hwa-su-mok-geum-to-il

It is an acronym for the days of the week, composed of the first syllables of the names of the days of the week starting Monday. All days of the week in Korean end with -요일/yo-il, as in 월요일/wor-yo-il/Monday, -요일/yo-il to make the acronym. It can be a tongue-twister too!

/wol – Mon
/hwa – Tues
/su – Wed
/mok – Thurs
/geum – Fri
/to – Sat
/il – Sun

This is followed by a rhyme attack:

바빠/ba-ppa = busy; present tense of the verb 바쁘다/ba-ppeu-da = to be busy

오빠/o-ppa = term of endearment of a female for an older male

나빠/na-ppa = bad; present tense of the verb 나쁘다/na-ppeu-da = to be bad or harmful

And near the end of the first verse, GD uses a couple of rhyming Korean slangs.

  • First word is 귀요미/gwi-yo-mi, which means “Cutie”.

This word is actually the invention of BtoB member Jung Ilhoon, when a meme of him doing cute counting movements became viral in 2012. A song came out in 2013 called “Gwiyomi Song” based on the meme, and the word became even more popular and was adapted into the modern Korean vocabulary. This slang is related to the word 애교/aegyo, which is defined by Wikipedia as “a cute display of affection often expressed through a cute/baby voice, facial expressions, and gestures. Aegyo literally means behaving in a coquette-ish manner and it is commonly expected for both male and female K-pop idols to behave this way”. It was quite common to see idols during TV programs or concerts doing the “Gwiyomi Song” when they were asked to show their “aegyo”.

  • The second slang is지못미/ji-mot-mi, which is short form of the phrase 지켜주지못해미안해/ ji-kyeo-ju-ji mot-hae mi-an-hae. It means “I can’t save you, I’m so sorry.”

It is meant to be used as a response to a bad or sad incident that you feel responsible for. In the song, GD uses it as a noun and says “Your boyfriend is a jimotmi.” It is quite an insult, suggesting that the girl’s boyfriend is probably less than average and always feels apologetic for not providing/protecting his girlfriend!

And to close the first verse, GD gives us names of real people who are famous for their charm and beauty, who he claims are his ideal type:

이상형/i-sang-hyeong = ideal type

김태희/ Kim Tae Hee = South Korean actress, married to singer/actor Rain, known for her roles in “Stairway to Heaven”, “Iris”, and others. She recently starred in “Yongpal”.

김희선/ Kim Hee Sun = South Korean actress, famous for many of her TV roles in mid to late 90s. In 2012, she starred opposite Lee Minho in “Faith” and starred in a few more TV dramas since.

전지현/ Jeon Ji Hyun = South Korean actress, famous for her role in “My Sassy Girl” and other movies, and more recently for the lead character in TV drama “You Who Came From the Stars”.

Other names in the song are:

철이/Chuli and 미애/Mi Ae – a Korean disco/hiphop duo in the 90’s

지용씨/Jiyong-ssi – Kwon Jiyong is G Dragon’s real name. 용/yong means dragon in Korean, and that’s where his stage name came from… Ji-Yong became G Dragon.

Final Thoughts

Crayon’s lyrics for the first verse are quite simple and elementary. The tempo is also not as fast as the second verse so I think it is not a bad place to start to study. Try to learn it, enjoy it and sing it confidently too! There’s no deep meaning in this song, just a lot of energy. If you are going to see G Dragon in concert, wouldn’t it be so nice to sing along to him? So get studying! 🙂

Have you tried studying song lyrics before? Which song/s did you study? Are you going to see GD’s concert? Tell us in the comments box below!

4 thoughts on “Learning Korean through K-pop

  • July 21, 2017 at 4:00 pm

    My problem is that I hear Korean words differently from what experts say is the correct pronunciation and differently from how they’re written in Hangul. For example – the world star Rain and actual rain 😉 – I see it in Hangul with the “Bee” letter but I hear it pronounced “Pee” in Korea, but when he guest stars in China, I hear “Bee”. I run into the same thing with so many other words that I absolutely definitely hear pronounced one way, but see the Hangul using a different first letter. And every once in a while, I’ll hear a Korean pronounce the word that’s causing me this problem the way it looks in Hangul. :l

    • August 1, 2017 at 9:33 am

      Oops, i typed my response in a new comment box. Check it out below^^.

  • August 1, 2017 at 9:31 am

    Hi Beez! Thanks for your comment!

    I’ve heard that same problem from other people too. I know it can be quite tricky to catch words just by listening so I do cheat time to time and just look up lyrics in lyric sites. Then I know exactly how the words are spelled.

    I found this mobile app “Koko Letter” that does nothing but give the pronounciations of any syllable in Hangul. It is useful in figuring out the actual sounds of words (at least short words). Korean does have liaison rules… you wont pick that up from the app though. But if your problem is distinguishing difference between ㄷ vs ㄸ or ㅂ vs ㅃ vs ㅍ, this app will be very useful for training your ears! 🙂

    • August 1, 2017 at 10:34 am

      Thanks Noreen, I’ll give the app a try. (I tried a couple in the past and while the romanization spelling was accurate, the sound quality was so bad that it was useless for pronunciation.)

      I’ve actually come to the conclusion that whomever the English and Korean speakers were that first made contact with each other, those two put their heads together and decided which English letters matched Korean letters and screwed this up for generations to come. lol

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