I have heard this said more than once. According to my friends in the American military, the American government actually classifies Korean as the second hardest language in the world for English speakers to learn to speak. It makes sense to me.
When I was teaching international students in America, there were several countries represented among my students. The Koreans struggled harder than any of the other students. If Koreans are not completely diligent, they can’t learn English because the degree of difficulty goes both ways. There is no doubt that the vocabulary and grammar are different, but also the concept of what a language is, what you do with it, grammar, and punctuation are al completely foreign to one another. They two languages seem to have nothing in common at all except that you read from left to right and that each letter of the alphabet has its own sound and then when combined with other letters, its sound may change. Those are the only commonalities I have found.
In English, we begin with the subject, then we use our verb, then the direct object, the indirect object next, and then prepositional phrases. In Korean, they begin with the subject, then they will put the prepositional phrases and direct and indirect objects, and then the verb comes last. Japanese and Korean have the same grammar. Korean also uses post position particles and the prepositions come last in the prepositional phrases too as opposed to English where we have articles before our nouns and prepositions before our object of the preposition. In Korean, there are different post position particles according to how the noun or pronoun ends as well as different post position particles for whether it is a subject or a direct object.
One of the major things English speakers find hard about Korean is getting over the initial hump of which “to be” verb to use. We have one state of being verb that takes care of it all, but they have at least four and sometimes more according to what they want to say. Each one is used for something different, identification and location are two big differences. Another state of being verb is part of the adjective. Yes, they verbs that are adjectival type verbs. They also mix back and forth a state of being verb that could be “to do” or could be “be.” Another state of being verb, they mix back and forth that could be “to have” or could be “to be located” or could be “there is” or “there are.” Another state of being verb they mix back and forth is using “to become” when we would use “to be.”
After they have us completely mixed up on which state of being verb to use, then they do more than conjugate verbs into person. They also conjugate them according to which level of speech they are using. When you are introduced to a Korean, they will often want to know your age right away, and you may feel it is rude, but it is necessary for them if they want to talk to you to know. There are special forms of the verbs to speak up to someone, to speak down to someone, to be rude, to be polite, to speak to buddies, to speak to God or the emperor, to speak to strangers, and to speak to be groups of people. Some verb forms are only used on the page, and if you use them in speaking, you sound harsh to their ears. There are other forms that make you seem very kind when you speak. This is probably one of the hardest things for a native speaker of English to learn because we have very few concepts like this in English. It is like the difference between “yes, sir,” “yes” and “yeah,” but an over abundance of verbs conjugated differently for different levels. And. for each level, you have to learn to reconjugate the verbs for tenses too.
Besides these verb endings, they also have verb endings that have no meaning in English except a punctuation mark. Often, they will speak with no tone in their voices at all, just in a monotone. In English, we can tell someone’s mood by the tone of their voice, but you can’t always do that in Korean. They way you can tell their mood is if they use a verb ending that tells you they are excited, asking a question, etc.
Something else that makes Korean hard for native speakers of English is their use of pronouns or leaving words out. they have two pronouns that mean “you,” but you probably better not use either one unless you know them very, very well. You leave the word “you” out all together, use their name, or even call them “teacher” even if they aren’t. It is difficult when they leave the pronouns out. They don’t have to leave other pronouns out by the rules, but they often do, and you have to learn to read between the lines and guess from context who they are talking about. Koreans are very nonspecific when they speak, and it is very difficult for them to get used to how specific they have to be when they learn to speak English just as it is hard for us to get used to a nebulous conversation because so much is left to our imaginations. This leads to a lot of waiters and waitresses making mistakes when you order your food. They try to anticipate what you are going to order because that is what you do when you speak Korean, you try to anticipate what the other wants to say. The waiters and waitresses often just don’t listen because they are so busy anticipating and bring you something you didn’t order.
Sometimes, I felt like because of the nebulous feel of the language and them anticipating what others have to say, that not a lot of communication was actually going on. English is made to clearly communicate what we want the other people to know. In English, we are taught to listen to what the others say and communicate what we want to say clearly. However, in Korean, their language is not always for communication. Many Koreans speak just because they want to be heard. It doesn’t matter if anyone understands or not. They will try to use the most complicated grammar and vocabulary they can find to sound intelligent, but they really don’t care if they are communicating. They just want to impress someone with what they said, and you are supposed to anticipate what they want to say or just misunderstand or ignore them and act like you understand whether you do or not. The concepts that are important to Koreans when they speak just are not that important to native speakers of English, and visa versa. The categories of thought between Korean and English are completely different, and it makes it hard for them to learn to be specific in English and for us to anticipate what they want to say because of their nebulousness. Hence, the Korean language has been classified as the second hardest in the world for native English speakers to learn by the American government.