For English speakers, Korean might look challenging at first glance because it has a completely different alphabet.
However, it is not as challenging as it seems.
Once the characters are mastered, learners can rely on the phonetic alphabet to read words correctly.
The biggest challenge to learning Korean is the entirely new vocabulary, with words that can be hard to distinguish from one another, especially in a fast-paced conversation.
The pronunciation can also be challenging since it is so different from the sounds produced in English.
There are a lot of things to know before embarking on a course in Korean, which can be supplemented by a lot of free language tools.
Keep reading for ten essential pieces of information before beginning your Korean education, in addition to some ways to improve your chances for success.
Is Korean Hard To Learn? (10 Things To Know)
1. There Is A Different Alphabet
One of the most noticeable things about the Korean language is that there is a completely different alphabet.
At first glance, this might make learners worry about how difficult it could be.
However, it is not very challenging.
The Korean alphabet is called Hangeul and might resemble Chinese characters to a first-time viewer, but it is quite different.
Compared to Chinese, Korean is relatively easy to learn.
Korean is written in small groups of letters, called blocks.
Sometimes, these blocks are pronounced as one unit, but mostly, they are pronounced separately.
Hangeul was developed by King Sejeong in 1443.
Before that, the Korean people used Chinese characters.
It was a difficult language, though, and King Sejeong wanted to create something that enabled easier communication.
The alphabet consisted of 24 characters—14 consonants and ten vowels.
The shape of the consonants is supposed to mimic the shape the mouth makes when enunciating the letters.
Vowels are mere formations of horizontal and vertical lines.
The shapes of the consonants can remind new speakers how to move their mouths to create certain words.
2. You Need To Spend At Least Two Hours Per Day Working On It
Some smartphone applications can help with learning such as Memrise or Duolingo.
These apps work on repetition and rely on the user to come back every day to review past lessons and build on new grammar and vocabulary skills.
One helpful feature of Duolingo is that it also allows for listening and speaking skills.
Some teachers estimate that at least two hours per day is required to effectively learn Korean.
This allows for adequate repetition drills in addition to time to practice new vocabulary.
3. The Language Is Written Left To Right
Like English, Korean is written and read from left to right.
This makes it easier for native English speakers who might get confused with languages like Hebrew, which is written right to left.
4. The Verbs Do Not Conjugate Much
A relief for many grammar-phobes, the verbs in Korean do not conjugate as much as they do in, say, Spanish.
Some say it is even easier than English.
Instead of saying “I eat, she eats,” it is simply “I eat, she eat” because the verb “eat” stays the same regardless of the pronoun used.
Number and gender do not change the verb, so there are fewer nuances to think about when doing a mental translation.
5. Plurals And Grammar Are Easy
To make a word plural, you just need to add an article to the end of the word.
In English, you might argue that you just need to add an “s” to make a word plural, but that is often not the case.
There are several instances such as “person” becomes “people” and “deer” remains “deer” that are confusing for language learners.
Korean does not have such exceptions, which makes it relatively easy for Korean language students to turn singular words into plurals without much confusion.
There are no articles such as “a,” “an,” or “the.”
There also are fewer tenses as well.
For example, there are none of the continuous, simple, or perfect tenses that exist in English.
This makes it a lot easier to get a full grasp of the language if you do not have to keep track of so many different tenses.
6. Sentence Structure Is Backward
Compared to English, the sentence structure in Korean goes in the reverse direction.
It goes “subject-object-verb.”
For someone who has been speaking English for her entire life, this can take some getting used to.
An English sentence like, “I put the food in the bowl,” becomes, “In the bowl, the food I put” in Korean.
7. There Are Different Levels Of Formality
There are various levels of formality in the Korean language.
They could be described as informal, casual, and formal.
Some of the language learning apps like Duolingo and Memrise do not distinguish between the levels of formality.
Instead, they just teach the formal language.
However, this could take people aback, especially in Korea, where street vendors and casual acquaintances would expect a more natural, conversational tone.
The formality is determined by several factors, including age, seniority, and familiarity.
If someone is older or younger than you (even if it is just by one year), this determines how you speak to them.
In fact, you might speak to someone informally, and he might respond to you formally if you are older than him.
A person’s seniority at work will also determine the formality of the language.
A superior at work should be spoken to formally.
Even if it is someone outside of the workplace, some roles require formal speech such as government officials, in-laws.
Informal speech could be used for interns or children.
Your familiarity can also determine the formality of the conversation.
Even if someone is older than you, but she is your best friend, you can opt to use casual or informal conversation instead of a more formal tone.
It can be helpful to watch Korean television while learning the language, to understand the contexts in which the three levels of formality are used.
Keep in mind, though, that you will almost definitely be noticed as a foreigner in Korea.
Though you might think of this as a negative, it can work in your favor.
This is because Korean people will not expect you to completely understand the nuances of the language and are unlikely to get deeply offended if you use the wrong level of formality with them.
8. Korean Vocabulary Is Challenging
The grammar and syntax are relatively manageable.
The vocabulary is where it starts to get difficult.
Unlike Spanish, French, or the other Romance languages, none of the words are like English, except for the rare cases of “computer” and “television,” which are the same in both English and Korean.
All of the words, therefore, have to be memorized because they are completely unfamiliar to the average language learner.
Chinese and Japanese speakers might have some advantages in learning Korean because an estimated 25% of the vocabulary comes from these languages.
The major obstacle to learning Korean comes from the similarity in sound between all the words.
Though they might look different on paper, they can sound almost the same to a novice Korean speaker who is trying to understand a fast and unfamiliar language.
The words are not challenging to say, especially after mastering the Korean alphabet.
It is phonetic, but to listeners, they can sound quite like one another.
Like Chinese and Vietnamese, the words are built out of smaller elements to create new meanings.
Related words will also contain the same element.
For example, school is pronounced, “hak-kyo,” and student is pronounced, “hak-seng.”
The element of “hak” shows that these words are related to education.
In learning vocabulary, it is helpful to start with the most useful information first such as numbers and days of the week.
After that, think about what you are interested in, and what you might find useful in daily conversation.
Maybe food and travel vocabulary will be next on your list.
9. Konglish Is A Combination Between English And Korean
The Korean language uses a lot of words that come from other languages.
Some of these words come from English or are combinations of Korean and English.
For example, “keop” is cup, “cho-kol-lit” is chocolate, and “taek-si” is taxi.
Sometimes, English words are shortened and given Korean spelling.
Some examples include “air-con” for air conditioner and “note” for notebook.
These words make it somewhat easier to learn the language, especially for English learners to feel comfortable in an unfamiliar environment.
10. Adjectives Are Understood As Verbs
Unlike in English, where adjectives precede verbs and nouns to add description, adjectives in Korean are more like verbs in that they demonstrate a certain state of being.
For example, a flower is not just “yellow.”
It is “being yellow.”
In this sense, adjectives imply less permanence in Korean, and simply offer insight into a status of an object or verb.
Understanding this will help learners to better see how sentences are constructed.
Ways To Make Learning Korean Easier
All this information may be overwhelming to Korean language learners, but there is no need to be intimidated.
Especially now, there are so many digital resources available to accompany your learning for free.
There are several ways to improve your chances of success in the Korean language.
1. Understand Your Type Of Learning
There are lots of different kinds of learning (auditory, visual, and kinetic).
Knowing what type works best for you is integral to building a plan for success in the language.
For example, if you know that auditory learning, or listening, is best for you, it would be helpful to listen to conversations in Korean.
If visual learning, or seeing, is optimal, looking over notes and analyzing a textbook might be the most effective way to learn.
If kinetic learning is your forte, then writing notes or participating in hands-on activities and games can help cement new language in your mind.
Most students use a combination of all three, but if you know which one works best for you, it could be a helpful way to hack your brain and increase the retention of essential language skills.
2. Surround Yourself With Korean
By using as much Korean as you can in everyday life, the more likely it will be to stick in your head.
Once you are comfortable enough, you can change your phone language to Korean, so it forces you to learn technical vocabulary and to think in Korean to perform basic tasks such as sending text messages and downloading media.
If you have free time, such as a lunch break or a commute to work, you can maximize this downtime by practicing your Korean.
You can bring vocabulary flashcards with you or download an educational game on your phone.
Alternatively, if you drive, you can listen to audiobooks or YouTube videos that allow you to multitask.
3. Find Korean Friends
Spending time with Korean people is a sure way to improve your language skills.
In addition to practicing the language with a native speaker, Korean friends will likely teach you a lot about their food and culture, which will help you assimilate faster when you go to Korea.
You can find a lot of language exchanges on platforms like MeetUp or Facebook.
If you meet someone you click with, try to arrange weekly outings with this person to practice your Korean.
It is important to set a rule that you communicate only in Korean.
It can be helpful to go into the meetings with a certain topic, so you can improve your vocabulary in a specific area and then review relevant words after that.
Another way to find a Korean language buddy is the platform Kakaotalk, which is the most popular communication platform in Korea.
You can find a Korean friend online and then communicate with him via Kakaotalk, for more seamless interaction.
By practicing the language with a Korean person, you will learn slang, idioms, and jokes that you may not have learned in a class or online.
4. Watch K-dramas And Listen To K-Pop
Try to watch K-dramas to understand the rhythm and pronunciation of Korean conversation.
This will help you understand the varying levels of formality, and how people interact with one another in Korean.
If need be, watch K-dramas with subtitles so you understand what is going on.
Once you have built up your skills sufficiently, you can take away the subtitles and focus on following the plot with your own knowledge of Korean.
K-pop has taken the music scene by storm over the past few years.
BTS and BlackPink are among some of the most popular K-pop groups to grace the world stage.
It is helpful to listen to K-pop to get more used to how the language sounds when sung or spoken quickly.
It will help you with comprehension and pronunciation.
Listening to this music is another way to understand Korean culture as well.
Once you’re comfortable enough, you can begin to sing along to K-pop songs so that you can improve your pronunciation as well.
5. Use A Smartphone Language App
Applications such as Memrise and Duolingo are great free ways to learn a new language.
One of the best parts of them is that they hold you accountable.
Duolingo is known to send daily reminders about practicing Korean.
It is set up in various levels, with daily streaks, so users are encouraged to check back every day to build on progress and maintain the streak.
Users can choose various topics to learn—vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and more—to keep the content relevant and engaging.
Memrise is especially important in Korean because the vocabulary is so challenging.
Memrise is mainly dedicated to vocabulary acquisition and offers drilling exercises.
It is important to set reasonable goals when choosing to learn Korean.
Though not as difficult as Chinese or Arabic, Korean is still very challenging to learn.
First, gauge your schedule and how much time you can reasonably devote to language learning.
Also consider that you may want some free time to watch television, take a nap, go to the gym, and more.
These activities also do not need to be done in isolation.
You can listen to Korean content and hang out with Korean friends to keep learning even while you do other things.
This helps to cement the sound of the language in the back of your mind. Your brain will process the information without you even realizing it or actively practicing.
Some teachers say that spending a minimum of two hours per day on learning Korean is the best way to acquire the language.
Some of this time can be spent on drilling old material, while the rest of it will be used to build on new skills.
Tangible and achievable goals such as, “I want to order in a Korean restaurant in Korean by the end of the month,” are healthy.
If you set goals that are way too lofty like, “I want to discuss abstract college-level concepts in Korean by the end of the month,” you will be setting yourself up for failure and burnout.
Like most languages, there are different dialects and variations.
Typically, you will learn the most common dialect, Seoul Korean.
It is recommended to focus on formal speech first so that you can avoid the risk of offending anyone.
If you have the privilege to go to Korea and practice your language skills, don’t be shy.
Most Korean people will probably be impressed that you know any of the language at all.
In fact, the more you use your language skills in Korea, the more likely you are to improve.