Don’t know how to read Korean?
Want to learn?
If you have a free afternoon and a place where you can sit quietly with a cup of coffee, you can do it today.
The thing about Hangul, the Korean alphabet, is that it’s really pretty easy to pick up.
You can learn all the letters quickly.
And then it’s just a matter of knowing how to form them into syllables, which is also pretty easy.
At that point, even if you don’t know all the nuances of pronunciation and don’t always remember all the letter sounds, you can start interacting with the language and strengthen your understanding of written Korean as you go along.
Right now, we’re going to go right up to the point where you should start being able to translate Korean letters into sounds with a reasonable rate of success.
So, bookmark this post (or download it), head to your favorite coffee shop, order a latte (or cappuccino, or coconut milk cold brew or whatever) and prepare to Hangul!
How to Read Korean: Everything You Need to Know About Hangul
One thing that can be a little confusing is that not everyone seems to agree on how many letters there are in the Korean alphabet.
Some sources say 24, others say 40. It really just depends on what you consider a letter. Some “letters” in Hangul are made up of combinations of other letters. So, the 24 are sort of like the “original” letters, while the others are like compound letters.
Regardless of how you think of it, you have to learn all 40, but also regardless of how you think of it, there aren’t that many to learn. And, the logical relationships that exist between letters make Hangul simple and straightforward.
In this guide, I’m not going to fuss over details too much. There are some finer points to learning the alphabet, like stroke order and all of the rules that go along with spelling and syllable construction, that you may want to brush up on at some point. This is meant to be a practical guide though and, above all, to get you up and running.
Basic Korean Sounds and Syllables
We’re going to take this one step at a time. First up, a few basic consonants.
Some Basic Korean Consonants (ㄱ, ㄴ, ㄷ, ㄹ, ㅁ, ㅂ, ㅅ, ㅈ, ㅎ)
In Korean, consonants have names that don’t correspond exactly to how they sound, just like we do in English. (W is pronounced “double-u,” for example, even though that’s not the sound the letter actually makes in words.) It’s probably most important at this stage for you to focus on the actual sounds, but I’ve included the letter names below too.
ㄱ (giyeok) sounds like “g” (hard “g” sound)
ㄴ (nieun) sounds like “n”
ㄷ (digeut) sounds like “d”
ㄹ (rieul) sounds like “l” or “r”
ㅁ (mieum) sounds like “m”
ㅂ (bieup) sounds like “b” or “p”
ㅅ (shiot) sounds like “s” or “sh”
ㅈ (jieut) sounds like “j”
ㅎ (hieut) sounds like “h”
Note: Any of the above sound explanations are only approximations, and that remains the case throughout this post. Also, letters can produce different sounds depending on their place in a word (which we’ll touch on a bit later).
There are a few mnemonic devices commonly used to teach some of the above:
ㄱ is shaped like a gun.
ㅁ looks like a mouth, if you have a good imagination.
ㅂ looks like a bucket.
ㅎ could be a child’s drawing of someone wearing a hat.
Here are some ways to remember the other letters:
ㄴ is not a bookend but rather a book-n. (I’m sorry, I know that’s terrible.)
ㄷ looks like a divining rod. I mean, sort of.
ㄹ is a winding road, though maybe not as long as the one in the Beatles song.
ㅅ looks like a wave in the sea about to crash on the shore.
ㅈ sort of looks like two car bumpers right up against each other, which might happen in a traffic jam.
Some Basic Korean Vowels (ㅏ, ㅓ, ㅗ, ㅜ, ㅡ, ㅣ)
Vowels don’t have names that are distinct from their sounds. They’re just called what they sound like.
ㅏ (a) sounds like “ah”
ㅓ (eo) sounds like something between “oh” and “uh”
ㅗ (o) sounds like “oh,” but more rounded
ㅜ (u) sounds like “oo”
ㅡ (eu) sounds like “euh”
ㅣ (i) sounds like “ee”
Since these are all based around a horizontal or vertical line, they might be a bit easier than the consonants to remember right off the bat.
Korean Reading Practice with Basic Consonants and Vowels
Now, using your understanding of the sounds above, see if you can guess what the following word sounds like:
When you think you have it figured out, click on the video below to hear it.
하나 means “one,” and, as you can hear, is pronounced hana.
Letters are read left to right, as in English, and there are two groupings of letters in the word above, each of which makes up one syllable. In Korean, syllables are divided into blocks.
Here’s another example where you can see this format at work.
When you think you have the sounds for the above word worked out, click on the clip from the Pinkfong video below to hear if you’re reading it correctly.
By the way, this fun kids’ video is available on FluentU with interactive captions (as you can see at the link above the video).
After reading through the rest of this guide, FluentU is a great resource for putting your Hangul knowledge into practice and jumping right into learning full Korean sentences.
You can use the platform to look up words, create vocabulary sets, study with flashcards or test your knowledge with fun quizzes.
We’ll continue to link to FluentU videos throughout this post so you can get an idea of what type of content it has to offer. If you like what you see, check out FluentU with a free trial, and you’ll soon know many more words than just 머리 (meori).
Now, let’s try another word, this time just a single syllable block.
밥 (rice, meal)
Here we have three letters squeezed into one syllable.
Korean syllable blocks can contain anywhere between two and four letters. They’re read left to right and top to bottom.
So, in the case of 밥 (bap), the letters are read in this order: ㅂㅏㅂ.
First, you read the 바 on the top line of the block, then the ㅂ on the bottom.
Staring into the Void: The Silent Vowel Companion
In this next section, we’re only going to learn one letter. This letter is technically a consonant, but you might have trouble thinking of it that way because it doesn’t make a sound that we would normally associate with a consonant.
In fact, much of the time, it doesn’t make any sound at all.
One Weird Korean “Consonant” You’ll Run into All the Time (ㅇ)
The letter ㅇ (ieung) in Korean looks like “o” in English, and it plays a unique role in Korean syllables.
Remember how I said that syllable blocks in Korean can contain anywhere between two and four letters? Sometimes, as we’ve seen, one of those syllable blocks can consist of a consonant followed by a vowel. Other times, it can consist of a consonant followed by a vowel that’s followed by another consonant.
But what if there’s a syllable that consists of just one vowel alone? Or, what if the syllable starts with a vowel?
Well, that can’t happen, and that’s where ㅇ comes in. When ㅇ precedes a vowel at the beginning of a syllable block, you can think of it as a placeholder of sorts. It accompanies the vowel in silence.
However, sometimes you’ll also see ㅇ after a vowel, at the end of a syllable. In this case, it’s pronounced like the “ng” sound in words that end in “ing” in English.
Korean Reading Practice with ㅇ
See if you can guess what the words below sound like before using the accompanying video clips to check yourself.
Here, we’re going to pick up a couple of family-related words from a Kebikids video.
How did you do?
YOLO: Ya’s, Yo’s and Hard Consonants
Now, we’re going to look at some more letters. But if you’ve learned the letters above, these probably won’t be as hard to remember.
Some More Korean Consonants That Might Look Familiar Now (ㅊ, ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ)
ㅊ (chieut) — sounds like the English “ch”
ㅋ (kieuk) — sounds like the English “k”
ㅌ (tieut) — sounds like the English “t”
ㅍ (pieup) — sounds like the English “p”
As you can see, these consonants resemble some of the ones we learned above. You may notice that their sounds also correspond somewhat. For example, if ㄱ is approximately like an English “g” sound, ㅋ, which looks like the same letter with an added line, can be thought of as a harder “k” sound.
Again, note that these sounds are only approximations and that ㄱ can also produce a “k” sound.
Some More Korean Vowels That Might Look Familiar Now (ㅑ, ㅕ, ㅛ, ㅠ)
When you see two short parallel lines on a Korean vowel, the vowel is going to include a sound like the English “y.”
ㅑ (ya) — sounds like “yah”
ㅕ (yeo) — something between “yuh” and “yo”
ㅛ (yo) — sounds like “yo,” but more rounded
ㅠ (yu) — sounds like “yew”
Korean Reading Practice with Added Consonants and Vowels
Now, we’re going to try something different. We’re going to practice reading with some words you already know in this humorous video where a couple tries to decide what to eat.
Try this one:
Click the clip below to hear it in Korean.
Now let’s try a longer one:
In the case of the word for “pasta,” you can see that in the middle syllable, 스, the ㅅ is stacked on top of the vowel ㅡ. This is due to the nature of the vowel. ㅡ is a horizontal vowel, so it goes under the ㅅ rather than to the right of it.
And now, a word that incorporates one of those “y” vowels (hint: this one is also food):
You got it, right?
In the Maangchi video below, you can hear the pronunciation confirmed.
And, you can also learn how to make some delicious Korean 라면.
Doubling Up: The Final Letters
Here are some more letters that build on the ones above. This is the last batch. You’re almost there!
Korean Double Consonants (ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ, ㅉ)
You can probably sort of guess where this is going. These consonants are written as doubles of some of the basic consonants above and are pronounced with more emphasis than their single counterparts.
ㄲ (ssanggiyeok) — Romanized as “kk”
ㄸ (ssangdigeut) — Romanized as “tt”
ㅃ (ssangbieup) — Romanized as “pp”
ㅆ (ssangshiot) — Romanized as “ss”
ㅉ (ssangjieut) — Romanized as “jj”
Some Fine, Upstanding Korean Vowels (ㅐ, ㅔ, ㅒ, ㅖ)
Here, we have some vowels that are made from previous ones put together:
More Korean Vowel Clusters (ㅘ, ㅙ, ㅚ, ㅝ, ㅞ, ㅟ, ㅢ)
Okay, we’re on the home stretch! Here are some more vowel clusters that you’ll see in Korean words that you need to know how to pronounce.
ㅘ (wa) — like “wah”
ㅙ (wae) — like “weh”
ㅚ (oe) — like “weh”
ㅝ (wo) — like “wuh” or “whoa” cut short
ㅞ (we) — like “weh”
ㅟ (wi) — a bit like the French “oui,” with your lips rounded
ㅢ (ui) — a flatter “we” sound, with your lips spread out
As you can see, we once again have some vowel combinations here that sound the same, specifically three “weh’s,” but it’s important to know all of them for spelling purposes.
For a thorough rehashing of all of the combined vowel sounds above, check out this brilliant and entertaining video from Mina Oh of sweetandtastyTV that covers all the complex and compound vowels and throws in a mini Korean drama at the end.
In the video, you’ll notice that “Professor Oh” combines all the vowels with the consonant ㅇ, as this is how they would normally be written as syllables. With ㅇ, some of the vowels become complete words, such as 왜 (wae), which means “why.” You’ll also notice that in each case, the ㅇ takes the uppermost or leftmost position in the syllable, as it must precede the vowel.
Korean Reading Practice with All the Letters and Sounds
Now, let’s round up everything you know and see how well you can read the words below. Here are a couple more words from our family video.
Now, here we have an example of what happens when you have a consonant-vowel-consonant syllable where the vowel in the middle is horizontal. Instead of having a consonant and a vowel on top followed by a consonant on the bottom, as with 밥, we have a complete horizontal stacking of the letters in the second syllable of this word.
But can you pronounce it?
In the clip above, what’s actually said is “우리 가족 이야” (uri gajok iya), or “This is my family.” 우리 can mean “our” or “my” depending on the context, but don’t mistype it as 오리 (ori), like I just did, because that means “duck.”
Speaking of typing, you may have wondered if there was any particular pattern to how the letters in this post were arranged. I did try to teach the simpler letters first in order to make the complex ones that came later easier, but I also tried to lay them out in a way that would be logical for learning how to type.
For example, the first set of consonants in this post cover the left uppermost part of the keyboard in order and then jump down to the next row, also moving left to right. In other words, ㅂㅈㄷㄱㅅ is basically your Korean QWERTY (or QWERT, if you want to be picky about it), and I’ve introduced the letters in that order.
So, if you happen to pay attention to the order of the letters in this post or write them down in your own notes that way, hopefully this will make things easier once you start learning how to type.
Honestly, Korean typing is pretty logical and easy to begin with, so don’t hesitate to start typing Hangul now.
But on with our reading practice!
I’ll bet you can get this next one.
Okay, so there are a few 치킨s in the 치킨버거 from this Burger King commercial. But, that’s okay because now you know the words for 치킨 (chicken) and 버거 (burger). 치킨 is a useful word to know because fried chicken has quite the history in South Korea.
Let’s round things out now with one last phrase that will test much of what you’ve learned above and introduce a new concept:
This phrase, a useful one to know, is the polite version of “I’m okay” or “It’s okay.”
Let’s break this down:
With 괜, we have the ㅙ between two consonants. That’s g, wae and n, which forms the sound gwaen.
With 찮, we have a consonant cluster, or a series of two consonants, at the end. The rules for how to pronounce consonant clusters at the end of syllables get a bit complex, and we actually haven’t even really gotten into how consonants can change depending on their place in a word in general.
This video on 받침 (batchim, the final consonant in a Korean syllable), which is one of two from KoreanClass101, begins to go over some of these points.
For this particular word, though, all you need to know is that the ㅎ at the end is silent. So, 찮 is pronounced chan (like “chahn”).
The other two syllables should be easy for you to figure out at this point. In this scene from a Korean comedy movie, the phrase is used as a question to ask, “괜찮아요?” (Are you okay?).
And that’s pretty much it!
As we’ve already discussed, there are some instances in which Korean sounds change or aren’t completely consistent. One of the most common irregularities is that the consonants ㅅ, ㅈ and ㅊ, when used at the ends of syllables and followed by another consonant or when used at the end of a word, take on a “t” sound rather than the sounds they usually make. This can be seen in the spelled-out versions of their names:
This page from Learn Korean Language goes over some other irregularities. But, as a whole, Hangul is a fairly consistent alphabet.
The knowledge you’ve picked up from this post should be enough for you to start learning Korean words and sentences.
You’re all set to start typing, speaking and learning Korean.
Elisabeth Cook is a freelance writer who blogs at Lit All Over.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Korean with real-world videos.