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Why the Korean Language Is Worth Learning
It’s becoming a hit in pop culture
Authentic Korean media is infiltrating the world at a rapid pace. Content like K-pop, K-dramas and Korean films are becoming more globally popular, and the trend doesn’t seem to be slowing just yet.
So if you’re savvy with Korean-produced content, then why not enjoy it more genuinely by comprehending the language? You won’t have to worry about having subtitles or dubbed audio in order to follow along with what you watch or hear.
Plus, you’ll be able to truly understand all the nuanced language that the provided translations may have warped or modified for the sake of appealing to the target audience.
If you’re interested in learning Korean directly from such content, then FluentU can show you how. Its video collection spans multiple genres and includes clips from Korean mainstream media. Each video comes with interactive study tools so that you can enjoy and learn from engaging and familiar media.
There are millions of Korean speakers to talk to
You won’t find yourself lacking Korean-speaking opportunities. There are nearly 80 million native Korean speakers worldwide, and the number can be even bigger when you include fellow learners like you who decided to pick up this awesome language!
Also, being a popular language, there are plenty of Korean learning resources available as well. This makes it all the easier to learn the language and interact with others in it.
The Korean economy is relevant and powerful
South Korea has the fourth largest economy in Asia and is the 10th largest in the world. Its primary markets reside in the tech and electronics fields, but its beauty market is also seeing a rise in popularity.
You probably already know and use many Korean-made products, whether it’s the latest Samsung Galaxy phone, a sleek Hyundai car or a skin-invigorating cream.
For business folks wanting to spread their enterprise abroad, it makes practical sense to learn Korean for the sake of building foreign connections in Asia.
It’s full of interesting and unique features
The Korean language is a curious one. Its origins are obscure, lost in the annals of history. It doesn’t appear to share strong ties to Chinese and it seems a little similar to Japanese, but the connection is foggy. Because of its vague beginnings, the Korean language is often considered a language isolate.
Perhaps partly due to this reason, the Korean language is full of unique qualities that are endearing to many learners. Its interesting phonetics, simple (and sometimes considered “perfect”) written system and array of dialects are just a few of the fun points about Korean.
You’re bound to find even more things to love about the language once you start learning it!
A Breakdown of the Korean Language
The Korean alphabet (Hangul)
The Hangul alphabet was crafted by King Sejong, a Korean dynasty ruler who was keen to address the illiteracy issues plaguing the common population. Back then, most Korean folks (mainly the nobles) used complex Chinese characters for writing purposes, but they weren’t very learner-friendly.
Hangul was thus made to be the native writing system accessible for anyone to learn and use, nobles and commoners alike.
And this applies to language learners, too! Hangul is well known for being easy to learn, even intuitive at times. The alphabet consists of 24 letters: 14 consonants and 10 vowels.
Some Hangul letters also have an interesting feature: their structures can imply the correct mouth shape for pronouncing them! This phenomenon is hypothesized to be an intentional factor during the creation of the alphabet.
For example, the consonant and vowel combination 으 is pronounced “eu”—your lips would be parted and dragged down so that your teeth are visible, and your bottom lip would be flat and tense.
Here’s another example with the syllable 모—pronounced “mo,” your lips are parted to create a slightly square shape, and your tongue is depressed down so that the tip touches the floor of your mouth.
While you’re learning Hangul letters, see for yourself how some of their shapes might correspond to how you move your mouth parts!
Because the language’s sounds are quite unique, Korean pronunciation can be a rather tough aspect of the language to master. It’s also difficult to transcribe the sounds using Latin letters, and attempts at romanization tend to be a little inaccurate.
For English speakers, pronunciation is often skewed due to incorrect tongue and throat articulations. Many English letters have more “forceful” and stronger voice articulations, while Korean letters can overall sound “softer.”
And unlike English, Korean isn’t a tonal language, meaning you wouldn’t stress any particular letter in a given Korean word or sentence. This can make pronunciation seem a little flat or even rushed. If you’ve ever heard a Korean speaker talk at length, it can seem like their words are a train zipping past with very few stops!
The best way to address pronunciation issues is by carefully listening to Korean speakers and replicating their speech again and again. FluentU lets you do this easily, as each one of its videos comes with a loop-back feature so that you can repeat sections as often as needed.
Korean syllable formation
Crafting syllables and words in Korean is, visually speaking, quite unique. You literally stack Hangul letters into square-shaped “blocks.” It might remind you of those wooden block toys that you used to play with as a kid.
Korean syllables follow these rules:
- Contains at least two and at most four Hangul letters
- There must be at least one consonant and one vowel
- Regardless of how many letters are used for any one syllable, every syllable must be the same size when written out
The way in which you write out a syllable strongly depends on the first vowel used. You’ll notice that the Hangul alphabet has “horizontally” written vowels (ㅗ, ㅛ, ㅜ, ㅠ and ㅡ) and “vertically” written vowels (ㅏ, ㅑ, ㅓ, ㅕ, ㅣ, ㅔ, ㅖ, ㅐ andㅒ). There are also double vowels that involve both horizontal and vertical vowels.
Here’s the twist: horizontal vowels will make you write out syllables vertically, and vertical vowels will make you write horizontally. A third letter will be written directly under the first two, and a fourth letter would be written directly beside the third.
Sound confusing? Things get more obvious once you see some examples in the flesh:
- Two-letter syllables: 아, 루, 스, 호, 개<
- Three-letter syllables: 발, 눈, 른, 속, 팥
- Four-letter syllables: 닭, 없, 갆
As you can see, no matter the number of letters, every syllable is the same size and takes up the same amount of space in a sentence.
So with all those different letters involved, how do you pronounce a syllable? Simply put, you have to blend all the letter sounds together following their order, from the first consonant to the first vowel, to the remaining letters.
But sometimes, depending on the last consonants involved or the presence of an adjacent syllable, the pronunciation can change slightly:
- 아 = “ah”
- 발 = “bahl”
- 없 = “up” (the sound of the ㅅ is silent if it is alone, but it can be shifted to the next syllable if it starts with ㅇconsonant)
Korean sentence structure
In general, Korean sentences follow an S-O-V (subject, object, verb/predicate) order. This is in contrast to the typical English sentence structure of S-V-O.
So, the sentence “I throw the ball” would, in Korean, be more like “I the ball throw.” You can write the sentence like this: 나는 공을 던진다.
나는 is referring to the subject (I), 공을 refers to the ball, and 던진다 refers to the throwing action.
There’s also another very important and special feature of Korean sentences: particles. Korean particles are little but mighty words that stick to nouns and describe their functions. Without them, it would be difficult to discern what’s going on in any given Korean phrase.
In the 나는 공을 던진다 example, the particles are 는 (for the subject) and 을 (for the object).
Verbs are also conjugated based on multiple factors: tense, mood and even social formality. Unlike English, Korean verbs don’t care much about the subject for conjugation purposes.
Besides these major distinctions, Korean sentence structure isn’t too difficult to learn. Once you know the basics, you can intuitively learn plenty of aspects of Korean grammar by reading and analyzing sentences.
In FluentU’s videos, interactive video subtitles provide not only vocabulary translations but also basic grammatical details. This means you can break down a phrase word by word, understanding what each element means and relates to another.
Korean speech levels
You probably already know that etiquette is a big deal in Korean culture. Correct etiquette expression trickles down into the very words you say and how you say them.
The Korean language has seven “speech levels” (with the suffix “체”, denoting style) that reflect different levels of formality:
- 하소서체 — very polite and reserved for very high-ranking officials, rarely used in modern times, but it can be found in historical K-dramas (like those set during the Joseon Dynasty)
- 하십시오체 — quite formal, can be used between acquaintances or in business-related matters
- 하오체 — semi-formal but considered a bit outdated, can be encountered in older literature
- 해요체 — middle-ground that is relatively casual but polite enough for most interactions
- 하게체 — conversational, used usually by adults and when speaking to your juniors in rank/age
- 해라체 — “formally impolite” and can be used for those younger than you, also found in texts or used for quoting
- 해체 — informal, used for close friends and family (or when you don’t care for politeness)
Who knew formality could be so finicky? Luckily, a number of these speech levels aren’t used often since they can seem awkward in modern times, so you don’t have to worry about encountering them.
Each speech level can affect how you address someone, the vocabulary you use and (as mentioned just before) verb conjugations. In general, higher formality means you need to use a more “honorific” way of speaking.
Using the wrong speech level when talking to someone can lead to an “imbalanced” and awkward conversation. At worst, it can cause a bad impression, which is definitely something you want to avoid at all costs!
Common Korean expressions
You may already know a few Korean phrases, but if not, here are some must-knows:
- 안녕하세요 — Hello
- 좋은 아침 — Good morning
- 안녕히 주무세요 — Good night (lit. Sleep well)
- 안녕 — Hello / Goodbye (casual)
- 나중에 봐요 — See you later
- 잘 지내고 있나요? — How have you been? (lit. Are things going well?)
- 예 — Yes
- 아니요 — No
- 고맙습니다 — Thank you
- 죄송합니다 — I’m sorry
- 무슨 일이요? — What happened?
Korean number systems
There are two number systems in Korean. And yes, you do need to know both!
Native Korean numbers go from one to 99 and are used for the manual counting of physical items. Native Korean numbers are also utilized for counting the hours of the clock and ages.
Sino-Korean numbers come into play when a quantity goes over 99. Common uses also include describing the date, phone numbers, money amounts and measurements.
In general, Sino-Korean numbers are used more often in everyday interactions. Besides the fact that it can cover more quantities, this number system is also simple and logical.
Smart Tips for Learning Korean
Master the alphabet ASAP
Often, learners may choose to entirely skip learning a language’s alphabet and jump straight into learning a vocabulary or whole sentences. This isn’t an ideal decision for any language, but it’s especially not recommended for Korean.
Don’t delay in memorizing the Hangul alphabet. It should be the very first thing you should do when starting to learn Korean.
And, as implied earlier, this really shouldn’t take long! Hangul is a fun and easy system to learn. Make sure you know how to write and pronounce each letter. Really dig into and try out the different consonant and vowel combinations.
Once you become familiar with Hangul, you can progress much more smoothly into the rest of the introductory Korean topics.
Download a Korean keyboard
Reading and writing in Korean are difficult aspects for language learners to learn. That’s why frequent reviews and training are important.
Downloading a Korean keyboard into your phone, tablet or computer is a great way to easily get practice opportunities. You should often work on forming Korean syllables and getting used to their blocky shapes.
Plus, digital Korean keyboards are also nifty because they’ll let you know if certain Hangul letter combinations don’t work. Letters that can be placed together will combine by default into a syllable. If a letter isn’t compatible, it’ll be typed out after the initial letter(s), essentially being booted out of being part of a certain syllable.
A fun way to practice Korean writing and syllable enunciation is by transcribing English words into Hangul letters. For example, take the word “home.” The closest Korean transcription would be 홈.
Listen to and speak Korean often
As fun as Korean phonetics is, they aren’t the easiest to master. In fact, they can be one of the biggest pitfalls for learners, whether they have just started to learn the language or are further along in their studies.
That’s why it’s so important to listen to and speak Korean as frequently as you can. It’s a common issue that learners (especially self-taught ones or those who use text-based resources) don’t get enough exposure and practice with Korean speech.
Whenever you encounter a new Korean word or sentence, don’t just internalize it—always try to say it out loud. Compare your attempt with a reliable source, such as a Korean dictionary with audio features, Google Translate (which isn’t always accurate!) or a native speaker.
Since its videos feature real native Korean speakers, FluentU exposes you to how the language is actually spoken. You can hone your ears to the Korean accent and get extra assistance with the audio pronunciations provided for each word used in a clip. Plus, FluentU’s personalized quizzes include “speaking questions” in which you must vocalize words out loud.
Focus on the middle speech level
Yes, there are indeed seven speech levels in Korean that you should be aware of. But don’t panic and think you have to learn the intricacies of each and every one of them.
Instead, learners should primarily focus on the 해요체 level, the so-called “safe zone” of speech levels. That’s because it’s the one that’s most likely to be encountered and used. It’s appropriate for most everyday interactions with absolute strangers and acquaintances.
Once you’ve got that level down, then you can start treading deeper into the other speech levels. Knowing when to use the right speech level is a great marker of how well-versed you are in not just the Korean language, but also Korean etiquette. Native speakers would surely be impressed!
Jump into the world of Korean media
I already mentioned how popular Korean media is worldwide. But it’s not just all about entertainment.
In fact, Korean movies, TV shows, music, videos and books are excellent language-learning resources that can make your studies engaging and immersive. Plus, native Korean content is more likely to expose you to the language as it’s actually used in real life.
Korean content is also readily accessible. It’s all too easy to go on YouTube and find thousands of Korean videos. Streaming sources are also well-stocked with Korean shows and movies.
If you’re worried about the difficulty in understanding native-level Korean in such media, don’t be! Even if you don’t comprehend every word yet, you can still absorb the Korean used and simply listen to what you hear.
FluentU can guide you through the process of learning Korean from media content. Its library of Korean videos is constantly updated and organized by topic and level, so you can easily choose the clips that suit you. The provided study tools make the learning experience seamless and instant, and once you feel more confident in your skills, you can choose to turn off some of the said tools as an extra challenge.