Should I Learn Korean?

I’ve decided to write a series of posts where I’ll be answering some of the most frequently asked questions about living and working in Korea. It seems every week I am greeted with emails inquiring about living costs, spending versus saving, transportation, and sometimes even advice on apartment hunting in Seoul (which unfortunately I know nothing about, sorry people!) So this week, I figured I would tackle the Korean alphabet.

Should you learn to read hangul?

Abso-freakin-lutely!

Writing-on-tiles-at-a-temple-in-Cheonan-Korea

Hangul is the official Korean alphabet and consists of 24 consonants and vowels. While at first glance the lines and circles may seem quite confusing, each symbol corresponds to a specific sound, which makes it very easy to pick up. And I mean so easy that you can learn it over the course of a weekend. (You’ve got to love a phonetic language!)

If you’re moving to Korea to teach English, study abroad, or do any kind of work, learning to read hangul should be one of your top priorities. Life in Korea will be so much easier once you can actually read!

But what’s the point of learning to read the alphabet if I can’t even speak Korean?

Well, once you set foot inside stores, you’ll find that many products in Korea use English words spelled out in hangul. These ‘borrowed’ English words have led to the creation of ‘Konglish’, which means you’re basically reading English words using the Korean alphabet.

Of course, learning to read hangul won’t mean you’ll instantly understand everything written around you. You will still need to memorize Korean words in order to have a functioning use of the alphabet; things like food names and street names, for starters.

Still not convinced? Here are a few reasons why learning to read hangul is really useful:

So you don’t starve

You don’t plan on eating McDonald’s and Taco Bell the whole time you’re here, right?

If you intend to try the local cuisine, and I trust you do since it’s not only quite tasty but also the most affordable option, you’ll want to learn a few of the food names. Most local mom and pop restaurants don’t have pictures on their menus. Instead, what you get is a notepad type menu where you check off the items you want to order, and yes, it’s all in Korean.

While you can try your luck using the good ol’ point-and-hope-for-the-best technique, there are only so many surprises a person can handle with dog, eel and octopus readily available on the menu. However, once you’ve memorized the names of a few staple dishes – 밥 is rice, 라면 is ramyeon, and 찌개 is stew, you can more or less figure out what you’re getting.

To master transportation

Riding the subway in Seoul is quite easy due to the fact that all the stations are labelled in both English and Korean, however buses are a completely different story. If you live out in the suburbs, you’ll have to learn to master the bus system pronto!

Korean bus drivers drive like there is a ticking bomb strapped on to the vehicle – bus doors swing open before the bus has come to a complete stop, and you better jump off before they step on the gas again. Don’t expect much help while you stammer for directions in English. By learning hangul you’ll be able to read the bus routes posted at every bus stop, and deduce what bus you need to get on.

This also comes in handy when double checking the destination of the coach tickets you’ve just purchased. You may think you’re saying Boseong (보성) but the girl at the ticket counter may be hearing Busan (부산)…true story.

To do your groceries at the supermarket

Is that shampoo or conditioner? Mozzarella cheese or white cheddar? Laundry detergent or fabric softener? Orange juice or peach cocktail? (Okay, maybe you can figure out the last one by looking at the picture.) But seriously, sometimes it’s a guessing game when it comes to flavours, levels of spiciness, and deciphering the item itself.

To impress (and discipline) your students

You’d be surprised by the ooo’s and ahh’s that follow after I write my name (Audrey = 오드리) on the board, or even random words like milk (우유) and strawberry (딸기). That’s one way to captivate your class!

Whenever I find that the students have lost interest in the lesson or I need to kill some time because we’ve finished early, I pull out a little game called let’s-watch-the-teacher-write-Korean-on-the-board, and they love it!

So give hangul a go. It’ll make your year in Korea so much better.

Resources:

There are lots of helpful YouTube videos out there. I personally watched the ones by ‘Talk to me in Korean‘. They have videos for people of all levels, so if you’re interested in learning more than just the alphabet, they are a great resource.

My personal approach to learning hangul was to split the alphabet into three parts. I worked on memorizing 8 characters with their corresponding sounds at a time. It only took me a few hours over the course of a weekend before I could tentatively read the foreign characters. And once in Korea, it was time to practice by reading every sign in front of me. I also carried around my Lonely Planet phrasebook with the Korean alphabet, so that I could look up any symbols that I was unsure about.

Another idea is to sign up for Korean classes. Once in the country you’ll find that there are plenty of opportunities to learn Korean ranging from private lessons to free open classes run by volunteer groups. This is a good option if you want to learn more than just the alphabet, or you think you could see yourself staying in the country longer than a year.

**If you have any question about life in Korea that you would like answered, leave it in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer it (maybe even in a post).**

24 Comments

  • Korean sounds delightful! If only learning Chinese characters were that easy. I have to create little pictures in my mind to keep them straight (guy standing at a desk or candle next to a bookcase). Plus, many of the characters look nearly identical with subtle changes (it’s this character but with a hat). Don’t even get me started on the tones. How difficult is spoken Korean?
    cosmoHalllitan recently posted..The Best Meals We Ate in BangkokMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      Learning Chinese sounds like a monumental task! I think it’s one of those languages that you really need to love in order to be able to learn it. I remember looking over my cousin’s books when he was studying Chinese, and like you said, it was all memorization of characters by associating them with pictures. Yikes! I can’t really comment on how difficult it is to speak Korean because my skills aren’t quite there, but it’s not tonal like Chinese.

  • I admit, I actually have no plans to travel to Korea any time soon, but that didn’t stop me from learning some Hangul. I had no idea that it was phonetic, but once I discovered that, I was so impressed and started to learn the system. It’s amazingly intuitive and actually one of the smartest written languages I’ve encountered… I actually think Hangul is remarkably cool, even if I literally have no practical use for it in my current life, though I realize this makes me a complete nerd!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..Grappling with Greatness at the Great WallMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      Well I’m impressed! I’ve never heard of someone learning to read a new alphabet just for fun! After the work you’ve put into it, I hope that you do get to visit Korea so that you have the satisfaction of reading restaurant menus and street signs in Korean. 😀

  • Zhu says:

    I couldn’t live in a country where I don’t speak the language. It would be so incredibly frustrating! The only time I was in a country and I didn’t speak the language at all was in Thailand. I was only there for a couple of weeks so I though “why bother?”. Well, I certainly missed a lot because I had to speak English. My Portuguese (the language I’m least fluent in) isn’t great but at least I can read and understand menus, directions, interact with people and all. Made life so much easier!
    Zhu recently posted..Lost: IdentityMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      Aside from Korea, I’ve usually travelled through countries where I could communicate in the language to some degree. It’s kind of nice being able to order food, ask for directions and understand what a local is saying. However, Korea, well this is the most out of my element that I’ve ever been. I’m just glad I can read the alphabet, haha. 😀

  • Jessica says:

    This makes me feel a little spoiled to be living in Thailand where almost all products are labeled in Thai and English (although sometimes it’s weird “Tinglish”, but I can usually get the idea). It’s surprising considering that when I talk to the average Thai person they speak virtually no English. I’ve definitely had to learn to speak some Thai just to make day-to-day life easier, but it hasn’t been necessary to learn the Thai alphabet.
    Jessica recently posted..The Momentum of TravelMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      The Thai alphabet looks complicated. I don’t know if it’s just me, but all of the letters kind of look the same…no? I like the sound of Tinglish. I’ll be on the look out for it once I finally make it there. 😉

  • Maria says:

    Always good to learn a little of the language you’re in contact with and in the end, even if you don’t learn much or never step foot on Korean soil you can impress your local Korean community with your willingness to learn their language. Lastly, knowledge is something no one can take from you and is never a waste of time to gain.
    Maria recently posted..Soul TemptingMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      For sure! Once I leave Korea I’ll be on the hunt for little Koreatowns so that I can put what I’ve learned to some use. Even if it’s just ordering tofu stew from a hole in the wall restaurant. 😉

  • memographer says:

    NO WAY, 오드리! I am not convinced at all. But, really enjoyed your post 🙂
    memographer recently posted..On My Shelves. My Travel Bring-back Collection. Season 4My Profile

  • Jace says:

    Yea, I like the point about so that you don’t starve 🙂 we all need to eat! I also think it’s just great to show locals that you are trying to be part of their culture and they appreciate that!
    Jace recently posted..New Years Resolutions Are Meant to Be BrokenMy Profile

  • Michael says:

    Who is the author of your Lonely Planet phrase book? There are several on Amazon and I wondered which one you recommend. Thanks.

    • Audrey says:

      It’s a little purple pocketbook by Minkyoung Kim. It’s not what you’ll want if you’re planning to study Korean, but it’s enough for just getting around.

  • expatkerri says:

    ah, i love hangul, and love blog posts explaining how simple, useful, and necessary it is when living in korea. i’ll share this one with my subscribers, audrey! 😀
    expatkerri recently posted..5 Real Tips for Travelling in South AmericaMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      Aw, thanks for sharing it Kerri. I’m really glad I decided to learn the alphabet before I even got here! I do kind of wish I had tried a little harder with the speaking aspect, but I guess it’s not so bad considering I spent the year in an English speaking environment. I’m impressed with your Korean! You sound fluent!

  • Agness says:

    Never learnt Korean, but I did study Chinese when I was in China for the same reasons. Learning foreign languages is so interesting 🙂 and makes your life a lot easier when living abroad.
    Agness recently posted..Polish Weddings Rock!My Profile

  • Edna says:

    Can I just say, the word for milk look like two stick people and is adorable.
    Edna recently posted..Expat Entrepreneurs: Daisy from THATLouMy Profile

  • Ceri says:

    Thank you fro the helpful links at the bottom. 🙂 I’m looking to move to Korea in September and am determined to learn at least the basics before I go.
    Ceri recently posted..The Next Big MoveMy Profile

  • Ryan Wiley says:

    You should definitely learn the basics before heading to Korea. People do speak English, but you feel like you have so much more power when you can speak a bit of the language. This is a good place to start….it’s a Korean alphabet chart with full audio…http://www.speakoutlanguages.com/korean-chart/

    Another great resource is the Korean Wiki Project (not sure of the link….just Google it)

    Cheers!

    Ryan
    Ryan Wiley recently posted..Learn to Write Korean: Stroke Order (Vowels)My Profile

  • Learning Hangul is definitely one of the best things any traveler planning to stay more than a week in Korea can do- and I agree with some of the commenters above that it’s a very cool alphabet to learn! I just wanted to mention that I play watch-the-teacher-write-things-in-Hangul as well, and you mentioning it made me laugh. My JI students love to trick me by saying complicated words and are begrudgingly impressed when I get them nearly right! 😛

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