Imagine messing up a question in a new language.
You try to ask, “Is that your mother’s car?”
Instead, you end up saying, “Your mother is a car.”
It happens to every traveler, expat and language student out there. But one major aspect of learning a new language is understanding how questions are built.
You need to figure out how to form questions in Korean to achieve fluency and avoid faux pas like insulting someone’s mother. (Who is, in fact, not a car.)
This process can vary significantly between languages. East Asian languages tend to have different ways of turning statements into questions than Romance languages. Korean is particularly unique in that there are many ways to use question words and utilize grammar to create questions.
But don’t feel overwhelmed!
Our guide breaks down the numerous ways you can use question words and build questions in Korean, even if you’re an absolute Korean language-learning beginner.
First, let’s look at how Korean questions differ from English questions.
Are Korean Questions All That Different from English Questions?
Short answer: Yes and no.
In many situations, you can simply raise the intonation at the end of a question, much like in the English language. But there are many linguistic situations in which this doesn’t really work in Korean.
As with many Southeast Asian languages, questions words must be added to sentences to formally make them into comprehensible sentences. Along with these question words, you’ll also need to modify different parts of a sentence in some situations to make it flow better or become easier to understand.
It takes a while to master when to use which method of asking questions. FluentU is a great resource for conquering asking questions in Korean!
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Let’s jump in!
Aspire to Inquire: How to Ask Questions in Korean
1. Raise the intonation at the end of a statement
This is by far the simplest way to turn a Korean statement into a question. Some sentences grammatically allow for this method. The types of questions that do not allow for this method are as follows:
- How (how much, how many, etc.)
When we ask a “did” question, we can use the intonation technique. It’s exactly like English in that you just have to raise the intonation at the end of the sentence to make it an understandable question.
밥 먹었어요. (bab meog-eoss-eoyo) — I ate.
밥 먹었어요? (bab meog-eoss-eoyo?) — Did you eat?
2. Use 왜 (wae) — why to create a “why” question
Asking “why” questions is a fairly easy process in Korean. The adverb 왜 is used to turn statements into “why” or “why did” questions by simply inserting it into the statement.
Depending on a variety of factors, 왜 can be placed in different areas of the sentence. Most of the time, it sits between the subject and object.
고양이 좋아해? (goyang-i joh-ahae) — Do you like cats?
고양이를 왜 좋아하세요? (goyang-ileul wae joh-ahaseyo?) — Why do you like cats?
3. Use 언제 (eonje) — when to create a “when” question
언제 and 왜 operate in the same manner adverb-wise. 언제 is typically found in the middle of a sentence.
학교 갔어? (haggyo gass-eo?) — Did you go to school?
학교 언제 갔어? (haggyo eonje gass-eo?) — When did you go to school?
4. Use 어디 (eodi) — where to create a “where” question
You guessed it. The adverb 어디 works in the same manner as 언제 and 왜. However, you tend to find 어디 at the beginning of sentences.
미국에 살아요 (migug-e sal-ayo) — I live in America.
어디 살아요? (eodi sal-ayo?) — Where do you live?
5. Use 누구 (nugu) — who to create a “who” question
누구 is a bit different than the other adverbs we’ve covered thus far. It essentially operates as both a pronoun and adverb in one word, though pronouns in Korean are very different from pronouns in English.
누구 can replace a noun in a sentence. It can also be used in place of the subject or object in a sentence.
This might seem a little confusing, but it’s actually used the same way in English. It’s also worth noting that when 누구 is used as the subject of a sentence, it changes into 누가 (nuga) — who.
Examples in English:
Who will study math tomorrow? — “Who” becomes the subject of the sentence in English.
Whom will they meet up with tonight? — “Whom” becomes the object of the sentence in English.
Examples in Korean:
누가 내일 수학 공부할 거야? (nuga naeil suhag gongbuhal geoya?) — Who will study math tomorrow?
그들은 누구를 초대했나요? (geudeul-eun nuguleul chodaehaessnayo?) — Whom did they invite?
6. Omit the use of “you” in a question when directly speaking to the subject
You may have noticed that some of the questions we’ve listed omit the use of “you.” This is because “you” is very rarely used in the Korean languages, as it’s often implied whom the speaker is talking to or about with the use of context.
If you’re asking someone a question and they’re the subject of the question, you can omit the subject entirely.
One of our earlier sentences included 고양이 좋아해? (goyang-i joh-ahae) — Do you like cats?
In this sentence, 당신 (dangsin) — “you” is omitted, but it’s implied that the question is directed to the person who’s also the subject of the question.
7. Use 니 (ni) at the end of informal questions
You can end many sentences by adding 니 to the end of it. This is a very informal way to ask a question, so be mindful of whom you’re speaking to and what situation you’re in before using 니.
For example, if you’re chatting with a friend or family member, 니 would be appropriate to use as a question word. If you’re speaking to your boss or a similar authority figure, 니 wouldn’t be appropriate.
부산에 갈 거니? (busan-e gal geoni?) — Are you going to Busan?
몇 반이니? (myeoch ban-ini?) — What is your class called?
8. 요 (yo) can be added to formalize and soften certain questions
You can use 요 make questions stand out as more formal or polite. You typically only add 요 to the stem of a sentence’s adjective. This creates a soft effect that’s kind and formal.
This might be a bit difficult to figure out, especially if you’re a beginner still struggling with adjectives. Think of it this way, though: Adding 요 to a sentence is essentially the same as saying, “Would it be alright if I went to her house?” as a softer, more polite way of saying “Can I go to her house?”
큰가? (keunga?) – Is it too big?
큰가요? (keunga yo?) — Do you think it’s too big?
9. Use ㅂ니까 (bnikka) or 습니까 (seubnikka) for highly formal questions
ㅂ니까 and 습니까 are used as formal, highly respectful question words. This is an easier aspect of asking Korean questions to remember, as the rules are fairly cut and dry:ㅂ니까 is added to the stems that end in vowels. 습니까 is added after stems that end in consonants. It’s as simple as that!
의식에 참석하실 겁니까? (uisig-e chamseoghasil geobnikka?) — Are you going to the ceremony?
많이 드셨습니까? (manh-i deusyeossseubnikka?) — Did you get enough to eat?
Were you a little surprised by how easy it can be to ask questions in Korean?
Good luck with your studies!
Em Casalena is a published author, freelance writer and music columnist. They write about a lot of stuff, from music to films to language.
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