It Really Is Easy: Learn the Korean Alphabet Through Resources and History
“Calculus is easy.”
“Computer programming is simple.”
“Starting a business is peanuts.”
We’ve all heard these claims, and you’re right to be skeptical. Once you try these things, you realize they’re really not easy at all, and you wonder if the person who said they’re “simple” was actually smoking something special that day.
But we’re here to tell you something that’s actually true:
Learning the Korean alphabet is easy.
Really, we mean it!
You can literally learn the Korean alphabet in an afternoon.
Still don’t believe us? Read on to find out why the Korean alphabet is so simple and five resources for perfecting it, once and for all!
Hangul: The Story of the Korean Alphabet
Every 9th of October, South Korea celebrates “Hangul Day.”
Hangul is the country’s unique writing system, and it wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for one man: King Sejong the Great. King Sejong was the fourth king of the 15th century Chosun Dynasty and his reign heralded the golden age of Korean culture. He was a beloved scholar-king who wrote songs and poetry and is said to have invented a type of sundial and water clock.
He also almost single-handedly pushed for the creation of Hangul.
The great king was empathetic to the plight of his people. At that time, Korean was written with Chinese characters (Hanja). The problem was, Chinese characters were not only unsuited to the Korean language, they required years of training that only a handful of Confucian-educated men were able to master. As a result, the common folks were unable to put their thoughts and grievances into a written form or keep any kind of records.
The king wanted a writing system that could benefit all his subjects. So he tasked members from the “Hall of Worthies,” a royal academy that housed some of the most brilliant minds of the time, to create a language so easy it could be learned by practically anyone.
Hangul was crafted from 1443-1444.
In 1446, King Sejong proclaimed Hangul as the first Korean alphabet. It had 28 simple letters, 24 of which are still used today. This alphabet democratized written communication and allowed the masses to participate in their nation’s growth.
Of course, it also encountered stiff opposition from the literary elites who preferred Hanja. Hangul was initially rejected by the aristocratic class and was relegated to women’s diaries and children’s books. There was even a time when another king banned its use. Yet another abolished the very institute that had performed Hangul research.
So it was really not smooth sailing for King Sejong’s brainchild. But, despite resistance over the centuries, Hangul repeatedly found itself being used by the people of Korea. The Japanese might have played a part in this in the early 1900s because when they occupied Korea, they pushed for the use of Hangul. It was used in newspapers, textbooks and government documents, and scores of Korean children were formally taught Hangul in schools.
(Why did the Japanese do this? Well, they were really not chummy with the Chinese. The two were military rivals who were in constant war with each other. The Japanese were only so happy to dilute Chinese influence and loosen Hanja’s grip on the Korean Peninsula, so they favored the ready alternative.)
Today, Korea boasts a literacy rate of 99%, one of the highest in the world, with Hangul as the dominant and official writing system. Although he didn’t live to see it, King Sejong has achieved his great dream.
Why Hangul Is Really an Easy Alphabet to Learn
Hangul is considered by many language experts as one of the simplest, most logical and most structured writing system in existence today. It’s said that the letters comprising the Korean alphabet are so easy that “a wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; even a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.”
Now that you know a bit about its history, you can see why the alphabet is easy to learn. Want to know more? Here are a couple more reasons:
The marching order was: make it easy-peasy!
Hangul is approachable because it was designed that way! The king, its most ardent patron, wanted a language so easy that is was practically foolproof. He wanted something that the masses could readily assimilate into daily communication—unlike the elitist writing system of the day, which required years of education and language training.
It was invented by only a few minds.
Lo and behold, Hangul is an invented system. The folks from the “Hall Of Worthies,” King Sejong’s handpicked geniuses, were responsible for it. Hangul was invented by a few chosen experts who rationalized the whole thing. You don’t have a case of “too many cooks spoiling the broth” on this one.
And unlike other writing systems that slowly evolved over hundreds even thousands of years, the enduring rules of Hangul were crafted over the course of a single year. It came out of the linguistic womb as a bearded, cussing, fully-grown adult. Little has changed over the centuries besides a minor tweak here and there.
Even powerful detractors weren’t able to push it into oblivion because Hangul is eminently practical and logical since it carries a very simple set of rules.
It’s made up of simple shapes.
Hangul is really just composed of three things: circles, vertical lines and horizontal lines. You combine these three to create the 14 consonants and 10 vowels that make up the syllables. With just 24 letters, it has fewer elements than the English alphabet.
It uses an intuitive system for each shape’s sound.
The written forms of consonants mimic the shape of the mouth and tongue when producing the sound. For example, the “g” is written as “ㄱ” which represents the back of the tongue blocking the back of the mouth. Adding a horizontal line to form, “ㅋ,” represents air, which signifies an aspirated “g” pronunciation. Doubling “ㄱ” to form “ㄲ” signifies a glottal stop.
So just by looking at the characters, you’ll know how to pronounce the syllables!
If that whets your appetite a bit, I’ll be giving you some resources that take you by the hand and get you reading Korean in no time!
5 Resources for Learning the Korean Alphabet in a Day or Less
1. 90 Day Korean
Learn the Korean language in 90 sunrises: That’s the whole idea behind this site. It cuts through all the unnecessary fluff and goes on to teach you the most relevant and useful parts of the language. It asserts that the language, as a whole, is really very easy to learn. When you have materials that are fun and hard to forget, you can significantly cut learning time because you won’t have to keep on relearning things that simply vanished from your memory.
To keep with the 90 theme, this resource aims to teach you the Korean alphabet in 90 minutes. And guess what, I’m telling you that this is not only entirely possible but that you can do it in even less time. With cleverly embedded mnemonic devices, you’ll indeed find the lessons hard to forget.
So go ahead, go through their email wall to get the learning materials. You won’t regret it!
2. How to Study Korean
I don’t know what it is about the number nine, but this resource asserts that by the time they’re done with you, you will have learned 9,000 of the most common Korean words and 99.9% of the grammar in Korean conversations.
There are seven units in this program, each with 25 lessons, three quizzes and a unit test. Of interest for us here is “Unit 0,” which is all about reading Korean.
The lessons on the site, which is entirely free, are written by an English speaker who was once a Korean learner himself. (The lessons are from the meticulous notes he’s kept over the years.) He understands the challenges faced by Korean newbies, so his approach reflects relatable insights that he’s picked up along the way.
In “How to Study Korean,” you’ll get everything you need to learn the Korean alphabet in easy to understand, no-nonsense explanations. And when you get Hangul down pat, you can then tackle the other elements of this wonderful language.
3. Learn Hangul
This resource specializes in learning Hangul—no more, no less.
The creator of this website, Haneul, who was born in Canada and used to speak very little Korean. When she was 22 years old, she visited relatives in South Korea and had an eye-opening experience. When she came back to Canda, she resolved to learn Korean. The site is her sharing the things she learned so others can benefit from her experiences.
On this website, you’ll get a history of Hangul as well as lessons on writing in Korean. She dishes out some essential tips for tackling consonants and vowels and how to put them together into meaningful blocks. And to tie it all up, there are ready-made flashcards that you can print and take with you wherever you go.
4. Key to Korean
This next one is a blog which covers a whole range of topics Korean, and you should be following it as a learner of the language. If you’re looking for motivation or resources for learning the language, you’ll definitely find it here.
I included “Key To Korean” on this list because of this particular blog post. If only to prove the Korean alphabet is as easy as ABC, all the essential information you need to learn about it fits in a single blog post. And what’s more, it’s written by a guy named “Aaron” who is a self-confessed “intermediate” level in Korean.
Let this blog post be your first stop in Hangul. You’ll be learning so much, you’ll be able to teach others in no time, too.
5. Hangul Generator
To wrap things up, we end with this “genie.” I call it a “genie” because it gives you exactly what you ask for. And it grants you more than three wishes!
It’s a Hangul generator. Meaning, it gives you the equivalent squishy Korean characters for your romanized Korean.
Let’s say you have the Korean word “Hangul.” Simply type it into the box provided and in an instant, the program will convert it into the Korean script “항울.”
Like magic, right?
Hangul is so easy, they were even able to develop it into computer code. How about that?
Of course, it’s not always so perfect, but it’s more than a good start.
Hopefully, this post has thoroughly convinced you that, indeed, it literally takes just an afternoon for you to learn the Korean alphabet. For all intents and purposes, this language skill is within reach. Don’t be discouraged by the strange symbols that you initially encounter. Embrace them, and soon enough, they’ll be your friends for keeps.