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Learn to Read Korean, Seriously

Why everyone should learn to read Hangul

  • It’s easy – Korean script, hangul, is one of the most phonetic languages in the world. You won’t see tricky words like ‘through’ and ‘enough’. Pronunciation is difficult, reading is not.
  • It’s fun – I learned how to read Korean ages ago and it has stuck with me for 10+years, well after I forgot all the vocabulary I’d learned. English names are very fun to in hangul and it makes a great present for friends and family.

    IMG_2034

    Oh Noes! I can’t read Hangul!

  • It’s essential for a peace of mind – Anyone who plans on enjoying Seoul, Busan, Jeju or the Korean countryside will feel much more comfortable knowing that they can read road signs, restaurant menus, billboards etc.

Quick History of Sejong the Great and Hangul

Sejong the Great, during Korea’s Joseon Dynasty, wanted every peasant and farmer to read and write. At the time, the Korean tongue was written with thousands of Chinese characters which gave only the ruling elite, who had the time and the money, to learn to read. During the creation and institution of Hangul, Sejong was met with opposition from those who worried that their power would come into question from a more educated Korean society. After Hangul was established in 1443, it was abolished 60 years later and didn’t see a resurgence until the late 16th century, right around the time of colonial America.

Writing European names in Hangul is always interesting

Sejong’s goal was for every uneducated Korean to read, and now Hangul is one of the easiest languages in the world to learn.

Sejong the great purported an easy to use, efficient and phonetic language system that earned him a place as one of the 6 great linguistic scholars of all time, along with the Brothers Grimm.

The Haerye, a national Korean treasure that was written by Sejong’s scholars to explain Hangul (essentially an ancient textbook), states that the Korean letters are so easy to learn that:

“a wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over;
a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days”

It is a lot of fun finding all of the English words written in Hangul. 

The Korean language uses many loan words from English. When I first went to a cafe I was so excited when I sounded out Americano!

아메리카노

I was less happy when I ordered my drink, Cafes in Korea serve real coffee with a lot less sugar than Starbucks. Other loan words include Barbecue, Hamburger, Cafe Latte, Fork etc. Then there are words that are English but have a different meaning. Sign pen = Permanent Marker and Handphone = Cellphone.

Why you should speak Korean

Translation apps are terrible. Google translate tries its best but it is difficult to get an exact sentence between English and Korean. Korean drops pronouns, uses particles and nouns with conjugated verbs attached to them mid sentence. If that sounds confusing, wait until you see what Google translates spits out.

You should really study Korean to:

  • Take advantage of the Korean experience – Speaking Korean will help with getting directions, making hotel reservations, ordering food to go/ takeout etc.
  • Communicate with teachers – Whether it’s Korean school, taekwondo or piano lessons, a little bit of Korean will go a long way.
  • Making Korean friends – If you want to go on the best hikes, have the kids play on the neatest playgrounds, eat at the tastiest restaurants, to find the best hidden campsites, etc then making friends is a must. The best way to make friends is to get a language exchange partner where you will practice your Korean and teach conversational English.
  • Need to talk to the in-laws – Did you marry a Korean? Want to know what the in-laws are saying about you? Study Korean!
  • For work – Any linguist who is interested in keeping their DLPT score high should take advantage of the free Korean lessons right outside the main gate. Get a language exchange partner!
  • Plans on teaching English in Korea – It is not required to have any Korean language skills to teach English but it can be very useful. *Warning- Do not teach under the table without a Visa. There is a good chance you will be deported or at least command on base will be notified, which could be worse depending on your leaders.

Why it’s okay to NOT speak Korean

Have you ever read Fox in Socks? Dr. Seuss had nothing on trying to pronounce the Korean language. The other day I spent hours practicing the word cute. I have a lot of reasons to use it, there are adorable babies everywhere, but I can’t get that tongue twister of a word out in a sentence without stumbling over it. Reading Korean is easy but pronouncing the words properly takes a lot of practice. This is when a language exchange partner is very helpful.

Here’s a quick trick to speaking Korean like a pro: Stop moving your lips! Americans have a terrible accent and it’s because they try  to enunciate each word. That’s like someone asking you “Wuh-air ees the Bah-the-rh-oom?” If you watch any Korean dramas, you’ll notice that the men barely move their mouths when talking; it’s perpetual duck lips everywhere. The very fist episode of Talk to Me in Korean addresses this. Go here to listen how to ‘Hello’ more naturally.

 


It says the baby bear  is cute or koo-wee-yo-whoa. That word is killing me!
 

Korean is difficult to study because…

  • Korean use particles that label what a word is within a sentence- For example: counting numbers require a particle afterwards to justify what it is for. So if I want to say:

    kay 3 mari isso 개 3마리 있어= there are 3 dogs

    개 Kay = dog

    있어 isso = there are

    So what is mari 마리? Mari is the particle added to the end of a number when counting animals. For counting humans it’s myon 명 and for various items it’s kay 개. What, another kay? Yup, same word, different meaning. Wiki has a great list of counting particles here. 

    There are also noun, ownership, subject, location particles, too many to list. These are all used to justify how each word is being used which makes it a lot easier to understand a sentence but can be a real hassle for a new learner.

  • There are two number systems: native Korean and Sino (Chinese) – Each system is used for different reasons.
    The native Korean system is often used for counting numbers or for anything that is less than 100. Saying 3 dogs would be pronounced ‘Kay say mari.’
    Sino is used for very large numbers, it will be most often seen when counting money. I won’t try to cover the money system here, that lesson needs a whole post by itself.
    Fun Fact! Telling time uses BOTH number systems. The hour is stated in native and the minutes are in Sino. 11:30 = yorl-han si sam-ship bun
  • Korean uses verb conjugations like Spanish but more so- Verb conjugations are used to imply future and past tense but they are used for everything else too. To say that I want to go somewhere, he must study, I wish someone would love me, to connect sentences with and/or/but etc. all require a verb conjugation. There are many different variations and it is very hard to memorize them. I find I can only memorize one a week, if I’m lucky, but my songsangnim likes to give us a couple a week. I’m always overwhelmed with new verb conjugations!
  • Honorifics! This is the big one that slips up every American. In Asian societies, it is very important to honor those who are older than you or deserve more respect with a more polite form of speech called honorifics. There are different verb conjugations and vocab words that should be used based upon who the speaker is talking to. Let me tell you right now that anyone who starts learning Korean should just ignore it and focus on casual conversations. You’ll be forgiven for being a foreigner.
  • New speakers will have a very thick accent that no one will understand – It takes a lot of practice to pronounce Korean with confidence and to not pronounce each syllable one at a time. You may need to repeat your sentences a few times before they understand you.

There is no need to study Korean if it won’t be used very much

  • If you do not plan on using offpost services (schools, taekwondo, shopping etc) on a regular basis then a google or Naver translate should be sufficient for the few times a question needs to be asked.
  • It is very easy to order a meal without speaking Korean. Most Korean restaurants offer a menu with pictures and the closer to base a shop is, the more likely menus and signs have been translated.
  • Koreans use the cardinal number system (1,2,3) for everything so there are no translations needed when paying for items. Most grocery and convenience stores display the total on a computer screen for the customer to see and, worse case scenario everyone, can pull out a paper and pen to write down costs.
  • If a sign is in Korean, it is very easy to learn how to type Hangul into a phone app or to use the Google Translate app to receive a translation from a picture.

Conclusion

I love Korean because I am a big nerd. The sentence structure is very freeing because particles define what each word is. Put the verb at the end, everything in front with some particles and I have a coherent sentence. Hangul is so easy to read! When I teach the boys English and the words keep breaking rules they look up at plaintivly asking why and I can only say “Because English is annoying, son.” My 8 year old learned to read Hangul within a month and he is reading better than his Dad now.

I won’t tell everyone to study vocab words and to buy groceries in Korean, but I think every family should have at least one person who can read Hangul for everyday survival in Korea. Bribe your kids to do it, they’ll love it!

Fun Fact

Korea doesn’t have poetry! Ok, hang on. What I meant to say, is they don’t truly have rhyming words since most sentences end in specific verb conjugations. Korean history is full of poetry and linguistic arts but there is no Dr. Seuss equivalent. Instead, most pieces of literature rely upon meters and counting syllabic beats, which is very easy in Korean with the syllabic block.

Can you guess how many syllables are in anyeonghasayyo or hello? 안영하세요 There are 5! Just count the blocks. It’s super easy to make Haikus in Hangul.

 

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