Foreign Language: Korean and Hangul

big bang blues hangul screenshot hangul chartHangul or Hanguel is the Korean alphabet, and I’ve been slowly learning it.  This makes me very happy. 

A Korean scholar of the middle ages said of the Hangul alphabet system: “a wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.”

I would say it’s taken me about  a month, and I have practiced about 15 minutes a day almost every day of that month.  It might have gone more quickly if I were 20 instead of 51, or if I hadn’t been so insistent on trying to learn the sounds at the same time.   Ah, maybe that’s what the Korean scholar wasn’t taking into account- his stupid man already knew all the right sounds.

It’s been very interesting learning a new alphabet and its sounds- I’ve gained a new sense of wonder and respect for that whole process of turning sounds into symbols on paper that mean something intelligible to others, so that we can pass down stories, records, events, from one generation to another and another and another. It’s really quite amazing to think about, yet we take it totally for granted.

I shared this with my friends when I independently read my second Korean word AND knew what it said in English:

“I’m feeling ridiculously jazzed by doing something any Korean six year old could do with ease- I just read my second Korean word- 한
Okay, while that might be a word, it was actually just the first syllable in Hangul. It takes me way too long and I sound things out very painstakingly, but it’s so cool how symbols unfold into sounds which go together to make words. It’s like magic. And we give this incredibly powerful stuff to children to play with.
Language is such an amazing gift, and a written language is impossibly amazing. I’m glad God hardwired our brains for language, and that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Think about it, I mean really, really ponder the miracle that is sounds into symbols on paper that mean the same thing to anybody who reads them, now, or a thousand years from now.  That’s just…. absolutely wonderous.

My first word?  Nothing grand.  Just…. Aegyo- a special kind of Korean Cute.  When my son is wheedling for something, he lays on the aegyo.  When my first grand-daughter wants something, she does it, too.

So how did I do it?  And am I qualified to even try to share this, because I am a raw beginner?  I think it’s because I am such a raw beginner that how I did it might be helpful- it’s all still so new and exciting to me that I am not taking it for granted, it didn’t come easily, and I came to it pretty much cold.  I have learned a foreign alphabet before, but it was a long time ago. Since my ignorance is still so fresh (and not so very dispelled) I think I can tell other beginners what to do in a way somebody with their ignorance long behind them might take it for granted.

I found several internet sites that would give me a visual introduction to the lettering system, but  wanted a program that wouldn’t just teach me that this symbol sounds like ‘a’ and that one like ‘g.’  To me, learning the sounds merely by spelling them using English letters isn’t very effective, if you want to learn to do more than just use the Hangul characters like a secret code.  Another problem is that certain sounds in Korean actually do not have an equivalent sound in English, and vice versa.  This character, for instance:

allegedly  sounds like r or l, but actually, it doesn’t sound either one. It sounds most to me like this letter, る,  in Japanese Katakana, which I would call ryu, but I cannot actually pronounce it, nor can I say the sound that is made by the Hangul character ㄹ.

Then there is this:

This Hangul character is most often spelled as ‘eu’ .   To me, it sounds most like a noise Lucy makes in I Love Lucy when she realizes she’s made a big mistake. It’s not ew, eu, or eh, but some combination thereof.

Here’s an interesting one:

It’s the first letter (after the null symbol, which is another story) in the Korean word for Mother and Mom.  I have seen it transliterated as ‘eo,’ and then pronounced as both o and uh, but, to me, what it most sounds like is the phonetical sound you make if you shape your mouth as though you are going to say ‘oh,’ but then instead, you make an ‘uh’ sound in the back of your throat.

In case you are wondering, there is no F, V, or Z sound in Korean (the ‘f’ sound in Japanese sounds more like an extremely aspirated ‘wh’) and neither language has exactly the same sound we do for r or l).

I heart k-dramaSo how did I teach myself Hangul (keep in mind that I’m still painstakingly sounding out one syllable at a time, slowly, excrutiatingly slowly)?  

Lots of Korean Dramas helped to build an interest as well as familiarize myself with the sounds of the language.

ThenI worked on learning the letters and their sounds using Memrise:

I found this Memrise program useful, as it did give sounds for most of the characters (thought not all of them).  You will want a second window open on your browser- the Virtual Korean Keyboard– useful for copying pasting the right answers to the Memrise program linked in the previous sentence.  At that Memrise program,  there is a pause button on the left. When you are asked for a hangul character, pause the program, go to the keyboard, type, copy, return to Memrise, hit play, then paste in the right position and enter. Sounds tedious, and it sort of is, but it’s reinforcing the letters as I have to hunt for them.  There may be a better way, but this worked for me, and looking for the right character among the entire alphabet was helpful (although for one or two letters I had to switch the keyboard over to another system- it sounds confusing, but I think you will figure it out when you get to that point). 

I also worked on the alphabet with this program at Memrise and about five others (I find it helps to use a different one each day, there is some overlap, but that is useful, too), esp this one.  It’s taken me much longer than the two or three days it supposedly takes, as I explained at the beginning of this post.  I think that’s partly due to my age (I was born in ’62), partly due to the fact that I am trying to study Spanish and ASL simultaneously, and I did once know the two easier Japanese alphabets and sometimes get them confused, and I don’t move on until my accuracy rate is 95% or higher.

The video here will help some with pronunciation, although I am having a hard time hearing any difference at all between some of those vowels.  However, another Korean website (sorry, lost the link), tells me that’s because there actually is not any difference, it’s just the same in English, where beech and beach sound precisely the same, but mean something different, or could and wood rhyme, or flute and root rhyme, but mute doesn’t.  Some things you just have to remember.

The blogger here shares what he thinks works, and explains:

There are many guides out there that done the same. I would suggest to do only one exercise: try to master this Flash game made by Aeriagloris. The game shows a letter, and suggests 3 to 5 answers to that question. It is good because the game allows showing either Korean or English writing of the symbol. Much better then flash cards! Master the 24 Hangul letters in less then a day. [edit: here is an alternative]

My problem with this is that it tested you on the letters, it didn’t first teach them.  I did use the flash system above for testing myself after I’d learned about half of the Hangul characters at Memrise.

big bang dal gachi nolja hangul I am finding that knowing the alphabet and the sounds the letters are supposed to make is very helpful when you are trying to understand or pronounce a language that does not use your native alphabet.   More helpful to me was looking up some of my favorite K-Pop tunes on Youtube, the ones that have both the Hangul and the Romanization (transliterating Hangul into English alphabet), stopping a frame, and slowly and painstakingly sounding something out, here a little, there a little.   That was exciting.

Then I switched to looking at the Hangul words on some youtube videos that aren’t transliterated- Korean variety shows do this a lot (although they speed by waaaaaaay too fast).

I also sometimes pause a drama I am watching to slowly sound out hangul text – I type out the letters using the keyboard linked above, and then I copy and paste it to check my work here.

 Yes, this is also tedious, which is why it helps to be keenly interested.  And I find the more I learn, the more it reinforces my interest, as learning becomes its own reward. I think I can even feel my braincells expanding. 

After I’d learned the majority of the Korean alphabet, I moved on to  this wiki. and, although I’m only on lesson 3, I am loving it. You get both sound and reading practice, including sound files to listen to to help with pronunciation.

lee hi rose hangulLike I keep stressing, I’m only the rawest of raw beginners, but the above should help anybody who really wants to learn Hangul basics.

 Other helps:

Sometimes it helps to vary the ways you work on this- this flash game just spells the sounds in roman letters, but it’s a good way to build up your speed with character recognition.

This Korean dictionary gives you both visuals and pronunciation, and the words are grouped by category.

Once I finish the wiki linked further up, I’ll start with ‘weekly Korean.’

Ooh, and more here.

Also here.

 If you want to buy a language program, I am going to suggest that you look at Pimsleur (Korean, Basic: Learn to Speak and Understand Korean with Pimsleur Language Programs) or Power-glide (they don’t seem to have Korean). I can’t recommend the popular Rosetta Stone because too many people who are native speakers of a language tell me that they are not impressed with RS’s version of their language. I have now heard this about French, Spanish, Russian, and Korean, so I think that’s a good enough sampling to suggest that maybe we’ve been had. My nephew, a native French speaker (English is his third language), tells me that he thinks Rosetta Stone sounds like google translated it.


Updated (12/9/13)- children’s e-books in Korean here!

A quick over-view and a comic to help here.

4/28/14- This is a really exciting resource, free, online, and not just for Korean (updated link):

“Welcome to – the home for language courses developed by the Foreign Service Institute.

These courses were developed by the United States government and are in the public domain.

This site is dedicated to making these language courses freely available in an electronic format. This site is not affiliated in any way with any government entity; it is an independent, non-profit effort to foster the learning of worldwide languages. Courses here are made available through the private efforts of individuals who are donating their time and resources to provide quality materials for language learning.”

The Korean Headstart program was created in the 80s, and it introduces Hangul in lesson 9.  Comes with audio and a student text. 

 Sogang University

See also, which has dozens of languages you can learn, and teachers you can hire as well as free online lessons to review.

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  1. teachergirl
    Posted September 2, 2013 at 12:21 am | Permalink

    Languages are fascinating, aren’t they? It’s amazing how humans can have so many different ways of putting sounds into meaning, and markings into writing.

    This was very helpful. I’ll file away those links for when I actually have time to dedicate to learning Korean. I started studying hangeul a few months ago in a very casual way, but I’m a full time student and I work full time, so I don’t have a lot of free time. I have a very basic grasp of the hangeul alphabet and syllable blocks – I have hard time with how to pronounce the double vowels like 의 and 와

    But it’s fun to be watching a drama or variety show and be able to read (sort of) the text. Sometimes I pause it just so I can sound everything out. Hangeul is no longer just circles and lines when I see it.

    I’m curious – do you use some Korean words with your family, like honorifics? I’ve seen them occasionally in your posts that weren’t specifically about Korean things.

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted September 2, 2013 at 12:34 am | Permalink

      I do, for fun, sometimes refer to the girls as noona when talking about them to the Boy, and often call him The Macknae.

      But I use scraps of language here and there, indiscriminately. I am just as likely to ask what time it is in Japanese as English, for some reason, but if I am asking where something is, that is more often in Spanish. And sign language is liberally sprinkled throughout all my communications.

  2. Lanon
    Posted September 2, 2013 at 5:14 am | Permalink

    I have a very vague memory of learning that sometime in recent memory (within the last 50 years or so?) the Korean government were concerned about literacy rates and so had their entire writing system revamped so that it would be much simpler to learn. Literacy rates skyrocketed after that. Is this a false memory or could it be true?

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted September 2, 2013 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      Interesting. I hadn’t heard that, but I’m trying to look it up. I know it was in the 1400s when King Sejong gathered together scholars to create Hangul because he wanted more people to be able to read- before that, Korea used a complicated Chinese system.
      In the 60s and 70s I think, the government made a big push toward higher literacy rates.

      Acccording to this website It is very logical- I just now started reading the wikipedia article on it, and I probably should have done that sooner. Check out the paragraph on why the letters are shaped the way they are, and what that has to do with pronunciation.


      Korea has shown dramatic literacy rate change over the past 60-70 years. In the late 1930s the adult illiteracy rate was over 70%. Now it is less than 2 %. How it is possible to eradicate illiteracy in such a relatively short time?

      There can be many answers to that question. First, it owes to the value system of Korean people. During its long history, education has been first the priority of many Koreans. People seek to educate their children even if they face a shortage of food. People believe the return rate of education is higher than that of any other investment in children. Owing to the strong relationship between parent and children, parents have been willing to sacrifice themselves for the education of their offspring. Second, the Korean alphabet is easy to learn. Since Korean is a scientific phonetic language composed of 10 vowels and 14 consonant, it is relatively easy to learn. Third, after the liberation from Japan in 1945, the rapid expansion of primary schools made it possible for virtually all of the young children to become literate. Fourth, the social atmosphere in which everybody is expected to read and write helps people to learn. The adult who has had no chance to learn when he/she was young, is usually ashamed of himself/herself and typically tries hard to learn when the opportunity presents itself. Finally, small non-profit institutes operating on a voluntary basis help adults to learn. There have been many small institutes teaching Korean to the socially deprived illiterates, especially women. Through these institute many illiterates have gained literacy.

      The disparity of literacy between male and female is no longer a social problem. In the past, usually girls had to sacrifice themselves for their brothers or family. They were the first targets to abandon their education. Now as far as primary or secondary education is concerned, there is almost no disparity.

  3. Posted September 2, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    “Ridiculously jazzed.” Yes, I know that feeling. My first Korean word was 이 but that’s so simple and so ubiquitous that it wasn’t as exciting as when I was watching some show where the couple was sitting in a cafe and on the menu board over their heads I was able to read 김치. I stopped the video so I could shout, “Hey! I read that!” My girls patted me on the head like a small child. They, of course, can read it far better than I can, being younger and having more time to devote to that sort of thing.

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