At Least Learn to Read Hangul. It’s Easy!
Why Speaking Korean Could be Important
Why it’s okay to NOT speak Korean
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 but 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. And you can impress your friends by writing their names in Hangul.
- It’s essential for a peace of mind – It’s much easier to travel the peninsula knowing you are going to the correct town. I followed this road sign to Anjung because everyone kept telling me that was where Camp Humphreys is. In reality, Humphreys is in the small village of Anjeong in the town of Paengseong and the city of Anjung, pronounced Anjoong, is about 30 minutes away and has one of the most amazing Korean spa’s in Pyeongtaek. I have had a lot of practice with the romanization of Hangul and I can write it perfectly but it still frustrates me to no end. Do yourself a favor and study enough Hangul to read road signs and restaurant menus, it saves a lot of headaches and is pretty easy to learn.
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.
Sejong’s goal was for every uneducated Korean to read, and now Hangul is one of the easiest scripts 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”
This is not a fair assessment for the non-Korean speaker but I know for a fact it would take me a lot longer to learn to read English as an adult than it would Hangul.
It is a lot of fun finding all of the English words written in Hangul.
The Korean language uses many loan words from English. You’ll be surprised how many words you’ll recognize at a cafe! Check out Americano:
I was less happy when I ordered an Americano and learned that it’s just a black coffee. Cafes in Korea serve real coffee with a lot less sugar than Starbucks. Blegh, who wants actual coffee in their coffee? Give me milk and sugar with some coffee on the side.
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 Speaking Korean Could be Important
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 learn Korean if you want 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. And the best way to make a Korean friend? Get a language exchange partner or join a language exchange group and enjoy events in the area.
- 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. Did I mention language exchange partners?
- 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.
You Don’t Really Need to Speak Korean and Here’s Why
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 :
For the life of me I can’t use this word in casual conversation, my tongue slips over it everytime. I have a lot of reasons to use it 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 say ‘Hello’ more naturally.
It says the baby bear is cute or koo-wee-yo-whoa. My favorite Korean kid’s song!
Korean is difficult to study because…
- Korean use particles that labels words within a sentence. For example: counting numbers require a particle afterwards to justify what it is for. So if I want to say “there are 3 dogs” it would be:
kay 3 mari isso 개 3마리 있어
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 myong 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 objects or for any counting that comes out to less than 100. Saying 3 dogs would be pronounced ‘Kay say mari.’ 개 3마리
Sino is used for very large numbers, it will most often be 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 teacher 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 beginners should just ignore it and focus on casual conversations. You’ll be forgiven for being a foreigner.
- There are sounds in Korean that many English Speakers don’t recognize. There are two ‘O’ sounds. One is pronounced more like ‘oh’ and the other like ‘oe’. Did you try hearing the difference? I’ve studied over a year of Korean and I still work hard to pronounce my O’s right.
- 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. Beginners will have to repeat their sentences a few times before anyone will understand you.
Don’t Study Korean if you Don’t Plan on Using It
- 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 take a picture and get a rough translation.
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. And Hangul is so easy to read! My 8 year old learned to read Hangul within a month and he is reading better than his Dad now. But when I teach the boys English and the words keep breaking rules they look up at me plaintively asking why and I can only say “Because English is annoying, son.”
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. Bribe your kids to do it, they’ll love it!
See anything I need to fix? Am I missing something? Email me at SigFlipsTheTable@gmail.com or leave a comment.
Last Updated: Dec 1, 2016