Is Korean hard to learn? Well, learning Korean or any new language can be daunting, especially one with an alphabet so far removed from English.
Korean in particular can be intimidating for English speakers. The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) rates Korean as one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn, describing it as exceptionally difficult.
But is this really the case? The FSI rating is something you will see often while researching Korean. In truth, it’s a little misleading.
If you’re just looking to dip your toes into a new language as a hobby, or before a trip, it really has no bearing on the difficulty you’ll experience.
Today, we’ll talk about some of the ways that Korean is surprisingly easy to learn, as well as some of the things that a new learner might find difficult.
After we’re done, you can decide for yourself if you think learning Korean will be easy or challenging!
Let’s start with some of the easier features.
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Really Easy: King Sejong And Hangul
Once upon a time, Korean used Chinese characters, also known as Hanja. There were thousands of these symbols, and as a result, only a very privileged few were able to read.
In 1446, King Sejong published Hangul, the alphabet now used in Korea. One of his goals was to enable anyone, rich or poor, to read.
He succeeded, and Hangul is remarkably easy to learn. In as little as 3-6 hours – and presumably several cups of coffee – anyone can learn to read the Korean alphabet.
Let’s take a look at why that is.
Unlike English, in which the same letter can make many different sounds – compare the c in cat and the c in ace – the symbols in Hangul follow a series of easily learned rules.
Korean does not have the “tricky words” that English learners are forced to memorize, in which common pronunciation rules don’t apply.
Additionally, the symbols themselves are also easy to learn. Let’s take a look at some of the vowels.
Do you notice anything about those vowels? It’s the same symbol, rotated! By learning only one symbol, you can easily read four different vowel sounds.
Easy: Word Formation
Forming words in Korean is actually really simple. Let’s look at three words in English and Korean.
student – school – term
학생 – 학교 – 학기
Notice how in English, you need to learn three completely different words.
But in Korean, the words all share the common root 학, which means “study” or “learning”.
The more you study Korean, the more you’ll notice patterns like this. Often complicated words are formed from a group of other words or roots that you’ll already know really well.
Let’s look in a little more detail at just how much we can say with that one root, 학.
|학부모||Parents (of students)|
To finish, let’s look in more detail at one of the words above, 입학(matriculate).
This is a fairly advanced word in English. In Korean, we simply take the words
입 (the first part of 입구, which means “entrance”)
학 (as we already established, this means “study” or “learning”)
We’re really just saying “enter-study”.
You’ll find this all the time when learning Korean. You’ll see words you’re unfamiliar with while having an instinctive idea of what they mean.
Easy: Korean Is Predictable
As a native speaker of English, you probably never even think about how strange English can be. Why is it “stink”, “stank”, “stunk” or “swell”, “swelled”, and “swollen?”
English is chock full of irregularities that we’ve all long since learned by rote, and we don’t really think about them anymore.
Korean, on the other hand, acts the way it should 99% of the time.
Think about how in English, the past tense of eat is ate, while the past tense of go is went, and the past tense of read is read -let’s not even start on how the latter is spelled the same but pronounced differently!
That’s three different words, and three different ways of showing the past tense.
In Korean, you do the same thing to all three.
Here’s the best part. You can apply this rule to basically every Korean verb. Once you know one, you know them all! If only English were that easy!
Easy: Korean Doesn’t Have Tones
If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard about tones in various languages, and have no real idea what they are.
To most people, tones present somewhat of an “I have no idea, and at this point, I’m afraid to ask” situation.
Well, good news. You don’t need to ask. Korean doesn’t have tones.
In languages such as Chinese or Thai, the way you pronounce a word can alter its meaning.
In Korean, the meaning of the word stays the same however you pronounce it. A funny pronunciation might lead to some equally funny looks, but you’ll still be understood.
Super Easy: Konglish
You may have already heard about this. Korean is absolutely chock-a-block with English words.
Upon learning to read Korean for the first time, new learners are often blown away by how many English words they see on signs, on TV, and on menus.
While some languages create a fresh word for new inventions or concepts, Korean hs never done this. They simply add the English word into the language.
Hangul is amazing, but it doesn’t have every single English sound available to use. This means that some of the words wind up sounding quite amusing.
The result: Konglish! Many of these are simply English words written in Korean. Here are a few:
Occasionally, Korean ends up with a new word, made up of English words, used in a way that’s a little unnatural in English. Like in this example:
- 개그 (gaegeu) 맨 (maen)
Sometimes you’ll catch yourself reading a word in Korean over and over, wondering why it sounds so familiar. Only to kick yourself when you realize it’s actually just an English word!
Easy (In Most Situations): Being Polite
Politeness while speaking is important in Korea. There are several different formal verb endings that allow you to choose exactly how polite you want to be. There’s even a special form for speaking with royalty!
The truth is that there’s actually no need to learn the super formal versions of Korean. Even to speak to your teachers, friends, or people on the street.
You can even skip the sumnida (습니다 ) or hamnida (합니다) level you'll have seen in many textbooks for the time being.
Although you'll eventually want to learn these things, you can make do with the typical ayo/eoyo (요/어요) verb endings most of the time. End all your sentences this way to make sure you’re not offending anyone and you’re good to go!
- 빵을 먹어요 (Bbangeul meogeo): (I) eat bread.
The great thing is that if you’re chatting with friends you can just drop the 요 (ayo/eyo) to keep things more casual and friendly.
The only time this might trip you up is if you’re working in a very formal work environment.
Hard: Different Word Order
This can really catch out some new learners of Korean.
English is an SVO language. That means that sentences will generally follow the order subject – verb – object.
Korean is an SOV language, which means subject – object – verb. While it also begins with a subject like English, the verb comes at the end of the sentence which often confuses people.
So while English looks like this:
- I drive the car.
Korean looks like this:
- 나는 (I) 자동차 (car) 운전해 (drive-do)
- I – the car – drive.
This isn’t the most natural-sounding sentence – often the subject is ignored in Korean, and we’ll look at this in the next section – but it’s important to see it this way.
It will help you to get a good understanding of how Korean is structured as it gets more complicated.
Let’s look at a couple more examples of simple Korean sentences:
- I eat bread.
- 나는 (I) 빵을 (bread) 먹어 (eat)
- (I – bread – eat)
- I’m going home.
- 나는 (I) 집에 (home) 가요 (go)
- (I – home – go)
It can be a little confusing at first, but once you wrap your head around it, it shouldn’t cause you too many problems.
Hard (Or At Least Confusing At First): Implied Or Absent Subject
This is something that could be seen as harder or easier depending on who you talk to, or how you look at it.
I mentioned in the previous section that the example sentence was a little unnatural. That’s because often, especially during informal speech, Korean omits the subject.
In winter, you will often hear people saying 추워! as they leave a building. The literal translation of this is just, “Cold!”. The meaning of the sentence is, however, “I’m cold”, or “It’s cold”.
Another common example of this would be when on a busy subway. It’s very common to hear people saying 네릴게요!
Translated word for word, this simply means, “Getting off!” The implied meaning is “I’m getting off.”
It’s not just self-reflective subjects that are implied. Context is really important when speaking Korean. Let’s look at the same sentence used in different contexts.
- 피곤해 ( to be tired) 나봐 (seems like/looks like)
- tired seems like
While looking at you.
- 피곤해나봐 (It seems like you’re tired.)
While looking at a third person.
- 피곤해나봐 (It seems like they’re tired.)
This can take a bit of getting used to, and some might find it confusing.
Truthfully though, it just means that in the early stages of learning Korean, there’s less for you to think about.
Different: Koreans Rarely Use Their Names
One thing you’ll notice after a time is that Koreans rarely use their names. People refer to their sister as “sister”, their brother as “brother”, their uncle as “uncle” etc, even when addressing them.
It can be a little complicated for a non-native speaker because Korean has different words depending on if it’s an older or younger sister; if the speaker is male or female; or whether the aunt is related to the father or the mother etc.
This really isn’t too much of a problem for non-native speakers, though. You’ll basically get a bit of a pass here. Koreans are well aware that western cultures use names more frequently, so they’ll just expect you to use their name anyway.
However, there are a couple of situations in which you might want to brush up on your titles. One is when meeting in-laws – although this is hardly the most relaxing situation even in your native tongue!
The other is in a very formal work environment, in which superiors might expect to be called by their job title.
The Big Question: Is Korean Hard To Learn?
You've seen quite a few different aspects of Korean in this post, and quite a few have shown that Korean can be easy to learn, at least at first.
That said, you’ll certainly have to invest a little more time than you would while learning a European language such as French or German, for example.
And fully mastering the language is a challenge, there’s no doubt about that.
Certain situations in Korean are probably a little harder than in other languages too. The biggest one we’ve already mentioned a couple of times: a formal work environment.
Truthfully though, even in such an environment, just try to get a read on the people you’re working with. People will basically always forgive what would be a faux pax from a native if the learner is clearly making an effort.
What it really comes down to is this: Korean is easy to pick up but hard to master.
But everyone – from a translator beginning their fourth language, to a hobbyist beginning their second – starts a new language with the fundamentals. And the fundamentals of Korean are fun and easy to sink your teeth into.
So get started!