Korean is spoken by more than 80 million people worldwide; making it the world’s 13th most widely spoken language. It is the official language of both North and South Korea; whereas, spoken widely in ethnic Korean communities of China, Japan, the USA, and Central Asia. It is also one of the two official languages in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture and Changbai Korean Autonomous County of Jilin province, China. Historical and modern linguists classify Korean as a language isolate; however, it does have a few extinct relatives, which together with Korean itself and the Jeju language (spoken in the Jeju Province and considered somewhat distinct) form the Koreanic language family. This implies that Korean does not isolate, but a members of a micro-family. The idea that Korean belongs to the controversial Altaic language family is discredited in academic research. Korean is agglutinative in its morphology and SOV in its syntax.
Keep in mind that the Korean language has almost nothing in common with English – and that includes sounds. What Korean guides might describe to you as an “a” sound is going to be slightly different in Korean? When speaking Korean try to imitate the accents and sounds of the Koreans around you – just quit the accent when you come back to English, please.
The Korean language follows a different rhythmic structure than English. Where English tends to be strongly inflected and stressed, Korean is the opposite. Try to give every syllable of a Korean word the same amount of stress as every other:
Most important korean phrases
Hello/Goodbye – 안녕하세요 – An-nyeong-ha-se-yo
An obvious one, but a necessary inclusion: this is almost certainly the most common phrase anyone in Korea will use. There are dozens of variations to account for slightly different situations and levels of respect, and it can all get really complicated. The simple solution is just to say it really fast and slur all the syllables together. Everyone will understand you, and you’ll sound like a real local. In that way you can also use this for both hello and goodbye.
Nice to meet you – 반갑습니다 – Ban-gap-sum-ni-da
The most pleasant of pleasantries; apply liberally whenever you find yourself suddenly introduced to a curious crowd of coworkers. Best served poured over a two-handed handshake. If you learn and master this then your Korean level will match the English level of most Korean schoolkids, whose favorite pastime will be to shout “Nice to meet you!” whenever they see you.
Thank you – 감사합니다 – Kam-sa-ham-ni-da
This is probably the bare minimum for making any attempt at Korean. Use it exactly as you would its English equivalent.
Excuse me/just a moment – 잠시만요 – Jam-shi-man-yo
Literally, “little time stop”, use this to get people’s attention, ask them to move out of the way, or tell them to wait.
I’m sorry -죄송합니다/미안합니다 – Chway-seong-ham-ni-da/Mi-an-ham-ni-da
There are two ways to say sorry in Korean: The first is a, “sorry I bumped into you” kind of sorry, while the second is more of a “I’m really sorry I knocked you over with my bike, please forgive me”, kind of sorry.
Please (Please give) – 주세요 – Ju-se-yo
Korea’s workhorse word: slap it on the end of any verb stem to make it a polite request. Long before you’re doing that, though, you’ll be asking people in shops to give you things.
This one/This thing – 이것 – i-geot (with a silent t)
Use together with pointing to indicate something nearby.
I like this one – i-geot jeo-wa-yo
that one (near the listener) – jeo-geot
that one (far from speaker and listener) – geo-geot
Where is the (something) – 어디예요 – o-di-ye-yo
Unless you never leave home, you’re going to need this at some point, at the very least to find the bathroom. You can also use it to find stuff in the supermarket, or in the early hours locate somewhere to sleep off all that soju and galbi.
Good night –안녕히 주무십시요- Anyoung- hi jumu ship shiyo
Korean doesn’t have a separate greeting for morning, noon, afternoon and evening. It’s appropriate to use Anyoung haseyo at all times of the day. However, there is a phrase used to say “Good night”.
Right/Left/Straight – 오른/왼/직진 – O-reun/wen/jik-jin
Addresses in Korea are as confusing as a clown at a funeral, and giving one to a taxi driver can be tricky since you need to get your pronunciation just right. Too many foreigners have found themselves with a W40,000 taxi fare after mistakenly sending the driver to Sincheon instead of Sinchon. Far easier (assuming you know where you are, and where you’re going) is just to give the driver directions.
I can’t speak Korean well – 한국말 잘 못해요 – Han-guk-mal jal mot-hae-yo
A good phrase to learn, though it could probably be shorter. By the time you fully understand all the parts of it, it’ll no longer be true. Still, a useful phrase for avoiding a lot of one-sided conversations.
There are a ton of really great resources out there for learning Korean online and a decent range of textbooks available at Korean bookshops like Bandi & Luni’s. I’d recommend Survival Korean as a good, entry-level book.
What Korean phrases do you find most useful? Drop us a comment and let us know.