If you are a native English speaker, learning Korean will seem overwhelming! Any time you begin a new language, it feels like you have an awful lot to learn to actually learn to speak it. Once, a long time ago, I read a book about learning language that said you needed to know about 800 words to basically begin speaking a language. I also figured out that you need to know simple present tense, simple past tense, and future tense, or you will make yourself misunderstood. However, whoever wrote about those 800 words were probably a native English speaker trying to learn Spanish or French. We have enough in common with European languages that we can get by with that advice and get over that 800 hump at the beginning, and then coast learning as we go because of the similarities in the languages. I hate to say it, but it will take more than 800 words for a native English speaker to learn to speak Korean.
To begin with, Korean and English don’t have a lot of words in common like English and Spanish or French. Their words have completely different origins and have no connection to ours. That makes the amount of words you have to learn at the beginning go up much higher, but I am not quite sure what that number is.
One thing I wouldn’t let daunt me is the alphabet. It is basically easy. However, the word order and the concept of what a language is are mind blowing! If you are learning French or Spanish which man native speakers of English do, they have similar word orders and similar ideas of how a language is put together, but Korean word order takes a whole other mind set. Verb conjugations are not just about time, but also about level of speech, where the verb is used in the sentence, the purpose of the verb, and punctuation. Yes, when we have punctuation, punctuation is written into their language as if they are words. They have many constructions for stringing verbs and nouns together that we never even thought about. English is put together much easier. They have a thing called post position particles that announces the part of speech, but our part of speech is simply understood usually by the word order.
Many native speakers of English never learn to speak Korean, and I understand why. S. Koreans push to understand English because without it they can’t do business. They use English to talk to the rest of the world because they consider English an international language. I have heard them traveling overseas and complaining that they had trouble finding English speakers, but the country’s language wasn’t English at all, but they expected to find people who could speak English and get around easily because they studied English. An good American missionary learns the language of the place he goes to, but a Korean who wants to be a missionary studies English. To get a good job in S. Korea, you have to get a goo TOEIC score. TOEIC is a government test of English, and their employers look for people with a good score on this test. They push to learn English, and if they meet you, they will discourage you from learning Korean because they want you to speak English to them so they can learn it. Many times, you can address someone in Korean, and they will come back speaking to you in English even if they only know two English words. They are made to think they all must learn to speak English, but they find English hard and most of them don’t speak English even if they pass the TOEIC. There is just a huge gap between Korean and English.
I don’t discourage anyone from trying to learn to speak Korean, but I want them to know before they start, it is not going to be like trying to learn a European language. You are really going to have to put your head into it. You have to forget that you know English when it comes to word order and language concepts. You may find yourself at humps sometimes that you think you will never get over, but you have to just not give up. Many English speakers just give up because they don’t have the stamina that it takes to get to the point they can carry on a conversation in Korean. I actually don’t blame them because I almost gave up many times. I can carry on a conversation, but it gets hard at times. I can understand Korean preachers, but it gets hard at times. I am still having to constantly learn new words. Learned to basically conjugate the verbs was a big feat, but it got me over a lot of humps.
The first hump you will encounter is what to do with the state of being verb. We only have one and they have several, each one used for a different concept. Using the correct level of speech in the right place is another hump in the beginning. Just don’t give up, and constantly study vocabulary. Understand that more than verbs are conjugated, and learning those conjugations is mandatory because you will never understand a sentence without knowing how to conjugate verbs as well as adjectives. When we have different words to put a construction together in English they will have a construction that is all one word.
Just don’t let it throw you, and don’t give up. It will take longer than trying to learn a European language. You have to be very dedicated to learning to speak it. You have to decide you really want to or you will be wasting your time. If you are American, at the end, you could get a really good paying job. There are jobs in the Department of Defense of the United States for people who have worked in an office for three years speaking Korean that pay $100,000 a year. I don’t have one because I am older than the age cut off. You have to find Koreans who will let you speak Korean to them. If they like you and don’t speak English, you need to be friends with them. If they speak English, it is good to be friends, but they will be speaking English to you because it is good for them and their futures. If you are thinking about trying to learn to speak Korean, just know it will take a lot of time and effort, but it can be done.
There is a test called the TOPIK, test of proficiency in Korean, given by the Korean government. If you get to level 3, they consider you to know enough to study at most of their universities. If you get to level 6, that is the highest. I only know of three foreigners in S. Korea who have gotten to level 6. It is considered like a native speaker. My daughter is a level 6 which people consider a miracle, but she spent a lot of time reading to try to make her vocabulary big and attending language school at an Ivy league university in S. Korea. She is also married to a S. Korean. A Bangladeshi friend is a level 6, but he has explained to me that Korean is easier for people from Bangladesh than for native English speakers because the Bangla language and the Korea language have the same grammar. He has an extremely good job in S. Korea. There is also a guy whose posters you may see in the subway because he is a native English speaker who is a level 6, and the Koreans know how hard it is to get to a level 6 and feel like he is a miracle, so they put him on TV. Good luck. I hope you will be one of the level 6 people, but they are very rare. If you can at least make it to level 3, you will be considered good enough at Korean to study at their universities. Just know that it is a long, hard haul, much longer and harder than a European language.
If you do it, you have to be committed to spending years of your life to learn it if you want to be any good. It is not a miracle overnight language. I learned to speak Romanian in six months, and I was shocked to find out that English speakers thought it was hard, but Spanish speakers find it easy, and I am both an English and a Spanish speaker. You can’t learn Korean that quickly. I could carry on conversations in Japanese before I studied Korean. People would say, “Well, if you can speak Japanese, then you can certainly learn to speak Korean!” Okay, I have learned. The main similarities between Korean and Japanese is the word order and the grammatical concepts. The vocabulary is not close at all, but there are a couple of words that are similar, but not enough to make a difference. The writing is easier in Korean than Japanese writing. Just stay with it if you want to learn Korean and know it will not happen overnight, and it will not happen as quickly as it would if you chose a European language.