World-famous music genre ‘K-pop’ or ‘gayo’ (가요) has a rich history of culture and sound that can help you learn Korean in the most fun and interesting way. This specific type of music marries together styles and sounds from many international genres including EDM, experimental rock, disco, jazz, folk and even classical. Let’s take a little look at K-pop’s history before sharing some tips on how to learn a language by listening to your favourite songs.
K-pop spans four generations since being born in 1996 with Korea’s first ever ‘boy group,’ ‘H.O.T’. By marrying together the concept of ‘boy bands’ from the US and idolised celebrities from Japan, H.O.T completely blew up in Korea and sold millions of copies of every album that they released. There’s also talk of a ‘Generation 1.5’ which was when the term ‘Hallyu’ (한류) or the ‘Korean wave’ was coined, and began to break through internationally. ‘Experimental’ artists like ‘BoA’ and ‘god’ gained hundreds of thousands of fans across China, Japan and other East Asian countries.
The second gen began in the early 2000s with bands like ‘Girls’ Generation’ and ‘SHINee’ who would sing songs about love and crushes, making them extremely popular with teenage audiences. And as usage of the internet began to surge during this era, so did audiences for their music. K-pop groups began to go on world tours and their business model changed from ‘mysterious singers’ to ‘neighborhood friends,’ creating a deeper connection between the artist and the listener. This was also the generation that brought us PSY’s classic top hit, ‘Gangnam Style’, bringing K-pop into the mainstream!
This paved the way for the third generation who we love SO much. New and improved unique sounds from groups like BTS, BLACKPINK, TWICE and EXO have gained increasing popularity across the globe since the 2010s, making K-pop one of the most popular genres of music in the world. Using YouTube, social media and instant messaging platforms to connect to their fans and share their music and lifestyle, K-pop and its singers are sweeping through the Western world, with K-pop tracks often seen at Top Ten in the charts.
Related: Learn Korean with BTS: What is BTS Singing About?
The fourth gen is arguably emerging today since 2019 and includes a lot more diversity from the likes of K-pop audition survival shows like The Unit: Idol Rebooting Project, Produce 101 and currently Boys Planet 999. Fourth-generation stars include ‘TOMORROW X TOMORROW’, TREASURE, ITZY, New Jeans and Everglow who are all gunning for global popularity now that K-pop has completely transcended the country it originated from; there’s even a K-pop group called ‘BLACKSWAN’ who have zero Korean members!
Language learning tips and tricks
Learning with music is one of the most fun and productive ways to familiarise yourself with a language, as you naturally expose yourself to vocabulary, accents, intonation and even culture just by hearing it! So here are 5 ways that you can make the most of K-pop bangers and sing your way to Korean fluency:
- Listen on repeat. The easiest way to learn any language through listening to music is by playing the song over and over again. This will get your brain used to hearing the same words and phrases, even subconsciously whilst playing music in the background. In many K-Pop songs, the chorus is repeated 4 or 5 times and contains English words as well as Korean ones. The use of English phrases gives context to what they’re singing about and makes it pretty effortless to pick up words and sounds whilst you’re listening!
- Look up the lyrics. Once you’ve familiarised yourself with the sound of the words in the song/s, you can search for the lyrics to see what the letters and symbols look like. K-pop lyrics are often littered with generic phrases that follow themes about mental health, relationships or self-love, so once you know what the Korean symbols look like and how they sound, you can begin to use these sentences in context during your personal and daily conversations!
For example, in ‘Run BTS’, a song by K-pop sensation, BTS, the chorus is:
다시 run, run, run, 난 멈출 수가 없어
또 run, run, run, 난 어쩔 수가 없어
어차피 이것밖에 난 못해
너를 사랑하는 것밖엔 못해
다시 run, run, run, 넘어져도 괜찮아
또 run, run, run, 좀 다쳐도 괜찮아
가질 수 없다 해도 난 족해
바보 같은 운명아 나를 욕해
Which translates as:
Again run, run, run, I can't stop
Again run, run, run, I can't help it
I can only do this anyway
I can't help but love you
Run, run, run again, it's okay to fall
Again, run, run, run, it's okay to get hurt
Even if I can't have it, I'm good enough
Foolish destiny, curse me
So just from listening to this one chorus, you can learn how to say important words and phrases like ‘again’, ‘I can’t help but love you,’ ‘It’s ok to get hurt’ and the all-self-empowering phrase, ‘I’m good enough.’
- Break down the lyrics. Korean is unlike romantic languages because the symbols can be broken down into whole words or phrases instead of spelling a word with each individual letter. For example, in the EXO song ‘Promise’, ‘지금’ means one word ‘now’ whilst ‘위로’ means the concept ‘on the top of something’.
Although it seems complicated, exploring the Korean alphabet via the lyrics from K-pop songs is a fun way to spend time with your favourite artists as well as learn how to read and pronounce Korean! You can find many sites online to help you pull apart each symbol or work with a Korean tutor.
- Write down the lyrics. Once you’ve done all of the above and feel confident matching the symbols to the sounds, you can practice writing these sentences by copying the words down and hand-writing them. This will help solidify your comprehension. However, it’s recommended to have some previous grammar knowledge of Korean because K-pop songs tend to include a lot of abbreviations which are more informal than academically educational.
- Let your passion educate you. Last but not least, don’t just stop at lyrics! If you’re such a huge fan of a K-pop group that you could listen to them all day, then do that! Listen to interviews with them on YouTube, read their social media posts, watch the BLACKPINK documentary. You can even speak to other fans about your favourite group or songs and try to do so in Korean!
Learning a language doesn’t have to be boring; take every opportunity to translate what you hear or what the group says and enjoy doing so, simply because it’s a topic that you love!
To learn from a plethora of other Korean documentaries, movies and TV shows, you can visit Lingopie.com and get lost in entertainment.