The Korean language has got the reputation of being one of the most difficult languages to learn for an English speaker. There’s no doubt that the language is difficult, but it also has elements that make it easier than other languages that are regarded difficult like Arabic and Mandarin.
Is the Korean language hard to learn?
Hangul, the Korean alphabet is ridiculously easy
At the first glance, the Korean alphabet looks like the dreaded Chinese or Japanese symbols. Everybody knows that there are hundreds if not thousands of these symbols to learn by heart if you want to master Chinese writing.
But with Korean it’s different. The Korean writing system is a simple alphabet of 24 letters. Each syllable is arranged separately in a block of about 3 of these letters. So the “symbols” you see in written Korean are in fact just letters arranged into groups.
The Hangul alphabet is one of the rare writing systems around that didn’t develop organically through history to fit with a language. This one was designed in the 15th century by order of the king Sejong the Great. It was made with the intention of being easy, and it saw Korean literacy rates sky-rocket!
In other words, the Korean alphabet is not difficult. It is in fact regarded as one of the easiest writing systems out there. In many ways it makes more sense than the Latin script we use for writing English.
The Korean alphabet also has the advantage of being almost entirely phonetic. Words are pronounced the way they’re spelled, and this can be quite a relief for language learners. To better grasp how important this really is, imagine having to learn English all over again. How would you know to pronounce “thorough, through, though” and so on? And how do you pronounce the name of the city “Leicester”?
Korean pronunciation may need a little work..
So the alphabet is pronounced exactly the way it’s written – that’s a good thing. But when it comes to actually making the sounds, it gets a little more complicated.
Korean is a syllable-timed language, where English is a stress-timed language. This means that each syllable in a Korean word equally long and not stressed. In English, each word has a dominated syllable that’s stressed and pronounced a little slower. You say “poTAtoes” but never “POtatoes” or “potaTOes” or “potatoES“. If that was a Korean word, it would be “po-ta-to-es” with an equal stress on each syllable.
As for pronouncing the individual letters is Korean, the difficulty lies in the slight differences from English. When you learn Arabic, it’ll be difficult to master the foreign sounds, but you’ll easily be able to tell them apart because they’re quite distinct. In Korean, however, you have a lot of consonants that sound similar, but are distinctly different to a Korean’s ear.
There are consonants that are close to the English ones we know, then there are the aspirated ones and the double consonants.
In Korean it’s important to make the difference between aspirated and non-aspirated consonants. Aspirated consonants come with a little puff of air as you say them. Try holding your hand in front of your mouth and say “tore”. You should feel a puff of air on the “t”. Now do the same and say “store”. Now there’s no air! In Korean you’ll have to differentiate between those two kinds of t’s.
Korean also has the “ㄹ” consonant which is sort of a mix between “l” and “r”. Imagine pronouncing a “l”, but curling your tongue while saying it.
As for double consonants, I’d say that they’re actually easier to understand if you consider them separate letters instead of doubles of the other consonants.
- A Korean “K” sound becomes a hard “G” in its double form.
- A weak “T” becomes a hard “D”
- a single “P” sound is like a weak “P” whereas a double “P” sounds more like a hard “B”.
- In the same way, a single “S” sound becomes a much harder “S” sound when in double.
- A single “J” sounds like “cha” but becomes a distinct hard “J” when in double.
And then there are the vowels and the diphthongs (vowel combinations). Here you’ll need to get used to a few unfamiliar sounds. Some find these difficult to learn, and you’ll need to listen and repeat a lot. But it’s doable!
And to name a few other points that make Korean pronunciation easier, think of tones. Many Asian languages like Mandarin, Thai and Vietnamese have tones, which are different syllable stresses that completely change the meaning of the words. These don’t exist in Korean. What a relief!
Korean vocabulary and the difficulty of learning Korean words
The Korean language is very far from English as well as all other European languages. This means that Korean words look very unfamiliar. Learning so foreign words will be much more difficult than learning the vocabulary of European languages. You simply can’t relate to the words as much.
“Huis” in Dutch sounds like “house”. “Casa” in Spanish reminds me of a “case” which could be a way of seeing a house. “Maison” in French will draw strings to “masonry” which is all about houses. But in Korean, “House” is “집”, pronounced “jib”…
I’m not saying that this is impossible to remember from making associations (it sound’s a little like “jeep”, right?) but the word hasn’t got a clear connection to anything related to houses already in English. This means that you’ll need more patience and you’ll have to do more repetition before Korean words stick in your memory.
But there are exceptions! – In modern-day (South) Korea, Konglish is a thing. (!) For a huge amount of modern concepts like technology, pop-culture and so on, English loan-words are used in a great number. This can be a helpful, at least when you’re learning that particular kind of words.
Another factor that might make Korean vocabulary slightly easier to learn is that complicated or specialized words and concepts will often be formed of several shorter, more simple words. A seal is a “water-dog” a voice is a “neck-sound” and tears are “eye-water”.
How hard is Korean grammar?
The general theme with Korean seems to be that some things are delightfully easy whereas others are painfully difficult. The same goes for the grammar.
Conjugation in Korean is a walk in the park. A verb stays the same no matter if it’s “he”, “she” or “them” that’s doing it. You can change the verb from the past to the future or present just by changing a suffix. And a lot of verbs are basically formed by using “to do” + noun. Like “I do the bike” for I’m cycling.
Korean also has no genders like French and many other European languages have.
As for the more complicated aspects of Korean grammar….
Korean is a “SOV” language (Subject – object – verb) whereas English is “Subject – verb – object”. So when you say “I eat apples” in English, it becomes “I apples eat” in Korean. This doesn’t seem so bad, but try forming longer sentences and you’ll probably find it confusing.
Then there are the Korean honorifics, where the grammar and to some extent to vocabulary changes depending on whom you’re speaking to.
There are 7 hierarchical levels, and depending on the situation they can have some impact on how you should form a sentence. You’re not effectively going to use all seven of them, however, since some are only used in very rare occasions. The ones you do use in daily life are relatively approachable and mostly just change a syllable here and there and use a few specialized words in the place of others.
To be fluent in Korean, there’s no way around honorifics, but in the beginning you can get away with oversimplifying it a little and just being extra polite to everyone. The rest will become easier with time.
Is Korean a difficult language? Here’s what linguists say:
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) is the American government institution in charge of teaching foreign languages to US diplomats going overseas. They’re known for grouping the languages that they teach into categories based on difficulty.
When looking at these language groups, it’s important to first know that FSI aims for something that they call “professional working proficiency” or in other words, a very high level of fluency. They’re also basing their assessments on a classroom setting, so for the self-student, the numbers might not exactly apply.
FSI divides the languages that they teach into 4 groups. In the easier end we have group 1. These are languages like Dutch, French and Spanish. According to FSI, these take around 5-600 classroom hours to master.
In group two, we’ll find German, Malay among others. These take 900 hours.
In the third group we have Russian, Thai, Hindi and languages that are significantly more difficult. These take something like 1100 classroom hours to learn to what FSI calls “professional working proficency”.
And then there’s group four. This is where you find languages like Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and – yes – Korean. Group four takes a whooping 2200 classroom hours according to FSI.
Ok, so in other words, Korean takes twice as long as Russian and four times longer than French.
This is where you should consider FSI’s approach as well as their end goal. You’re most likely a self-student (at least if you follow the general advice I give on this website) and your end goal might be different from what FSI calls “professional working proficiency”. So 2200 hours might not be the correct number for you.
But the fact that Korean is a category 4 language almost speaks for itself.
According to some of the most recognized language professionals in the world, Korean is up there with the most complicated languages that they teach.
My first self-taught language was French. It took me 3-4 years before I could comfortably tell people that I spoke French fluently.
Does this mean that Korean will take four times that, or 12-16 years?
Of course not!
Figuring out how to study is one of the most important parts of language learning. Once you’ve found a routine that works and you’re working efficiently at learning every day, you’ll be on the right track. With French, that took me a while.
With proper guidance and a solid method, learning Korean by yourself probably takes something like 3-5 years.
So is Korean a difficult language?
As much as I’d like to say that Korean being difficult is an overstatement, I just can’t. There are easy things about Korean, for sure. But the language is just so different from English and other European languages. It just takes some getting used to!
In reality, however, I think that “language difficulty” might be the wrong way of looking at it.
I think that anyone can learn a language to fluency. After all, you’ve done it before.
Children in North and South Korea learn the Korean language from scratch all the time. They aren’t intellectual superior to you. (I hope). In fact they have all the odds against them. No proper learning materials, no patient teachers, no structured method. It’s just listening over and over for years, trying to speak, failing, and retrying until they get it right.
Children have one advantage over you however: They don’t have a choice.
You have English and possibly other languages to fall back on. If you aren’t able to communicate in Korean, you have other options. So learning the language is not a life and death situation.
And that means that sticking to your studies, being patient and consistent despite very minimal progress, the lack of motivation, boredom and fatigue – becomes really hard.
The hard part of learning Korean is in fact not really the language it self:
It’s keeping at it!
But I can confidently say that if you study every day, you’re patient, diligent and you keep at it, you’ll eventually become fluent in Korean. But you need to put in the work!
If you want to know how I’d recommend that you go about learning Korean, go read my guide to learning the Korean language from scratch.