Is Korean hard to learn for English speakers?

Is Korean hard to learn for English speakers?

Published: Mar 20, 2023 | By: Minjoo Noh

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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 for English speakers? You bet it is.  

Many English speakers might find it more difficult to learn Korean due to several linguistic and cultural differences.

But while there are certainly differences between the two languages, with dedication and practice, English speakers can learn to read, write, and speak Korean fluently more quickly than you think.

This blog post will explore some of the reasons why Korean is hard for English speakers, the challenges that English speakers may face when learning Korean, and whether Korean is easy to learn for English speakers.

Korean difficulty for English speakers

How hard is Korean to learn for English speakers? 

But what if you’ve never learned other East Asian languages before? Well, for native English speakers, 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.

The complexity of the Korean writing system, Hangul

Hangul, or the Korean alphabet, is regarded to be one of the most brilliant inventions to come from Korea. However, for English speakers 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).

difficulty level of Korean language for native English speakers

The different word order in Korean compared to English

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 that 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>

But not all of them are used in current modern society, 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 English speakers, 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 at least 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.

can English speakers learn to speak Korean

Why is Korean hard for English speakers?

There are several linguistic and cultural differences between Korean and English that can make learning Korean difficult for English speakers. These include:

Korean grammar compared to English grammar

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 doesn’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.

Korean pronunciation and intonation vs. English

As you may already be aware, Korean has several consonants and vowel sounds that don't exist in English. It is no wonder then that in the beginning many of my English-speaking students find it difficult to distinguish and produce these sounds accurately.</li>

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.


how hard is Korean for English speakers

English loan-words in Korean

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 also tend to break down words into equal-length syllables and maintain a neutral accent throughout the word, which is quite different from English 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 compyuteo, 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.

Korean culture and its effect on language

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.

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.

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.

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.

learning Korean vocabulary words for English speakers

Is Korean easy for English speakers?

Despite these challenges, there are some factors that could make Korean easier to learn for English speakers, such as:

Shared vocabulary with English

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, the 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.

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.

The challenges and rewards of learning Korean for English speakers

Overall, learning Korean can be a challenging but very rewarding experience for English speakers. 

Is Korean hard for English speakers to learn? You bet it is. 

But while there are certainly differences between the two languages, with dedication and practice, English speakers can learn to read, write, and speak Korean fluently more quickly than you think.

So how about it? Would you like to learn to speak Korean? Let us know!

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Minjoo Noh from the Weaver School

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.

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