Learning to Read Korean
Updated: Apr 27
Korean Alphabet Birthday
Hangeul Day is October 9th and my blog post about it last year was really popular, so I thought this year I would share some of my personal experiences with learning to read Korean: the advantages and a few tips for getting it to stick.
Aside from the obvious fact that it’s not ideal to be illiterate, I found some other extra perks that I think you should get excited about too.
1. "Konglish" Words
“Konglish” refers to English loanwords that have been converted into Korean. When I first started learning Hangeul, I feared that it would serve me no purpose for a very long time, since I didn’t understand the words I was learning to sound out, but then when I got here, I was surprised how many turned out to be English words in disguise!
This epiphany occurred, of course, in the grocery store. When I could go by myself, I would take lots of time and just stand there in the aisle and stare at labels until I could say the word in my head (or quietly under my breath like a creep…) I must have looked like an idiot because I would stare and stare and then all of the sudden have this AHA! And realize all it said was caramel macchiato, or americano, or something like that. (Iced coffes were my favorite practice subject.)
2. Improved Pronunciation
As kind as it was of Korea to Romanize street names and such for us foreigners, it’s not a great indicator of how to actually say things. Because even with letters that we recognize, it can be hard to figure out how they’re pronounced. I think the worst for this is the vowel 어 which is Romanized as “eo.” Most Americans would instinctively pronounce that like “ay-o” or “ee-o” when in reality it’s somewhere between “uh” and “ah”
3. Expanded Vocabulary
Have you ever taught a child to read, or spent a lot of time with them when they’re in the process of learning? It’s amazing to see how many connections they make once they realize they can read the words on things.
Well, when you learn a new alphabet system and suddenly look around to see words pop out at you that previously looked like just weird shapes, you get to have that feeling too!
You’ll start to see the same words or parts of words over and over again, and soon you’ll automatically know what they mean by associative reasoning. Which leads me to my next example:
The Gochu Connection! 고추연결
Gochujang was something I kept in the fridge long before coming to Korea, although I wasn’t sure how to pronounce it. One day I was trying a new recipe that called for sil GOCHU (실고추), which are hot pepper threads, and GOCHU garu 고추가루), red pepper powder. Can you guess what 고추 means? Yep! It’s a pepper! (very spicy, by the way.)
Jumping off from the gochu connection, are all the words attached to 고추.
Jang (장) means sauce or paste,
Sil (실) means thread.
Garu (가루) means flour or powder or something that has been ground up.
You see where I’m going with this. Who knew you could have a language explosion later in life!
How to Learn:
1. Charts, workbooks, and videos
In my other Hangeul Day blog post, I covered a little of how I started learning, which was not very efficient. I would recommend printing out some charts like the one in that post, getting a workbook so you can practice writing, and watching videos so you can hear how it sounds.
2. Add a Korean keyboard to your phone.
This might seem silly, but I started manually typing words I didn’t know into Google translate because it was getting really embarrassing to hold the phone up to everything for the instant translate. But what started out as vanity and pride turned out to be helpful for me to not only remember more words, but to see how the characters fit together into syllables, which in turn helped with learning how to spell. (I’m still learning though…)
Side note: the visual translation does not work for words that are written vertically or with a calligraphic font, so there will be times you’ll need to type it out if you want to know what it means.
3. Read everything you see.
That might sound daunting. Try reading all the large words on labels. You don’t have to understand or translate everything. The idea is to practice, practice, practice. I started trying to learn months before moving here but once I was finally here and seeing a whole lot of Korean everywhere, I was surprised how much I improved over a short period of time.
If you’re not in Korea yet, find a Korean market and go read all the labels there. (We even had one by Fort Polk in Louisiana, so I’m sure you have one somewhere nearby.)
4. Try Korean recipes.
For a more focused approach, I like to find a traditional Korean recipe that sounds good and add the less familiar ingredients to my list in Hangeul. Then going to the store is more like a treasure hunt than a chore.
My favorite Korean food blogs are Kimchi Mari and Korean Bapsang. They’re great at explaining things and sharing a little of the history and traditions behind the dishes, so even if you’re not familiar with Korean cuisine, you’ll be able to make really authentic dishes!
Are you excited about it yet? Let me know in the comments if you’ve had any AHA moments or if you have any other tricks up your sleeves!