Understanding the Korean Language

By Kevin Kelsey, ISA Student Services Advisor

It is a common perception in the Western world that attempting to learn an Asian language is a daunting and intimidating task. In many cases, this perception holds true. However, Sejong the Great, a Korean king from the Joseon Dynasty would beg to differ. Sejong, trying to differentiate the Korean language from Chinese, as well as simplifying the language to spread literacy (at the time, only rich males could read or write), oversaw the creation of what some consider the most perfect phonetic system in the world.

Finished in 1444, the creation of Hangul, as the language is called, strengthened Korean nationalism and helped create a more unique Korean identity. Being able to read signs while in Korea can go a long way in making daily life easier, and definitely helps to impress the locals! Feeling overwhelmed? No need! The Korean alphabet is incredibly efficient and simple. In fact, it has been said of the letters in Hangul that, “A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; A stupid man can learn them in the space of 10 days.” Although most people would say this is an exaggeration, the simplicity of the Hangul alphabet should be encouraging, even to those who have never seen it before. If that isn’t reason enough to start learning, English speakers who can read Hangul will quickly find many things written in Korean often spell out English words. For example, the English word ‘banana’ in Korean is written as 바나나, yet the pronunciation “ ba-na-na,” stays the same.

What is Hangul?

Hangul’s writing system is formed of only 14 consonant and 10 vowel letters (as well as some other common sounds, which we’ll review later). These letters are then grouped into blocks, which when put together, form a syllable. The syllable blocks are sorted horizontally from left to right, as well as vertically from top to bottom. Therefore, at least one syllable or block is needed to create a word. This may sound confusing, but when put into use, most Korean learners will find it extraordinarily straight forward. The letters and their pronunciations are shown below.

Vowels

Vowels can be slightly tricky in Hangul. This is because when written, they must be combined with the Korean letter ㅇ, which is silent in this case, but always accompanies a lone vowel. For example, when trying to create solely a hard ‘U’ sound while writing, it is necessary to add ㅇ to ㅜ, creating the block 우.

a:ㅏ

eo:ㅓ

o: ㅗ

u: ㅜ

eu: ㅡ

i:ㅣ

ya:ㅑ

yeo: ㅕ

yo: ㅛ

yu: ㅠ

Consonants

Consonant letters are actually written to represent the shape the mouth forms while pronouncing a particular sound. It is also important to remember that in Korean, the ‘L’ and ‘R’ sound are essentially the same. The 14 consonant letters below are all written with the ㅏ(a) sound following the consonant letter. Try sounding them out!

ga: 가

na: 나

da: 다

r(l)a: 라

ma: 마

ba: 바

sa: 사

a: 아

ja: 자

cha: 차

ka: 카

ta: 타

pa: 파

ha: 하

Double Consonants

Double consonants are essentially a stronger pronunciation of their respective consonant sound. A good example of this in English would be when saying the word “compass,” which has a double S sound.

kk: ㄲ

tt: ㄸ

bb: ㅃ

ss: ㅆ

jj: ㅉ

Iodized Diphthongs and Other Vowel Sounds

Ok, I know what you’re thinking. What is a diphthong?! This is when two vowel sounds are found in the same syllable (as in the English word, Out). Feeling like a language pro yet?

Iodized Diphthongs

ae: ㅐ

yae:ㅒ

e: ㅔ

ye: ㅖ

ui:

Vowels and Diphthongs with a ‘W’ Sound

wa: ㅘ

wae: ㅙ

oe: ㅚ

wo: ㅝ

we: ㅞ

wi: ㅟ

Now that you are familiar with most of the letters and sounds used in Hangul, it’s time to put that knowledge to the test. Here are some simple English phrases, with their Hangul counterparts written below. Try sounding out the letter blocks, using the letters that we covered earlier.

– My name is _________.      이름은______ 입니다.

– What are you doing?         하세요?

– What’s your name?  이름이 뭐야?

– Is this dish spicy?    음식 맵나요?

– I need a doctor.   의사가 필요해요.

– I love you.   사랑해요.

It is well known that language opens the doors to the different places, peoples, and cultures of the world. Therefore, understanding the basics of Hangul will go a long way in immersing oneself in this amazing country. Being able to read, write and speak (even if only a little!), will give you the opportunity to live like a local. If your curiosity for Korean has officially been sparked, check out these mobile apps that have fun, interactive ways to improve your language skills so you can hit the ground running in Seoul!

  • PopPopping Korean (Apple & Android) – If you’re a visual learner, this is for you!
  • TenguGo Hangul (Apple & Android) – Great for practicing the alphabet.
  • KDrama Talk (Apple) – Want to learn the language of Korean stars? Look no further!
  • Korlink (Apple & Android) – Accompanied with examples and explanations in English.
  • Korean Flashcards (Apple & Android) – Memorization, memorization, memorization.
  • Dongsa (Apple & Android) – All about verbs and conjugation.

Check out ISA programs in Seoul, South Korea by visiting the ISA Korea webpage or by contacting the ISA Site Specialist.

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