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How Hard is Korean for English speakers?

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My answer to the question “How hard is Korean for English speakers?” after six months of trying to learn it (and after a failed start two years ago).

In early 2020 I began learning Korean in earnest. It was originally in preparation for a planned trip to Korea which we’ve postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But in the process of studying Korean, I’ve learned a lot about the Korean language, especially a bunch of things I didn’t expect (that I wrote a whole article about — things nobody told me about learning Korean).

As planning out how much I’d have to study Korean every day to get conversational I began to wonder was: how hard is Korean, really? Specifically for English speakers, and maybe for someone who already knows Chinese? (Which is me, but is also another ~1.5 billion people.)

The short answer: Korean is not too difficult. But nor is Korean “easy”. On a difficulty scale, I’d say the difficulty of Korean is 4/5 or “Moderately Difficult” — harder to get to fluency for an English speaker than French or German, but easier than Chinese or Arabic.

The capital of Korea, Seoul, as an image for the article on How hard is korean

For each of the below aspects — alphabet, grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary — I rate as on a 1-5 point difficulty scale: “Very easy, Pretty easy, Moderate, Kinda hard, Very hard”.

[Read all about how we decide what languages to learn here and see how Egyptian Arabic and Swahili made it to the top of the list!]

Note: I’m still learning Korean, and am roughly at the “Intermediate” stage. Korean was harder than I expected. It’s not a language to learn casually on the side unless you don’t expect to get very far.

“How hard is Korean” overall: 4/5, or “Moderately Difficult”

I’m giving it this rating based on assessing:

  • Alphabet: 2/5, “Pretty easy”
  • Grammar: 3/5, “Moderate”
  • Pronunciation: 3/5, “Moderate”
  • Vocabulary: 5/5 “Very hard” (Note: I have revised this after learning ~2,000 words)

What does this rating of “moderately difficult” mean in reality? It means that if you are planning on getting very far in learning Korean in a year or less, an average learner should dedicate at least an hour to two hours a day every day to studying it intensely, with at a couple of hours of class time a week, plus homework drills.

How hard the Korean alphabet is: 2/5, “Pretty easy”

Let’s start with the good news… Korean is easy to read (and write, but I’m not focusing on that).

In fact, you could definitely learn to read it in an hour or two, and get good at it with just a few days of practice.

Korean is written in its own alphabet, called Hangul (sometimes written Hangeul). At first blush, if you have no idea how Hangul works, it looks like Chinese — like characters.

On closer inspection, you’ll see far more common traits than Chinese characters have. (Chinese characters share a pool of ~250 “radicals” that make them up, but that’s for another time — see the article on Chinese language facts, if you’re interested.)

Korean type and print, showing how to write Korean, for Korean learners
Korean type and print explained

Korean is written in little parcels of letters. Every one is a consonant block. They usually are standalone, but some of them are pronounced together, similar to French liaison.

Each consonant block in Korean is made of two to five elements, usually two or three. It’s usually as simple as a consonant and a vowel, or maybe two consonants sandwiching a vowel. These are combined into one consonant element, and then those consonant elements are grouped into words.

Some examples:

  • 가 – combination of a ㄱ(G) and a ㅏ(A) to become GA
  • 바 – combination of ㅂ(B) and ㅏ(A) to become BA
  • 보 – combination of ㅂ(B) and ㅗ(O) to become BO. Note these stack vertically

Some slightly more complex examples:

  • 밥 – combination of ㅂ(B) and ㅏ(A) and another ㅂ(B) to become BAB
  • 랑 – combination of ㄹ(R), ㅏ(A), and ㅇ(NG) to become RANG
  • 없 – combination of ㅇ(silent before a vowel), ㅓ(EO), ㅂ(B), and ㅅ(S) to become EOBS

There is a discrete number of combinations possible (it’s not infinite), and not that many letters to learn.

Korean is written left to right. The writing system is standardised with few exceptions (a few words are slurred for ease of use, but who’s going to complain about that). Generally, the Korean writing system a walk in the park as far as new writing systems go.

How to learn reading/writing: An app is a good start for Hangul, like Memrise or Duolingo. (Learning to read is the only thing I like apps for.)

How hard Korean grammar is: 3/5, “Moderate”, but do lots of drills

Korean grammar is not bad, but there are a few things that make it not terribly easy.

Things that are easy in Korean grammar:

  • Korean Verbs don’t conjugate much. It’s even more simple than in English. You just say “I eat, you eat, she eat” etc. Past and future tenses are easy to construct. For past tense, you add the particles “~았/었다” to the end of a word. For future tense, you add “~겠다” to the end of a word. You also don’t have to worry about gender or number when conjugating, as I mention below.
  • Passive and causative verbs are easy to form. Like “It has been written” vs “I wrote it”. These get pretty hard in some languages, like Arabic or Hebrew.
  • Plurals are easy…ish. You only have to add one particle, “들”, to make a noun a plural. You can actually omit it and be understood. The only complication with plurals is that you have to use a “counter” word, similar to Chinese.
  • There’s no grammatical gender, unlike most languages (but similar to English or Chinese)
  • There’s no “case”: You don’t have to use a different verb or noun form depending on where in the sentence it is (like if it’s a subject or object). This is common in German (for verbs) or Russian (for nouns), for example.

Hard things

  • Sentence structure is backwards: The basic sentence structure is “subject-object-verb”. This takes a little re-thinking, if you’re not used to it from another language. It’s like speaking like Yoda. To indicate whether a noun is an object or a subject, you have to use the right particle… this takes getting used to. It gets harder the more elements there are in a sentence, for example “I put the bag on the table” becomes “I on the table the bag put”.
    • One tip I heard on how to make it easy is to imagine you’re speaking like Yoda. “On the table, the bag I put!”
    • Another tip I use personally in most languages: use extremely simple sentences. “The bag, on the table, I put it.” (avoiding the “it”, which always makes things harder)
  • Adjectives are descriptive verbs: There’s a distinct verb that means “to be big” or “to be interesting”. If you say “the dog is big”, you use it in that way. However, when you say “the big dog”, you rearrange the adjective to just use the particle. It’s a weird concept, so you have to get used to it.
  • Particles: Korean is called an “agglutinative” language. This means you stick things onto words (at the end, for Korean) to modify the way the word is used. You use a different particle to determine whether it’s a subject or object noun. You use a different particle to make a verb future, present or past tense, or to modify formality. Korean is a very simple agglutinative language.
  • Formality levels: There are three distinct formality levels. One teacher described them as “very informal, informal and formal”. A lot of basic resources (like Duolingo or Memrise) don’t distinguish and just teach you formal, which is too formal for most situations. They’re not hard to learn, requiring mostly to stick things on the end of words, but you have to get used to the idea and to hearing them.

On formality levels: a simple way of understanding it is that you change the ending of a verb depending on who you’re speaking to and the tone you want to convey.

The formality ending of a sentence changes depending on

  • The person’s age — even if they’re jsut one year older or younger than you (this is different to Spanish or French, where you often think “am I old enough to be their child/parent” before choosing a formal or informal form)
  • The person’s seniority — for example if they’re your parent in law, or your boss, or a government official; or conversely someone’s kid, or an intern
  • The person’s familiarity — how well you know them

The rules are complicated and quite hard to explain succinctly. Frankly, I learned a lot about formality rules from watching just a few Korean Dramas. There’s always some conversation like “Hey, why are you addressing me so informally? I’m older than you!”. In every single drama. It’s that common.

How hard Korean pronunciation is: 3/5, “Moderate”

On the one hand, the majority of Korean is easy to pronounce. This is helped by the fact that the writing system is basically entirely phonetic.

Think of pronouncing Korean — mostly — like pronouncing Spanish. The vowels are predictable (even though most are slightly different to what you’re used to), and most consonants are familiar.

However, it’s not a walk in the park. I definitely had a few lessons where my teacher only got me to pronounce words and she made sure I got them (mostly) right!

Things that are easy to pronounce in Korean

  • Most vowels and consonants are easy, and there are few surprises. There are no strange aspirated sounds like you might find in French or Arabic, and there is no tonality.
  • There are also no consonant clusters – they avoid them, spacing words with vowels, like in Italian.
  • There are no tones (e.g. unlike Chinese languages)

Here’s what’s hard to pronounce in Korean consonants:

  • All the double/aspirated letters. There is a double G sound (ㄲ), double P sound (ㅃ), double J sound (ㅉ) and double K sound (ㅋ). These are pronounced kind of as a hard letter and while it’s not hard to do when just making the letter sound, it’s hard to blend it into a sentence.
  • L/R (ㄹ): This letter is variably pronounced as either an L or an R. The L sound is similar to the english L, but the R sound is a rounder R, closer to an L. You can either learn the rules, or get used to where it sounds like either depending on the word. 

Here’s what’s hard to pronounce in Korean vowels:

  • Double vowels: Pronouncing sounds like ‘eu’ is a little unintuitive. You might be familiar with this sound from French or other languages, but of course, it’s slightly different in Korean.
  • Tripthongs: Sometimes an unusual vowel is combined with another one, like “eui” (in 의사, “Doctor”). I never got these quite right, and my teacher made me drill them.

One other thing — like in every language, some words are “slurred”, especially those that are in extremely common use. This is actually formalised in pronunciation, too, it’s not just the “slangy” way of speaking. This is easy to learn — it’s for the most common words — and one of the first things you’ll pick up.

How hard Korean vocabulary is: Difficulty 5/5, “Very hard”

I’ve revised this part of this article on “How hard is Korean” after really trying to learn a lot of Korean vocabulary and realising how hard it is!

The vocab is where the rubber hits the road for learning Korean.

For the beginning learner, most words sound unfamiliar. There are almost no words common with English, apart from a few loan words like “computer” or “television”.

If you speak Chinese or Japanese, you have a 25% advantage over your average English speaker. Korean has a lot of loan words from Chinese, and they’re often the same ones that Japanese has.

But the major roadblock to learning Korean words is that so many of them sound so similar to each other. And since there are no characters, it’s harder to build mnemonic building blocks in your mind. I always have a tough time differentiating similar sounding words. The only way, for me, is to learn whole sentences using a tool like Glossika.

What’s easy about Korean vocabulary:

  • The words are fundamentally not hard say. This puts you ahead of Chinese or Arabic, where you have to learn new phonetics just to learn a new word. Case in point: “bread” in Korean is pronounced ppang, which isn’t hard to say (you kind of pause on the ‘p’ for longer), vs in Egyptian Arabic where it is pronounced 3aysh (requiring a whole new consonant, the ayn represented by the 3), or Mandarin where it is pronounced miànbāo, requiring you to know tones.
  • Words are built up out of smaller word elements. This is conceptually similar to Chinese, where “computer” is “electric brain”. In Korean, you assemble related words out of shared building blocks. For example, early in the piece I learned the word for school was 학교 (hak-kyo), and the word for student was 학생 (hak-seng). Notice anything in common?

What’s harder about Korean vocabulary:

  • The words are unfamiliar. Unless you speak Chinese or Japanese, nearly every word is going to seem new to you (and even those only give you a partial advantage). You have very few mnemonics to build.
  • There are very few loanwords. Yes, there’s “Konglish”, but nowhere near as much as in informal languages like Egyptian Arabic.
  • The words can get quite long. Chinese words are usually (and on average) two characters long. Korean words, when fully expressed with formality, can get much longer, and it gets worse when particles are thrown on them so they can be used in sentences. This makes it harder to assimilate and remember them at first.

Where to learn Korean

The best thing about Korean is that there are so many places you can learn it online. Check out our comprehensive review of the best Korean online resources.

Generally, we recommend avoiding apps and to opt for a teacher and books instead. You’ll just get way further this way. For books, we recommend the Colloquial Korean series.

Colloquial Korean: The Complete Course for Beginners
6 Reviews
Colloquial Korean: The Complete Course for Beginners
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • Pyun, Danielle Ooyoung (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 320 Pages - 08/27/2015 (Publication Date) - Routledge (Publisher)

Our favourite source for teachers is italki. Read our full review here, plus the guide on how to use it (and a discount code too).

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