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Why You Should Learn the Korean Alphabet before Traveling to Korea

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The modern writing system of Korea, known as Hangeul, is rated by linguists as one of the most scientific writing system ever developed. It is simple yet systematic, and easy to learn.

Why You Should Learn the Korean Alphabet before Traveling to Korea

You may not know Korean grammar or have a huge repertoire of Korean vocabularies in your memory, but before coming to Korea, it’s helpful to learn Hangeul, the Korean alphabet.

Why is it helpful?

Because there are hundreds of English loanwords in Korean that you'll be able to understand just by knowing how to read them.

Once you know how to read Korean alphabets, you'll be able to sound them out and approximate their meanings in English.

For example, if you see the following words in a Korean menu, you'll know they sell coffee, cola, and pizza just by knowing how to sound them out:

  • 커피 reads as K'-EO-P'-I
  • 콜라 reads as K'-O-L-L-A
  • 피자 reads as P'-I-J-A

Simplicity of Hangeul

To give you a quick glimpse of how simple and systematic Hangeul is, let's take a look at the word "Jeju", the popular South Korean island.

Jeju is written as 제주. It looks like it's made up of 2 characters, but it is in fact made up by 4 alphabets, just like how it is in English.

  • 제주 is formed from the alphabets ㅈㅔㅈㅜ (J-E-J-U).
  • ㅈㅔ is combined to form the syllable 제 (JE)
  • ㅈㅜ is combined to form the syllable 주 (JU)

See how easy it is?

Looking back at the café example above:

  • 커피 is formed from ㅋㅓㅍㅣ (K'-EO-P'-I), meaning Coffee
  • 콜라 is formed from ㅋㅗㄹㄹㅏ (K'-O-L-L-A), meaning Cola
  • 피자 is formed from ㅍㅣㅈㅏ (P'-I-J-A), meaning Pizza

Combine your knowledge of Hangeul with some of those Korean words you obviously know, and you'll know it when you see:

  • 김치, formed from ㄱㅣㅁㅊㅣ (K-I-M-CH-I), meaning Kimchi

Of course, if you go one step further and learn the names of many other Korean dishes, you'll easily understand any Korean restaurant menus!

Then again, it's not just about loanwords and ordering food—say you want to look for a particular street name, or a building, or a restaurant. All signages will be mostly in Korean and not many will have them spelled out in ABCs. Knowing at least how to read Hangeul will allow you to easily get around Korea and cross out your travel itineraries one by one.

A 20-Minute Crash Course on Hangeul

Convinced to learn Hangeul yet? Whether or not you are, I'm going to take you on a 20-minute crash course to learn the Korean alphabets. If you go through them seriously, you'll likely won't take more than a few days to fully master them.

Vowels

Let's start with the vowels, shall we?

These may look daunting at first but it would make sense once you grasp the idea of it. Pay attention to the characters in bold to get a general idea on how to pronounce these vowels.

You need to remember the 8 key vowels in the Vowels column below—once you know these by heart, the rest of the vowels will come easy.

Vowels Y + ... W + ...
A
(art)

(yard)

(wand)
AE
(at)

(yam)

(wave)
EO
(on)

(yeoman)

(wok)
E
(ex)

(yes)

(west)
O
(own)

(yoga)

(went)
U
(oolong)

(yule)
-
EU
(eww)

(yen)
-
I
(eel)
-
(win)

To write the sound of Ya, Yae, Yeo, Ye, Yo, and Yu, you only need to add an additional stroke to the key vowels.
e.g. ㅏ (a) with an additional stroke becomes ㅑ (ya)
e.g. ㅓ (eo) with an additional stroke becomes ㅕ (yeo)

When writing out the sounds of Wa, Wae, Weo, We, Woi, and Wi, note down the fact that these sets of vowels are actually two combined key vowels.
e.g. ㅘ is a combination of ㅗ (o) and ㅏ (a), creating the sound wa
e.g. ㅝ is a combination of ㅜ (u) and ㅓ (eo), creating the sound weo

Consonants

Now, let's move onto the consonants.

The following are the main consonants you need to know in Korean. Not all English consonants are available in Korean, such as the consonant F or Z, for example, because these sounds do not exist in the Korean language.

Pay attention to the characters in bold to get a general idea on how to pronounce these consonants. The pronunciation of ㅂ, ㄷ, ㄱ, ㅈ, ㄹ changes depending on the words its used in, e.g. ㅂ in the word 밥 (pronounced bap, meaning "rice") functions as both B and P.

Consonants Aspirated
B / P
(past)
D / T
(tart)
G / K
(kiss)
J / CH

(charm)
L / R
-
H

(have)
-
M
(dam)
-
N
(tin)
-
NG
(sing)
-
S
(has)
-

Aspirated consonants mean that the consonants are pronounced with a puff of air—see bolded characters as equivalents in English. Most aspirated consonants can be written by simply adding an extra stroke to its base consonants.

There are a few other consonants formed by the combinations of the main consonants, such as ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ, ㅉ, ㄳ, ㄵ, ㄶ, ㄺ, ㄻ, ㄼ, ㄽ, ㄾ, ㄿ, ㅀ, ㅄ, but if you are just starting out to learn Hangeul, I believe there is no need to pay too much attention to them. You will learn about them automatically when you decide to learn more Korean words.

Just focus on learning the vowels and the main consonants first!

Syllables

As shown in the "Jeju" example above, you should already understand that Korean words are interestingly formed by alphabets stacked upon one another to form syllables. Syllables are then grouped together to create words.

  • e.g. 김치 (kim-chi) is formed by ㄱ, ㅣ, ㅁ (k, i, m) and ㅊ, ㅣ (ch, i)

The Alphabet ㅇ

You know those circles you see in Korean Hangeul texts? Beginners are sometimes confused as to what exactly they are in Korean, but in essence there are two uses of the alphabet ㅇ:

  1. To represent the NG sound, such as in the word 안녕 (an-nyeong), meaning "hello".
  2. To accompany word-initial vowels. Look at the syllable 안 (an-) in the example above; notice how the alphabet ㅇ accompanies the alphabet ㅏ (a) and ㄴ (n)? In writing, a vowel does not stand by itself, so if you see it in front of the vowel, no need to pronounce it as an NG sound.

As a general rule:

  • If ㅇ is placed after a vowel in a syllable, pronounce it as an NG sound.
  • If ㅇ is placed before a vowel in a syllable, do not pronounce it.

e.g. 오늘 (o-neul), meaning "today"
e.g. 내일 (nae-il), meaning "tomorrow"
e.g. 동생 (dong-saeng), meaning "sibling"

Your Turn

Try reading these Korean loanwords from English and try to make educated guesses as to what they mean in English. Feel free to leave your answers as comments below! :)

  1. 아이스 크림
  2. 메뉴
  3. 호텔
  4. 택시
  5. 카메라

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