One of the questions I’m most often asked is, “How hard is it to learn Korean?”
The short answer is, Korean can be quite difficult to learn. The American Foreign Service Institute (FSI) ranks Korean as a Category IV language, which puts it amongst the most difficult for native English speakers.
But what exactly makes it so difficult? We take a look at three reasons why it's difficult for native English speakers, and one way it can be easier to learn compared to other East Asian languages.
1. Understanding Honorific Speech Levels Is Crucial
Korean culture derives from the principles of Confucianism, so respecting one’s elders is pretty much the Number One rule of social etiquette. This is evident in all aspects of the language; there may not be any grammatical genders, but there are a whopping seven different levels of speech.
These speech levels are broken down into two defining factors: formality and politeness. Three of the seven levels are outdated, so you won’t often see them used outside of historical dramas or texts.
Let’s take a brief look at the other four levels that are used in modern-day Korean:
Hasipsio-che (하십시오체): Formal and Polite
This level is both polite and formal and is sometimes called the humble level of speech. This is because it not only elevates the listener in honorific, it also lowers the speaker to show humility.
All manner of public speeches and broadcasts use this form, such as news broadcasters or train announcements. You also use this form when speaking to strangers, elders; pretty much anyone that stands at a higher social rank than you.
Haera-che (해라체): Formal and Neutral
The Haera-che form is also called the “plain” form. It’s considered neither polite nor impolite but is among the formal levels of speech. Generally speaking, you wouldn’t want to use this with people who warrant more respect.
In speech, you’ll usually hear it used to make simple exclamations or observations. Otherwise, this is most commonly used in texts and writing. All verbs and adjectives are taught in Haera-che, as this is considered the default dictionary form.
Haeyo-che (해요체): Informal and Polite
The Haeyo-che form is the most common form of speech in Korean. It is used in general everyday situations as it’s considered informal, but still polite. This is also the first form of speech that non-native Korean speakers are taught, as well.
Essentially, the Haeyo-che form is considered the “default” speech level, from which you move up or down for different situations. As long as you add 요 (yo) to the end of every sentence, you can speak in Haeyo-che form.
Hae-che (해체): Informal and Impolite/Familiar
This is the most informal level of speech and is described as either familiar or impolite, depending on the context. You might use it with your immediate family, close friends, or small children. However, it can be considered offensive if you use it in the wrong situation or with the wrong person.
Confused yet? It gets even more complicated.
What To Be Aware of When Speaking Korean
The Korean speaker has to be aware of three key factors at all times:
- The degree of decorum the situation calls for (formality),
- The relationship between them and the listener(s) (politeness), and
- The degree to which the subject and/or object of the sentence must be honoured (object honorific).
This degree of separation between formality and politeness doesn’t just end at the grammar level, either. There’s an entirely different set of vocabulary words you would use when referring to someone whose status you must honour, too.
As a non-native speaker, you might be able to get away with using just the Haeyo-che form of speech. But to native Koreans, a speech level faux pas can be humiliating and even offensive.
2. Tackling Korean Sentence Structure
The sentence structure in Korean is Subject-Object-Verb, as opposed to the Subject-Verb-Object structure used in English. This alone might pose a problem for English speakers, but it’s more complex than that.
You’ll recall in the previous section on Haera-che, I mentioned that verbs and adjectives are written in that level of speech by default. That’s because, in Korean, adjectives are treated the same as verbs and are conjugated as such.
Verbs and adjectives do have slightly different rules when it comes to conjugation. But because their plain forms are so similar, you can’t tell off the bat which one is which. You have to either just know whether it’s a verb or an adjective, or look it up in a dictionary.
This doesn’t mean adjectives can’t be used in the same way as English, though. If you wanted to call something red, say, “a red car” instead of saying “the car is red,” you can. You just have to conjugate the adjective first before you attach it to the noun. Confusing, huh?
Korean also uses postpositions, or particles, to determine the subject and object, among other things. This allows a bit of flexibility in where things are in sentences, as long as you use the proper particles.
This also means more opportunity to confuse parts of the sentence, or completely saying the wrong thing entirely if you use the wrong particles.
3. The Hills Are Alive With The Sound of Korean Consonants
It’s not unusual for languages to have additional sounds that aren’t used in English. But in Korean, you have to be more consciously aware of where in your mouth these sounds come from. There are three types of consonant sounds in Korean, and native English speakers may struggle to differentiate between them.
These are regular sounds that are made in the middle of the mouth. For native English speakers, these sounds are probably the easiest to recognize and replicate.
The sounds of the letters differ somewhat from their English counterparts, though. For example, the character ㄹ (rieul) is pronounced somewhere between an l and an r, the ㅂ (bieup) somewhere between a b and a p, and so forth.
These consonants are made by pulling the lips back and “tensing” them, and the sound comes from the back of the throat. They’re written by doubling up the plain consonants; i.e. ㄱ (kieuk) becomes ㄲ (ssang-kieuk), ㄷ (digeut) becomes ㄸ (ssang-digeut), et cetera.
Not all consonants can be tensed, but it’s usually these tensed ones that English speakers struggle with the most.
Made at the front of the mouth, these consonants always produce a puff of air, hence the name “aspirated consonants.”
These consonants are usually fairly easy to distinguish from their plain counterparts. If you hold your hand in front of your face and can feel the air when you pronounce the sound, it’s aspirated.
The Trickster Called Palatalisation
Unlike English, all of the vowels in Korean have a single sound with no exceptions. However, much like English, the consonants can change sound depending on which other consonants they appear next to.
(I’m looking at you, ph making an f sound.)
This concept is called palatalisation. Simply put, it’s a way to make consonant pairs that may be otherwise difficult to pronounce easier to say. These consonant sound changes in Korean may not always be readily apparent to native English speakers.
For example, the word for “last year” is 작년 (spelt chak-nyeon). The k-sounding ㄱ next to the n-sounding ㄴ may come across as a bit stilted if pronounced as they’re spelt. So, in actuality, this word is pronounced 장년 (chang-nyeon), with the k sound changing to an ng sound. Fairly straightforward, right?
But then you get combinations like the b-sounding ㅂ turning to an m-sounding ㅁ when it’s next to an n-sounding ㄴ, as in 고맙습니다 (gomapseumnida, “thank you very much”). Or the s-sounding ㅅ being pronounced as a t-sounding ㄷ when it’s at the end of a syllable block, as in 맛 (mat, “taste”).
Worst of all, these rules aren’t something that’s necessarily taught. Some teachers might take the time to sit down and explain each palatalisation rule to you. But more often than not, it’s a pattern that you’ll have to pick up on your own.
With all of these challenges just scratching the surface, it's little wonder it can take upwards of 2000 hours to become conversational in Korean.
Wait! There's Hope For Us Yet
Hangul, the Korean Alphabet
Now with all of these different reasons why Korean is difficult to learn, you might be discouraged. There is, however, a factor of the language that native English speakers may find easier to learn compared to other languages: hangul.
Hangul is the Korean alphabet, and you might be pleased to know that it is written phonetically. Created in the mid-1400s, hangul is one of the world’s newest writing systems. It was designed to be easy to learn, as its creator, King Sejong, wanted to encourage literacy among the common people.
Words in hangul are formed by putting letters (14 consonants and 10 vowels, to be exact) into syllable blocks. Each syllable block contains between two and four letters, and always has at least a consonant followed by a vowel. With Korean, you could be reading full sentences in a matter of hours! You might not understand what you were reading right away, mind you, but you could still read it.
Compare that to Chinese and Japanese, which require you to memorize thousands of characters and their pronunciations to be literate. For this reason, many people claim that Korean is the easiest to learn out of the “Big Three” East Asian languages.
What's The Best Way To Learn Korean?
Every learner is different, which is why there's no one rule fits all when it comes to learning Korean.
To get started, we'd recommend trying out a language platform that is well-versed in teaching East Asian Languages. For us, LingoDeer is one of the best platforms to learn Korean. Its affordable subscription prices, well-thought-out course structure and fun gamification aspects are why we rated it 4/5 in our Lingodeer Review.
My Final Thoughts: How Hard Is It To Learn Korean?
I couldn’t possibly cover all of the reasons Korean is so difficult for native English speakers in a single article. I couldn’t even tell you all of the reasons myself—the difficulty is subjective, and what is difficult for one person might be easy for another.
Hopefully, this article sheds some light on some of the challenges you might face when you begin your Korean journey. And, even if you should stumble and mess up, don’t be too hard on yourself. I’ve been studying Korean since 2008 and I still make plenty of mistakes myself.
Just remember, the important thing is that you’re learning, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. At the end of the day, that makes all of the difficulty and the effort worthwhile.
Ori Starling is a writer, editor, and translator based out of the United States. Their interest in languages began over 25 years ago, teaching themselves Spanish at a young age from tapes so that they could speak with family. Since then, they've studied Korean, Mandarin, and Japanese, with plans to continue their lifelong language learning journey.