Why is learning Korean so hard? (2024)

In the past two years, I have been studying the Korean language. I have a great private teacher, do my homework, and practice on the street every day. Still, I have difficulty understanding a Korean person speaking to me, let alone listening to the radio or watching a Korean drama on television without subtitles.

Before I tell you why I think it is so hard, let me tell you why it is not.

It is not because of my lack of talent in learning languages. Besides learning ancient Latin and Greek at school, I speak Dutch, English, French, and German, so Korean is my fifth living language. I have always loved languages and spent countless hours studying grammar, speaking to foreigners, and reading books. I know the difference between the subject and an object in a phrase, understand the four different cases in German, and memorized long lists of exceptions when it comes to verb conjugations or word genders.

It is also not difficult because of the different alphabet, called Hangeul (한글). Korean is not written in the Latin alphabet but has its own characters that don’t make much sense to people outside Korea. It seems complicated because the letters are grouped in syllables, which are combinations of two, three, or sometimes four letters. And it doesn’t help that they keep on writing the syllables one after the other, without much punctuation and capitals, and adding spaces at seemingly random places. Korean has a lot in common with Chinese, but Hangeul was invented in the 15th Century by King Sejong the Great to simplify writing for the masses. Only forty basic letters replaced the many thousands of Chinese characters. You can learn to recognize them in a few weeks. After a month, I could read the signs on the street or the text messages on my phone that kept coming in. I just didn’t have a clue what they meant.

Korean is also an easy language in some sense. The words don’t have gender, there are no articles (the, a, an), the verb conjugations are pretty regular, and there are just a few tense conjugations that are simple to remember. Also, although the word order is different from English, it is always the same, and after a while, it is not too hard to remember how to sequence the words. Korean phrases always start with the subject and end with the verb.

So, if it is not my lack of language ability, not that difficult to read or write Hangeul, and the language is not that hard in many other aspects, then why is it so hard to master the Korean language?

In my opinion, the problems arise from these four major items:

1.Lack of recognition

2.It all depends

3.The lack of pronouns

4.Gluing words

Lack of recognition

Depending on whom you ask, The Korean language has between 500,000 and 1,100,000 words. Luckily, most of these words are from ancient times or local dialects and are not really needed. The average Korean person would only know around 60,000 words. As a foreigner, if you want to speak Korean comfortably in typical daily situations, you only need to know at least 3,000 to 6,000 words. That is not so wildly different from other languages like English. The problem is that, apart from some American loanwords, almost all of the words have no resemblance to what you already know unless you speak Chinese or Japanese. There are no word parts to recognize, and your brain has no hook to link the new words to. Many of the words I had to learn ten times over and over before they finally stuck in my brain.

It all depends

Recommended by LinkedIn

My Stint With Japanese Language Dr. Kumar Anshul . 7 years ago
Importance of Additional language. Harshini J 1 year ago
Why Learn Korean? Benefits Of Learning Korean Language ReSOLT 1 year ago

The Korean language is entirely dominated by the circ*mstances under which it is spoken. In many other languages, there are some variations if you want to talk to someone with respect or not. In French, we have the word “tutoyer,” which literally means saying “tu” instead of “vous,” which you would only do to friends or lower-ranking persons. But this distinction only applies to a few words. In Korean, everything you say needs consideration of what you say, whom you are talking to, and what situation you are talking to each other. Every conversation requires an assessment of your ranking on the social ladder with respect to the other to determine if you need polite speech or can get away with casual speech. At the same time, it matters if you are in a formal situation, like in a job interview, or in a doctor’s office, giving a presentation, or reading the news on television. In such a case, you will need to use formal speech. The combination of these two dimensions leads to four different speeches to learn (formal polite, formal casual, informal polite, and informal casual). It is even further complicated as polite or casual language depends on whether you talk about yourself or about the other. And written Korean is different again, with many unique words only found on street signs, but nobody would ever say them.

If you are lost by now, I get that. This is precisely my point. For Korean people, this all comes naturally, but for a foreigner, it can be challenging to grasp when to use which kind of speech, and even if you manage to learn that perfectly, you still need to know all the different speeches and word variations.

The lack of pronouns

Another significant complication is the lack of pronouns for other people. Korean does have words for “I” and “we” but does not really have anything for “you,” “he,” “she,” “my,” “they,” etc. Instead, if you want to talk about someone else, you will have to use that person’s given name, and if you don’t know that person’s name, you should use their role. This could be “teacher,” “older sister,” “uncle,” ”boss,” “grandfather,” and so on. Even if he is not your grandfather, you could still refer to someone else as a grandfather if he is old enough to be a grandfather. As a foreigner, it is very hard to decide how to call someone because it feels weird, and you could easily make a mistake and get an odd look on their face.

Gluing words

In English and similar languages, almost every word is separate in a phrase. In Korean, however, words are glued together all the time. The same verb can have 50+ different add-ons, of which the meaning is expressed in separate words in English. For example, the words “but,” “while,” “can,” “have to,” “try to,” “must be,” “shall we,” “am going to,” etc. are not separate words, but add-ons to the verb it refers to. Some of them require the usage of the stem of the verb, some the conjugated version. Some are only in the present tense, others also in the past tense. And to top it all off, it is not uncommon to do the gluing trick three or four times in one phrase.

Well, that’s it. And one thing is for sure: even though it is difficult, it is also fun. Nothing beats the feeling if you can speak to a Korean stranger on the street, order something in a restaurant or ask the taxi driver to take another turn, and they actually understand you!

Why is learning Korean so hard? (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Edmund Hettinger DC

Last Updated:

Views: 6547

Rating: 4.8 / 5 (58 voted)

Reviews: 89% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Edmund Hettinger DC

Birthday: 1994-08-17

Address: 2033 Gerhold Pine, Port Jocelyn, VA 12101-5654

Phone: +8524399971620

Job: Central Manufacturing Supervisor

Hobby: Jogging, Metalworking, Tai chi, Shopping, Puzzles, Rock climbing, Crocheting

Introduction: My name is Edmund Hettinger DC, I am a adventurous, colorful, gifted, determined, precious, open, colorful person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.