10 Reasons Why The Korean Language Being Difficult Isn't True

10 Reasons Why The Korean Language Being Difficult Isn't True

UPDATE: If you need something to help you learn Korean then Rocket Korean and 90 Day Korean are the two most comprehensive I’ve used.


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.

Bullshit!

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).

Korean Language 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:

Korean alphabet

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, 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 (hak) you can be pretty sure it’s got something to do with education or learning:

– academy
– school
– student
언어 – linguistics (study of language)
– 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.

What I usually do when I learn a new noun is get on Daum or Naver and search to see if there’s a corresponding 하다 verb that goes with it. It’s all about killing two birds with one stone.

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

There is so much good material and online Korean courses available.

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. 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.

The popular FluentU platform now offers Korean as well (review).

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.

See here, here and here for some lists of a few other Konglish words.

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.

Hope that encourages you to stick with your Korean! Please share this around on Facebook if you found it interesting or useful. 🙂

Also make sure to check my personal Korean language resources or my Essential Language Learning Tools page where I’ve listed some of my favorite Korean resources.

See my favorite resources for:
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Here's what you should read next:

Things Every New Korean Language Learner Should Be Aware Of

How To Tell The Difference Between European And Brazilian Portuguese

10 Reasons Why The Russian Language Isn't That Difficult

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Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Icelandic

COMMENTS

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anon

Thank you so much for posting this! I've been wanting to learn Korean for a few months now, but I haven't started actually learning it.. The reputation it has among some language learners as being the most difficult language for an English speaker to learn is intimidating, but your post gives me a lot more confidence in myself. ^^

mezzoguild

Excellent!

Glad I could help boost your confidence :) Korean's definitely worth it.

Erin

A wonderful follow up pat would be to look at how Hongul came about, specifically as it was designed for ease of use. Fun stuff, & I enjoyed the post. Erin

mezzoguild

Yea it's definitely got an interesting history behind it.

Thanks!

Natalie

Glad to hear the Korean is going well, Donovan. The language actually doesn't sound too bad, from what you've said. What intimidates me is the alphabet – not so much the memorization of letters, but how it's written. One of my best friends when I was in undergrad was a Korean major and she told me that the letters are written in blocks or something, which sounded very confusing!

mezzoguild

Thanks!

Yea it is in 'blocks' but it's so easy to learn. The alphabet is the easiest part about it so don't be put off by that :)

junerabinski

I agree, after a day or two in Korean class I was able to write and read. Although I didn't know what it meant, I could already put it together. It truly is the easiest part. It's brilliant what King Sejong did.

Treasure

Hello, Memrise is an excellent app that helped me learn the Korean Aplabet in 4 days. The great thing about is that it teaches you six words a day and then quizzes you to refresh your fading memories of the letter.

Shanett

Yes, I am currently using Memrise, too. It's a wonderful app and whenever I use it I always learn more than 6 words because it's so addictive and fun. I use it daily and can always revise and test myself when I feel memories fading. It also makes learning the alphabet fun and exciting by relating the characters to memorable things - like the character for the letter 'S' looks like a snake's tongue.

Emma

It's not actually confusing, which surprised me in the start too. They are written in blocks, but each block is a syllable, which kind of makes it easier. For example, like he said the verb 'to do' 하다 is broken down into 2 syllables, hence it is written in 2 different blocks. It's pronounced 'ha-da' (two syllables). Sorry if this confused you more.

Daniela

Great article. I've never studied any Korean, but one thing that has always bugged me about language learners is this kind of defeatist attitude and that language xy can't be learned, etc. Anything can be learned, sure some languages have concepts that are foreign or different to your native language, but it doesn't make it impossible. It's just a matter of motivation and dedication.


I recently started studying Arabic and I've had so many people tell me it's impossible and I'm puzzled as to why. Why would you go out of your way to tell me my goal can't be achieved? Jealousy maybe? I do t know, in any it does motivate me even more.

mezzoguild

Good on you. I completely agree.

All the best with Arabic :)

Zeinab

it's rare to see people who learn Arabic because other learners who encountered some difficulties going around saying Arabic is so challenging and so on, even some natives will discourage you. Well the grammar (irregular past verbs), vocabulary, and pronunciation are bit difficult, and maybe that's why Arabic is the first in the language difficulty ranking list, but that's not a reason to fall back, anything difficult can turn easy, depending on your mindset! If you are enthusiastic and not easily discouraged by others (or are, but can learn to overcome pitfalls), then you can truly do anything!and I hope you achieve your goals.

Hahaha

It's absolutely hilarious to read these posts by self-proclaimed language experts claiming a language is easy to learn. You say Korean is simple and imply you have some sort of command over it; yet you can't even tell 행복하다 is an adjective and not a verb as you so confidently assert. "Doing happiness"?? You gotta be kidding me. The confirmatiom bias of someone patting himself on the back for his "acheivement" in language acquisition is just surreal.

Peter

Totally agree! But its all about the hard work. I never intended to put effort into learning the language when I moved here 11 months and 3 weeks ago. I thought i would just "assimilate" the language... it would just ooose into my head becuase I live here. But no. After 5 months, all I know were the basic basic basic phrases (like hello and good bye and thank you). So then I started studying. And yeah, it is hard. But yesterday, after about 6 months of focused studying I wrote my first Korean Proficiency Test (TOPIK). While I definitely don't feel comfortable and fluent enough to have any conversation I want, I can communicate. The effort I put in is directly proportional to what I got out.

mezzoguild

Good on you, Peter.

Yea a lot of people are under the illusion that simply moving to a country means it'll be easy to pick up the language by osmosis or something. They're fooling themselves because as you say, it's all about hard work put in.

Hope you did well on the TOPIK.

TOPIK GUIDE

very insightful post.. I am sure it will help many beginners :)

mezzoguild

Thanks!

Adam

Excellent post! I have been working my way trying to just memorize vocab mostly out of intimidation to try and speak actual sentences. I think that this gives me a better perspective on how I can approach my learning. Time to learn some grammar...

mezzoguild

Thanks buddy.

My advice is to stick with dialogues rather than grammar at first though. I didn't touch Korean grammar until the 8 month mark.

Andreas

I'm completely opposite. Grammar is the most fun part and the easiest part to learn. And I would be pretty lost without knowing it. So boring not to be able to write sentences. Therefore after little over 5 months, I can easily write sentences with my vocabulary.

@streetsmartlang

Chinese definitely gives you a leg up with Korean vocab, but don't forget that Japanese does the same while also giving you a leg up with grammar!

Looking forward to checking out the resources you listed in Reason #8. Many I hadn't stumbled across yet!

mezzoguild

True. I should have mentioned Japanese. Korean has definitely inspired me to take up Japanese at some time soon.

Glad I could help with the resources. :)

Sophia

That's me in reverse! Learning Japanese has inspired me to learn Korean.

Chris

Japanese has easier pronunciation than korean because it doesn't have all the tongue twisters that 한국 has.
I just started about a month ago, and "I grammar am studying." Whish it the second hardest part. The first being memorizing vocabulary words. But ive noticed that if I watch korean shows or listen to songs, and a word catches my attention, ill look it up and its instantly stored in my brain. So kpop helps me as much as any instructional video.

Ken

Great stuff! Thank you! After 10 years in Korea I knew I was never going to assimilate it.
Now I take some formal lessons. Found a book in English that explains the grammar.
I never thought grammar woud be the place to start. But for me, it is so necessary.
Now I just have to do the work. :-)

mezzoguild

Thanks. Glad I could help.

Best of luck with it :)

Scott

I think that language learning takes a long time no matter which language you study. The rankings of difficulty putting Chinese, Japanese and Korean at the top of difficult and the various romance languages at the bottom are only telling half the story. People maybe assume that the languages in bracket 3 are 3 times as difficult as the languages in bracket one. Instead I think that if you the romance languages a rating of 1.0 then maybe the bracket 3 languages get a 1.2/1.3. Harder yes, but not by a lot.

I also often feel that the difficulty of Chinese is overstated and this often unnecessarily scares many people away.

David

Just a couple more thoughts:

Reason 7: Word-order is very confusing and disorienting when you first start learning; but once you hit an intermediate speaking level, it becomes quite natural. Often the "difficult" things of a language that beginners get caught up with are not the most challenging aspects in the long run.

Reason 10: But Korea also might be one of the easiest countries to live in without learning the native language. There's very little pressure to learn the language, and people often assume you won't know any Korean, and insist on using English.

David

I get a bit tired of the excuses also, and I do wish that Koreans would put a bit more pressure on foreigners to learn Korean. That said, Korean is more difficult to learn (for English speakers) than languages like French or German, simply because the languages are unrelated. When studying German, you're going to run into the familiar quite frequently, and that helps a lot psychologically. With Korean, you'll only run into familiar vocabulary with words borrowed from English, but they are fewer and don't make up the core vocabulary.
For casual learners, the psychological barrier of unfamiliarity can be huge. If you try learning a language through a once-a-week class, you might survive in German, but you'll fail studying Korean that way. I think that's why so many casual learners in Korea give up, and then make excuses.

mezzoguild

I agree that Korean is most definitely more difficult to learn for an English speaker than any European language is.

And I think you raise a very important point about the fear of it because it is vastly different which ultimately has an effect on peoples' attitudes. I guess the point of posts like this is to show people that even though it is very different, there are many 'easy' aspects as well.

Gretchen

맞아요. 한국말 안 어려워요! 진짜 쉬워요. TTMIK이 가장 좋아하는 resource 중의 하나예요^^ My Korean도요.

12125

뭔소리를 하는거냐?

Neo93

한국어는 정말 어렵지 않으면 Gretchen씨가 실수를 그렇게 많이 하지 않을 겁니다.

Anna

Hey, try with polish :D It won't be so easy :D

Seb1

Polish has its own scoops of dificulty. However, a native mandarin speaker will find Polish easier to learn. In my old home town of Gliwice,there is High tech Uni, and back then we had many asian studying. They spoke,read&wrote in Polish. Currently, I'm studying Mandarin. It will be 5th language for me. Im also keen to learn Korean. I have found Korean interesting language. It has many similarities with Chinese, which may help me out in studying Korean.

cesar espinoza

Wonderful article, I speak several languages which I've learned on my own, but I must admit so far I've been kind of lazy with Korean, but with the encouragement that you give with your article Donovan, I'll start over with my Korean, 'cause I have already some knowledge of it, but not as much as I know that I could be if I had had a more positive attitude, besides, the grammar coincides in many aspects with Japanese and Chinese about which I have a much higher degree of knowledge, so I'll start with Korean since tomorrow, it's an interesting language, I'll tell you more aboutt my language learning Donovan, I 'd like to become your friend, greetings from my city, Lima in Peru !!..CESAR

andrewfx51

Took Korean at Monash - concur with all your points

Difficulty is all relative anyway.

That said, I have rarely use it since leaving Monash - although I hear they're doing a Korean version of Homeland/Prisoners of War, and would love to read the 삼국사기

Chris

The people who are saying the Korean language is hard to understand are those people who do not have the time to actually learn this language. This post should be seen by others in order to help them determine that Korean is not hard to understand.

oegukeen

I'm learning Korean and I have to admit that it's not difficult, at least now at the beginning. I don't know what's in store later on :)

mls

i still don't believe all this, ofcourse it may seem really easy to have a basic conversation in korean after living there for almost a year and studying it everyday, but how much can you understand when you watch a korean drama or korean tv without subtitles? and how much can you understand when you read a korean news paper or book? my guess is about 50%.. and how are the results of that topik test... still waiting for an update

mezzoguild

Don't believe what exactly? That Korean's easier than people make it out to be?

Did you have a different experience with the language?

If someone told me that they understood 50% of a TV drama after one year of study, I'd say that's a very good accomplishment and something to be proud of (listening comprehension takes a lot longer than reading comprehension does).

mls

(i wrote a long reply but it won't post, so maybe i have to break it up) well first i should of been more positive like you and say that's good you came up with reasons why Korean is not as hard as people make it out to be because you are trying to encourage foreigners to learn Korean and it's not 'impossible', kind of like how Benny always writes about how xyz language is so easy... etc. however, i still think it takes at least 3 times longer to learn, not 1.3 times or whatever, for a speaker of English, even for an experienced polyglot, compared to say French or Spanish...

mls

i know theoretically Koreans are not 3 times smarter so the language shouldn't be 3 times as complex, but like you said earlier, it's so different from English, i think it really does take that much longer. Like you, I have studied several other languages, and I would say that difficult languages such as Chinese can be hacked at maybe 1.5 times the speed of let’s say learning French, if ignoring most of the characters.

mls

However, Korean and Japanese, so far, I still think they are twice as hard to learn as Chinese, for a native speaker of English. I have studied Korean on and off for several years and I think my Korean is not at all what I want it to be at, but Koreans always say that my Korean is excellent and better than any other foreigners they met. But honestly it’s not that good. So I would bet you too, probably you are in at least the top 0.1% or 1/1000 percentile of English speakers who tried to learn Korean, due to so many giving up and not sticking with it.

mls

So I’m sure they are all amazed when you speak but the main reason why I still think Korean is so difficult, is like you said in your opinion, is the opposite word order. Honestly it really does cause that many problems for many years to come. My analogy is like say you are right handed, and now you have to learn everything over again with your left hand. Of course it may seem like you are getting a hang of after a while opening doors and little stuff like that, but playing tennis, golf or speed writing, no matter how much you practice, it’s still going to take years and years to get your skills up to the same as your right hand.

mls

Another thing also is the nuances, when you get to a more advanced level and know all the vocabulary and most of the grammar, but sometimes it’s still so hard to catch the exact meaning. And one other thing I disagree about is the Hangeul. I think this is one of the most under estimated things about Korean. It’s like saying you can learn all the keys on the piano in an hour. I used to think like that at first that Hangeul was easy to learn.

mls

However, only after many years of studying and reading Hangeul, and having my reading speed less than half of what I can read English or even process words in any languages that uses the English alphabet such as French, made me realize just how long it takes to learn how to read. I’ve even asked several Koreans about this who have studied English for several years and lived overseas. Even when knowing all the words in a text, they say they process Hangeul at least twice as fast as English.

mls

My theory is, to get up to the same speed as English in Korean, probably you could learn all the kanji or Chinese characters in almost the same amount of time. Just like learning a piano, basically as native English speakers, we read English like how concert pianists play.

mls

And about that 50% thing, basically what I mean is that reading news or listening to something would still be incomprehensible. (Based on that 98% theory) I think even after studying Korean for 3 years, understanding a television show will only be at 90%, but you could get that same level of understanding learning Spanish at least 3 times faster. Anyways sorry I got carried away and wrote so much. since there has not really been any other polyglots trying to seriously study Korean before such as you.

mls

I know that Steve Kaufman dude tried it a few times but he keeps making excuses saying ‘there’s not enough interesting content about Korean to interest him’ but honestly I think he’s having so much trouble with it, that everything seems uninteresting because his comprehension is so low compared to the other languages he’s learned, as well the Hangeul slows him down so much. (I know he speaks Japanese, but because he lived there for 12 years.) that girl from hangukdrama said she just passed Topik level 6 after 5.5 years of studying. Although she is Singaporean and only focused on Korean so maybe she had some Chinese advantage, although she didn’t live in Korea I think.

mls

So I’m wondering about you, as an experienced language learner, I wonder how long it would take you to pass Topik level 6, (C2) living in Korea, doing the same thing you are doing….. My guess is about maybe 3 years, or whatever the number will be, still 3 or 4 times longer than say doing the same thing in a similar European language or almost double what it takes to do the same thing in Chinese. Oh yea that step 4 you mentioned, ok I would agree it does make learning Korean so much easier ‘if’ you can recognize them, but that’s the problem.

mls

That’s why I think Hangeul almost slows you down a bit compared to Chinese or Japanese, because those Chinese characters are so unique it seems I can pick them out so much easier compared to the Hangeul since sometimes Hangeul uses the same character in many words but it’s actually different, so it throws you off for self-study, unlike Chinese or Japanese where you know for sure it’s the same character.

mls

And I wouldn’t go as far as saying the phonetics are a piece of cake for English speakers, definitely you could say Japanese phonetics are a piece of cake, but I still think this comes down to so few foreigners learning Korean well, so I’m sure you get so many compliments on your Korean pronunciation, however, I still think there’s a long way to go to get to that level where it sounds ‘kind’ of normal to a native speaker. Even Chinese tones are easier than trying to pronounce Korean the way actual Koreans speak, in my opinion.

mls

And that thing about there being a lot of resources for learning Korean, I kind of half agree with that. I’ll say there are enough resources out there so definitely foreigners shouldn’t have any excuses learning Korean to at least an intermediate level. However, I just find there is absolutely no comparison in the resources for the other languages you mentioned such as French, Spanish, and German if you want to get to an advanced level. For example in those languages you can find so many audiobooks in those languages with translations.

mls

But Korean, I can only find those children’s and teen books without audio or translations because they are made in Korea designed for native Koreans. And I also use a lot of phrase and slang books; however they are all designed for Korean speakers, so all the instructions are in Korean to describe the English. For example, they have a lot of example sentences of English TV shows so I just want the book for the Korean translation. However, the rest of your 4 or 5 points I mostly agree with.

j

as a native speaker, i agree with your points you made in your response. even though i'm largely fluent in korean, i sometimes have a hard time voicing my ideas in korean correctly, and my parents and my very fluent korean friends often don't understand me. overall, i feel like the korean language is downplayed in this article

j

as a native speaker, i agree with your points you made in your response. even though i'm largely fluent in korean, i sometimes have a hard time voicing my ideas in korean correctly, and my parents and my very fluent korean friends often don't understand me. i feel like korean in this article is kinda downplayed

Jennifer

I've been learning Korean, and your article is SO spot on! Every one of those things I've been coming across in my studies. The full conjugation of verbs can be a little staggering because there are so many options, but pegging down the root word at least helps me understand the gist of the sentence.

I think Japanese and Chinese set me up into thinking the Korean written language would be similarly difficult, instead of the really easy system it is.

And like you said phonetically it's not too difficult, I use sounds I don't use often, but they aren't sounds that I can't physically speak. I think Korean speakers learning English have a much harder time!

Thanks for your article and also the links to other the other resources. I will look into them.

Donovan Nagel

Thanks very much, Jennifer :)

Jennifer

Since I commented above, I checked out conversation exchange which you recommended and found some really awesome Korean's learning English that I've been able to have sessions with, and it's been so helpful to get instructions and tips from native speakers. And I feel good being able to give back tips on English expressions and pronunciation.

Thank you so much for posting those recommendations~

Kyle

Thank you very much for this post! I was wondering before if going to Korea to be an English teacher was the right path for me, and after reading this, I've decided it's what I want to do. :) Thank you again.

Donovan Nagel

Great to hear!

Thank you :)

멋진 누나

This was a good primer on Korean for beginners. Your word order section really helped me a lot. I usually get tripped up on more complex sentences than "I went to the store." But Korean has been fun to learn so far -- I've actually learned more about English grammar than I was taught in grade school by studying Korean.

I would also recommend the "Korean Verbs" page of the English wikipedia (a GOOD breakdown of Korean verb construction) and Memrise.com for vocab. I have the Memrise app and it's nice to be able to drill myself on Korean while waiting in line or something.

But I will say that I'm disappointed with your recommendation of becoming an ESL teacher for the free perks and/or just to help people learn the language. People who want to teach English in S. Korea have to remember that the main (infinitive) verb in that statement is to *teach*, not just for their benefit, but for the benefit of their students. And there's more to teaching students than creating lesson plans, especially if you're teaching children.

Just like we wouldn't want our children to have teachers who are unqualified and just consider it something they do on the side while they "explore" our country and language, neither do Korean people. Not to mention, ESL positions are contracts, so if they decide they don't want to learn Korean, and that was their only reason for accepting the ESL job, they can't just leave without penalty, and if they stay they will resent "being stuck" with a teaching job. I know I wouldn't want to be taught by anyone who just felt stuck with the job.

But I do agree that jaded, disgruntled expats have some of the most negative attitudes ever about the language and the country, but that's also because they got bored with S. Korea after treating the country like a playground instead of because they actually wanted to teach.

Donovan Nagel

I completely agree with what you said and I get equally frustrated with the many expats in places like Korea who don't take their jobs seriously.

I wasn't suggesting that I went to Korea solely for the perks but in my situation language learning takes precedence over English teaching (I'll admit openly and honestly that ESL teaching is not my life's ambition or passion).

Peter Hwang

Great post, thanks for letting people know. As a Korean living in Australia, I noticed many Australians, English speakers are afraid to learn Non-alpabet languages. Probably It is kind of prejudice, but understandable. At a first glance, It is obvious that languages like Spanish, French, German, which based on Alpabet are easier to learn.

Girl8

This post is a bunch of bull. I'm not saying that anything you posted is incorrect because it's not. I've been learning korean for the past year and I honestly love it. But the fact that you're disregarding the fact that it isn't challenging and "a piece of cake" is like looking down on people. It is very challenging and very different, that's why I like it. The concept is easy but learning is difficult because the system is very different. Also, and some words are only used in songs. For example: 그리워=I miss you. mostly used in just songs. 보고싶어=I miss you. More colloquial and used in normal conversations. Most of my Korean friends even say that's it's difficult. Your post is so bias. I love the korean language and learning it but posts like these really irk me. Yes it's easy if you pick things up easily. It took me about a week to perfect the alphabet which is the average time. Yea, you can learn the whole alphabet In a few hours, but actually perfecting the sounds? That takes a while. There are characters that sound so similar to one another, you really have to train yourself to learn the differences of these pronunciations, I've practiced so much that the pronunciation just comes natural now. Everyone goes at different rates and is never always a piece of cake. There were lessons that I easily picked up on in about an hour and other lessons where it took me a few days and I had to ask my friends. Also, the usage takes a while to perfect. Posts like yours can really discourage people just by saying that it's easy In Every point that you make. If it's hard for someone that comes to your post, it won't make them feel too good if they see that "it's a piece of cake" or its "So easy".

ewen201

I see what you're saying, but I think that the whole point of this post was to ENCOURAGE people, not look down on anyone. Donovan is showing us that Korean not as impossible as everyone says it is. For me, I was really inspired by this article to study harder because I am reassured that there is hope to speak fluently...someday haha.

Anthony Metivier

Thanks for this very inspiring rundown. We need more sensible talk like this about all language learning because, as Bruce Lee said, "no self, no enemy." It's really the ego that makes language learning hard because we set it up as hard in our minds in order to avoid recognizing that we didn't actually try. Or as some advertisers say, we want to "get more done by doing nothing" (i.e. it's really laziness).

The real trick is to approach all work as play. At the very least, we can take the sage advice of the guy who said: "Don't wish it was easier. Wish you were smarter."

Articles like this definitely fulfill the second wish. Thanks again!

Jared

Korean can be INCREDIBLY difficult if you are attempting to get a full understanding of the language. Subjects are often omitted, leaving multiple interpretations at times. Many words, especially concerning emotions, have either.no direct translation in English or have very deep and nuanced meanings beyond what you'll learn in a textbook.

Jan

in his own words: "STOP THINKING IN ENGLISH!"

j

haha learning other languages is also difficult just by that statement you made. especially in languages where the grammar is very different from your native tongue's. it's pretty dang hard to "stop thinking in english", as it is in this case, and to begin to orient the mind in a completely different language. that understanding comes with a LOT of study if you're not a native

ビットル

This is exacly what makes things easy, it`s only difficult if you try to fit Korean in the English logic

Violet

I'm 100% interested in learning Korean. Everyone around me tells me I'm weird or stupid because I enjoy K-pop and Korean dramas more than American ones. So, when I told everyone I'm going to learn how to speak the language they laughed at me and told me that it's so hard to learn, etc.

But thanks to your article I know that they are wrong and that it is truly possible for me to learn the language.

Violet

Any tips you can give me that will make learning the language easier would be REALLY appreciated.

Greg J.

Violet, it sounds like you are in high school. Lots of kids attack "everything" that's different or that they don't understand. Most people have that reaction trying to get a burst of I'm-accepted good feeling. There's TONS of young people who love K-Pop and K-Dramas and know it's very cool. They laughed at you? Learning Korean is a serious and valuable thing to do. They are an cool/amazing/interesting people and you'll be able to connect with them as a friend. :) Your friends would laugh if you said you were going to learn how to write bank checks, but they'll be wishing they'd done it with you in a few years. A thought: kill any expectations you have for your learning performance. They don't do any good, and can slow things down and frustrate you. Everyone learns differently at different speeds, but everyone will succeed if they just stick with it. Set a goal of doing a certain amount of learning every day or week--then it's just a matter of time.

I'm a beginner, but I and lots of other people like Korean for Beginners by Henry J. Amen IV & Kyubyong Park. There's lots of good web sites. At the moment I am liking howtostudykorean.com because it is written clearly.

Hee Dong Kim

한국어가 어렵다는건 한국인도 압니다.
한국인도 한국어가 어렵다는건 압니다.
한국인도 압니다,한국어가 어렵다는건.
한국어도 어렵다는건 한국인도 압니다.
ex.내가 알고, 당신도 알죠.
당신도 알고, 나도 알죠.
당신도 알죠, 나도 알고.
나도 알죠,당신도 알고,
same mean,different word.different placement.
Anyway nice writing.

Korean Person

압니다? I would think it is 입니다

native korean

i don't know why 압니다 has to be 입니다

Lee

압니다 = 알고 있습니다

nounna

thanks alot for this amazing encouragements and explications , i'm arabic , i speack fluently arabic , french and english and i'm learning now korean also :)
thank you again

Tom

i really want to learn korean because it's such a beautiful language and i'd love to visit, but i'm already learning German and Mandarin.

Hard-won Speaker

Mandarin will help you a LOT for vocabulary, which I think is one of the hardest parts. Native Chinese speakers learn Korean much (much much much much) faster and more easily than native English speakers. Native Japanese speakers learn it fastest, in fact it's pretty easy for them -- they're cousin languages and the cultures share a lot.

Mike

My biggest problem is that I don't understand what is being said most of the time and when I do recognize a word, by the time I process its meaning, the speaker is usually speaking about a different subject I know quite a few words, but its like they are never used even through there are words that I know would be used every day. I keep plugging away and hopefully I will start picking up more.

Mr. Carter

It is easy in the beginner level. But things that are easy at the surface can also be complex. I'll address your main points:
1. People always mention that hangul is easy to learn, but spelling is hard and there are exceptions/special rules to be learned. But the thing that really makes spelling hard are the phonetics of Korean. So much sounds the same to anyone who is not a native, unless you're blessed with amazing ears. So many consonants sound the same, same goes for vowels . Moreover, like in some languages sounds 'disappear', change (and sounds different from how they're written), and the slurring...Of course these problems exist in other languages but Korean listening for example takes loads more listening practice than for Japanese.

2. Korean grammar is simple in that there aren't so much exceptions or usages that seem illogical. However what makes it difficult because there is a plethora and seemingly unending grammar to learn and this is simply because the grammar is so unlike English. Politeness levels and formal vs. colloquial is just icing on the cake.

3. Again here I disagree with you. Korean phonetics is easy in that you don't to do anything difficult with your vocal cords or tongue. What makes is hard is distinguishing b/t sounds and applying it yourself in conversation. Even the most fluent Korean speaking foreigners are instantly distinguishable form natives. While I have seen much more Japanese speaking foreigners that could fool me for a while.

4. True this is useful. One of the best things about East Asian language :)

5. 하다 is a godsend.

6. In a basic sense this is mostly true. However there's much more to it than that and it can be hard to switch (especially mid-conversation ㅂ.ㅂ)

7. Cool points.

8. The resources available are the best thing about learning Korean!

9. Konglish is useful. Figuring out how they transform or spell it in Korean can be tricky though.

Guest000

Great comments, though I disagree with a little, e.g., that Korean is easy at first. My difficulties in word order aren't SOV, which is easy and helpful (since, if the speaker speaks so that I can hear when the sentence ends - not always that easy, but at least easy in reading), I know what the core of the predicate is, unlike in English, where the main verb could be any one of a number of words, some of which look like nouns. The problem is with adj. phrases coming before nouns but adj. coming after them etc. -- and all of this put together. In reading, I can sort it out, but in listening, it is over-load.

Ten years ago, I struggled to find decent resources in print or online. Either things have changed a lot or I can search better (but there are still some dreadful textbooks around).

ビットル

The grammars fits nicely with each other in a intuitive way all based on the principles that govern everything in the language.

Students and courses usually try to hurry up and build stuff upon English and explain the grammar in a way that makes sense in English. And to accomplish that incredible anachronic act they have to create hundreds of fake rules. Let me give a example with what I know well, if you are studying Japanese and want to understand why there's no such thing as a "is/are" verb in Japanese and look in regular grammar book you'll see several "meanings" the number depends on how much the author wants to connect Japanese with its English translations, the most he wants the bigger the usage list is. Since it's not a part of the language's logic but a artificial construction it gets confusing and even contradictory and there's exceptions for everything.

But if we forget English and just show the ideas that each grammar represent things become pretty simple, so let's forget that's there's a language on the other side of the world called English when there's something like "is/are" and learn the following things:

1- You can drop out of the phrase anything that you think it's clear from context, and when I say anything I mean anything really. Things that were said before also don't need to be said again because they become part of the context

紅葉。
Literal translation.: Momiji
Possible translation: My name is Momiji (the "my" and "name" part is clear from context so this imaginary person is probably presenting herself)

好き
Lt: Like
Pt: I like nuclear reactors (in this imaginary dialogue the "nuclear reactors" part was said before so it doesn't need to be said again nor it needs a dummy noun like "he" or "it" to represent it).

2- You relate something with something else (wherever it's state, action etc) by putting in front of it は (if you want it to become the topic/theme/subject of the entire conversation) or が(if you just want to relate it without turning it into the topic)

俺は太い
Lt: I (topic, relates to) fat
Pt: I am fat

犬が好き
Lt: Dog (relates to) like
Pt: Dogs like this food (again, the "food" is clear from context or was said before)

Those two guys just tell us that both things are related and nothing more, so 犬が好き can mean "I like dogs" with the "I" cut off due to obvious context or mean "the dogs like something"

Just conceptually understanding those two things already puts one way ahead of the translation machines around him, he will see those same principles over and over, unnecessary words trowed away, things being direct relating with each other without any "is, are" developing a more deeper feeling with those concepts and using them as a base for more specific principles and grammars instead of getting just confused.

A classic example of the damage of the opposite approach in the real world is the simple phrase I used above: "Momiji". Textbooks and courses will usually teach a much more rare and odd phrase "my name is Momiji" because that's what someone would say in English. If things end up here then this wouldn't be a big deal but then they try to convince people that there's a equivalent to "is" in Japanese (they usually say it's だ), starting give translations to the aforementioned は, が and all the other little dudes and things become a giant snowball of flaws and mistakes that only seems to get bigger.

Guest000

One of the problems for an American learning Korean is precisely this leaving out of "unnecessary" words. This is not just linguistic - it is also cultural. I have had conversations in Korean and English where this has caused problems in understanding. What's important in one culture and context is not necessarily so in another. K