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?
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.
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).**