Korean is considered the second hardest language in the world by the American government according to my friends in the American military in Korea. There are several reasons it is hard for native speakers of English. For example, the whole concept of what a sentence is is completely different between Korean and English. When I was teaching English as a Second Language students in America, the Koreans had a harder time than any of the other international students. At the time, I didn’t speak Korean and didn’t understand what the problem was. The problem is where they started to English is a much wider gap than most languages. One of the things that separates English from Korean is the levels of speech in Korean. When I first came to Korea and was studying Korean, a Korean who spoke English and Japanese who I spoke Japanese with pulled me aside. He decided to tell me that if I was wanting to learn to speak Korean too, I was looking at a huge mountain, and I had no idea how many levels of speech there could be in Korean. All the Americans I knew had just given up and weren’t even trying. They had tried to learn to speak Korean, but gave up. However, I have a hard head, and I didn’t give up. I decided if I could just basically learn to communicate in Korean, I would be happy. I can communicate in Korean now, and I have learned those levels, and there are many.
The lowest level of Korean is ban mal. It is what they speak at home. Foreigners usually don’t learn this because they don’t get that close to a Korean. You have to be real buddies with a Korean or live in the same house before you hear it. As for me, I have a Korean son in law who lives in my house. He speaks English really well, but when I try to translate something in Korean, he has a tendency to use ban mal when he corrects my translations, and I have learned some from him. I have also learned some ban mal because at church, the most modern songs that my buddy Joseph teaches us have a tendency to use ban mal too.
Another level of Korean is the level they use in books. If you look in the dictionary, this the is form you will find. If you write something in Korean, they expect you to use this level. The main characteristic of this level is it is a shorter form that ends in “da.” I will give examples of each level at the end. Call this level “book level.”
Another level I have learned they use when they speak to most people, and this is the best level for foreigners to learn. They tell me it is not as harsh a book level. When you speak it, you sound kind, and most people use it. You can speak it to most people unless they are way above your station. Although, I have a tendency to write it on the page, the Koreans tell me I shouldn’t use it on paper because it is just for speaking. You can call this the “basic speaking level” or the “yo” form.
Another level I have learned is the formal level. This is longer than the speaking level. It also ends with “da” like the book level, but it is longer. If you are a student and want to speak to your teacher, this is probably the best level to use. When you introduce yourself in front of a big crowd, this is also the level to use. If you hear an announcement over a loud speaker, they will use this level. You can call this “the formal level.”
The last level I have learned is the level for speaking to or about the emperor or to God, but you never use this level to refer to yourself. This is an extremely formal level. It uses the formal level and puts “shee” in the middle of it. You don’t hear it often, but you will probably hear it if you go to church. I have learned to recognize it from singing hymns in Korean.
There may be more levels, but these are the ones that I am familiar with.
Now, here are some examples of the levels:
Let’s begin with a very common verb in simple present tense:
- 하다 (hada) This means “to do,” and sometimes is a state of being verb. 하다 is the book form. If you look it up in the dictionary, this is the form you will find.
- If you want the form you can speak to everyone, say: 해요 (hey-yo) It means the same thing.
- If you want to make it into ban mal, the form they speak with their closest friends and relatives, simply say 해 (hey).
- If you want to make it formal like when you speak to your professor, say 합니다(habnida) or 하십니다 (hashipnida).
- If you want to talk to or about God with this verb, you would have to say 하신다 (hashinda) or 하십니다 (hashipnida).
For all of this, in English, we have “do or does.”
I will give you one more verb to show that even if you learn the levels, the conjugations are different from verb to verb.
- 가다 (kada) means “to go.” It is also the form you will read in books or in the dictionary for “go or goes.”
- The form you use with everyone for this verb is 가요 (kayo).
- If you want to use this verb in ban mal, then simply say 가 (ka).
- The form you should use when talking to your professor is 갑니다 (kabneeda), or, 가십나다 (kashipneeda).
- The most respectful form if you are talking about God for this level, use 가십나다 (kashipneeda).
Just looking at these levels can give you an idea of how complicated it gets. When our kids are in school, the teachers teach them to negate the verb using words like this “do not,” and then they take them to the next step “don’t or doesn’t” after that. They take them gradually, but the Koreans are so used to changing words that they don’ teach “do not,” but take them directly to “don’t and doesn’t” when they speak English. The simpler form boggles their minds because they are so used to complicated. Concepts that we use words to convey, they use verb conjugations like “Let’s go” which we only have one way of saying, but I know two ways of saying in Korean: “가자 (kaja), the lower way, and 갑시다 (kabsheeda), the higher way. They also have verb conjugations when we use punctuation. Instead of putting a period (.) or an exclamation point (!) or a question mark (?) after a sentence, they can write it into the verb. They leave their subjects out and make you guess what they are talking about. The subject is not written into the verb like in Spanish or Romanian. Nor do they bother to say it like in English. The articles come after nouns and pronouns. There are specific articles to use after subjects and direct object. The preposition comes at the end of the prepositional phrase instead of at the beginning like in most languages. The verb comes last, and sometimes the verb is the whole sentence. You don’t need a subject and a verb to make a sentence.
With all this, you can see why just learning to communicate at all in Korean for a foreigner is a big deal. The Koreans know how complicated their language is, so many of them try to learn English. They see English as the key to the outside world outside of Korea, and for them, I am convinced they are right. There are English schools everywhere, and kids all go to English schools after school. The parents get so zealous about making sure their kids learn English that the Korean government has recently made laws that they can’t teach their children English before a certain age because they want their Korean language to develop first. However, I understand the parents who try to start teaching their kids English early. The person with the best TOEIC score is the one who gets the job in Korea. TOEIC is the a big English test they all have to take if they want a decent job in Korea. Korea is a small country, and they know if they want to survive, they must do commerce with the outside world. Koreans who speak English really well are considered valuable in Korea. There are reasons English has become such a big deal in Korea. They invite lots of foreigners to Korea just to speak English to them calling them English teachers. They don’t want the foreigners to learn to speak Korean because they need them to speak English. Most English speakers go home after a year or two and are never able to speak Korean. If you come from Japan, Mongolia, or Bangladesh, Korean is easier because the grammar is the same. If you come from China, it is easier because some of the words are the same, but native English speakers are just going to have a hard time learning Korean unless they are very committed. These levels are just part of what you would encounter.