Is Korean a hard language to learn?

Is Korean a difficult language to learn for English speakers? How hard is it?

We often consider the Korean language one of the world’s most difficult languages to learn, especially for English speakers. It has a reputation for being tough and can be scary for learners.

But learning a new language is always a complex process and takes time, right?

Like any other language, studying Korean has its challenges. So, what makes Korean so hard to learn?

Is this a myth, misconception, mental barrier, or a well-known fact backed with solid research and evidence? And how complicated and easy it may be?

Let’s explore everything about it.

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Is Korean worth learning despite being tough?

Are you thinking about learning Korean?

Perhaps you’ve become enamored with Korean culture and decided to pursue the language.

Maybe the allure of K-dramas and K-movies has piqued your interest in Korean. It’s even possible that you’ve picked up a few words from the catchy K-Pop BTS songs and are eager to study more.

Whatever the source of fascination with Korean might be, you are not alone. There are many good reasons to learn Korean.

Thanks to the steady momentum of the global Korean wave, i.e., Hallyu, Korean is a trendy language to learn right now.

And it goes without saying that Korean will undoubtedly help you understand and connect with everything Korean!

Korean can also increase your chances of getting scholarships like GKS UG and GKS PG!

Despite not being widely spoken outside North and South Korea, learning Korean is helpful if you study, visit, work, or live there.

And it also opens up a wide range of Korean language jobs. And it even assists you to change your career in various fields if your current one leaves much to be desired.

Isn’t that enough inspiration and incentives to explore the mesmerizing world of the Korean language? If so, let’s roll to the next section!

How difficult is Korean

Things to analyze before diving into Korean

Before chalking up plans, it’s essential to ponder your long-term goals and plan for the language.  

Do you want to learn just enough Korean to understand music and watch TV shows without relying on subtitles? Perhaps you like to study Korean to watch movies?

Are you thinking about learning Korean to broaden your employment opportunities?

Do you aspire to communicate in Korean with near-native fluency?

The responses to these questions will decide how challenging your language learning journey will be.

For example, you can learn the alphabet “Hangul” in one day, which can help you read some text in a few days!

But, if you want to reach semi-fluency to watch K-Dramas without subtitles, or become a Korean translator, may take a few or many years of study.

Many other factors also determine how hard or easy Korean will be. Like your mother tongue, inspiration level, techniques you follow, and how much you study.

That’s why the question, “Is Korean a difficult language to learn” doesn’t have a definitive answer that fits everyone.

How long does it takes to learn?

Many sources claim to place language learning in a definite time frame, but learning Korean takes time. It is a lifelong process, to be perfectly candid.

Mastering a new language isn’t something that can be accomplished overnight.

The beauty of linguistics lies in the fact that it is constantly changing. New words are added to a language every year, while some words become obsolete over time.

Then there are technical jargon, dialects, and your exact goal that require an undivided focus on specific parts.

Your personal circumstances will shape your language learning journey. This includes your approach, engagement, and exposure to the language. Plus, your passion and motivation to learn also play a vital role.

And, of course, how close your native language is to your target language.

So, if you already know Chinese and Japanese, you are in luck. But only to a small extent because of geographical proximity and historical roots.

As a matter of fact, all three are distinct languages. Korean is the most common language isolate. This means it has no traceable connections to any other language.

If English or one of the European languages is your first or native language. In that case, you may have to work a little harder than the others, as the similarity is almost nothing.

Korean difficulty level

Is Korean tricky to learn than other languages?

The same conundrum flummoxes many people. So before diving into the language, it’s natural to wonder if Korean is a complex language to learn.

And rightfully so, I think it’s imperative to decipher the breadth of a language’s learning curve before beginning to learn it.

There’s no denying that having a basic understanding of Korean will help you immensely enjoy the latest K-drama you’re watching. Perhaps the latest K-Pop song you’re listening to is on a loop.

So, coming back to the question: Is Korean hard to learn?

While all languages are tricky to some extent. But there is a widespread belief that Korean is difficult.

Who says Korean is difficult?

As per the widely acknowledged FSI research, Korean falls under category IV for native English speakers. They classified it as a “super-hard language.” This category includes Arabic, Chinese — Mandarin and Cantonese, and Japanese.

As a result, to speak Korean fluently or achieve levels like TOPIK VI, one needs to study for about 88 weeks or around 2,200 hours. 

Adding the suggested 1:1 self-study would require roughly 4,400 hours to reach the advanced level.

To put it bluntly, Korean isn’t impossible to learn, but it’s not a walk in the park either. So, to sum up, it is difficult but doable!

If I had to summarize the difficulty level of Korean accurately. Well, I’d say that it is not a language that should be taken up ideally, or on the side, with the expectation of going far in it.

What makes learning Korean so hard?

People frequently make the mistake of committing to a language before becoming acquainted with it. This means both fundamental and intricate aspects.

Knowing these things assists learners in rationalizing what is difficult for them. And what everyone struggles with.

That said, various reasons make Korean more difficult than other languages.

Apart from its very different grammar style from other languages, it also uses extremely foreign vocabulary. Plus, there are honorifics and delicate nuances to its conjugation. As a result, this makes it more confusing.

All this takes effort, a lot of time, and patience to grasp.

This article enlists the concepts that make Korean comprehension complex for new learners. Let’s go over these points in greater detail.

Is Korean hard to learn

1. It has an exclusive alphabetic system

The first step in studying any language is to become familiar with the language’s basic building block: the alphabet.

Learning a new foreign language with a completely different alphabet system can be difficult. This is specifically for learners whose native language does not follow the same script.

Hangul (한글), the alphabetic system used for writing Korean, differs vastly from English. It contains 24 alphabets, 14 consonants, and the remaining ten are vowels. 

Hangul’s origin story is rather unusual. Most other alphabetical systems have developed naturally. Instead, they invented Hangul with the sole intention of increasing literacy among Koreans.

At first glance, the digits in Hangul appear to be very similar to Chinese and Japanese characters. Still, upon closer inspection, you notice Hangul employs circular loops that are absent from both writing systems.

Although Japanese and Korean have incorporated Chinese characters into their languages. But, they have altered the pronunciation to accommodate their respective sound systems.

As a result, knowing Chinese comes in handy when learning Hangul.

Learning to read and write individual alphabets of Hangul is pretty straightforward. Reading words is where the problem arises.

Hangul is effortless to memorize logically. However, its appearance and writing style make it a little problematic. This usually happens beyond the initial level.

The convoluted writing style of Korean

They do not assimilate us with these unfamiliar symbols. The style of writing alphabets arranged compactly in dense blocks is an entirely alien concept to us.

We pen Hangul from left to right and read from top to bottom, an entirely new concept for English speakers.

So, getting up to speed with reading and writing Hangul is a matter of familiarizing oneself through daily practice.

2. The Korean word order is different

Learning how to construct sentences is a monumental milestone in language learning.

Yet, speaking and writing fluency in the target language becomes near-impossible without a good command over sentence structure.

Inverse sentence structure

Most languages use SVO, i.e., “subject-verb-object structure.” Yet, like other Asian languages, the grammar rules of Korean differ from English.

For example, in Korean, the order is SOV —“subject-object-verb.” As a result, the entire system feels inverted when compared to English. But, if you already know French, Spanish, or Italian, you won’t find it uncommon!

If one does not pay close attention to the structure, they will speak strange Korean.

For example, I eat rice will be structured as “I rice eat.”

It may not appear to be a problem in simple sentences. Still, it causes confusion in more difficult sentences as the language progresses. When it comes to phrases with a long subject or relative clauses, this method of forming expressions takes some practice.

For example, I want to go to the store will be structured as “I store to go, want to.”

The struggle stems primarily from the fact that this structure needs a different way of thinking. But don’t worry, even such a structure will become second nature with time and practice.

We English speakers find this notion peculiar because we state the person or thing we’re talking about right at the beginning of a sentence. In this way, we have already established the subject before providing the additional details.

The opposite is true in Korean, where all descriptions are there before mentioning the subject. As an outcome, until the sentence nears its termination, no one knows what Koreans want to say.

The issue arises because this structure causes a different way of thinking.

Korean language is easy or not

3. Korean is a hierarchical language

The Korean language employs an honorific system. This means that the words, forms, and sentence tone change to reflect. It also recognizes the speaker’s social relationship with the listener/subject.

Pronouns change depending on how close you are to the person you’re speaking with.

Korean pronouns change according to the level of formality. Therefore, it is critical to use the proper pronouns in Korean culture when speaking to someone in a higher position or with a higher social status.

It is strongly discouraged to use inappropriate pronouns to address the person you interact with during a formal conversation. Basically, the idea behind the language hierarchy is to use humble markers to lower oneself. 

This honorific system also refers to someone of higher status, not just with. There’s even honorific vocabulary, which uses entirely different words to show more tremendous respect.

So, for instance, if you’re having a casual conversation with a friend, bring up your father. Then, the honorific infixes will come into play to show him respect, even if he isn’t physically present.

Aside from honorifics, speech levels also play a role. For example, there are seven levels of formality in Korean. In fact, the verb endings of these seven distinct grammatical rules differ as well.

These rules are complicated and tricky to apply, even for people in the intermediate level. Unfortunately, this concept is one of the most difficult phases in everyone’s language learning journey.

Even in the advanced stages of learning Korean, a working understanding of Korean culture is required.

These comprise manners, etiquette and cultural faux pas. This is to avoid making mistakes when addressing various people in Korean.

4. Korean pronunciation often gets challenging

Korean is a phonetic language, meaning its sound and spelling are inextricably linked. But not that straightforward.

Korean has single and double consonants and a myriad of vowels that can be troublesome for a beginner.

Besides, Korean does not reuse sounds as frequently as other languages. So, novice learners have difficulty understanding the complex vowel sounds.

And that is one of the reasons NIIED introduced the TOPIK speaking test. This measures candidates’ verbal ability, which was missing till now.

You may have mastered reading and writing, but speaking, ideally, is an entirely different ball game. Korean sentences also have a unique cadence that can unsettle non-Korean speakers.

Every learner must make an extra attempt to apprehend this concept. People may find it challenging to understand you if your cadence is off.

Owing to the many layers and exceptions to how words are vocalized in Korean, learners frequently face the following problems.

The Homonyms creates confusion

The Korean language is full of short, or monosyllable words and their differences are often minutes. There is a fact. Many Korean words are homonyms, which does not help the learner’s case either. 

A major stumbling block everyone faces while learning Korean is that many words sound identical. As a result, many simple words get mixed up.

Korean also has a set of liaison rules that govern how words are pronounced based on the combination of sounds.

The liaison practices occasionally cause some alphabets’ enunciation to change. This results in new sounds.

Consider the following rule. A particle that does not follow words that end in a consonant will swallow the final consonant’s sound. This implies that the entire sound will not be pronounced.

This aspiration is difficult for English speakers to interpret at first.

Thus, every learner has difficulty distinguishing between them unless they speak clearly.

To get reasonably comfortable with these words, you may need a lot of listening drills. 

Combined alphabets are difficult to pronounce

Another hiccup that learners wrestle with is the problematic enunciation of double letters and the triphthongs (a combination of vowels).

While we write Korean letters in separate blocks, we combine some of them and pronounce them together.

On their own, vowels and consonants are pretty easy to pronounce as difficult letters. But when used in a sentence, their sound blends and is exceedingly tough to distinguish.

These are the sounds that accustom English speakers on the surface. However, keeping the subtle distinction between the sounds and consonants is tricky.

To get the pronunciation as native as possible, stick to the tried and tested method of “listen and repeat.” 

Is Korean tough to learn

5. Uncommon Vocabulary and phrases

The vastness of the Korean vocabulary is frequently a source of contention among learners. This is because there aren’t many common words between Korean and English, aside from a few words like sauna, radio, and so on.

Korean has borrowed some English and other language loan words. Still, most of them have a different meaning than the original English word. And as well as Korean-influenced pronunciation.

Konglish is also prevalent and refers to the variety of English unique to Korea. Sadly, this isn’t a standard version and has many errors, and many learners fail to learn the “proper” English.

Take into account loan words like remote control and apartment.

Even though the root words are the same, they are pronounced as Rimokon (리모콘) and Apateu (아파트) respectively.

Foreign Words

Most students hit a brick wall when it comes to Korean vocabulary retention.

To the uninitiated, most vocabulary sounds strange. Except for a handful of loanwords, almost no terms are shared with other languages.

There is another factor that makes learning Korean vocabulary more demanding. And that is the lack of a clear connection with existing English words. Same issue with other famous languages such as French and Spanish.

Consider the term “kitchen,” which is called “cuisine” in French and “cocina” in Spanish. Because similar words exist in English, both can be memorized. (Referring to cuisine as food and cooking as in the act of preparing food).

However, the Korean word for kitchen is “bueok.”

Bulky and complex words

Unfamiliar words aren’t the only issue. Adding particles to lengthy words is the most difficult aspect of vocabulary memorization.

When we add particles behind Korean words to express formality. Then, they become even longer, making word recognition an arduous task.

Before speaking Korean clearly and fluently, you must make mistakes and learn from them. But with so many perks of learning Korean, that would be totally worth it!

Grammar rules are different

Another disparity between Korean and English grammar is the use of adjectives as verbs.

Adjectives are not used to describe words in the same way as in English. Instead, an adjective is thought of as an ‘active state of being,’ or a Korean verb.

So, to say “she is pretty,” the sentence would be “she is being pretty.”

To master this concept, practice making sentences a lot.

Use Of Particles

One of the most challenging areas of Korean grammatical structure is the concept of particles.

Because there is no corresponding construct in English grammar. Thus, the idea of using particles appears even more perplexing to new learners.

In Korean grammar, particles serve as sentence markers. Therefore, we attach these particles behind words in Korean to show different grammatical functions.

For example, they are used to connoting the topic, context, location of the object, and the possessiveness of the subject.

Unless accompanied by a particle, Korean nouns are incomplete. These particles aid in effectively communicating the sentence’s meaning.

Koreans also have a habit of dropping the markers during casual conversations. This makes understanding this concept even more important. Only a thorough grasp of particles can assist you in comprehending what is being said when the particles are not present.

No one can become fluent in Korean unless Korean particles become second nature. Because particles appear in nearly every Korean sentence. Knowing how to use them is critical to the success of any Korean language student.

Even seasoned learners often get confused about selecting the appropriate particles. 

For particles, practice makes perfect. So, don’t expect to master this concept without putting in a significant amount of time and effort.

Parting Thoughts in a Nutshell

Is learning Korean easy

In all honesty, Korean is tricky. It might be regarded as one of the most arduous languages to learn for English speakers, but it is not inconceivable!

So, as long as you’re having fun in the process, don’t be too concerned about the “hours” it takes to gain comfort in the Korean language.

Taking the plunge and beginning a new activity is always intimidating, and learning a language is no exception. After all, learning a language is an enormous commitment in terms of time and effort.

Of course, it isn’t a mammoth task, but it entails some dedication and consistency.

Korean comes with its fair share of benefits and hurdles like any other language.

The payoff for conversing in a foreign language comes along with the disadvantages. This gives you a sense of accomplishment and makes all your efforts worthwhile.

At the end of the day, learning a new language is all about patience and building a firm foundation early on. Understanding a new language becomes simplified over time if you have the right approach and attitude.

So, take some steps, and put in the effort and time. And your journey to learning Korean will almost certainly become enthralling and intriguing in no time.

I’d like to conclude by quoting a Korean proverb that perfectly captures what it’s like to learn Korean.

“고생 끝에 낙이 온다,” which translates to “At the end of hardship comes happiness.”

I hope you enjoyed this article. Share your opinions or questions in the comment below.

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Mridula Joshi

Mridula Joshi is a linguaphile and writer. As a learning enthusiast, she takes a great interest in reading and writing about languages and cultures.

One comment

  1. Am so glad to have come across this write-up. It enlightened me more, I am finding it learning the Hangul but now this inspired me and am ready to learn more. Thanks for bringing out time to write this.

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