January 18, 2020

If you have landed on this page, you obviously have some interest in the Korean language.  

For those of you who have never been exposed to the Korean written language, the Korean alphabet is actually very easy to learn.  I am confident that you will be able to at least read (phonetically) simple Korean words by the end of this article.  

Are you up for the challenge?

A Bit of History

Did you know that the Korean alphabet is less than 600 years old?  Before it was created, the Koreans had to rely on Chinese characters for their written language.  Because the Chinese characters were extremely difficult to learn, it was only the elite who could read and write.  This left most of the common folks, who were mostly farmers, illiterate.

In 1446, King Sejong the Great, one of the most revered kings in the Korean history, gathered together the country’s best linguists and led the creation of the phonetic alphabet called Hangul (also spelled Hangeul).  An interesting fact is that each character of Hangul was modeled after the shape of the mouth when making the corresponding sounds.  

Hangul Day is celebrated every year in October in South Korea to celebrate the significance of what King Sejong has achieved.  Hangul is recognized among the world’s linguists as the most logical writing system. 

King Sejong’s sole purpose was to create a written language that is easy for even the commonest of people to learn quickly.  He wanted to wipe out illiteracy throughout the country.  

Knowing all that, there’s no reason why any non-Korean cannot learn just as quickly, right?

Hangul (Korean Alphabet System)

Hangul is basically made up of 14 consonants and 10 vowels.  King Sejong believed that with these 24 characters, along with additional 16 that are derived from combining some of the first 24, there was not a human sound that could not be written.  So he thought.  

It turns out that actually, there are a few sounds that cannot be written in Hangul, such as the sounds of F, V, and Z from the English alphabet.  But the Korean language itself does not have any words with those sounds, so I guess we have to give him a pass on that.

Here are the 24 basic characters in Hangul:

Consonants

ㄱ   ㄴ ㄷ   ㄹ ㅁ ㅂ   ㅅ ㅇ ㅈ ㅊ   ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ

Vowels

ㅏ   ㅑ ㅓ   ㅕ ㅗ ㅛ   ㅜ ㅠ ㅡ ㅣ

That’s it!!  All you need to do is know the sounds of those characters, and you are on your way to reading and writing in Korean!  Of course, there are those 16 extra ones that are combinations of two or more of these first 24, but let’s first start with the basics.

Here are the consonants:

Korean Consonants

Consonant

Sound

g  (girl)

n

d

r / l

m

b

s

silent

j

ch

k

t

p

h

Note:  The consonant “ㅇ" is the silent consonant that is used when a syllable in a word has a vowel sound, such as “ah” or “oh.”  In Korean, you cannot just use a vowel without a consonant, so there is the silent consonant.

One of the things that most English speakers have trouble pronouncing is the “ㄹ.”  It’s not the sound of L or R---it’s somewhere in the middle. It’s actually much closer to the sound of the “t” in the American pronunciation of the words “otter,” “butter,” “later,” and so on.  Keep this in mind whenever you see the consonant “ㄹ.” 

And now the vowels:

Korean Vowels

Vowel

Sound

ah

yah

uh

yuh

oh

yo

ooh

yu

eu

ee

All vowels are made from adding more lines to the two stem vowels (ㅡ, ㅣ).

Notice that among these vowels, there are vowels that are vertical (ㅏ, ㅑ, ㅓ, ㅕ,  l) and vowels that are horizontal (ㅗ, ㅛ, ㅜ, ㅠ, ㅡ). You need to remember when combining:  vertical vowels are added to the right of the consonant, and the horizontal vowels are added below the consonant.

Another thing to note about the vowels:  When there are two smaller lines connected to the longer line (ㅑ, ㅕ, ㅛ, ㅠ), they all have “y” pronunciation --- yah, yuh, yo, yu.

Let’s try combining the consonants and vowels:

ㄱ   + ㅏ   = 가

[g   + ah   = gah]

ㄴ   + ㅏ   = 나

[n   + ah   = nah]

ㄷ   + ㅗ   = 도

[d   + oh   = doh]

ㅂ   + ㅣ   = 비

[b   + ee   = bee]

ㅇ   + ㅜ   = 우

[silent + ooh = ooh]

In this manner, you can write numerous Korean words with the basic 24 characters.

Let’s try reading some simple Korean words:

Reading practice

우유

[ooh-yu]  Milk

다리

[dah-rhee]  Leg

나비

[nah-bee]   Butterfly

기차

[gee-cha]   Train

오이

[oh-ee]   Cucumber

See how easy that was?

Now, let’s see if you can try to pronounce the following few words without the romanization. Feel free to refer to the charts above:

구두 (dress shoes)    두부 (tofu) 노리 (game)   포도 (grapes) 사자 (lion)

There you go!  You can now read basic Korean...at least phonetically.  

In the next article, I will go over the additional 16 characters in the alphabet. If you practice and become familiar with the ones I already covered, learning the others will be much easier for you. Once you learn the entire alphabet, you will be able to phonetically read anything in Korean.

Comprehension will come later as you learn more vocabulary and grammar.

Conclusion

Learning a new language is not an easy task.  It requires will and dedication. Or you could just move to Korea and live there for about 2 years, interacting with people who speak no English.  That’s exactly what happened to me.  

I moved to the U.S. with my parents at the age of 12 and lived in a town where there were no other Asians, let alone Koreans. I was also forbidden to speak Korean at home.  I had no choice but to learn English very quickly, and I became fluent within 2 years. I doubt that any of you will have such an extreme circumstance, but language works like that. 

When learning a new language, you need to be diligent about practicing every single day.  I always say that the three most important things you need to do to retain what you learn are:

  • 1
    Repetition
  • 2
    Repetition
  • 3
    Repetition

And take advantage of every opportunity to hear the language spoken.  Watch the K-dramas. Listen to K-pop.  As you learn more, try to pick out the words that you recognize when you hear them.  Try to mimic what they say and how they say it.  

I know that with just a little effort to practice and review every day, you will progress quickly!  Be patient and gradually increase your vocabulary. I’m rooting for you!   

If you have any comments,  questions, or need any information clarified, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below. 

About the author 

Linda McKenna

Linda was born in Seoul, South Korea, and moved to the U.S. as a teen. She previously taught at a Korean language school. She is a language enthusiast and loves learning about different languages and cultures

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