Published: Jul 19, 2023 | By: Minjoo Noh
As a native Korean, a fluent speaker of 4 different languages, and an online Korean teacher to foreign students, I’m gonna be honest with you:
Is Korean hard to learn? You bet it is.
But while there are certainly differences between Korean and Western languages, with dedication and practice, Korean learners can learn to read, write, and speak Korean fluently more quickly than you think.
While learning any new language can be challenging in general, Korean is one language that many learners might find a bit harder to learn due to several linguistic and cultural differences.
That being said, I think that is exactly why you should take on the challenge of learning Korean, as it can open your eyes to a fresh, new way of thinking and viewing the world, along with unlocking the key to the vast cultural riches that Korea has to offer.
This blog post will explore some of the reasons why Korean is hard to learn, the challenges that you may face when learning Korean, and whether Korean is easy to learn for speakers of some languages.
First, let's start with the positive notes.
Whether you find Korean difficult to learn or not will depend on many factors, such as your previous exposure to the Korean language and culture and your prior knowledge of East Asian languages in general, such as Chinese or Japanese.
For instance, learning Korean will be slightly easier if you already know a bit of Japanese or Chinese, as some cultural aspects are shared within our East Asian neighbors.
Furthermore, Korean has some overlap of grammatical structures with Japanese, and almost 60% of the vocabulary is made up of Chinese characters, even though the pronunciation and grammar are quite different from the Chinese language.
But what if you’ve never learned other East Asian languages before? Well, for speakers of Western languages, Korean may be particularly challenging due to:
The complexity of the Korean writing system, Hangul.
The different word order in Korean compared to English.
The various levels of formality in Korean that dictate which words and grammar structures are used.
Hangul, or the Korean alphabet, is regarded to be one of the most brilliant inventions to come from Korea. It was specially designed by royal scholars by order of King Sejong the Great in 1443 AD to be a very simple, logical, and scientific way to write the Korean language and replace the Chinese writing system.
However, for Westerners who do not already speak Korean, it can be quite challenging to learn in the beginning due to its unique set of rules and sounds found only in the Korean language.
For one, you need to first memorize all the Korean consonants and vowels, their pronunciation, and how to write them in the correct order. Hangul is not simply written from left to right, like in English or many other languages. It is a combination of letters written from left to right and top to bottom to form individual coherent syllables.
This means you need to dedicate some time to learn Hangul in the beginning as this will make your Korean learning much easier in the future. It might take anywhere from a couple of days to a week to learn depending on your abilities, and whether you have a good teacher or not. (I do recommend learning with a Korean teacher in the beginning for at least a few sessions in order to understand how the Hangul system works).
Korean has a completely different grammatical structure than English. For example, in Korean, the verb usually comes at the very end of the sentence, whereas in English, it usually comes right after the subject.
That means the general word order in Korean is Subject-Object-Verb (S-O-V) instead of the Subject-Verb-Object (S-V-O) in English.
For example, we say in Korean:
나는 너를 사랑해 - I love you.
(Na-neun neo-leul sa-rang-hae.)
The word order here is I (나) - you (너) - love (사랑해) (S-O-V), instead of the English word order I love you (S-V-O).</p>
Third, the various levels of formality in Korean dictate which words and grammar structures are used.
Due to our long history of following Confucianism, we Koreans put high importance on the rules of hierarchy, authority, and showing respect where it is due. That’s why there are up to 7 levels of formality in the Korean language.</p>
Not all of them are used in current modern society, though, and the most commonly used today are these four:
Formal and polite/ 합니다/ Hasipsio-che (하십시오체): used by TV broadcasters, to elders
Formal and casual/ 한다/ Haera-che (해라체): used in reported speech and written materials
Informal and polite/ 해요/ Haeyo-che (해요체): used between strangers and colleagues
Informal and casual/ 해/ Hae-che (해체) or banmal (반말): used between close friends and to younger people</p>
Four might be less than seven, but that’s still a lot! And the level of formality you use can even change the kind of Korean verbs, nouns, and pronouns you need to use to say the same things but with more respect. And if you don’t get these right, you can sound quite rude or at least very strange.
Unfortunately for Korean learners, that translates to many opportunities to make errors with the levels of formalities while speaking Korean in practical daily life. The only way you would be able to really understand this aspect of the Korean language is if you spend enough time in Korea, such as 3 to 6 months of living here and experiencing all the different social situations such as work, friends, family, etc.
But don’t worry too much from the start! Because if you just want to learn simple phrases and be able to have casual, basic conversations in Korean, then it won’t be strictly necessary to know how to use all the formalities from the beginning.
There are several linguistic and cultural differences between Korean and English that can make learning Korean difficult for English speakers. These include:
As I mentioned before, Korean has a completely different grammatical structure from English. In the example above we saw that in Korean, the verb usually comes at the end of the sentence, whereas in English, it comes after the subject.
나는 너를 사랑해 - I love you.
(Na-neun neo-leul sa-rang-hae.)
나 (I) - 너 (you) - 사랑해 (love)
(Subject - Object - Verb)
To make things even more complicated, we also have special “particles” which we put after nouns to indicate or emphasize the topic/subject/object in the sentence.
In the example above, the particles are 는 which follows 나 (I) and 를 which follows 너 (you).
나 (I) 는 (topic marking particle) - 너 (you) 를 (object marking particle) - 사랑해 (love).
We have several of these particles which are not only used to indicate or emphasize the topic, subject, and object but can also sometimes be used to add nuance or make the sentence sound more natural.
Since English and most other Western languages don’t have such particles, this is another very tricky part of learning Korean grammar. And again, the only way you can learn is to simply familiarize yourself with them by listening to how Koreans use them in everyday conversation.
As you may already be aware, Korean has several consonants and vowel sounds that don't exist in English, although you can find them in some European languages. It's no wonder then that in the beginning many of my English-speaking students find it difficult to distinguish and produce these sounds accurately.
Let’s look at some of the consonants.
There are three types of consonants in the Korean alphabet: Basic, Aspirated, and Double consonants.
Here are a few of the basic consonants to give you an idea of how they sound:
g d b s j
They sound similar to the following English sounds g, d, b, s, and j.
Now take a look at the aspirated consonants:
k t p h ch
These sound like the consonants in English k, t, p, h, and ch.
Then finally there are the tricky double consonants:
ㄲ ㄸ ㅃ ㅆ ㅉ
k’ t’ p’ s’ j’
Now, these double consonant sounds actually don’t exist in English and sound more like the consonants in Spanish or some Southeast Asian languages. That means that for some English speakers, these sounds will be completely new, and quite hard to pronounce.
What makes them even trickier, is that they sound similar to other sounds you make in English, so you’ll constantly be tempted to say them in an incorrect way with the sounds you’re already comfortable with. For example, saying a regular “puh” sound like a P instead of the high-pitched soft “puh” in ㅃ.
Of course, to a native Korean, all the various consonants and vowels sound very different and are easy to distinguish. But not so for English speakers, as they can be quite confusing in the beginning since the differences in pronunciation might be too subtle to tell apart from each other.
That’s why if you can, I recommend that you study Hangul with a Korean teacher, at least for the first few times so that you can hear and practice saying the exact pronunciation of each letter in the alphabet. You will have a much easier time learning and practicing on your own afterward once you have the basics down properly.
Korean, like many other languages around the world, has had several influences from other countries including Chinese, Japanese, and more recently from English due to the cultural influences of Europe and the US.
It especially has a lot of words made up of Chinese characters due to the significant cultural influence on Korea historically. (Remember that before the invention of Hangul, Korean was written with Chinese characters. So it’s no wonder that so many words come from them).
For example, many names of places and people in Korea use Chinese characters to form their meanings. Even the word Korea in Korean 한국 (Hanguk), is made up of the Chinese characters Han and Guk.
한국 - Hanguk (Han, meaning Korean + Guk, meaning country)
Sometimes understanding the meaning of Chinese characters is useful as it can help you quickly understand new words. Case in point, take the word for Korean traditional dress which is 한복 Hanbok (Han meaning Korean + Bok meaning clothes).
But unfortunately, it’s not always so simple. Because many same-sounding words in Korean tend to be tied to multiple Chinese letters. For example, 한 Han can mean Korean, but it can also mean "one, regret, limit, Han Chinese", and many other things. (Yes, I know, difficult!)
This just goes to show the complexity and the challenge of learning the Korean language for Korean learners due to the mix of its native language, use of Chinese characters, and other foreign influences throughout history to the present.
Then what about the English words used in the Korean language? That should make it easier for English speakers to learn Korean right?
Well.. yes and no.
Korean does have a lot of English “loan-words” nowadays due to our close relationship with and the vast technological and cultural influences from the US.
Counterintuitively though, English loan words can actually also be quite hard to pronounce for native English speakers, because you need to pronounce them in the Korean way and not in the typical way that they do in the US, UK, or any other country.
That’s because, in Korea, we don’t have many of the sounds that English does such as f, r, v, z, or “th” words.
Also, we tend to break down words into equal-length syllables and maintain a neutral accent throughout the word, which is quite different from English or European languages which tends to have a strong accent or stress on certain parts of the word.
For example, take the word computer. In English, the stress will be on the second syllable of ‘pu’. However, in Korean, the same word is pronounced in three equal syllables - 컴퓨터 compyutah, and there is no extra stress on the second syllable ‘pyu’.
If you do stress the second syllable like an English speaker would in Korea, people would understand you, but it would sound very strange indeed. So it might take some practice to relearn how to say certain English words with a Korean accent so that Koreans will be able to understand you with ease!
Again, the best advice for this is to keep listening as much as possible to Korean and practice speaking yourself whenever you can.
Finally, the culture and customs of Korea are vastly different from those in the West which can make it challenging for English speakers to understand why we say the things we do in the way that we do.
For example, since Korea is traditionally a patriarchal Confucian society based around the family unit, we have many different gender-specific words revolving around family. That’s why in Korea we tend to call anyone older than us who we share a close relationship with “older sister” or “older brother” even if they’re not actually related to us.
Older sister is 언니 (unni) for girls and 누나 (noona) for boys.
Older brother is 오빠 (oppa) for girls and 형 (hyung) for boys.
We also have specific words for each relative in the family based on their level of hierarchy and especially whether they are from the mom’s side of the family or dad’s side of the family. This is because traditionally in Korea when a woman marries, she is then considered to belong to her husband’s family, so the children also officially belong to the paternal side of the family more than the maternal side of the family.
So for example, in Korea, the aunt from your mom’s side is called 이모 (Ee-mo) but the aunt from your dad’s side is called 고모 (Go-mo). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
For English speakers, learning all these different family titles might be strange and a bit difficult to do since this is peculiar to Korean culture, but sometimes their differences can be quite important.
For example, it’s common to refer to an older woman working in a restaurant or food market as 이모 (Ee-mo), or Auntie in English. However, if you called her 고모 (Go-mo), which means the exact same thing in English, it would be quite weird and a bit insulting.
This is because the Aunt on your mom’s side in Korea has a historically higher ranking hierarchically in Korean family culture than the aunt on your dad’s side.
So while knowing all of these nuanced terms will not be necessary for everyone, it just goes to show how the differences in Korean culture might make it extra difficult for English speakers.
Despite these challenges, there are some factors that could make Korean easier to learn for Westerners, such as:
As I’ve already mentioned, there are many words in Korean that are borrowed from English, which can make it easier to understand some Korean words.
As I also said before, pronunciation can be a bit tricky, but once you get the hang of it, it definitely makes it easier since you don’t have to make the extra effort of learning new words.
Here are a few examples:
라디오 (Lah-di-oh) - Radio
커피 (Keo-pi) - Coffee
인스타그램 (In-seu-tah-geu-raem) - Instagram
And as Korea becomes more international, the more these English loan words will likely increase. Koreans have become quite comfortable with using English loanwords in everyday life while many new vocabulary words are constantly being added each year thanks to globalization and technological advances.
Hangul despite its special rules, is still a phonetic writing system, meaning that each character represents a sound, making it easier to learn how to read and write.
Therefore, it is not like learning Chinese or Japanese, where you have to memorize how to write and pronounce each complicated letter every time you learn a new word. Once you learn how a Korean word sounds, you will generally know how to write it using Hangul.
With the rise of K-Pop and Korean dramas, there are more resources available to learn Korean than ever before.
Of course, BTS and BlackPink are wildly popular all over the world now, but K-pop is a very wide genre that includes RnB, hip-hop, indie, electronic, and more. With some research and the right recommendations, you are sure to find some Korean music that suits your taste.
It’s a similar story with Korean dramas and movies. Nowadays you can find all types of excellent quality shows and stories produced in Korea easily available on Netflix, YouTube, etc. to help you on your learning journey.
And of course, you can also occasionally find some friendly Koreans such as myself, who are more than happy to share and teach about my language and culture as much as we can!
Overall, learning Korean can be a challenging but very rewarding experience for English speakers.
Is Korean hard to learn? You bet it is.
But while there are certainly differences between Korean and Western languages, with dedication and practice, English speakers can learn to read, write, and speak Korean fluently. How long does it take to learn Korean overall? Maybe more quickly than you think. Only one way to find out 😉.
So how about it? Would you like to learn to speak Korean? Let us know!
Minjoo is a native bilingual Korean and English speaker who works as a professional content writer, translator, and teacher. She also speaks fluent Mandarin and Spanish and has a strong professional background in international relations, using her skills to work with various NGOs and the United Nations. Her interests include self-development and learning, travel, politics, and sustainability.