How to Speak Korean – It’s Easier than You Think
Want to learn Korean? Good call! Learning how to speak Korean is a great choice, because Korean is hot property right now.
Although Korean might be ranked as one of the more difficult languages to learn by the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), it is by no means impossible. So don’t worry about the “hours” it takes to learn Korean.
You can learn Korean fast — and you may even already know more Korean than you think!
Why Learn Korean — And What You Can Enjoy When You Do!
Interest from people who want to speak the Korean language has soared over the past few years:
“Gangnam Style” by Korean pop icon Psy was the first YouTube video to reach one billion views (and the first to hit two billion views):
And I’m sure you’ve heard of a little band called BTS:
They hold the biggest Spotify debut for their song, “Dynamite”, even toppling Taylor Swift. They’re international superstars, with BTS fans (known as their A.R.M.Y) all over the world.
K-Dramas – Korean television dramas – are a rising trend that’s set to take the world by storm. Just take a look at the success of Netflix’s Crash Landing on You, which ranked in the top 10 internationally
And Korean novels such as Please Look After Mom are starting to enter the international bestsellers list too.
What’s more, South Korea is a young, tech-savvy country that’s home to popular tech brands including Samsung and LG.
Why not learn Korean as your next language?
Is it Difficult to Learn Korean?
It’s actually a lot easier than you think to learn Korean.
That’s one of the reasons I created 90 Day Korean and the 90 Minute Korean Challenge.
I wanted to show just how simple Korean can be if you take the right approach. Even the Fluent in 3 Months team members have learned Korean and mastered Hangul using 90 Day Korean.
Compared to Japanese and Chinese, Korean has some huge advantages that make it easy to learn. Let’s find out more about these.
Learn the Korean Alphabet (Hangul) With Ease
The first step to learn the Korean language is becoming familiar with the Korean alphabet.
When first seeing the Korean alphabet, many people assume that it is just a bunch of squiggles and that it’s as impenetrable as learning the thousands of Chinese characters that students of Mandarin face.
Believe it or not, this causes some learners to give up on the Korean language before they even start!
While there are ways of learning Chinese and Japanese characters quickly, the Korean alphabet is nothing like Chinese characters.
It is far easier to learn than even the Japanese ‘script’ alphabets of Katakana or Hiragana, and maybe even Cyrillic.
The reason for this goes back centuries.
Unlike other alphabets that grew organically, Hangul, the Korean alphabet, was invented.
Not only was it invented, but Hangul was made with the specific purpose of being easy to learn and use. Basically, it’s almost impossible to design a simpler writing system than Hangul that would still work with the Korean language.
The truth is that using modern learning techniques, anybody can learn Hangul in just ninety minutes.
Think about that for a second – the Korean language was constructed with language learners in mind!
Hangul exists not to confuse and intimidate learners, but rather to give them the quickest access to Korean culture possible.
Korean Hangul is Phonetic
With only twenty-four letters in the Korean alphabet, it doesn’t take long to learn. While some writing systems look impossible to scribe, Korean is easy. One of the letters is a circle, one is a square, and two are straight lines!
Hangul has another huge advantage over Chinese characters in that it’s phonetic.
Even if many Chinese characters may have phonetic elements to them, Korean is entirely phonetic. There aren’t hidden sounds or pronunciations that new learners are expected to know right off the bat.
In fact, it has this advantage over the Latin alphabet too.
For example, if you’re an American travelling to the U.K. and you come across a sign saying ‘Leicester’. You may well assume that this is read ‘Lie-kest-er’ when it is in fact pronounced ‘Lester’.
If you can read Hangul, then it is very rare that you will have similar problems with pronunciation.
When pronouncing a Korean place or name, there are only a handful of situations where the pronunciation isn’t exactly the same as how the word is written.
Luckily, you can easily learn these exceptions in no time!
That’s why it’s easy to connect written and spoken Korean. For example, if you hear somebody talking about going to an ‘an-gwa’ then you might remember that word when you are walking down the street and see a sign saying ‘안과’ above a shop selling spectacles.
The link between the sound and the written word makes it easier to remember these new words. After you become familiar with the characters in the language, acquiring new Korean words will happen in no time!
Hangul is so easy to learn, that an online comic can teach it to you in 15 minutes!
Word Families: How Korean Words Are Built
You might be thinking “if the Korean alphabet is so logical, then why are all the letters jumbled up instead of just being in a straight line?”
Well, this is the genius part of the Korean alphabet that makes learning new words and ideas very simple!
However, it’s different from the letter orders in the alphabets you are most familiar with using.
- ‘ㅅ‘ sounds like ‘s’;
- ‘ㅏ’ sounds like ‘a’;
- ‘ㄴ’ sounds like ‘n’.
When put together they look like ‘산’ , which is pronounced as ‘san’.
Rather than being three letters in a line, it makes a nice self-contained block!
Korean is essentially made up of three types of words:
Words that are “pure” Korean;
Words that are based on English (we will come to these later);
Words that are based on Chinese characters.
When we see 山 in Chinese we know this means mountain.
In the Korean words that are based on Chinese, each block in Korean has the same meaning as a Chinese character. 산, in this context usually means “mountain”.
This means that any time we see 산 at the end of a word, we can guess that it probably has something to do with a mountain. Easy enough, right?
In English, the spelling of the words ‘volcano’ and ‘iceberg’ are totally different from ‘mountain’.
In Korean, they are 화산 (hwasan, “fire-mountain”) and 빙산 (bingsan, “ice-mountain”).
This can help you learn words very quickly and guess new words without ever seeing them before. When you learn one word, you will have access to other words and phrases that build upon that first word.
For example, from our earlier word 안과 (angwa), if we are walking around the streets and see words like 내과 (naegwa), 치과 (chigwa), 피부과 (pibugwa), etc., then we can guess that they have something to do with medical care.
And if somebody asks if you wear 안경 (angyeong) then we can guess that they are talking about glasses.
Using Logic to Learn Korean from Words You Already Know
Look at the following list to see how quick it can be to learn new words using a bit of logic:
- 1 (and sun) = il
- 2 = ee
- 3 = sam
- 4 = sa
- 5 = o
- Moon = wol
- January = il-wol
- February = ee-wol
- 1st March = sam-wol il-il
- 2nd April = sa-wol ee-il
- 3rd May = o-wol sam-il
- Country = guk
- Korea = han
- Middle = jung
- Person = in
- Language / fish = eo
- Korea = Han-guk
- China = Jung-guk
- Korean language = han-guk-eo
- Chinese person = Jung-guk-in
- Mermaid = in-eo
How to Pronounce Korean Words: No Tones
When you start to learn Korean, you’ll start with learning how to read words in the Korean alphabet, then move on to learning how to pronounce those words.
While learning Korean pronunciation can be intimidating at first, it’s easier with Korean than many other languages.
Each Korean word, or letter-block, has several different meanings. But, they are all pronounced the same way. This is great news as you don’t have to worry about tones,.
Tones are an extral element to language that can make the learning process much more complicated.
Of course, the fact that one word can have many different meanings can be confusing. For example, 어 (pronounced like the ‘o’ in the word ‘song’) often means either ‘fish’ or ‘language’.
But realistically, how many times are you going to be having a conversation that involves both fish and language?
Context clues are everywhere in Korean and will greatly speed up the learning process for beginners.
Konglish: You Already Know Thousands of Korean Words
Every day new words are added to languages. The good news? In Korean, these new words are often based on English.
That means that every day you are getting better at Korean without even studying (unless you are North Korean!
Some Korean words such as computer, taxi, and ice cream are almost exactly the same as English words in both their meaning and pronunciation.
Other words are based on English, but have slight differences to standard English. But because they are based on English words, they are easy to remember.
As a speaker of English beginning to learn Korean, you will find that you are already pretty familiar with some Korean language words and concepts – it’s almost like the work was done for you!
The parallel between Korean and English words isn’t the only easy part about learning Korean — Korean tenses and grammar are also much more straightforward than languages like French and Spanish.
Korean Grammar Is Really Easy
If your average French class at school consisted of hour upon hour of “I am”, “he is”, “they are” etc., then try not to jump for joy when I tell you that you don’t need to do this to learn how to speak Korean.
In fact, when you start out learning Korean, it’s best not to bother with pronouns at all.
In Korean, you can speed right through conjugation pretty fast. Korean verbs change based on several factors, such as tense and politeness level. But even when they do change, then they change in a predictable way based on the final consonant (or vowel) of the verb.
Even better, the verbs stay the same when the pronouns in the sentence change. For example “to do” (하다, hada) will always be 해요 (haeyo, “do”) regardless of whether”‘I do”, “he does”, or “they do”.
Pronouns are rarely used in Korean, so you can often just say the verb.
The other person can guess from context who you are referring to. As a result, here is a verb conjugation list for the verb 먹다 (meogda, to eat) in the present tense:
- I eat – 먹어요
- you eat – 먹어요
- he eats- 먹어요
- she eats – 먹어요
- they eat – 먹어요
- we eat – 먹어요
(In case you didn’t notice, they are all the same, and all read meogeoyo.)
I have more good news: this applies to adjectives too!
If you want to tell somebody that the gimbap, a popular Korean street food, was delicious, then you can just say “delicious”.
Likewise if you want to ask somebody else if that food was delicious then you just ask,”delicious?”.
Tenses in Korean are also regular, so you don’t need to learn extra words like you do in English (teach-taught, is-was, etc.).
There aren’t any special past participles, either. Instead you just stick an extra word onto the end of the sentence to change it from ‘ate’ to ‘have eaten’. Easy enough, right?
Deal With the “Difficult” Parts of Korean Down the Road
When learning Korean, you can put off the difficult parts of the language for later.
One difficult aspect of Korean is that it’s a hierarchical language. This means you use different words depending on who you speak to.
While this sounds daunting, if you use the regular form of the word (verbs that end with “yo”) then nobody will be offended. Stick to the “yo”, and you’ll be good to go!
As you get better at Korean, you can start using the different levels of language. But you don’t have to get worked up about it early on in your language study.
If you are wondering how honorifics and hierarchy work in Korean, basically there is a way of speaking for people who are close to you, and a way for speaking to people more distant.
The more distant version (ending in “imnida” or “sumnida”) often comes up in textbooks early on.
But you will only ever use it if you are doing a job interview, giving a presentation, or speaking on the news (things that are unlikely for beginner students to be doing).
So you should focus on the “yo” system, which you will be using much more often.
If you are speaking to somebody who is younger than you and close to you, then you can drop the “yo”. This will be handy when you begin making Korean friends and acquaintances.
These different levels of Korean often scare people, but English and other languages also have these levels. For example, “to die” vs. “to pass away”.
Once you’ve learned the more approachable parts of Korean, you’ll feel comfortable using Korean conversationally.
It’s through conversation and exposure that you’ll become more comfortable with the more complex parts of the language.
Breaking Apart Korean Words
Using Korean words is very simple.
If you want to use them as a verb, then you can stick the verb ‘to do’ (하다, hada) at the end of the word. Once you learn how to change this verb into different tenses, then you can suddenly say a ridiculously large amount with very little effort.
Remember, you rarely need to use pronouns and you don’t need to conjugate based on pronouns. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you will learn how to communicate basic concepts in Korean with relative ease!
Another thing that makes it a breeze to learn Korean words and concepts is how accessible Korean-learning resources are.
After you begin your journey to learn Korean and start looking around for help, you’ll be surprised about the abundance of resources available through books and the Internet.
Why It’s Easy to Find Resources to Learn Korean
When learning how to speak Korean, you won’t have to learn using the Korean version of Shakespeare or anything equally antiquated.
The rest of the world started caring about Korean culture much more at the start of this millennium so most of the cultural resources for learning Korean are new and easy to access.
In fact, there’s a term for how popular Korean culture has become: 한류 (hallyu), the “Korean wave”.
There are many great online resources for studying Korean.
When studying the Korean language, the last thing you will be doing is looking through a dusty old textbook. Korean resources are current and relevant, making the learning process that much more fun!
Along with modern cultural resources, you’ll also have the opportunity to learn by speaking Korean to native speakers as soon as you’re even a little bit conversationally fluent.
Learn Korean: How to Speak Korean TODAY
Most Koreans are very proud of their country and language, and would love it if more people could speak Korean.
As a result, there are plenty of people who are willing to teach you Korean. Especially in Seoul, it’s quite easy to find free Korean classes.
Also, Koreans rarely expect foreigners to speak Korean perfectly so they won’t judge you as harshly as people from some other countries if you mispronounce a word. Learn the basics of Korean with some help, and then get out there and experiment with all the doors that you’ve opened by beginning the Korean learning process!
Those Korean dramas aren’t going to watch themselves.
Is Korean Hard to Learn? Here is how to make it easy
Thinking about taking on the Korean language as your next language to learn? If so, you may be wondering “Is Korean hard to learn?”
Many people ask this question. Korean is a wildly popular language to learn these days, thanks to the rise of K-Pop, K-Dramas, Korean movies, and Korean culture in general.
You may be wondering things such as how difficult the alphabet is to learn, if you need to study tones, and if there are fast ways to learn the language.
We will tell you exactly what you need to know!
Is Korean Easy to Learn?
There are a few factors that will determine how easy or hard you’ll find the Korean language.
Some of it depends partially on your own language and previous experience studying east Asian languages or as you learn languages in general. For example, it would be easier for a native Japanese language speaker to learn Korean than it would be for an English native speaker.
However, with the right tools and strategies, English native speakers can learn it surprisingly quickly and easily.
How hard is it to learn Korean?
The difficulty in learning a new language like Korean is related to what your native language is and your language learning experience. Learning the language can be challenging, but if you start to get the easy wins early on you will build a strong foundation in no time.
In general, a couple of things about studying this language have been considered challenging for new language learners. Here they are, along with tips for making it a smooth learning process.
The Korean language has its own alphabet called Hangeul, which is sounded out phonetically like the English alphabet. It has 14 consonants and 10 vowels and can be quite fast and logical to pick up. There are some easy associations to connect the letters to what you already know in English.
Once you know Hangeul, you can immediately read words, even if you don’t know the meaning of them yet. From there, you can take your skills to the next level by learning new Korean words to be added to your Korean vocabulary.
The Korean language has clear rules for how to pronounce words, and there are no tones. This makes it easy to become skilled in Korean pronunciation when you speak Korean.
To get the right Korean pronunciation, you can get to know Hangeul (the Korean Alphabet) first and master the sounds of the words. If you try to use romanized English to pronounce Korean words, you will surely get confused as there are different ways to romanize Hangul letters. They are just an approximation and aren’t useful for accurate pronunciation.
Using associations for the Hangeul letters with similar-sounding English letters will make it easy. You can learn Hangeul in about 60-90 minutes. Be sure to listen for the range of sounds possible for the Hangeul letters.
The associations with English letters can help, but keep in mind that it’s not an exact 1-to-1 match. For example, the pronunciation of the Hangeul letter ㄹ is a range of sounds similar to an “L” and “R” in English.
Is Korean tonal?
Korean is not a tonal language. It’s not hard to learn the intonation if you pay attention to spoken Korean. However, you need to pay attention to which syllables have emphasis. You can do this by modeling the way Koreans say a word.
For example, if you say a word, and they don’t understand, then you can repeat it slowly syllable by syllable. They will say the word to confirm, and you can match the intonation of how they say it.
Another quick hack is to watch as many reality shows and different programs as possible to get a grasp of the intonation. Listen to how they speak Korean, repeat, and practice.
Academic material vs what is used in daily life
This doesn’t necessarily make the foreign language hard to learn, but it does make it tricky, at least in the beginning. You see, many Korean language courses and Korean resources start teaching you the basics using the basic formality level. However, that’s not really how the natives speak Korean on the streets, in shops, and in everyday life.
A quick language hack is to start making Korean-speaking friends or Korean friends early on who can assist you in applying your school-learned knowledge in your daily life and help with improving how you speak Korean. This can be possible through language exchanges!
Basic grammar is easy to learn. You can start with some basic Korean nouns as soon as you learn Hangul. Then progress with Korean verbs and eventually form basic phrases and sentences. You can also incorporate adjectives or adverbs in your sentences.
There are also clear rules for how sentences are built. The simplest sentence is only a single word, which makes it really easy to start speaking! Building on that base, it becomes easy to expand on your skills as you learn more complex sentences.
There are many types of grammar to learn, and some of them are very nuanced. Learn the grammar points one at a time, and focus on their most common applications.
In other words, learn the 20% of the grammar that will give you 80% of the results. You can add on after that.
Your Timelines for learning Korean
Be realistic about what you can accomplish, and celebrate your language learning wins along the way. The more you can focus on the language skills you are acquiring as you go, the more motivated you’ll be to learn more.
Follow the simple language learning tips above, and you will be off to a strong start!
Is Korean hard to learn for English speakers?
Learning a language that involves a new writing system and sentence structure (such as Korean) can be challenging for a native English speaker. However, if you set yourself up with the right materials with a learning method you enjoy, it becomes easy.
Earlier we mentioned that the Korean writing system is easy to learn. The best way to do this is by using associations, where you connect the sounds and words in Korean to sounds and words in English.
Korean sentences follow a different structure than that of the English language. However, it’s pretty easy to learn and remember. Once you know those structures and have a list of Korean vocabulary, it’ll be easy to plug the Korean words into the sentence patterns.
How long does it take to learn Korean?
We’ve estimated it’d take around 1200 hours to become fluent. If you want to know more specifically what the answer would be like for you personally, we have a full post on how long it takes to learn Korean.
Is it hard to learn the Korean alphabet?
Learning the alphabet (Hangeul) isn’t difficult and can be done easily in about 90 minutes. You should be able to learn the majority of the letters by connecting the sounds with associations that English speakers could easily understand.
Many people will be able to recognize words using the Korean writing system within this time. Then you’ll want to spend some time practicing the different sounds so you can easily read words when you see them. With constant practice, you’ll get better and more comfortable with Hangul characters.
How hard is Korean grammar?
The basic rules for grammar are fairly easy, so you should be able to make sentences as soon as you are able to read Hangeul. That means you should be able to make a sentence in the first 2 hours of learning Hangeul.
The sentence structure can be as simple as just a single word. That means that you can start making sentences immediately after learning Hangeul.
Korean grammar can get complicated because of honorifics and speech levels since these are engrained in Korean culture. However, you don’t need to spend a lot of time on them at first. Just get the basics down and note the speech levels as you go. Usually learning the formal speech levels is the easiest for conjugating Korean verbs.
Is it hard to learn Korean words?
The word families in the language make it fast to learn a lot of vocabulary centered around a specific topic. The lack of tones and clear pronunciation rules can also make learning how to pronounce Korean correctly quicker than the pronunciation of another language, such as French or Chinese language.
For vocabulary, many Korean words are loan words. This can be from English, Japanese, Chinese, and Russian languages. Thus, if you speak one of these languages, you already have a head start with a solid base of Korean vocabulary!
But while there are some advantages that can make Korean a quick language to learn, there are also reasons why it could take you a long time. We’ve laid many of them out above, such as your native language is among the reasons.
Korean vs Japanese Language
A common question among language learners is “Should I learn Japanese or Korean?”. To help you decide which one you can devote your time to, below are some aspects of both languages that you can consider.
Which is easier?
Both Japanese and Korean have some basic alphabet systems that aren’t too difficult to master. However, Japanese requires you to know Kanji, which are Chinese characters used in the Japanese writing system. There are thousands of Kanji, which can be difficult to memorize.
If you contrast that with Hangeul (the Korean alphabet), then studying Korean can be much simpler. Hangeul can be learned in less than 2 hours and is the only writing system you’ll need to know to speak, write, and read the Korean language.
Chinese characters also exist in some Korean texts, it’s not necessary to learn them. Knowing some Chinese characters may be helpful since many compound Korean words have Chinese roots.
To be able to write and read Japanese, you need to know three different writing systems and how they are combined together. Learning Japanese pronunciation is easier than Korean, and the grammar of the two languages is similar.
You might compare some of the similarities of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean to English, Spanish, and Portuguese.
How can I learn Korean fast?
There are many ways for you to learn Korean fast. Living in South Korea and attending a language school is likely the quickest and most efficient way to learn Korean fluency. However, since it is not an option for all of us, you’ll be happy to hear it’s not the only way!
We have compiled the top tips for fast ways to learn Korean on the blog for your convenience. Some of our top tips include the following:
- Learning the Korean alphabet
- Studying words based on Hangeul and not romanizations
- Using flashcards
- Enrolling in a structured language course (online or offline)
- Discover fun learning methods to use for studying the language
- Learning Korean through movies and dramas
If you want to be faster in terms of reading in Korean, this separate article can help you with that.
Is Korean worth learning?
The answer to this is a personal call. It depends a lot on your motivations for learning the Korean language. You have to know your personal reasons for learning Korean.
It might be a language only spoken in South Korea, but it’ll be extremely helpful to learn if you visit or live here. In addition, it’s a fun language to take up as a hobby. Lastly, the world is being taken over by Korean culture, movies, music, and Korean drama series right now – and your viewing and listening experiences will be more enjoyable when you can understand what they’re saying!
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