10 Reasons Why The Korean Language Being Difficult Isn't True
- Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW
Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
Today I’m going set the record straight on Korean.
I hear and read a lot of defeatist nonsense about how much of a Goliath the Korean language is.
The main excuse I hear from expats who have been living in Korea for many months or even years as to why they never bothered learning Korean is that it’s just too difficult – they tried when they first got here but then gave up shortly after.
I was chatting to an expat in a bar last week who concluded that I must be good at languages to explain my success so far.
Putting the necessary hard work aside, the language isn’t as hard as he or anyone thinks it is (in fact, I’ll even say Korean is easy).
I’ve read comments on other sites from people who talk about how futile learning Korean is because it takes so long to be able to speak beyond a few basic phrases.
Languages like Korean, Mandarin and Arabic tend to draw this kind of negativity from people and it usually comes from bitter people who gave up at some point early on.
So today I’m going to set your mind at ease and hopefully give you a new burst of enthusiasm for learning it.
Crucial to success in any foreign language pursuit is staying positive. If you think of it as difficult, it will be difficult!
Before I go any further, one site I relied on heavily when I started Korean was Rocket Korean. It’s one of the most comprehensive audio-rich tools I’ve seen anywhere for studying Korean (read my Rocket Korean review).
Here are just a few reasons why I believe Korean being a difficult language to learn isn’t true.
Reason 1: The alphabet can be learned in an hour or two
This is an obvious point and I talked about this before so I won’t repeat myself here. See this previous post I wrote.
Even though Korean newspapers do use the occasional Chinese character, Korean hangeul is an incredibly simple and easy-to-learn alphabet.
This little comic strip that’s been floating around is quite good:
Also typing in Korean is really easy to pick up too (I recommend you practise this early so you can use Naver and Daum to look things up).
The online Branah keyboard is excellent for this if you don’t have the Korean keyboard set up.
Reason 2: Korean grammar is actually very simple and straightforward
I’ve studied over 10 languages and Korean has one of the easiest grammars I’ve ever seen.
While there’s probably a lot I could say about the finer points of grammar, here are just a few in point form:
There’s no need to worry about gender or number when dealing with verbs. “He eats”, “she eats”, “you eat” are all conjugated exactly the same way (it gets only slightly different if the person’s older than you or in a position of authority which I’ll explain below).
Nouns don’t change according to case. Many languages (especially ones like Greek and Russian) often have many different noun forms depending on what the noun is or what it’s doing. In Korean this is done with a few basic suffixes called case markers that are extremely easy to learn. For example, 로 is an instrumental marker (by/with/using) so if I attached it to the end of the word for the Korean language (한국말+로), it means in/using Korean. If I’m ordering ice-cream and I want my ice-cream in a cone I can attach it on the end of the word cone to mean in a cone. If you’ve never seen an agglutinative language before then it will take a little while to adjust to but overall Korean is a very simple agglutinative language.
While there is a copula verb to be (이다 – for sentences like “it is a house”), there is no auxiliary verb for action or descriptive verbs. For example, “I am happy” is simply “I happy”.
Past, future and progressive verb tenses follow an insanely simple and consistent pattern. Apart from a few minor changes that happen to some verbs, it’s usually just a case of attaching one of a few appropriate endings to a word. Once you get used to the patterns, you can spot and use them very easily.
Passive and causative verbs, adjectives and adverbs are all formed using extremely basic patterns with few irregularities.
Reason 3: Korean phonetics are a piece of cake for English speakers
For English speakers there’s nothing terribly unusual about Korean phonetics.
Unlike Arabic and Hebrew there are no guttural sounds.
There are no consonant clusters like Georgian or Polish (where you have 4 or more consonants in a row).
There are also no tones like many other East Asian languages.
For the most part Korean is usually pronounced exactly the way it’s written, unlike English which is full of words that sound nothing like the way they appear on paper.
The only exception to this is that like every language, Korean assimilates and omits sounds sometimes when combined with others.
This happens in pretty much every language though and is just an evolutionary process determined by what’s more comfortable for us to pronounce. Some letter combinations (e.g. putting n and l together) just don’t feel right when spoken.
Try saying nlion or nlight and you’ll see what I mean!
One example from Korean is 편리 which means convenience. It’s written pyeon-li but is pronounced pyeol-li where the n becomes an l sound. The latter is much easier to pronounce which is why these types of words evolve over time in every language.
As another example, 맞다 (to be correct) is not pronounced maj-da as it’s written because that would be too awkward to say naturally so it’s pronounced ma’-da (a glottal stop in place of the j).
Don’t let these things concern you because these basic phonetic changes are easy to adjust to after a little practise and even more so when you understand why it happens.
Reason 4: Many words are made up of smaller, single-syllable words
This makes learning Korean vocab a walk in the park trust me!
Firstly I should add that there are some great lessons made by TTMIK called Word Builder lessons that explain this well which I highly recommend you check out.
Many compound Korean words (particularly ones that are derived from Chinese) are made up of single syllable words and you can usually take a rough guess at its meaning if you can recognise them.
For example, if you see the word 학 (hak) you can be pretty sure it’s got something to do with education or learning:
학원 – academy
학교 – school
학생 – student
언어학 – linguistics (study of language)
과학 – science (subject)
You’re miles ahead for vocab if you already know Mandarin Chinese too! 🙂
Reason 5: The blessed 하다 verbs are a cinch!
This is one thing I friggin’ love about Korean verbs.
Many Korean verbs are actually just nouns connected to the verb to do (하다).
For example, the verb 행복하다 (to be happy) is literally happiness + do = doing happiness.
So easy! 🙂
Oh and 하다 verbs are amazing when it comes to forming adverbs, causatives and passives because they’re all identical in form.
Reason 6: Respectful forms and honorifics aren’t a problem at all
I’ve talked about this at length before so I won’t repeat it here (see this post) but I just want to say that this is nowhere near as tough as people make it out to be.
Generally it’s just a matter of adding or dropping -요 (or -야 if you want to be casual) on the end of sentences depending on who you’re talking to.
There is of course more to it than that but for most learners that’s all you need to worry about in the beginning.
Honorifics likewise follow a pretty simple pattern of using the infix -시- for verbs. Once you practise it a few times and be mindful of the people you’re talking to or about, it’s really a piece of cake.
There’s only a small amount of extra honorific vocab too but you learn those just as you would any other vocabulary.
Reason 7: Korean word order can be a son of a bitch but here’s how you can make it easy
This is the most challenging part of learning Korean in my opinion but I’ll explain how I’ve simplified it for myself.
First of all, for us Korean is backwards.
Not backwards in the ‘primitive’ sense of the word – I mean literally backwards. English is a S-V-O language whereas Korean is S-O-V (e.g. I went to the shop in Korean is I to the shop went).
Now, this is very easy for short sentences and there’s nothing challenging about a simple sentence like I went to the shop. The problem is when you have relative clauses or longer sentences with extra information embedded in it.
For example, a sentence like “Remember that pretty girl who works at Samsung that I met yesterday?” is where an English speaker would have huge headaches.
A few months ago sentences like this were making my hair fall out! 🙂
The trick I’ve found useful is to practise breaking it down into its smaller parts (sometimes I use what linguists call phrase tree diagrams (Google it) to help visualise it too).
I did this on paper for a while but these days I don’t need to. It comes much more naturally with practise:
“Remember that pretty girl who works at Samsung that I met yesterday?”
Subject: the pretty girl
Main verb: remember
All the extra information: who works at Samsung that I met yesterday
So if we only had to say “Remember that pretty girl?” it would be very straightforward.
The rest of the sentence describes the girl. It works like a big long adjective coming before the subject.
The reason why this is weird for us as English speakers is that in English we tend to state the person or thing we’re talking about right at the beginning in a sentence like this. Before I say anything else about where she works or when we met, you know that I’m going to talk about a pretty girl.
In Korean you say all of the descriptive stuff before you even mention the girl.
So if you’re a really slow speaker then the person you’re talking to is not going to know who you’re talking about at first, especially if it’s a long sentence.
This gets really awkward sometimes!
One thing you can do as a new learner to fake it till you make it is say the same thing by making lots of little sentences – e.g. “Remember the pretty girl? I met her yesterday. She works at Samsung.”
My other vital bit of advice for you is this: STOP THINKING IN ENGLISH!
I use caps so you realise how important this point is. 🙂
If you’re thinking in English and trying to say sentences like the example above in the middle of a conversation then you’re going to really confuse yourself.
The sooner you start thinking in Korean, however limited it may be, the more coherent your sentences will be.
Reason 8: There’s an abundance of excellent material to learn from
After popular languages like French, Spanish and German, Korean is up there as one of the languages where good quality resources are abundant and overflowing – both paid and free.
There are many free resources I’ve found amazingly useful such as My Korean from Monash University, Berkeley Intermediate College Korean, TTMIK, Matthew’s Korean Study and Reference Guide, and TOPIK Guide. I’ve used some brilliant Korean mobile apps, and YouTube also has a bazillion learning videos, talk shows and kdramas with subtitles.
This is an excellent beginner series:
As far as good quality paid resources go there are just too many!
I used Elementary Korean by Ross King and Jaehoon Yeon when starting out which is an excellent book (the audio’s not the best but the book is brilliant). I also bought Korean 2 from Seoul National University which was worth every cent.
A few months ago I reviewed the brilliant Talk To Me In Korean books that you can watch here.
The Rocket Korean course with Taewoo and Sujung is outstanding and good at improving conversation and listening skills. What I like the most about this Korean online course is that it’s very comprehensive with great dialogues to learn from (loads of material from absolute beginner up to advanced).
If you’re into podcast-style learning then KoreanClass101 is great too.
Of course, italki has been my number one paid service that beats anything else I could have spent money on. The experienced Korean language teachers I’ve had on there have helped me more than anything to get where I am now with Korean.
There’s just tonnes out there for Korean. You’ll never have a problem finding resources.
Reason 9: Konglish gives you a good head start
This kind of feels like cheating but it’s not really.
Korean has actually got a lot of loan words from English.
Apart from the fact that Koreans are fanatical about learning the English language and therefore most of the people can speak at least a little, you’ll find a lot of borrowed words that have become assimilated into Korean.
An example off the top of my head is 체크하다 (check + 하다 verb). Korean of course has its own verb for to check something but this Konglish verb is as much part of the language now as anything else.
It’s always a good idea when you’re learning any language to start with cognates and borrowed words as it’s a good way of rapidly expanding your vocab.
Reason 10: Korea is one of the easiest foreign countries in the world for any native English speaker to move to and live long-term to learn the language
This is a very important point.
Since being in the country is so crucial to learning any foreign language properly (online lessons are great but they have their limits), this is something you should take into consideration before starting anything.
The great thing about Korea is that there’s an abundance of ESL jobs here with free accommodation, free flights and very good salaries that will put you in the midst of the language you’re trying to learn (as long as you stay away from expat-magnet shit holes like Itaewon and Hongdae!). You can do this in other countries sure but very few of them offer the same perks you get here.
I live in an area surrounded by limitless ways for me to practise my Korean every single day.
It’s one of the best immersion opportunities that you could ask for – learn a language through immersion and get cashed up at the same time.
Get out and start saying hi to Koreans and watch how many friends you make.
Hope that encourages you to stick with your Korean! Subscribe to my email list if you found it interesting or useful. 🙂
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