How Hard is Korean for English speakers?

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Recently, Jo and I decided to try a three-month coaching course (which, overall, we don’t recommend) through its paces by learning a language on the side. I tried learning Korean, a language which I thought would be not too difficult.

As planning out how much I’d have to study Korean every day to get conversational in a few months I began to wonder was: how hard is Korean, really?

It’s not too difficult. But nor Korean is not “easy”, either. On a difficulty scale, I’d say the difficulty of Korean is 3/5 or “Moderate” — harder to get to fluency for an English speaker than French or German, but easier than Chinese or Arabic.

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 didn’t get very far in this mission. Korean is not too hard, but it was harder than I expected. Giving it ~1 hour a day was not enough to get to a reasonable level of fluency. I realised in this process that I’d need to spend some SERIOUS time learning it. In 2020, when we go back to our roots and learn out mother tongues, I’ll spend time in Korean learning it properly – and Jo will spend time with me in Central Asia learning Farsi.

That said, I did learn how Korean works, and feel better set up for next time when we go at it.

Overall rating of hard Korean is: 3/5, “Moderate”

I’m giving it this rating based on assessing:

  • Alphabet: 2/5, “Pretty easy”
  • Grammar: 3/5, “Moderate”
  • Pronunciation: 3/5, “Moderate”
  • Vocabulary: 4/5 “Kinda hard”

What does this mean in reality? It means you can’t fall over backwards into fluency. If you are planning on getting very far in a few months, I’d dedicate at least half a day every day to studying it intensely, with at least an hour of class time a day, 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. At first blush, if you have no idea what it is, it looks like Chinese — like a whole bunch of 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.)

Korean type and print explained

Each “character” in Korean is made of two to five elements, usually two or three. It’s usually as simple as a consonant and 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

There actually aren’t many combinations possible, and not that many letters to learn.

It’s written left to right, is standardised with no 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. (This is all 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

  • 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. 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 mroe elements there are in a sentence, for example “I put the bag on the table” becomes “I the bag on the table put”.
    • One tip I heard on how to make it easy is to imagine you’re speaking like Yoda. “The bag on the table, I put!”
    • Another tip I use personally in most languages: use extremely simple sentences. “The bag. I put on table.” (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:

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 it — 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 4/5, “Kinda hard”

OK, the vocab is where the rubber hits the road.

Most words sounded unfamiliar to me, even though I spoke Chinese already which gave me a head start (Korean has a lot of words with Chinese roots). This made it harder than I expected to build mnemonics in the language, which was a roadblock to me picking up the language quickly. (This was probably a case of expectation management; I’ll do it again, with better adjusted expectations next time.)

What’s easy about Korean vocabulary:

  • The words are fundamentally easy to say, so easier to memorise. 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 mian4bao1, 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. 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 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.

Generally we recommend avoiding apps and to opt for a teacher and books instead. You’ll just get way further this way.

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).

We haven’t tested it for Korean yet, but we love Rocket Languages for Arabic and suggest you give it a try!

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