I have been learning Korean for around a year now and I just wanted to share some of the things that I found to be easy, and also some of the things that made me want to stand around a nice little grammar-book bonfire with hatred in my eyes.

(For the record I am no expert on either Korean or English grammar and the points made below are based on my own experience of Korean. Please feel free to correct any mistakes that I have made about the technicalities of either language. Don’t bother if it’s just a spelling mistake, I’m just too lazy to use spell check right now)

Hurray! Korean is Easy!

1. Simple Conjugation

One major advantage of learning Korean as opposed to some other languages is that the verbs conjugate in the same way regardless of the Verb’s subject. This makes learning a new tense a matter of moments rather than much, much longer.

2. Phonetic Alphabet and not silly little pictures

Hangeul looks confusing if you are unfamiliar with it, but unlike mandarin Chinese, the symbols are actually composed of distinct characters that effectively function the same way as the letters do in English. The only difference is that the words are formed in blocks, often in two layers. Even though this is tricky at first, it’s not so bad once you learn that each block of letters counts as one syllable.

What is particularly ingenious about Hangeul is that it was originally designed by Kind Sejong (of 100 won coin fame) so that the characters represent the shape of the mouth and the tongue movements when voicing the character in question. For example, the ‘m’ character is a square ‘ᄆ’, and the ‘n’ character is  ‘ᄂ‘ which mimics movement of your tongue as you voice it. Sejong originally used this technique so that uneducated peasants would be able to read and write, however it did prove useful for me when I was learning the alphabet. When the characters were first put into use it was said that “A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.”. It took me 2 months of on and off study to master the alphabet, so I’m not sure what that makes me, but anyhow, it’s certainly not as hard as it looks.

There is a good book called Yes! You can Learn Korean Language Structure in 40 minutes which proved to be very useful although temporally, slightly inaccurate.

3. The Lack of Irregulars

My memories of learning GCSE French at school are marred partly my teacher Mme Staten’s armpit hair, and partly by the relentless study of irregular verbs. Even in Italian, which has far fewer irregulars than French, was I frustrated by this seemingly thankless task.

Happily then, Korean has very few irregulars. There are a few, but in my (admittedly limited experience) they seem to still operate within some kind of logical system. The main benefit of this is, I think, that of a greater confidence in application. As with the simple conjugation, I am always fairly certain that I am getting it right, purely because it’s much harder to get it wrong than in other languages. This means that I don’t catch myself worrying about whether or not I got it right, a situation which would inevitably lead me to over think the problem and thus get it wrong.

Booooooo! Korean is hard!

1. Korean is a Codified Language

You know what I said, like 5 minutes ago, about how Korean is easy because the conjugations are a piece of cake? Well the downside is that the verbs do change, but not based of the person, but based on to whom you are speaking.

I’m sure that you would speak differently to a child than you would if you were reading the news or speaking to your parents, but this would presumably manifest itself in terms of the register of language you used and only minimally in your application of verbal grammar.

Not so in Korean. Because Korean culture is so centred on the respect of position in society , the language follows suit. Thus speaking in what is usually termed “informal polite language” to your boss would be considered a great disrespect. As far as I can remember them, the codes of language are (roughly) as follows

-Informal – Speaking to children, close friends and family members of the same age. Or sometimes just someone who is younger than you.

-Informal Polite – Used in general conversation with people around the same age and social position, or with acquiesces who you don’t know too well.

-Polite – Used to speak to bosses, elder family members etc

-Formal – used when speaking on TV, by people in the customer service industry, and generally when really trying to show respect to someone.

Generally when you start learning Korean you will learn the Informal polite because as a westerner it’s the easiest and the most applicable to anyone you will meet. The problem with Formal language is that when it is used in shops and restaurants, it can be difficult to understand because it is less commonly learnt than the informal polite. The other problem I have found is that there seem to be no text-books which teach the informal, impolite language. This is particularly frustrating to a teacher of young children, although granted in that line of work you only have to listen to pick it up.

Supposedly Korean’s themselves have problems using these different levels of speech, and it is common to ask someone’s age much earlier in the process of meeting them than in the West, just so that they know which form of language to use.

2. Sentence Markers

Korean as a language seems generally much more efficient and much less convoluted than English. One thing that is tricky about forming sentences in Korean is the use of what are known as “Sentence Markers”. These are short words which add no extra meaning to the sentence, except to denote different parts of it. There are subject markers, object markers, topic markers, place markers and time makers to name just a few.

Whilst some of these are fairly straight forward and are very helpful when reading Korean, I found it really tricky to remember to use them when I was speaking it, and even am still sometimes confused as to which marker to use.

As a small example, the word ”I” can be said as “Na Nun”, “Jeo Nun” and “Nae ga” (“nun” and “ga” being the markers for topic and subjecdt respectively) and I still haven’t been able to ascertain from anyone which should be used in which context. I would go into more detail about them now, but I seem to have mislaid my Korean grammar book, so maybe that can be a fascinating treat for another time.

3. Learning Vocabulary

When I was friends with a French guy a couple of years ago, I found that despite my meagre French ability, I was usually able to blag not knowing a word simply by saying an English word in a comically stereotypical French accent. This was possible because French and English share many words, and if the words aren’t exactly the same, the at least share a common Latinate root, thus making it easier to memorise them.

The Korean language, whilst borrowing a fair few English words (usually for things and products), does not share any root language with English. This makes learning Korean vocabulary an arduous task.

I find the only way to learn a new Korean word (if I don’t want to sit on the bus and repeat it to myself 400 times like some crazed old drunk with a grudge, and believe me I have done this) is to link the sounds, however intangibly and improbably to English words and names by way of a powerful image.

For example, today I learnt the Korean word for “anxiety” which is roughly Romanised as “ggok Jjeong”. The image I created for myself was of Gok Wan (the TV personality who tells woman that they look bad naked) being threatened with torture by Jim Jong-Il and consequently being anxious about his predicament. This is a particularly tenuous example, but it’s really not all that anomalous.

Of course, without a decent vocabulary you can still be understood, but it’s a different story when being spoken to. Sadly I’ve realised that to have any chance at good Korean conversation I’ll probably have to just tough it out.