So you’re thinking of learning Korean, and want to find out whether you’re gonna find it easy or not?
Well, we have bad news for you.
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) rank Korean as a category 4, “super-hard language”, for native English speakers to learn. They estimate the time to achieve proficiency at 88 weeks or 2,200 class hours.
So yeah, it’s kinda hard.
And those 88 weeks assume an average weekly study time of 25 hours. That’s over 3 hours a day for 52 weeks of the year.
If you’re a working professional, a busy Mom or just a hard-working student, chances are you’re going to struggle to fit those 25 hours in your schedule.
Why Is Korean Hard to Learn?
First things first, a significant reason why Korean is so hard to learn compared to say, French, German or Spanish, is their use of a completely different alphabet.
Koreans use an alphabet known as Hangul, which is composed of 14 consonants and 10 vowels.
Before you can even begin putting sentences together, you really need to invest some time in learning the alphabet.
Hangul – The Korean Alphabet
The history of Hangul is pretty fascinating (you can read more about it in our article, here). But one of the best features for the new language learner is that it is pretty easy to pick up quickly.
Hangul is one of the youngest alphabets in the world and was intentionally designed to be easy to learn.
Unlike Japanese Kanji or Chinese characters, which are more picture-based, each Hangul represents a different sound and is entirely phonetic. That means even if you don’t recognize a word right away, you can certainly read it easily.
Many linguists praise Hangul as one of the best alphabets in the modern world, entirely due to its design. Some even claim you can learn the alphabet in a single day.
While we refrain from making such bold statements, if you put in the work, you can definitely pick up Hangul in no time at all.
We get it, grammar is one of the least fun parts about learning a new language.
And you know what, Korean grammar is tricky, we’re not going to lie. But there are also some easy wins for English speaking natives to pick up.
But let’s get the bad points out the way first.
Grammar Rules to Test Your Patience
One of the biggest things new learners struggle with (unless they already speak other Asian languages such as Japanese or Chinese) is the sentence structure.
To put it simply, it’s backwards.
Korean employs a subject-object-verb sentence structure, whereas English works on the principle of subject-verb-order.
This also makes literal translations difficult through tools such as Google translate, as they often spit out a bunch of gobbledegook which doesn’t make a lot of sense.
For example, in English, you may say “I love you” (cute).
In Korean, you would need to say “I you love” (not so cute).
Trust us, it takes a while to get you heard around this utterly alien way of speaking.
Particles From Outer Space
Particles can be very tricky to master, and there are many different ones to learn on your path to fluency.
In Korean, particles are used to modify or change the way a particular word is used.
Particles can be used to identify the topic of a sentence, to mark a location or time or to change a particular word to plural.
Knowing which particle to use and when can often lead to headaches and snapped pencils, but with practice makes perfect.
The Good News – A Grammatical Silver lining
So there is some good news when it comes to grammar which makes it a tiny little bit easier for the beginner learner.
The conjugation of verbs, or, the change that takes place in a verb to express the mood, tense or person, is much simpler.
Instead of different ways to say “I run”, “He runs” or “She runs”, it’s just a single phrase.
Tense is also much easier to manage, as you just add a specific particle, depending on what period you are talking about (say past or future).
Show some respect
Another consideration you need to keep in mind when learning Korean is that the way you speak can actually change, depending on who you are talking to.
Now officially, there are seven different levels (yes seven!), but thankfully, only three are used in day to day interaction. Phew!
The three everyday levels can be described as;
- Informal Use this when speaking to close friends, partners, siblings or someone younger than you. If you’re looking to disrespect someone (which we hope you aren’t), you will use this level of speech.
- Polite You would use this speech level when speaking to a mutual acquaintance (that is, not a close friend), a store clerk, or perhaps to your family if you have done something wrong!
- Formal Use with a senior (say a boss or a teacher) or just someone who you have never met before.
So if it wasn’t already tricky learning a new language, you now have to think about who you are speaking to.
The speech levels also apply if you’re speaking about someone. So if you’re talking about your boss to a friend (and want to be respectful), you would use the formal level.
Oh, and get it wrong, and you’ve got some making up to do.
Just kidding. In all my years of learning and practice, I make mistakes often. It’s part of the process and helps us grow. Plus, I have never been scolded for using the wrong honorifics!
How Difficult Is Korean Pronunciation
Well, we already explained that because of the way the Korean Alphabet (Hangul, in case you’ve forgotten already) is designed phonetically.
This means pronunciation, on the one hand, can be simple.
But it wouldn’t be fun if it was too easy.
There are a couple of quirks to Korean pronunciation that new learners really struggle with.
One of the most common mistakes new language learners make is to try to pronounce Korean letters in the same way of that letter’s Romanization in English.
Korean also features a peculiarity known as a triphthong, which is a combination of three vowels in a row.
Now, while we do have some words that meet this definition in the English language, such as ‘fire’, die-hard linguists do not consider the English language to have any true triphthongs.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, the pronunciation of these words is especially tricky, which for you, my friend, makes learning Korean that much harder.
Konglish – A Quick Shortcut
We’ve got some more good news for you.
It just so happens that Korean sometimes borrows a few words from English. For the most part, these words are immediately recognizable, with a slight Korean twist.
Conveniently, these words are known as Konglish, which is a mash-up between Korean and English. (Their proper name are ‘loan words’, but Konglish is much better, don’t you agree?)
Let’s take a look at a few of those words;
초콜릿 (chokollit) – Chocolate
주스 (juseu) – Juice
핫도그 (hatdogeu) – Hot Dog
Now you can’t tell me it’s challenging to recognize the words right?
So Is Korean Hard to Learn?
Honestly speaking, yep! But, achieving a decent level of fluency is obtainable!
You just need to know where to begin.
How can you make it easier?
So there you have it – a rundown of why Korean is one the most difficult languages in the world to learn.
But what use would we be if we just ended this article there?
Yes, Korean is hard, there is no getting around that. But, there is a tonne of information out there to make your language journey that little bit easier.
Choose the right study method for you
Personally, I am much more engaged when I have to physically attend a class (and it gives me less of an excuse to slack off), but I have met a countless number of people who much prefer to take things at their own pace and study by themselves.
I have friends that swear by individual apps, or that a podcast really helped take them to the next level.
Try everything, but give them a chance before you declare “this just isn’t working” and move on.
Learning Korean is a marathon, not a sprint. Small, consistent steps are all that is needed to achieve great things.
And now for our most significant, and most important piece of advice…
Look, we’re going to let you into a little secret.
Have fun while learning.
Is Korean hard to learn? Yes, but if you have fun while doing something, you’re 100 times more likely to keep at it.
This applies to anything in life, and especially something as complicated as a new language.
If you simply don’t enjoy it, you’ll think of any excuse why you can’t practice and why you don’t have time.
Don’t be too hard on yourself, at first, you’re gonna suck, I promise. But with regular practice and determination, you will get better.
Oh and the final thing, just GET STARTED!