I know I promised a Word A Day, but before you can start learning The Most Important Thing you need to know is how to read The Korean Alphabet (called Hangul).
1: I don’t like Romanization (when you write Korean sounds with English letters for easy reading), I think it makes for clumsy learning because you’re not really learning the characters–and the characters are what MAKE the language. So I won’t be using them, which means you’ll have to know Hangul if you want to learn anything here.
2: Nothing you see written out in Korea or even KoreaTown is gonna have Romanization. Knowing how to read and write will really make your whole Korean experience easier (even if it’s just watching dramas or listening to K-Pop).
To really know Korean, you need to see those characters as sounds (just like how you see letters). It needs to be instinctual, so ingrained in your mind that you don’t have to think about it. That’s why before we get to Lesson 1 on Monday, we’re gonna buckle down and master us some Hangul.
BACK UP ONE STEP–
Before you dive into the alphabet, I think it’s equally important to understand why this character system / language exists. Because Hangul is not just a writing system, it’s like a physical sign of Korea’s independence (from China, Japan, everyone).
Hangul was created by King Sejong the Great during the Joseon Dynasty in 1443.
Before Hangul existed, the main form of written or spoken communication was Chinese. Even today if you go to Korea you’ll still see buildings and documents with Chinese characters on them. But it’s a sign of Korea’s past, not their future.
King Sejong created Hangul so that Korea would have a system of communication fundamentally different from Chinese, one that would be much easier for all his people to use. At the time they were using Hanja (which is the Korean system of using Chinese characters) but it was so difficult for most common people to learn that the only people in the country who could read and write were privileged male aristocrats. The rest of the country was basically illiterate.
Hangul / Korean was created so that every man woman and child would be able to read write and speak their own language. It was specifically made so simple that supposedly “a wise man could learn them before morning is over, while a stupid man could learn them in ten days”. Hopefully it won’t take you guys that long ^.^ !
If you’re still not sure how important this is, you should know that Koreans have a museum dedicated just to the history of Hangul, with a statue of King Sejong outside, and every year on October 9th the entire country stops whatever it’s doing and celebrates Hangul Day (take that Columbus).
Today we’re just gonna introduce the entire alphabet in general, then tomorrow we’ll focus specifically on tricky sounds and forming character blocks.
Hangul consists of 24 consonant and vowel sounds. I see it as the most comparable to the English writing system of all the three big Asian languages (Korean, Chinese, Japanese). Each character stands for a consonant or vowel sound and you put those characters together into blocks to form words (much the same way you put letters together in English).This chart by ayouma-sensei82 is a fantastic overview of all the characters, sounds, and how consonants and vowels are combined together to make words.
I found it helpful to make little flashcards with a character shape on one side and the sound it makes on the other. I’d walk around all day and test myself during breaks or class downtime. I pretty much had it memorized in no time, but constantly putting the characters in my face forced myself to really learn them, so that after a week I could recognize sounds in Korean as easily as English.
There are many options for learning Hangul. If you want to go the flashcard route, or just print out some of these charts and memorize that way, do whatever works for you. Here’s a nicer computer-font list of the character and their sounds:This chart from languagesgulper has the Character followed by the Romanized sound (as close as we can get to an English equivalent) and then the Phonetic sound in brackets. Many consonants represent two sounds that are similar to Korean ears but very distinct to English-speaking ones.
Think of it like playing the game Telephone. You start off whispering one thing but by the end of the line it sounds completely different. That’s because when you whisper the distinction between certain sounds is lost. “Clown” might end up “gown”, “moose” might end up “noose”, “bar” as “par”. That’s how Korean will sound when you’re learning it for the first time–like one giant mixed up game of Telephone–and you’re the Black Hole.
ㄱ is A mix of the K and G sound
ㄷ is a mix of the D and T sound
ㄹ is a mix of the r and l sound
ㅂ is a mix of the b and p sound
ㅈ is a mix of the j and ch sound
The ‘ after the Romanized sound (a subscript ‘h’ in the brackets) means that sound is aspirated (harsh). Try this: Hold your hand over your mouth. Say the word “gown”. Don’t really feel anything, right? Now say “key”. You should feel the difference in breath on your hand. The [k] in “key” is aspirated. So when you say the aspirated sounds you should feel the breath against your hand like you’re spitting.
Mina Oh (sweetandtasty on YouTube) has a fantastic Learn Korean series. The four lessons cover everything and give you plenty of native Korean speaking to listen to. This is the first Lesson: Pronouncing the Alphabet. Here you can see the different lessons and all the other stuff she has on her site.
Learning a new alphabet can be difficult and confusing, especially since the languages we’re taught in school are typically Germanic or Romantic-based (French, Spanish, German) which use the same alphabets as English. If you’re still having trouble, Ryan Estrada created a really cute comic strip called “Learn to Read Korean in 15 Minutes“. I recommend checking it out as he does a much better job explaining all the stuff I skimmed over.
Vowels are especially hard because they are so similar to English ones that it’s really easy to substitute the English pronunciations in without even realizing it. I do it ALL THE TIME. If you listen to 2AM, you might recognize Jo Kwon‘s voice in this song about a monkey getting his ears pulled and then screeching out the vowel sounds. It’s a little fast, but just keep singing along until the sounds become more natural.
What Now ??
Practice practice practice. Pull up the Hangul lyrics to your favourite K-Pop songs and sing along. Watch dramas with Korean subtitles. Read articles and stories, anything you can find in Korean. Even if you don’t know what any of it means just yet, getting your mouth eyes and ears used to the sounds is critical to learning the language.
If you have any tips or tricks you used to learn Hangul, videos you found helpful, or corrections to anything I said— Leave a comment! I’d love to hear from other people trying to learn the language on their own like me ^-^.