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120 TOPIK #16 – Deconstruct Korean Grammar with 13 Sentences


Tim Ferriss has some pretty incredible (nearly unbelievable) stories about how he learned various languages. Here’s a brief preview (from the video above) about the amount of time he spent to learn these languages:

  1. Japanese: 11 months (while living in Japan & using Judo textbooks, comics, etc)
  2. Chinese: 6 months (Chinese 101 in Princeton – then in China)
  3. German: 3 months (while living in Berlin)
  4. Spanish: 8 weeks (in Argentina – reached the most advanced level @ the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina)
  5. Turkish: 10 days (passed the Rosetta Stone Level 3 test with 85%)

He reminds us of DiSSS (Deconstruction, Sequencing, Selection, Stakes) and comments on the MED (Minimum Effective Dose):

  • Too little: doesn’t get the job done – you aren’t speaking
  • Too much: takes too long – 20-30 years for fluency

Throughout the video, he makes some other incredibly wild claims that make me wonder what is TRULY possible, and what is possible in Korean:

  • In a Romance language, you can absorb 100-300 words per day using mnemonic devices (memory triggering tricks)
  • You only need around 1,000-1,200 appropriately chosen words to become functionally fluent in any language
  • Give yourself 2 weeks at this pace and you have all the words you need to know

He also recommends getting a Lonely Planet Phrase book and learning about 40 set phrases BEFORE getting deep into deconstructing the grammar of the language. Doing so will give you a good base starting point so that when/how you deconstruct the language’s grammar, it won’t all be totally foreign. And then he begins to break down how exactly HE breaks down any languages grammar.

Kick-start Korean with 4 “helping verbs”

Tim claims that if you can learn the following four “helping verbs”, it’ll give you a kick-start to being able to use ANY NUMBER of verbs and make nearly any combination of practical sentences in a very short time. The “helping verbs” are shown below in red.

  1. I must eat. (I eat.) – avoid conjugating the verbs in the first two
    1. 나는 먹어야 해요.
    2. I eat-must do.
  2. I want to eat.
    1. 나는 먹고 싶어요.
    2. I eat want-to.
  3. I‘m going to eat tomorrow.
    1. 나는 내일 먹을 거예요.
    2. I tomorrow eat-will.
  4. I can’t eat.
    1. 나는 먹어요.
    2. I not(can’t) eat.

In Korean, it is important to understand the basics of conjugating verbs in order to really properly put these to use (look for this in an upcoming post), but for now, if you can memorize the following FOUR grammar patterns, you’ll be off to a great start.

  1. 어/아야 해요 = must do
  2. 어/아고 싶어요 = want to do
  3. ㄹ/을 거예요 = will do (going to do)
  4. 못 + VERB = can’t (안 + VERB = don’t want to)

The Grammar of Any Language

Following on from there, when learning any new language, Tim sits down for a while deconstructing that language’s grammar with the following 13 sentences that break apart many of the MOST IMPORTANT grammar points in any language:

  1. Declarative sentences:
    1. Ex: The apple is red.
    2. Basic: 사과는 빨간색이다.
    3. Polite: 사과는 빨간색이에요.
    4. Formal: 사과는 빨간색입니다.
    5. Literal: apple red-color-is
  2. Possessives:
    1. Ex: It is John’s apple.
    2. Basic: 그것은 존의 사과다.
    3. Polite: 그것은 존의 사과예요.
    4. Formal: 그것은 존의 사과입니다.
    5. Literal: it John’s apple-is
  3. Direct/indirect objects:
    1. Ex: I give John the apple.
    2. Basic: 나는 존한테 사과를 준다.
    3. Polite: 나는 존한테 사과를 줘요.
    4. Formal: 저는 존한테 사과를 줍니다.
    5. Literal: I John-to apple give
  4. Pronouns:
    1. Ex: We give him the apple.
    2. Basic: 우리는 존한테 사과를 준다.
    3. Polite: 우리는 존한테 사과를 줘요.
    4. Formal: 우리는 존한테 사과를 줍니다.
    5. Literal: we John-to apple give
  5. Pronouns & direct/indirect objects:
    1. Ex: He gives it to John.
    2. Basic: 그는 존에게 그것을 준다.
    3. Polite: 그는 존에게 그것을 줘요.
    4. Formal: 그는 존에게 그것을 줍니다.
    5. Literal: he John-to that-thing gives
  6. Direct/indirect object pronouns:
    1. Ex: She gives it to him.
    2. Basic: 그녀는 그에게 그것을 준다.
    3. Polite: 그녀는 그에게 그것을 줘요.
    4. Formal: 그녀는 그에게 그것을 줍니다.
    5. Literal: she him-to that-thing gives
  7. Questions:
    1. Ex: Is the apple red?
    2. Basic: 사과는 빨간색인가?
    3. Polite: 사과는 빨간색이에요?
    4. Formal: 사과는 빨간색입니까?
    5. Literal: apple red-color-is-it?
  8. Singular vs. Plural:
    1. Ex: The apples are red.
    2. Basic: 사과들은 빨간색이다.
    3. Polite: 사과들은 빨간색이에요.
    4. Formal: 사과들은 빨간색입니다.
    5. Literal: apples red-color-is(are)
  9. Compulsory sentences:
    1. Ex: I must give it to him.
    2. Basic: 나는 그한테 그것을 줘야 한다.
    3. Polite: 나는 그한테 그것을 줘야 해요.
    4. Formal: 저는 그한테 그것을 줘야 합니다.
    5. Literal: I him-to that-thing give-must do
  10. Helping verbs:
    1. Ex: I want to give it to her.
    2. Basic: 나는 그녀에게 그것을 주고 싶다.
    3. Polite: 나는 그녀에게 그것을 주고 싶어요.
    4. Formal: 저는 그녀에게 그것을 주고 싶습니다.
    5. Literal: I her-to that-thing give-and want
  11. Future tense + helping verbs:
    1. Ex: I’m going to know tomorrow.
    2. Basic: 내일 알게 될 것이다.
    3. Polite: 내일 알게 될 거예요.
    4. Formal: 내일 알게 될 겁니다.
    5. Literal: tomorrow knowing will thing-is
  12. Negatives statements:
    1. Ex: I can’t eat the apple.
    2. Basic: 나는 사과를 못 먹는다.
    3. Polite: 나는 사과를 못 먹어요.
    4. Formal: 저는 사과를 못 먹습니다.
    5. Literal: I apple not(can’t) eat
  13. Conjugating verbs:
    1. Ex: I have eaten the apple.
    2. Basic: 나는 사과를 먹었다.
    3. Polite: 나는 사과를 먹었어요.
    4. Formal: 저는 사과를 먹었습니다.
    5. Literal: I apple ate

If you can get these basic 13 sentences DOWN – memorized inside-and-out, backwards-and-forwards, and understand all of their working parts, then becoming functionally fluent in Korean is just a matter of learning new nouns, verbs, and adjectives to conjugate and plug in to the puzzle.

Resources mentioned

  1. Michel Thomas method (no Korean yet though…)
  2. Vis-ed Flashcards (supposed to be Korean here, but nothing shows up)
  3. Duolingo (also no Korean yet…but you can vote for them to make it here)
  4. Comic books (here’s our post on Naver Webtoons)
  5. Movies (download the Buzzni app to find local showtimes – if you’re in Korea)


Go through the list of 13 grammar points above and REALLY make sure that you learn them. Know them inside-and-out and start plugging in different nouns, verbs, and adjectives you know to really see how these work and how powerful they are.

I’m planning to (later) create a nicely designed printable PDF with these 13 points clearly outlined, but for now, the list above will suffice.

Over to you:

Have you ever learned grammar this way before? Do you think it’s an effective method or all just hype? Let me know in the Comments below or on social media with #120TOPIK.

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3 thoughts

  1. Thank you for this information.

    Question: Your translation for “The apple is red” keeps coming up as “The apples ARE RED”. Am I missing something or is Google just wrong?

    1. I didn’t use the plural indicator (들) but I don’t think you really need to when talking about apples. Usually, “apples” would probably be referred to in the plural form anyway, unless you specifically use the counter for one (한 or 하나, 한게). I assume Google is just assuming the sentence refers to apples in general, instead of a specific, single, apple.

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