In the context of East Asian languages, Korean often takes a back seat to people studying Chinese and Japanese.
Their loss is our gain. Korean is the language of Burning, Kimchi and the hermit kingdom. There is so much to explore and learn. In many ways your return on investment in the lesser studied language is far greater.
So you are probably wondering, how hard is Korean to learn?
The answer is that Korean, is one of the most difficult languages for a native English speaker to learn.
- Vocabulary – Picking up new vocabulary is pretty easy. If you have any background in Chinese, you are going to have a head start. But if not, don’t worry, 5% of Korean vocabulary is loans words, the majority of which come from English.
- Grammar – The problem areas in Korean grammar are as follows – word order and the use of particles. You are going to have to become familiar with how to layout a sentence. Once that’s done, you need to commit to memory all the different particles for subject, object, location, and so on. Once you have mastered that, remember that there 7 different speech levels in Korean. So, all those rules you just learnt for one speech level can vary for the 6 remaining speech levels.
- Speaking/Listening – The majority of sounds in Korean are easy for a native English speaker and there are no tones. Great! However, some major issues occur with all of the double consonant and double vowel sounds.
- Writing/Reading – The writing system is phonetic and quick to learn. Realistically you could learn it in a day, and be using it competently in 2 or 3 days.
So, after that brief overview, let’s dive in further.
So, how hard is Korean to learn really?
Korean vocabulary is best sub-categorised as belonging to one of two groups. Either, native Korean vocabulary which is polysyllabic (in other words, words are expressed as two syllables or more) or Sino-Korean vocabulary which is monosyllabic (meaning each syllable can have a meaning, but words can also be made up of these component parts).
In truth, more than half of Korean vocabulary is of Chinese origin. This is because for much of Korean history, the country was dominated by imperial China.
If we are put aside the Chinese influence, 5% of Korean vocabulary is made up of other foreign loan words. In the modern era, Korean vocabulary has been influenced by its neighbour Japan. There are some words of Japanese origin in the language. But, more recently the USA has had a huge impact through the economy and dominate media and so there are lots of English loan words.
Basic English Loan Words
- Chocolate – 초콜릿 – chokollit
- Ice cream – 아이스크림 – aiseukeurim
- Juice – 주스 – juseu
- Sandwich – 샌드위치 – saendeuwichi
- Wine – 와인 – wain
- Motorbike – 오토바이 – otobai
- Transgender – 트랜스 젠더 – teulaenseu jendeo
In order to understand the grammar of a language it is necessary to deconstruct the basic sentences to observe how the language functions.
- The apple is red — sagwa neun ppalgaeyo — neun is the topic particle. There are both subject and topic particles in Korean with subtle differences. The adjective functions like a be + adjective. There are no articles in Korean.
- It is John’s apple — (geugeo seun) jon ui sagwa yeyo — the subject is optional, ui functions as a possessive particle
- I give John the apple — (je ga) jon ege sagwa reul jwoyo — ege denotes the indirect object while reul denotes direct object
- We give him the apple — (uri ga) geu ege sagwa reul jwoyo
- He gives it to John — (geu ga) jon ege geugeo seul jwoyo
- He doesn’t give it to John — (geu ga) jon ege geugeo seul an jwoyo
- She gives it to him — (geunyeo ga) geu ege geugeo seul jwoyo — he and she have different pronouns
- I gave John the apple — (je ga) jon ege sagwa reul jwosseoyo — change of verb form to the past tense
- I must give the apple to him — jeo neun geu ege sagwa reul jwoya haeyo — change of subject to topic particle
- I want to give the apple to her — jeo neun geunyeo ege sagwa reul jugo sipeoyo — auxiliary and modals are after the main verb
The language deconstruction method is by no means exhaustive, but it is a good base for understanding Korean. It operates under the 80:20 Pareto principle, in that 80% of your languages needs are covered by 20% of the functional language.
- Word Order – Korean grammar has a subject-object-verb word order, this is of course different to English subject-verb-object. Also, be aware that in Korean they very often drop the subject from the sentence.
- Speech Levels – In Korean there are 7 levels of formality of speech. This translates to 7 different grammatical rules for verb endings. This can get complicated fast. The different speech levels can be grouped into three subcategories – high level (very formally polite, formally polite), mid level (familiar polite, semi-formal, familiar) and low level (formally impolite, casually impolite). People who are just starting out tend to learn familiar polite form and so this is the form we have used for this guide.
- Particles – In Korean, the particle is king. Particles are very important to understanding the role of a noun in the sentence. Particles also act as prepositions in a sentence. To give you an idea, particles denote the following — subject (who is doing the action), topic (when the subject isn’t the important past of the sentence), direct/indirect object (what is affected by the verb/to whom an object is give), possessive (who an object belongs to), location (time, destination, or location), direction (to where), action location (from where) and togetherness (used for and and with). This could get complicated very quickly. For each type of particle there are a few different combinations to choose from. Deep breath, lets move on.
- Articles – There are no articles in Korean. Phew. Context will communicate whether it is the or a.
- Demonstratives – In English there are 2 demonstratives – this and that. In Korean there are 3 – this, that and that over there.
- Pronouns – In Korean, pronouns are complicated. They are often omitted from the sentence, they are also often replaced by the title of the person you are speaking to or about.
- Nouns – There are no genders in Korean and plural is shown with the suffix deul. This is usually used for people and rarely objects.
- Classifiers – Korean has a lot of different counter words for different nouns. You should learn the more common ones first.
- Adjectives – In Korean the adjective functions much like the form be + adj. They are to be placed at the end of a sentence.
- Adverbs – Adverbs are placed before the verb and to form them you only need add a suffix to the base adjective.
- Verbs – Firstly, verbs don’t change for subject but they do for tense. The verb is made up on the core stem + the ending. The ending changes for the different tenses in a number of regular and irregular ways.
- Auxiliary and modal verbs – Different modals and auxiliary require different suffix endings after the main verb. Each one needs to be learnt.
- Be – There are a few different forms of the verb be and they are used in different ways. Lots of rules to learn.
- Negatives – You can either add the prefix an- or the suffix -ji anayo to a verb stem in order to form the negative of a verb.
- Questions – Upward intonation is the easiest way to form a question.
- Direct/indirect objects – The order of direct and indirect objects is not fixed
Korean has 40 phonemes made up of 22 consonant sounds and 18 vowel sounds. Korean isn’t a tonal language and stress is equally applied to each syllable in Korean.
There are 5 dialects in South Korea and 8 in North Korea, making up 8 in total. Other than the dialect on Jeju island, they are all mutually intelligible. Locals on Jeju tend to switch to a standard dialect of Korean when speaking with outsiders.
- Consonants IPA – m, k, j, p, w, n, t, l, s, ŋ, h, t̠ʃ, ʔ, kʰ, pʰ, tʰ, t̠ʃʰ, kˀ, sˀ, pˀ, t̠ʃˀ, tˀ.
- Vowels IPA – i ,u, a, e, o, iː, aː, uː, eː, oː, æ, ɯ, y, ø, ɤ, æː, ɯː, ɤː
Over 2000 years ago, Korean was originally written using a Chinese character writing system. But, in 1446, the Korean alphabet, called Hangul, was established. The language was originally written right to left, but is now left to right. Almost all Korean that you see these days is written with only the Hangul alphabet, but very occasionally in some books you can still see the Chinese characters.
There are 14 base consonants and 10 base vowels. On top of that, these base components are used to form another 5 double consonants and 11 combination vowels. This gives a total of 40 letters in the Korean alphabet. Each syllable in a sentence is made up of a combination of these consonants and vowels, this combination is called a syllable block.
My hovercraft is full of eels – 제 호버크래프트가 장어로 가득해요
The red script denotes the consonant symbols and the blue script denotes the vowel symbols.
- The script is written from left to right.
- There are 40 letters in the Korean alphabet.
- 14 base consonants and 5 double consonants.
- 10 base vowels and 11 double vowels.
Why Learn Korean?
As a language, Korean is increasingly growing in popularity. In my opinion there are a number of reason as to why.
- In Korean, people who work in the tourist industry and people under the age of 40 usually speak English quite well. But, outside of those groups there are many great conversations to be had. Anyone with an interest in the history of the Korean peninsula will want to invest the time, and on top of that, you never know, one day you might be using your Korean to have conversations with people in North Korea.
- The popular culture. South Korea has so many stand out cultural achievements. Take Korean cinema as an example. In the last 20 years Korea has produced some amazing films – Parasite, Burning and lets not forget, Train to Busan. If you learn Korean you will be able to dive more deeply into this fascinating world.
- The writing system. The Hangun alphabet is one of the most unique and logical writing systems in the world. Firstly, it doesn’t take long to learn and you can begin reading and writing in it very quickly, unlike geographically nearby languages like Chinese and Japanese.
But that’s not everything. Lets explore this question further.
Korean is a Koreanic language. It is the official language of North Korea and South Korea. It is also commonly spoken in Jilin province in China and Sakhalin island in Russia as well as among the Korean diaspora in the USA, Japan. Worldwide, Korea is spoken by 80 million people. It is spoken by 50 million people in South Korea and 25 million in North Korea. It is regulated by the National Institute of the Korean Language in South Korea and the Language Research Institute, Academy of Social Science in North Korea.
Travel, Culture, History and Economy
North and South Korea are countries in East Asia and together they make up the Korean peninsula. The capital of North Korea is Pyongyang and the capital of South Korea is Soeul. North Korea is bordered by China and Russia to the North, and South Korea to the south. The two countries are separated by a heavily mined and fortified demilitarised zone. South Korea, constituting the southern part of the Korean Peninsula, shares a land border with North Korea. The south and west of the peninsula is made up of flat plains while the north and east is mainly mountainous.
Korea has been controlled by many of the surrounding countries over the course of its history. In the 13th and 14th century the Mongols Empire ruled Korea, later the Japanese Empire controlled the peninsula. After the Japanese lost control following WW2 the country was split into two parts. In 1950, the two sides went to war with the North supported by the Soviet Union and the South by the USA. Since the end of the war, the two sides have taken very different economic and political paths.
South Korea is a highly developed country and the citizens can boast great healthcare, education and nutrition. The economy is a global leader in few different fields like electronics, telecommunications, automobile production. South Korea is a global cultural icon with K-pop, the popular TV dramas and a growing cinema industry, a phenomenon often termed the Korean Wave. North Korea officially is a socialist state. Many observers describe North Korea as a Stalinist dictatorship which is centred around the personality cult of the Kim dynasty. The major industries in North Korea are military products, chemicals and mining.
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has put together a relative comparison of world languages including Korean.
They rate Korean as a category 5 language along with languages like Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese. They believe it would take 88 weeks (2200 hours) to achieve a L3 proficiency in speaking and reading.
In attempting to learn anything it is best to first deconstruct the problem and then break down the learning task into manageable chunks. It is with this in mind that I recommend the following resources to help you in learning Korean.
- Fluent Forever or Anki – The Fluent Forever method details exactly how to use spaced repetition to quickly build functional vocabulary and learn common grammar rules.
- italki.com – Italki gives you access to very cheap video chat lesson with teachers from around the world, dive straight in.
- lang-8.com – Lang 8 allows you to input writing and have it corrected for free in a matter of hours. This community is very helpful and is a great way to practice online.