Imagine walking around Seoul.
Hopping on the metro without a moment’s hesitation.
Glancing at the signs on your way to your destination.
Passing a restaurant and thinking, “ooh yes, that’s exactly what I’d like to eat for lunch…”
Imagine scrolling social media and checking out blogs for all the coolest upcoming events and updates on your favourite idols… without having to wait for the English bloggers to translate everything for you.
There’s just one thing standing in your way…
You need to learn how to read Korean!
You may be tempted to skip learning Hangul at the beginning of your Korean learning journey—and sure, it’s possible to learn to speak Korean without learning how to read. I once met the director of studies at an English college in Korea who’d lived in Seoul for ten years and spoke Korean fluently, but who never learned to read!
But being able to read Hangul will make it much easier in the long run to learn the Korean language. It opens up a whole world of fascinating ways to practice the language and will make traveling in Korea much, much easier.
And while Hangul may look completely foreign right now, I promise it isn’t nearly as hard to learn as you may think!
How Hangul Works (It’s Easier Than You Might Think!)
Before we get into the how-tos, it may help a little bit if I explain briefly to you just how Korean writing is structured. It’s very different from English, to be sure, but it’s actually super simple! There’s something reassuring in the mathematical way it’s set out, and once you understand the pattern you’ll be speed-reading in no time!
Hangul is a very simple alphabet of 40 letters (19 consonants and 21 vowels) that are stacked into squares to form syllables. Each syllable must contain at least one vowel and one consonant, and must always begin with a consonant. The syllables are then joined together to form a word, just like in English.
Let’s use the word “hangul” as an example. In Korean, it’s written as 한글. The first syllable 한 is spelled using the consonant ㅎ + the vowel ㅏ + the consonant ㄴ. The second syllable is spelled: consonant ㄱ + vowel ㅡ + consonant ㄹ.
One more thing to remember: In writing, every syllable stack must begin with a consonant, but some words and syllables are pronounced as beginning with a vowel—for example, 안녕하세요 (annyeong haseyo — hello). When this happens, the consonant ㅇ is silent.
Here’s a convenient chart of all 40 letters.
Learn Korean Reading and Don’t Look Back! The 3 Simple Steps You Need
1. Memorize the Alphabet in Chunks
The best thing about learning on your own is that you can go completely at your own pace. Maybe you’re desperate to start reading, and you have a free afternoon you can devote to learning all 40 letters at once. Go you! Run with it!
But for those of us who are busy and a little apprehensive about the prospect of learning a new alphabet, it’s perfectly fine to break things down a little bit.
Work out what’s manageable for you. I’d say you should set a minimum of five to ten letters to learn at a time, and give yourself the same set period of time to learn each group of letters, e.g. one week per group. Of course, you can increase the number of letters you learn in each time period as you become more confident.
Next, you should make a vocabulary list of words spelled using these letters. For example, if your first group of letters is going to be ㅏ(a), ㅗ (oh), ㅜ (oo), ㅠ (yoo) andㅣ(ee) and the silentㅇ, your vocabulary list might look like this:
아이 (a-ee): child
우유 (oo-yoo): milk
오이 (oh-ee): cucumber
이 (ee): 2
오 (oh): 5
아이유 (a-ee-yoo): K-Pop idol IU’s name in Hangul
Starting with this little list, each week you can learn another group of letters and build up your vocabulary. It works best if you alternate learning vowels and consonants, to make it easier to find new words.
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2. Learn Pronunciations as You Go
You need to make sure that as you learn each Hangul letter, you’re really learning how to correctly pronounce that letter.
Most learner websites will include a demonstration of the sound of each letter, or an example of an English word that has the same pronunciation, but you’ll learn the letters faster—and remember them more easily—if you listen to the pronunciation as you learn each letter.
zKorean has a great chart demonstrating the appearance and sound of Hangul letters. It’s important, of course, to know the correct pronunciation of vowels as several Korean vowels are quite different from English ones. However, it’s also very important to know the correct pronunciation of consonants, because in Korean some consonants are pronounced differently depending on where they’re placed in a word.
For example, at the beginning of a word the letter ㅅ is pronounced with a “s” or “sh” sound, like in 사랑 (sarang — love) or 시간 (shigan — time), but at the end of the word ㅅ makes a hard “t” sound, like in 뭣 (mot — what).
While you’re learning, be sure to say the letters aloud every time you read them, until the sounds of the letters start coming to you more naturally. Read whole words aloud as you build up your vocabulary list; you may be sounding everything out letter-by-letter to begin with, but you’ll soon be reading whole syllables—and then entire words—quickly by sight.
3. Review What You’ve Learned
Now it’s time for some good old revision. But it doesn’t have to be dull or repetitive! The best thing about learning how to read in Korean is that there are so many different ways to practice.
I’m old-fashioned: I love using paper flashcards and maybe you do, too! Or, you could give Anki’s digital flashcards a try and practice your reading while scrolling through your phone.
Familiarize yourself with the letters by writing in Korean as much as possible, even if it’s only simple things like people’s names and lists of new vocabulary at the beginning. Or you could even try writing in “hanglish” (English words and sentences using Hangul) if your vocabulary is still very low! It’s a surprisingly funny way to write, especially when you read it all aloud at the end.
Read the things that really interest you. Why did you want to learn how to read in Korean to begin with? Start working toward that as early as possible.
If you like Korean pop culture, follow idols and actors on Instagram, such as G-Dragon (@xxxibgdrgn), EXO’s Chanyeol (@real__pcy) and CL (@chaelinCL). On Twitter, you can follow @theSTAR_korea for entertainment and celebrity news, and @ActorLeeMinHo or @KBS_drama for updates on the latest dramas.
Keep reading everything aloud. Time yourself reading out different pieces of text and record yourself. Then listen back to find out which parts were easy for you or what you may need to keep working on. You can start out with a single word or a short sentence and keep building up to longer and longer chunks of text.
From now on, your Korean notes shouldn’t need much English—you can read Korean! I limit myself to two English words at the top of the page in my notebooks, just so that I can find the notes I’m looking for quickly. The more you immerse yourself in the language and force yourself to read it, the more fluent your reading will become.
Before you begin learning Korean reading, it may seem like an enormous and impossible task, but you’ll be shocked how simple it really is, and how quickly you can learn it. Once you can read and write in Korean, it’ll open up your learning to so many new and fascinating parts of Korean culture and language.
화이팅! Good luck!
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