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Overview: The Fundamentals
Reading and Writing

Firstly, take a deep breath and let it out. Learning to read a new script is often intimidating, but it does not need to be difficult. Take your time and learn bit by bit, and in no time you will be reading and writing flawlessly. Some prefer to learn to speak a language before learning to read and write, but that depends solely on your learning style. If you are an auditory learner, I would skip this section and go to the listening and speaking exercises. If you learn (even slightly) visually I would recommend learning about the Korean writing system in this section first. Many auditory learners find it helpful to learn the writing system in order to take more accurate notes or put flashcards to use for more practice. You may find that simply being exposed to this section once and moving on to speaking and listening is enough to cement this into your mind as it is reinforced by the audio lessons, but don’t fret if it takes a couple run-throughs. Simply put: approach Korean and languages as fits your learning style.

Korean is a syllabic system, meaning that it has individual characters that combine to form a single “up-down” movement of the mouth when enunciating. In this way it is extremely similar to Japanese, but there are two major attributes that set Korean apart from many of the other Asiatic languages. One is that there are individual characters—like that of the English alphabet—and no pictorial words seen in standard everyday sentences (i.e. Kanji, Hanzi). Be careful with the latter part because if you travel to South Korea you will see Chinese characters, but they are rarely used and often are used only on restaurant signs or as names that are easily identifiable. These characters are known as 한자 (Hanja) and most Korean dictionaries list these beside the Hangul. For a list of some of the most common Hanja characters I would recommend exploring the Korean Hanja Characters page on SayJack after learning to read Hangul.

In general, there are usually three lines of text that you will see when learning Korean. The first is Hangul (also romanized as Hangeul) which is simply in the Korean writing system, Romanization which is the phonetic form of the Korean word (literally, it is the word in Latin letters which makes it understandable to those in the Western world), and then—last but not least—the the translation (I assume English, as you are reading this in English, but of course can be in other languages.)


다 잘 될 거야
Da jal dwael geoya
Everything will be alright

The Korean alphabet consists of 24 letters. Formally standardized by King Sejong of the Joseon Dynasty in 1443, the letters are written into blocks that represent syllables rather than being written out sequentially as in the Latin languages. These blocks are formed by arranging letters horizontally from left to right or vertically from top to bottom and consist of two to five individual letters. Mathematically, the total number of possible combinations in a single block is 11,172. Yet not all combinations are present in actual words considering that there are far fewer phonetically possible combinations. For instance 게 and 개 are homophones, both sounding as “ge” but have extremely different meanings while other similar blocks may have one or more that does not occur in Korean words.

Korean Alphabet

Another interesting point about Korean syllables is that it always has at least one consonant and one vowel. Well, how does that work when you have only a vowel sound? This is where the null character comes into play. If there is not a voiced consonant in front of the vowel (i.e. ㄴ+ㅏ= 나 “na”) then the null is always placed before the vowel. Example: ㅇ+ㅏ= 아 “ah” But be careful! This character only has no sound if placed before the other letters. If it is found at the end it makes an “ng” sound as in “gong.”

Earlier we mentioned the “by-the-book” way to form characters, but you might be wondering what that looks like and how to type it. We’ll get to the typing in a little bit, but here are the basics of how to write it down:

  1. When writing, remember to start at the top right with the first letter, known as the initial, and work your way across and down to the bottom left. It does not matter if this is a single, double, or null consonant.
  2. The second letter, called the medial, is always a vowel. Once again. it does not matter if this is a combination or single vowel. As a rule of thumb, if the vowel’s longest line is upright, it goes to the left of the initial. If the vowel’s longest line is horizontal it goes underneath the initial.
  3. The final consonant (if there is one), goes underneath the initial and medial letters. Consonants can be combined or double in this position (Ex: 잒, 싫). The only double consonants that cannot be placed as the final are ㅃ, ㅉ, ㄸ.
This periodic table for writing Korean is a great guide while committing the alphabet and rules to memory.

This periodic table for writing Korean is a great guide for committing the alphabet and rules to memory. Click for an enlarged version.

One of the most important rules to be aware of is the changes in pronunciation of letters when placed in the initial versus the final position. Many aspirated consonants (sometimes indicated by the apostrophe by the Romanized letter such as ㅍ=p’) lose their aspiration and become softer. Combination consonants at the end sound like a single consonant, usually by a dominance factor. For instance, ㅀ at the end of the first syllable in 싫아 becomes more like an “l” as the “h” sound drops off. It is good to know these rules, but they will come naturally as you learn to sound out words while reading, so do not let these worry you.

I would recommend that you watch these two videos a couple of times to cement the writing system to memory:

*Credit to Seemile for the videos.

Listening and Speaking

No matter what language you are learning it is key to balance audio with visual learning. There are many ways to learn to speak and comprehend Korean, so don’t despair if you can’t afford Pimsleur or Rosetta Stone! Among my favorites are listening to songs while reading the lyrics and memorizing lines of TV shows with an equivalent English translation. But be careful to not get stuck in a mode of simply reading the English! It is too easy to simply enjoy the show and hope you pick something up, but it takes effort to commit phrases to memory so that they may be used in real-life conversations. Personally, while learning, I liked to enjoy the show the first time then run back through it for the purpose of memorizing lines.

But what about pronunciation? Recording yourself and playing back is a great way of self-checking your speech, but that can get boring really quickly. Another suggestion is to find a learning partner that you can talk to either over Skype or other audio and video services (check out the World Connections page for a list of a few great, free websites). For shier people, unfortunately, the biggest benefit may be the biggest hindrance in this method. What happens if I make a mistake? How am I supposed to talk to someone fast enough? Will they understand me, even with my poor accent? Let this assure you: no one expects perfection. The community is accepting as everyone knows that they will make mistakes at some point. Here are five basic tips to having a successful conversation with a learning partner.

  1. Simply communicate as best you can. People will understand if you have to backup or use text chat to help.
  2. Start slowly. It is important to build your confidence when learning!
  3. Take your time. No one will mind if it takes two seconds instead of one to formulate an answer.
  4. If you have a question, feel free to ask. It will likely help keep the conversation going.
  5. Enjoy yourself! When finding a learning partner, find someone who is interested in the same things. Then you can ramble for hours!

Although it is not on my five-tip list, you can even find a partner who is learning the same language as you. It works as a friendly push to learn more and progress at a strong pace.

Are you still worried about speaking and pronunciation? Perhaps you can’t master a certain syllable. In Korean, there are many syllables that even native speakers have trouble with, particularly 을/를 (eul/reul). So don’t worry if you can’t say it perfectly. Many Koreans leave off this article when speaking anyways!

We are beginning to develop a program tailored around learning phrases off of conversations in your favorite dramas and TV shows! Although it is not always 100% accurate in comparison to conversations that you may take part in, it never hurts to enjoy memorizing a few lines of your favorite dramas while learning useful phrases and idioms. We will break down each video snippet and describe the concept behind it, then you can try your hand at interacting with the show itself as a character of your choice! If you have a favorite show that you would like us to tailor a lesson around, let us know in either the comments or the request tab. We’ll keep you posted in the site news tab and this page as we start rolling out lessons, so feel free to ask us any questions and comeback soon! (Note: we are in the program’s early developmental stages and we are not professionals)

More Reference and Study Materials

Here are some various workbooks and grammar guides for Korean. We will be writing lessons on main grammar points, so you may decide that you don’t want to use these guides. They are good reference guides and practice books, but I would not recommend plugging all the way through them without balancing your studying out with either video or audio material.

Korean Level 1 (Seoul National Univeristy)

Lessons on CultureQuote
Fundamentals (Stage 2: Beyond the Overview)

Lesson 1 – Comprehending Hangul (R,W,L,S)
Lesson 2 – Present Tense Verb Rules (R,W)
Lesson 3 – Present Tense Verb Conjugations (R,W,L,S)
Lesson 4 – Basic Word Order (R,W)

*R = Reading, W = Writing, L = Listening, S = Speaking; most lessons will include all four of the main areas of language learning, but usually with an emphasis on two (i.e. reading and writing). For our first stage, the Fundamentals, we will include all four unless noted by the initials in parentheses. As we progress, we will spin off into two main areas of learning (R,W and L,S) and cover the same topics, but to accommodate more learning styles. Sadly, we are a small team and constrained by time and resources, so even the listening and speaking lessons will have a fair amount of English text to teach the lesson, but we will try our best to minimize it. Please also take note that all of the lessons are written by a non-native Korean speaker.

These lessons are still under production. Please check back soon or leave a request to up this language’s priority. Thanks!

3 thoughts on “Korean

  1. Pingback: 한글날 (Hangeulnal) – Korean Alphabet Day | CultureQuote

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