Korean Language Guide
Korean may not be the most popular choice when learning a foreign language because of its seemingly inscrutable writing system, strange sentence order, and complicated pronunciation, but it’s worth the effort!
Learn Korean and you’ll have access to a wonderful culture, expand your global family, and enjoy your trips to South Korea to a whole new level. For example, you’ll be able to understand what those catchy K-pop singers are saying, discover the latest Korean cinema (even if the films don’t have subtitles!), and much more. Plus, learning Korean is not as hard as you think. For example, verbs have no tense, mood, or number and don’t even have to agree with the subject. Isn’t it great?
Regardless of your reasons to learn Korean, we are sure the thorough guide below will help you in your efforts! Let’s go!
How Many People Speak Korean and Where is it Spoken?
Korean is spoken by over 75 million people worldwide, the majority of whom live in North and South Korea. Plus, there are large communities of Korean speakers living in China (2 million), the USA (1 million), and Japan (half a million).
The South and North Korean varieties are mutually intelligible, with minor differences regarding spelling, and vocabulary. For instance, due to North Korea’s isolation, they have not incorporated as many English words as South Korea.
Also, within the countries, there are dozens of different dialects that vary in pronunciation, intonation, and vocabulary, too. The primary dialect today is Seoul’s, which is considered to be Standard Korean. If you are interested in this topic, you should definitely read our article on the top dialects of the Korean language today!
The Korean AlphabetThe Korean language does not use the Latin alphabet but has its own writing system called the Hangul. It was invented back in 1443 by King Sejong the Great. Before that, Koreans used Chinese characters together with their own phonetic symbols. This meant that a significant part of the population that did not speak Chinese did not know how to read or write.
To solve this problem, the king created a new alphabet: The Hangul. The use of this new writing system flourished over the years and was adopted in official documents in the 19th century. After 1950, it became the only writing system used in both North and South Korea.
The Hangul has 24 letters: 14 consonants and 10 vowels. Plus, it has 10 complex letters formed by combining the basic Korean symbols. On the good side, the most complex character only has 5 strokes (different from Chinese, which can have over 15).
Learn the Korean LettersKorean characters (or letters) are called jamo and are written in blocks of one syllable. These characters mimic the shape your mouth makes when producing these sounds. Also, words are spaced and use Western-like punctuation.
If you intend to learn Korean as a beginner, you should get started by learning the names of the letters. The table below should help!
|Korean consonant||Name of the consonant||Romanized spelling|
Name of the vowel
Learn the Korean Pronunciation System
When learning the Korean writing system, you should not forget about pronunciation. Otherwise, your speaking skills will suffer! While it’s really hard to represent the Korean letters using English sounds, here we’ll use the closest representations possible so you better understand how to pronounce Hangul. Silent consonants are not included.
Plus, some consonants change their pronunciation depending on the position they occupy within a word. Let’s take a look at some examples below:
- ㅈ: 죽 [chuk] – “porridge” and 콩죽 [k’ong-juk] – “bean porridge”
- ㅂ: 밥 [pap] – “rice” and 보리밥 [poribap] – “barley mixed with rice”
The system may seem a bit overwhelming if you are just starting out, but don’t worry: it gets easier over time. The secret is trying to learn these letters in context so you start seeing how they change.
Some other tips to learn Korean pronunciation include:
- Record yourself to perfect your pronunciation. If you have decided to learn Korean for free, without a teacher, then you’ll probably have some trouble getting feedback on your speaking skills. One good way to solve it is by using a recording tool and then compare yourself with a model. You can simply use your smartphone’s microphone and practice!
- Use a pronunciation dictionary. These differ from traditional dictionaries because they don’t usually include definitions or examples. Instead, they provide you with the correct pronunciation of words by means of phonetic scripts and/or audio recordings. One great free option to learn Korean is Forvo!
- Expose yourself to as much Korean as possible. If you want to learn Korean pronunciation, the best way is to listen to everything you can in your target language. This includes listening to music, watching TV shows or movies (especially if you like horror films!), listening to podcasts, watching YouTubers or influencers on Instagram, and more! For example, we have prepared a Spotify Korean playlist so you can enjoy the best Korean songs while learning the language.
While this may seem like a lot (especially if you are just starting your Korean journey), with practice and study, soon you’ll master the Korean alphabet! If you need more resources, you can always check out our compilation. And if you decide to take the leap and study Korean with a native-speaking instructor, contact us and get started!
Learn the Korean Grammar System
The Korean grammar system is also strikingly different from the English one. For example, let’s take a look at the most common sentence structure in Korean. In English, we typically use the Subject-Verb-Object structure (I-love-my dog).
In Korean, it’s much more common to the following structure:
The English correspondence, then, would be “I-my dog-love”. This can be confusing for beginners, as it sounds strange and incorrect. However, soon you’ll get familiar with this structure and it will start sounding more and more natural. Let’s take a look at some other examples:
- 저는 오렌지를 먹었습니다. (na-neun orenji-reul meo-geo-sseo-yo) = I + an orange + ate = I ate an orange
- 오빠가 축구를 합니다. (o-bba-ga chug-ggu-reul hai-yo) = Big brother + soccer + does = My big brother plays soccer.
Also, it’s important to note that, different from English, sentences without ‘subject’ are also considered grammatically perfect in Korean. One of our star teachers, Sesil, explains this: “For example, ‘Am Jisoo.’ instead of ‘I am Jisoo.’ is also safely in the field of Standard Korean Grammar. Although it might sound like the speaker was lazy and did not include the subject ‘I’, either ‘Object+Verb’ or ‘Verb alone’ does not have any grammar issues in Korean as in some European languages”.
Let’s take a look at few more examples:
- 점심 먹었어? (jumshim meogeoseo?) = Lunch + Ate? = Had lunch? => “You” had lunch? (Have you had lunch?)
- 잘 잤어? (jal jatseo?) = Well + slept? => “You” slept well? (Have you slept well? / Did you have a nice sleep?)
Korean adjectives have their own “life”. Different from other systems, these adjectives have conjugations in the exact same way that verbs do! This means they have a base form (a stem) and an ending that changes in various ways. Think of adjectives as if they were verbs, with regular and irregular forms (we know… it’s complicated but trust us, the effort pays off!).
Let’s take a look at an example:
Min-Jong, one of our professional native-speaking tutors explains this example: “Here, ‘노는(playing)’ functions as an adjective for ‘아이’, and it comes from the verb ‘놀다 (to play)’. The conjugation is like this:
놀 (verbal stem) + 는 (adjective form suffix): ‘놀는’. But when ‘ㄹ’ in the stem immediately meets ‘ㄴ’, that ‘ㄹ’ is deleted. So, the final version is ‘노는’.”
Some other examples include: 예쁘다.(yepbooda) Pretty
와! 하늘 예쁘다. = Wow! Sky + Pretty = Wow! sky “is” pretty! (Wow. The sky is beautiful!)
가방 예쁘다. = Bag + Pretty = Bag “is” pretty. (The bag is cute)
The Korean verb system, luckily, looks quite simple. You won’t have to memorize tenses or understand how to make subject and verb agree in gender, person, or number.
Instead, in Korean, you’ll need to add different endings for nuance and mood, especially to show respect for elders or to express different levels of politeness or friendliness. However difficult this may sound, it just makes Learning Korean more interesting!
For example, a verb in its infinitive form takes the particle “다”:
먹다 — to eat
요리하다 — to cook
보다 — to see
And if you decide to say “I eat” or “he eats”, you’ll see the verb remains the same:
저는 먹어요. — I eat
현수는 먹어요. — Hyunsoo eats
But this also changes depending on whom you are talking to because you’ll also need to show different levels of politeness and respect.
넷플릭스 봐? - Netflix + see? (Do you watch Netflix?) to a friend
넷플릭스 보세요? - Netflix + see? (Do you watch Netflix?) to a professor
You can also express your emotions by changing the ending. For example:
미나가 요리해요. Mina cooks. - to deliver the fact or information that she cooks.
미니가 요리하네요. Mina cooks! - to express you are surprised that she cooks.
When conjugating verbs, you’ll also need to add honorifics depending on who you are talking to:
- If you are speaking to people younger than you, close friends, or family members, you should use casual formality.
- If you are talking to an acquaintance, it’s better to use polite low formality.
- Finally, polite high formality is used to communicate with an elder or people with a higher social status (such as your manager at work).
To express these levels of formality, the Korean language has 7 speech levels (and all of them use different particles to express them). Get to know more about these levels by reading this very interesting article by LingoDeer!
All in all, unlike other complicated verb systems, the Korean one is pretty straightforward! Once you learn how to write the verbs, you’ll only need to remember the verb endings for past, present, and future. With practice and patience, soon you’ll become a master at conjugating Korean verbs!
Learning a language and being truly bilingual means a lot more than just memorizing grammar rules or new words. It also requires you to get familiar with the culture and traditions of the people who speak your target language. Without this knowledge, many references will be lost to you and you run the risk of offending somebody without intending to.
So, find below some of the most important features of the fascinating Korean culture you should know before you start communicating with native speakers!
Delicious Korean Food
The Korean cuisine is famous for being delicious and for including millenary traditions when preparing special meals. Most dishes are based on rice and vegetables (and meat mostly in North Korea), with Kimchi being the most well-known (a spicy pickled cabbage that is served almost with every meal).
Sesame oil, beans, soy, garlic, and ginger are some of the ingredients you are likely to need if you intend to prepare a traditional Korean dish, such as Samgyeopsal or Jjajangmyeon. So, if you’re interested in food and would like to learn more about the Korean cuisine, you can take a look at our article about the top 7 Korean dishes or learn a Korean traditional recipe for New Years’ Eve!
Formality and Honorifics
The Korean culture is hierarchical: age and status are important for them, and this affects the way they communicate with each other. This means they honor and respect the elderly and acknowledge social differences through language. It’s very common for Korean people to ask your age when they meet you: they are not prying but they want to know how to address you.
Korean Traditional Festivals
Koreans have a lot of special dates and festivities throughout the year. Those who plan to become completely fluent in Korean should get acquainted with these festivals, as they are crucial parts of their culture. Some of the most important festivities include:
- Jeju Fire Festival: This is one of the most well-known events in Korea, which takes place in February to welcome the New Year with good health and a successful harvest. It remembers the old tradition of burning old grass before the next farm season.
- Jinju Lantern Festival: This is one of the oldest festivities in the country. It started back in 1592 when people lit up lanterns to avoid Japanese troops from entering their country. Today, people get together at different points in South Korea and mostly use drones to light up the sky (though in rural areas they still light up paper lanterns) while enjoying street parades and performances and buying delicious food at street stalls.
- Seongsan Sunrise Festival: This is an event held during the New Year where people hike up the Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak to watch the first sunrise while asking for happiness and success for the year to come.
- The Korean “Halloween” is a festival that takes place every February where people remember their ancestors and honor the spirits. You can read more about this fascinating special date in our article!
Tools & Ideas to Learn Korean for Free
Now that you have an idea of how the Korean grammar and pronunciation systems work, you need to put your skills into use and practice, practice, practice! Find below a short list of apps and resources with which to learn Korean for free and take your skills to the next level!
- If you are traveling to Korea in the near future, you should certainly get started with Korean lessons and start learning at least the most basic phrases that will help you get by. Plus, as a complement, you can use one of the many free translation apps with camera available to download. You simply have to scan something (a food label, a menu, a street sign) and you’ll get an English translation! Find our top picks in this article!
- Use free apps to learn Korean like Mondly, Drops, or Duolingo! They are mostly focused on teaching the alphabet and helping you learn new vocabulary in the most interactive way. You’ll only need 5 minutes a day and soon you’ll see how much you progress!
- Did you know you can learn more about Korean culture while improving your listening skills while watching entertaining soap operas? If this sounds appealing to you, read our article and discover some ideas on how to use Korean soap operas to enhance your language skills.
- Are you having problems with learning the Korean pronunciation system? You can download TenguGo Hangul to practice! The app includes interactive exercises and videos that show how to correctly position your tongue and mouth to pronounce each character.
- Join HelloTalk and participate in enriching language exchange! You’ll get to make new friends while putting your Korean conversational skills into practice. You can either chat via the app or arrange in-person or virtual meetings to improve your speaking ability.
A Short Guide to Korean Idioms
If you are looking to take your Korean skills to the next level, bear in mind that one of the keys to being fluent is learning colloquial phrases. These idioms can be hard to learn because the literal meaning of the phrases makes no sense. So, here we present you with the most common idioms in Korean so you can start conversing like a native speaker! And in case you’d like to learn even more phrases, you should read our article with the top 5 Korean idioms and proverbs.
|Something you want badly but cannot afford.|
|눈코 뜰 새 없다
(nun-ko ddeul-ssai eob-dda)
|I can’t lose time, I’m extremely busy.|
|제 눈에 안경이다
(je nu-ne an-gyeong i-da)
|Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.|
|식은 죽 먹기
(si-geun jug meog-ggi)
|It’s a piece of cake.|
|꿩 먹고 알 먹는다
(ggueong meo-ggo al meong-neun-da)
|To kill two birds with one stone.|
|To be enraged.|
|보기 좋은 떡이 먹기도 좋다
(bo-gi jo-eun ddeo-gi meog-ggi-do jo-ta)
|What looks good, tastes good.|
Certainly, the Korean language is the polar opposite of English, but this does not make it less fascinating to learn! If you need extra resources to learn Korean, you can follow us on Instagram or Facebook. Plus, you should visit our blog, where we publish articles about Korean regularly!
We would like to thank our star teachers Sesil and Min-Jong for their invaluable contributions to this Korean guide. With their expertise, you’ll find yourself speaking fluent Korean in no time! Just contact us today and we will pair you up with the best tutor for your needs and schedule. Are you ready to start taking your Korean skills to the next level?
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