Published: Jan, 10, 2023 | By: Lucas Weaver
Are you thinking about learning Korean as your next language? If that's the case, you might wonder, "How hard is it to learn Korean?"
It’s a difficult question, and each individual's answer will vary. You might find yourself good at learning one aspect of the language but struggling with another since there are many topics you will need to learn.
Busy and looking for something specific? We've got your back! Here's a table of contents:
Here are a few of the concepts that will most likely be new to you and involve in-depth study when you start learning Korean:
Hangul: the Korean alphabet
Particles and markers
Loan words & native words
Some of these, such as Hangul and the verb tenses, might come easily to you, while others like the particles and homophones might be more challenging.
The only way to find out which ones you’ll find easy is to try them yourself.
While the process of learning the Korean language will be different for everyone, a few factors contribute to the overall difficulty of learning the Korean language:
Your native language
Which languages you already speak
How easily you learn languages
The most important factors are your native language and which east Asian languages you already speak.
For example, a person who speaks Japanese as their first language would find it easier to learn Korean than someone who speaks English as their first language.
And if you’re a native English speaker who has already learned some Mandarin or Japanese, you will likely also find the experience of learning Korean much easier.
A third and important factor is how naturally talented you are at learning languages.
If you find it easy to mimic new sounds when you hear them, and you don’t get too mentally stuck changing word orders around in your head, you might not have too difficult of a time to learn the Korean way of speaking and communicating.
Overall, how difficult it is to learn Korean depends on your native language, your current familiarity with Asian languages, and your overall ability to learn languages.
It can be hard to learn a new language, but if you start with some easy wins, you'll build a strong foundation quickly and start building momentum that can carry you a long way.
In this post, I’m going to use a mix of my personal experience learning Korean, as well giving an overall guide that will hopefully explain how hard it is to learn Korean no matter where you fall on the spectrum of Korean learners.
First, let’s start with some truth.
When you google “how hard is it to learn Korean?”, many of the results will try to tell you that it’s easy.
While you could just simply pin this on the fact that most of these websites are trying to sell you Korean courses and therefore want you to think it’s easier than it is, I think the truth is a bit more complicated.
The real problem is with these unspecific words of “easy” and “hard”. These words can mean a million different things to a million different people.
I think what those people mostly mean when they say learning Korean is easy is that it’s easier than learning something like Mandarin or Thai and that it’s not as difficult as you might imagine.
When thinking about Korea, most westerners, especially before K-dramas and K-pop, picture it with its east Asian neighbors.
They think of Chinese, Korean and Japanese in one bucket of faraway cultures with very different foods, very different and difficult-to-understand languages, and probably many cultural practices which we might label “weird”.
In fact, most westerners and English speakers probably look at east Asian languages as the polar opposite of their native languages and cultures.
When I was a kid in the U.S. and people would be talking about something that you completely didn’t understand, it was a common expression for someone to say, “You might as well be speaking Chinese!”.
This shows how it’s embedded in our culture to think of east Asian languages as the furthest possible thing from what we know.
But this couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to South Korea and the Korean language.
South Korea may have been influenced by China and Japan, but it has long developed its own culture separate from those two and is very proud of its unique culture and language.
In modern times its culture has been heavily influenced by the U.S., and you can see it everywhere you go in Seoul, from the insane number of coffee shops on every corner to the music they play inside even the most traditional Korean restaurants.
To the untrained ear, Korean might sound similar to other Asian languages, but in reality, it’s quite different.
Korean, unlike Mandarin, is not a tonal language. It has its own alphabet with less than 40 letters, which is tiny compared to the over 100,000 in Mandarin. And not many sounds when speaking Korean are difficult to make.
Personally, I think the sounds you make in Korean are even simpler than those in French and some other European languages.
Before I came to Korea, I:
Completed 17 30-minute listen-and-repeat Pimsleur Korean 1 lessons
Took two different Hangul courses on Udemy
Studied Hangul for an hour every other day for almost two weeks to memorize the letters
Listened to an hour of an audiobook from Audible about common words and phrases
This was enough to enable me to:
use Korean greetings
ask for directions
ask where the restroom was
ask how much something cost
order food and drinks
thank people at the markets and restaurants and tell them the food was delicious
So let’s say with about 30 hours of study, I could speak and understand Korean well enough to survive and enjoy myself while traveling in Seoul (and I would even get compliments on my pronunciation).
(Read this post to find out how long it will take to learn Korean for you)
Would I have been able to do the same with Mandarin? Definitely not.
So if that’s what your definition of “learning Korean” is, meaning just being able to speak it a little and get some benefits out of it, then I can safely say that it’s not overly hard to learn.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t all been a fairy tale. Once you get past the basics, it does get harder to learn the language at a competent level.
One of my biggest challenges has been that most of the Korean words I’ve learned have been “textbook Korean”, meaning things grammatically correct in the book that most Koreans never say when speaking.
You mainly learn these by getting corrected by locals as you make friends and hoping to remember them or write them down to learn later.
Finding time to practice the more difficult parts of the language is also difficult as you learn. You can quickly get good at your travel Korean because you’ll use it every day.
But there aren’t many opportunities to ask strangers, “What are you going to do today?” or “What did you do yesterday?”.
And for me, I found it especially hard to have enough confidence to ask these types of questions to strangers because I messed up the verb conjugations so frequently.
As I said before, speaking Korean isn’t all that hard. You can quickly learn the basic phrases and words you need to know to communicate at a simple level, and they’re not that hard to pronounce.
But it gets a bit more difficult once you start trying to take the next step and do things like texting with Korean friends on KakaoTalk.
For example, to ask someone if they are okay or if everything is fine, you can say “Kwenchana?”
It’s not a hard phrase to understand or say, and it’s actually a very nice-sounding word. But when you want to type it, it becomes:
So while Korean sounds like it’s spelled most of the time once you learn how to read Hangul, it will still be difficult to learn just how to make some of those sounds when writing.
To compare, to say “left” in Korean, you say what sounds like “Wencho”.
When you write that sound in English, it sounds the same as the “Kwenchana” as above.
But when writing it in Hangul it’s:
Once you become familiar with Hangul you’ll realize that you’re using two different letters to make the same “en” sound in those two words.
These small and subtle differences will make it difficult for you when you start moving from total beginner to even just attempting to be an intermediate Korean speaker.
At the time I started to learn Korean, The Weaver School didn’t offer any Korean courses or teachers, so I mostly learned on my own.
I tried getting a Korean tutor from another company, but their follow-up was terrible and they went months without contacting me, so I gave up.
In retrospect, I really wish I had been more diligent and started taking lessons with a live teacher. This would have allowed me to actually practice speaking the words and phrases I was learning.
By doing this, I could have improved my learning speed and my pronunciation. Also, by taking lessons with native Korean speakers, I could have learned the real things people say much quicker than the textbook Korean I learned.
It would have also been better if I had been more disciplined about going to language exchanges where I could practice my Korean skills instead of just general meetups where it seems that most people’s goals are generally to speak English and meet people.
Overall, it’s not as difficult as you might think and not as easy as the hypemen might advertise. But if you’re passionate about it and have the time to invest to learn it, I recommend you go for it.
By watching YouTube videos, doing Udemy courses, or going the listen-and-repeat route with Pimsleur as I did, you can learn a lot of Korean in a short amount of time.
And you can certainly learn enough to speak Korean with moderate confidence during a trip there.
As stated above, the words aren’t that difficult to pronounce, the alphabet is fairly straightforward, and while the grammar is tricky, you don’t need to grasp it all that well in the beginning stages.
For most people who are interested in a broad answer to the question of is Korean hard to learn, I’ve probably given you enough information to give you an answer at a high level.
But others might be looking to go into a bit more depth. Whether you find Korean hard to learn and how long it will take to learn Korean will ultimately depend of course on how far with the language you want to go.
Let’s take more of a deep dive into the specifics of what parts of the language make Korean hard to learn and not and see if we can answer any more questions you might have.
The Korean language is known for its complex grammar and writing system
People often say that Korean sentence structure is one of the most complex parts of learning the Korean language.
Subject object verb (SOV) is the standard order of words in Korean.
Subject verb object (SVO) is the standard English word order.
For German speakers that might not be so difficult to understand. But for Spanish, French, Italian, and native English speakers, it will be a bit tricky at first.
And even for German speakers, the common omission of the subject and the addition of subject markers will still make the learning process challenging.
On top of that, here are the five most important things that make Korean hard to learn:
For people who speak English or some European languages, it can be hard to understand how the words in Korean are put together. Comprehending verbs that come at the end, have different forms, and need prepositions can be tricky.
The rules for how to say things in Korean are very complicated. Even though you get used to them over time, changes in pronunciation that don't make sense at first can be annoying.
Depending on the situation, there are many ways to end a Korean verb, such as endings for formal cases, casual speaking, and writing, etc.
The Korean language has a lot of words that link words together. Because of this, Korean sentences can sometimes be very long. While your brain is trying to figure out how the first half of the sentence fits together, your Korean friend will have already said five more sentences.
Even if you know all the rules of Korean grammar and vocabulary, if you still need help understanding how the Korean honorific system works, you might sometimes find yourself in embarrassing situations. It's a big part of Korean culture, and it's easy to upset people by misusing honorifics.
The Korean alphabet, Hangul (한글), is very different from the latin alphabet. It has 24 letters, 14 of which are consonants and ten vowels.
Korean vowels: ㅏ ㅑ ㅓ ㅕ ㅗ ㅛ ㅜ ㅠ ㅡ ㅣ
Korean consonants: ㄱ ㄴ ㄷ ㄹ ㅁ ㅂ ㅅ ㅇ ㅈ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ
At first glance, the numbers in Hangul look a lot like characters from China and Japan. Still, when you look more closely, you can see that Hangul uses loops that aren't in either of the other two writing systems.
Learning how to read and write the individual Hangul letters is pretty straightforward. The fun comes when trying to read words.
Think of syllables as bricks or building blocks.
Each brick can hold at least two and no more than four Hangul letters. There will be both consonants and vowels in the letter combinations since you can't make a syllable without the two.
The letters in Korean syllables affect how they are put together. Depending on which Hangul letters are needed, the way a syllable is written changes.
Korean syllables should fit nicely into a square or rectangular shape when written. This is an elegant and simple shape. But what does that square hold?
One thing is the number of letters. Syllables with two letters look different than syllables with three or four letters.
The following are some examples:
- Two-letter syllable: 자
- Three-letter syllable: 남, 받
- Four-letter syllable: 앉, 닭
You can see that the syllable block gets tighter when there are more letters in the square. This is so that each letter fits the same way uniformly in the line of a sentence.
These are the most important things that affect how a syllable looks. The more you speak, read, and write Korean text, the more you'll understand how this looks.
Syllables are used to make words in Korean. There are many ways to make a syllable out of each letter. But there are rules for how the letters in a syllable should be put together.
For example, when you write in Latin or other languages, you put each letter in order in this way:
K + O + R + E + A = Korea.
But in the Korean language, you have to put them in certain blocks, which then make up the word.
So, the same word, written in Korean, would look like this:
ㅎ + ㅏ + ㄴ ㄱ + ㅜ + ㄱ = 한국
This is an excellent example of how both a vertical and a horizontal vowel can be used to make a block.
Hanja (한자) are characters from Chinese that are used to write Korean.
Even though Koreans use Hangul, a writing system for the Korean language that was created over 500 years ago, Hanja is still used along with Hangul.
More than 4,000 years ago, the first Chinese characters were created during the Shang Dynasty. Eventually, these characters spread to the Asian cultures that were close by.
Hanja is still used today because it has been around for a long time. It is taught in elementary schools in Korea, and it’s also part of the Korean College Scholastic Ability Test, like the SAT or IB test in other countries.
Most people agree that Hanja is much more difficult to learn than Hangul. However, the National Institute of the Korean Language's Standard Korean Dictionary says Hanja makes up about 69% of the Korean language's vocabulary.
Because of this, Hanja root words can help Korean learners, like Greek and Latin root words help English learners, and are also tested on the SAT.
Like any other language, Korean grammar has its fair share of confusing rules and nuances to learn.
But you can always wait to learn about the more advanced topics once you get to the higher levels. Early on, you'll need to know the basic word order, honorific uses, and politeness levels.
But here are some of the most important differences from English to know:
The first rule of Korean grammar is that verbs always go at the end of a sentence.
In English, sentences follow a pattern called subject verb object (SVO), which looks like this:
I eat pizza. (S - V - O )
But in Korean and Japanese, sentences follow a pattern called SOV, like this:
나는 피자를 먹어요. I (subject particle) – pizza (object particle) – eat.
(na-neun pija-leul meogeoyo)
The second rule of Korean grammar is that pronouns are usually not needed.
Unlike Romance languages and English, you don't have to change how you conjugate depending on what pronoun you use.
"I do" vs. "she does." in English
It's always just ( 하다, "do") in Korean.
Korean sentences don't need pronouns. If the subject is clear, you don't need to use the pronoun.
"Did you eat?" - a common question in Korean:
밥 먹었어요? (Bab meogeosseoyo?)
This is a friendly and affectionate Korean greeting. Koreans always ensure you have something to eat and are taken care of.
(This particular expression became popular after the Korean war. Immediately after the war, rice was quite rare to come by. So people would commonly ask “Have you had rice?” If you said yes, this would mean you were doing relatively well. Korean is full of expressions that aren’t meant literally and have a more common meaning.)
Honorifics are a very important part of the Korean language and culture, and you will use them daily. You use honorifics when you call a stranger who dropped their purse or a worker in a restaurant, or when you talk to your parents, your boss, or basically anyone older than you.
The honorific culture was influenced by Confucianism, in which age and social status were essential. This makes honorification very important in Korea to this day.
In South Korea, showing respect to people who are “above” you is crucial, whether they are older or have a higher social status.
If a Korean chooses the wrong honorific, it can be embarrassing or even insulting to the person they’re speaking to.
There are seven different levels of politeness to use in Korean. The endings of the verbs show these different levels. Most of the time, people use formal, polite, standard, casual, or informal speech. You might also see "high," "middle," and "low" next to the numbers.
Hasoseo-che (하소서체): This level of speech is very formal and polite. This level is used to talk to a king, queen, or high-ranking official. This level is also used for historical dramas or religious texts.
Hasipsio-che (하십시오체): Most of the time, strangers use this level when they meet for the first time. This is another way that the service industry talks to its customers. It will be used in a more formal setting by coworkers. This is the most common way to talk with a high level of formality and the most polite way to chat.
Haeyo-che (해요체): This is the most common way to speak politely. Foreigners are often told to learn this way of saying because it is easy and polite enough to use in everyday situations.
First-person: jeo (저)
Example: 사랑해요 – saranghae-yo ("I love you")
(Hao-che (하오체) ): This is an old way to speak Korean formally. Korean dramas that are set in the past use this style. It has a little bit of poetry to it.
First-person: na (나), Second-person: dangsin (당신)
Example: 사랑하오 – sarangha-o (“I love you”)
Hage-che (하게체)): This is a rare way of speaking called "familiar" because it is used by people the same age or younger. It is used by middle-aged adults when they talk to other adults they know well.
First-person: na (나), Second-person: ja-ne (자네)
Example: 사랑하네 – sarangha-me ("I love you")
Haera-che (해라체): This approach is more conversational than the previous one. It is more akin to being officially impolite than anything else. These are quotes from other people at the same level.
Hae-che (해체): This is informal, casual speech with no extra levels of formality or politeness. Because of this, close friends and family use it. It's also used to talk to kids. This level of language is only used with people you know very well. In English, we say that this level is "intimate."
In this article, you'll find a complete list of Korean honorifics.
An essential thing to remember is that each level of speech shows a different level of respect or courtesy. As politeness and formality are very important in Korean culture, it is important to know the different levels of speech and understand what level someone is using.
There is a past tense, a basic present tense, a continuous present tense, and a future tense in Korean grammar; however, it is more complex than English tenses.
The most important thing to remember is verb conjugation.
When conjugating Korean verbs in the past tense, we use the words 았어요/였어요/었어요 (pronounced a-sseo-yo/eo-sseo-yo/yeo-sseo-yo), depending on how the previous verb ended.
Present tense words are 아요, 어요, and 여요 (a-yo, eo-yo, and yeo-yo). Also, remember that all verbs end with "다" (da), which you must drop when using these tenses. Again, it depends on how the last verb in the sentence ends.
Continuous/Progressive tenses are 고 있다, and 아/어지다 (go it-dda and a/eo-ji-da is the closest pronunciation) 고 있다 is mainly used as "I am ___ing." Because of this, this tense isn't used with adjectives.
The future tense is the last one, and it is formed by adding (으)ㄹ 거에요 to the predicate stem. It means "likely" and is used to discuss the future.
Conjugating Korean verbs is considerably more straightforward than in other languages (including English and especially French!).
Even though particles themselves are small, the subject of Korean particles is a big one. This is because the word "particles" in Korean is a catch-all term.
There are different words for things like prepositions, possessives, negations, conjunctions, counters, and words that show time, place, intensity, frequency, or contrast.
In Korean, they are all grouped as Korean particles and strung together in a way that can make a language learner feel like they are going to pass out.
Now, let's look at six of the most valuable particles in Korean.
This topic particle informs everyone about the subject that is currently being discussed. Any noun that is followed by 은 or 는 is elevated to the status of the topic of conversation and given more emphasis.
책은 무겁다. - It's a big book.
저는 미국인이에요. - I'm American.
Again, marking the noun with 은 or 는 draws attention to what is being discussed.
This is one of the most important Korean words and helps us figure out what the sentence is about.
Most of the time, the subject is linked to the verb or adjective. The marker helps answer the questions below:
- Who is the one who does it?
- Who or what is being talked about?
날씨가 좋다. - It's a nice day.
가방이 낡았다. - The bag is old.
The name of this word tells you what it does: it marks the object of the sentence.
나는 김치를 먹었다. - I ate kimchi.
The following words are the same as the English word "and." They are used to show that two or more nouns belong together.
사과와 오렌지 - apple and orange
개, 고양이하고 새 - cats, dogs, and birds
People learning Korean often ask, "How do I make things plural in Korean?"
But in Korean, it's not as common to have plural nouns as in English.
There is little difference between singular and plural nouns in Korean. Native speakers don't have trouble with this because the context is usually enough to tell if a noun is singular or plural.
Here are some examples:
사람 — person → 사람 들 — people
This last one is the same as the English apostrophe plus s and shows ownership or possession.
Here are some more examples:
오늘은 내 생일이야. - Today is my birthday.
Why does the Korean language have so many words that sound the same?
Korean has a lot of words that sound the same because it has a small number of phonemes (distinct sounds). Because of this, it can be challenging when people learn Korean to tell the difference between words that sound the same and understand what they mean.
사과 (sa-gwa) = apple or apology (This is why some Koreans apologize with an apple!)
Or 일 (il) = one or work or day
So, Korean has a lot of words that sound the same, but they are used less often in everyday life.
This is because of three main things:
The length of the vowel sound can change the meaning of a word with the exact spelling.
(Some people think that the fact that there are long and short vowel sounds shows that ancient Korean was a tonal language.)
The second reason is that many Chinese words can be pronounced the same way in Korean.
The third reason is the rules for sound change make some words sound the same.
The fact that many words sound the same makes it hard for everyone to learn Korean. Because of this, people often mix up simple words.
Korean also has a set of rules that tell how to say words based on how their sounds go together.
One of the best ways to learn how to distinguish words in Korean quickly is to do tests with "minimal pairs," which sound similar in a language. For example, "moss" and "mass" sound similar in English.
Or, you can use flashcards as memory aids for learning words. The best way to learn Korean words is to use flashcards with pictures. Flashcards can help you remember almost anything.
You can make your flashcards using a tool like Quizlet, and many flashcards for the Korean language are already available. Make sure to use images that are clear and easy to remember, and avoid direct translations.
Using images, pictures, or drawings can help you remember Korean words more effectively by recruiting more areas of the brain into the learning process. This will make the vocabulary words easier to memorize and harder to forget.
There are three main types of words in the Korean language: pure Korean, Sino-Korean, and foreign.
About 60 percent of South Korean vocabulary is made up of Sino-Korean words. The rest comprises native Korean words and, to a lesser extent, loanwords from other languages like Japanese and English. Sino-Korean words are usually used in formal or literary settings to discuss abstract or complicated ideas.
You can further divide the foreign words into loanwords and Konglish.
Konglish is known for the use of English words in the Korean language. These words are often used in a way that is different from what they were initially meant to mean, or they have been changed to sound more Korean.
- 바나나 /banana/ – banana
- 뉴욕 /nyeuyok/ - New York
Korean has taken over some English and other words. Still, most of them mean something different than the English word they are based on. And also a pronunciation that Korean influences.
When it comes to keeping Korean words in their heads, most students hit a wall.
The biggest problem with learning native Korean words is that many of the words sound the same.
Even though they look different on paper, they can sound almost identical to a beginner Korean speaker trying to understand a fast and sometimes complicated foreign language.
Once you know how to say the Korean alphabet, the words are not hard to say when you start to speak Korean.
It is phonetic, but it can sometimes sound too similar to people who hear them.
Even though I wouldn't call Korean the "easiest" language to learn out of all the languages in the world, it is the most accessible East Asian language for an English speaker to start learning compared to Japanese and Chinese, the other two popular East Asian languages.
Hangul (Korean Alphabet/ Writing system): The phonetic alphabet comprises vowels and consonants that can be put together in syllable blocks to make sounds, words, and sentences. You could learn the Korean alphabet daily if you worked hard enough. If you learned a few rules for saying words, you could read and sound out almost anything in Korean.
Korean sentence structure is flexible, and the sentence is most likely correct as long as the verb or adjective is at the end.
Toneless: Although Korean pronunciation isn't too hard once you get used to the few strange vowel sounds and double consonants, it's still best to have a native speaker help you.
Use of Hanja from the intermediate level: Yes, I did say above that Korean don't use Chinese characters (Hanja) as often as Japanese and Chinese do, but 60% of Korean vocabulary comes from Hanja, and you need to be able to read at least (if not write) Hanja to learn the language. Most Korean words have a pure Korean word and a Hanja word that means the same thing. Hanja words are used in more formal situations.
There are at least 7 different ways to speak in Korean, depending on who you are talking to or what you are talking about. Korean society is very hierarchical, and people respect their position and age by choosing their words and how they put them together. (This can be a change in the ending of the verb or a difference in the word itself.)
In a nutshell, Korean is hard to learn if we’re all being honest. People who speak English might think it's one of the hardest languages to learn at first sight, but it's almost certainly not as hard as you might think.
As long as you're having fun, don't worry too much about how many "hours" it takes to be fluent in Korean. Just try to feel comfortable speaking Korean at a basic level first.
Getting started with something new is always intimidating, and learning a language is the same. After all, if you want to learn Korean or any new language, it will take plenty of time and effort.
In the end, learning a new language is about patience and consistency. If you have the right habits, motivation, and mindset, it will get easier over time.
Start by setting yourself a schedule that you can stick with. Make it enough time per week that you will see results, but not too much time that you won’t be able to stay consistent.
Then let the fun begin.
To end, I'd like to share a Korean proverb that says everything you need to know about learning Korean.
"고생 끝에 낙이 온다" which means "At the end of hardship comes happiness."
Lucas Weaver founded The Weaver School in 2016. He's passionate about using the latest learnings in neuroscience and education to create the best language learning experience possible for our students, so they can quickly build effective language learning habits that will last for years. Lucas is a graduate of Texas A&M University and after 7 years of living in the Netherlands, he is currently traveling through Southeast Asia while learning their languages along the way.
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