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Are you learning Korean but still find yourself struggling with the Korean writing system? Well, here’s some good news: mastering the Korean alphabet may be easier than you think.
The Korean alphabet is often said to be one of the most logical and easy-to-learn writing systems. I agree with that assessment. I’d like to show you just how easy it can be to learn the Korean alphabet and master Korean writing.
This is Why the Korean Alphabet is So Easy to Learn (A Very Short History)
Before the present-day Korean alphabet, known as Hangul, the Korean language used Chinese characters. This changed in the 15th century when King Sejong the Great is said to have invented Hangul.
The Hangul system was created to be easy to learn, and easy to understand. That’s because it aimed to boost literacy among Korean speakers. All that’s good news for you as someone learning Korean.
The Korean Alphabet: Pronunciation
Like English, Korean has vowels and consonants. There are 19 consonants and 21 vowels in the modern Korean alphabet.
In Korean, the shape of each of the letters is a clue to how it sounds. Each of the strokes that make up a letter are said to show the position of the tongue in the mouth when pronouncing that letter. That’s pretty cool!
Let’s take a look, starting with consonants:
Many Korean consonants are similar in pronunciation to their English counterparts. That said, their position is in a word (beginning, middle, or end) can change how they’re pronounced. Here’s an overview:
ㄱ: “g” as in go (may also be pronounced as “k” when in the final position)
ㄴ: “n” as in net
ㄷ: “d” as in dog (may also be pronounced as “t” when in the final position)
ㄹ: is somewhere in between “r” and “l”
ㅁ: “m” as in mama
ㅂ: often “b” as in bed but sometimes also an aspirated “p” as in pedal
ㅅ: “s” as in soon or sh as in shingle depending on the following vowel (it may also be pronounced as “t” in the final position)
ㅇ: silent or “-ng” as in bring
ㅈ: “j” as in jokester
ㅊ: “ch” as in charge
ㅋ: “k” as in karaoke
ㅌ: “t” as in tiger
ㅍ: “p” as in pour
ㅎ: “h” as in harness
Korean Double Consonants
ㄲ: “gg” as an initial sound but “kk” as a middle sound
ㄸ: “dd” as an initial sound but “tt” as a middle sound
ㅃ: “bb” as an initial sound but “pp” as a middle sound
ㅣ: “i” as in bee
ㅏ: “a” as in father
ㅓ: “eo” as in son
ㅡ: “eu” as in put, said smiling
ㅜ: “u” or “oo” as in boot
ㅗ: “o” as in go
Korean Diphthongs and Other Vowels
ㅑ: “ya” as in yahoo
ㅕ: “yeo” similar to young
ㅠ: “yu” as in you
ㅛ: “yo” as in yoghurt
ㅐ: “ae” as in land
ㅒ: “yae” as in yank
ㅔ: “e” as in net
ㅖ: “ye” as in yellow
ㅘ: “wa” as in wander
ㅙ: “wae” as in wag
ㅚ: “oi” as though saying “no entry” quickly
ㅝ: “wo” as in wonder
ㅞ: “we” as in wet
ㅟ: “wi” as in week
ㅢ: “ui” as as suey
Korean Syllable Blocks
Korean letters don’t appear on their own, instead, they appear as a part of syllable blocks. Korean letters can be grouped in a number of ways but the first letter will always be a consonant (even if it’s just ㅇ functioning as a silent letter. The letter in the second position will always be a vowel. If there is a letter in the final position (this would be a third or fourth letter in a syllable block), it will also always be a consonant.
In short, at a minimum, a Korean syllable will always include a consonant (initial) followed by a vowel. It may also include one or two final consonants.
How a syllable block is formed will depend on the shape of the vowel. If it is a vertical vowel like ㅣorㅏ, the initial consonant is written on the left and the vowel on the right as in 나 or 니. When it’s a horizontal verb like ㅗ, the consonant is written above the vowel as in 노.
Here are a few of the ways Korean syllable blocks may look (C = Consonant, V = Vowel, F = Final Consonant(s)):
In Korean, a word may be made up of just one of these blocks like 저 (cheo, “I”) or several as in 음악가 (eumagga, “musician”). Like in English, Korean has a space between each word. “I am a musician” in Korean would therefore be: 저는 음악가입니다. (cheo-neun eumagga-ibnida).
Practice Makes Perfect: How to Memorize the Korean Alphabet
I’ve found that one of the best ways to learn the Korean alphabet is with spaced-repetition, using an app such as Anki. Getting regular exposure to the new letters, and then practicing reading syllable pairs (also through spaced-repetition) is one of the best ways to master reading and writing in Korean.
I also recommend doing writing practice when possible–even if it’s just writing English words using Korean letters.
In fact, there are lots of English loan words in Korean, and they make great writing practice. These are words like 케냐 (ke-nya, “Kenya”), 쇼핑 (sho-ping, “shopping”), 휴스턴 (hyu-seu-teon, “Houston”), 컴퓨터 (keom-pyu-teo, “computer”), 오랜지주스 (o-raen-ji-ju-seu, “orange juice”), and so much more. These can be great practice when you’re just getting started.
Tools to Help You Learn the Korean Alphabet
If you’re still feeling unsure about how to go about learning the Korean alphabet, there are several tools available to help you master writing in Korean. Here are just a few of the resources that I used to learn the Korean alphabet:
- 90 Day Korean is an incredible resource for Korean learners. Not only does it teach you the basics of Korean, but it also teaches you the alphabet, pronunciation, and several helpful mnemonic techniques to aid your memorization. Plus, you’ll pick up tons of helpful vocabulary and grammar.
- Eggbun: This app is both adorable and educational. It’s also how I learned to type in Korean. With this app, you “chat” with a character who looks like an eggbun (hence the name), learning Korean bit by bit as your conversation progresses. It’s a freemium app, so the features you have access to are limited without upgrading.
- Scripts: Long gone are the days where you need to waste paper to practice writing characters or letters. When I first started learning Korean, I used grid paper to practice writing each letter. Now you can use Scripts to learn to write in Korean, getting digital writing practice while learning to recognize each letter.
- Anki: If you prefer the flashcard method of memorizing, Anki is a great tool. It uses spaced-repetition to teach you new information so that you’re sure to hang on to whatever you’re learning.
How to Type in Korean
Depending on the device that you’re using, there are different things you need to do to set up a Korean keyboard. You’ll likely want to get a keyboard overlay like this one for your computer, but I simply turn on the keyboard viewer on my computer and click to type.
On mobile devices, it’s simpler. You can go into your settings, add the Korean keyboard and then toggle to it when you need it to type.
And the best way to get comfortable typing? You’ve got it — practice. It’s normal to type frustratingly slow at the beginning but stick with it. It’ll come with time and practice.
Over to You
A different writing system doesn’t have to keep you from learning a new language. Learning the Korean alphabet and how to form syllable blocks isn’t as scary as it might first seem and I know you’ve got this! The Korean alphabet is incredibly intuitive and you’ll quickly pick it up.
What about you? How are you learning the Korean alphabet? I’d love to hear about your techniques and resources for learning to read and write in Korean in the comments below.