Is It Hard To Learn Korean (Like What Most People Say)?

Korean is a language full of unique wonders.

However, this can make it a hard language to learn compared to other languages.

If it’s your first time learning a new language, wouldn’t Korean be too challenging to take as your first language?

What in particular makes Korean hard to learn? And are there good things that make it a wee bit easier?

To see if Korean is worth learning, let me give you an idea of what to expect.

Is Korean Hard for English Speakers?

Most people think Korean is hard. Interestingly, the same people who say this are mostly English speakers.

I understand it completely, since I myself also struggled with Korean in my early days.

According to FSI, it takes 2,200 hours to reach proficiency in Korean if coming from English. This puts Korean in the highest category of difficult languages, Category V, alongside Japanese, Arabic, Mandarin, and Cantonese. That’s over 90 days of nonstop learning Korean.

Compare that to Spanish which is only like 650 hours, or less than 1/3 that of Korean. If learning a new language is your goal (not necessarily Korean), then it might make sense to pick easier languages instead.

Most people don’t know this, but there’s some sort of a “language distance” between your origin language and your target language. Some languages can be far from your origin while others are near and similar.

Here is the reference for FSI’s categories, which measures how long it takes to reach a score of “Speaking-3/Reading-3” on the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale for a particular foreign language.

Is Korean Hard for Adult Learners?

On top of the FSI estimates, it may also matter if it’s your first time learning a foreign language as an adult.

We adults learn differently from a child. We don’t start from a blank slate because we already have a lot of life experiences. And we acquired them mostly through our native language.

It’s going to be a bit of a struggle to let in a new language given our default habits in the native language.

Not to mention, as adults we might not have enough time to spend on learning a new language, thanks to more important priorities in life such as working at a job and taking care of kids.

If you combine these factors altogether, on top of learning a language that may be too far from your origin language, it’s no wonder why Korean sounds challenging to many.

What Makes Korean Difficult?

To understand what makes Korean a difficult language to undertake, here are the distinct features of Korean that usually trips most learners in their tracks:

  1. A New Alphabet – as a Korean learner, you will be abandoning the English alphabet and using the Korean alphabet, Hangul.
  2. New Pronunciation/Phonetics – because of a new alphabet system, you will have to learn how each letter sounds, as well as the rules governing pronunciation, which sometimes don’t have an equivalent in English.
  3. Subject-Object-Verb Structure – in English the sentence “boy eats apple” makes sense, but in Korean the sentence changes into “boy apple eats”, with the verb located at the end of the sentence. This shift in grammar will definitely rewire your brain especially if it’s your first time encountering this structure.
  4. Fast Sounding Language – Korean is fast, which is somewhat similar to Japanese, where the natural conversations often flow fast and hard to dissect for an untrained ear.
  5. Similar Sounding Letters – if that’s not enough, consider how the sounds in Korean are sometimes similar, but the slightest differences can have an entirely different meaning.
  6. Use of Honorifics – learners also get confused with the concept of honorifics to address people who are worthy of respect, because you can offend Koreans if you address them incorrectly.
  7. Lots of Grammar Rules – every language has a set of grammar rules, but Korean grammar somehow overwhelms a lot of learners, myself included.
  8. Lots of Vocabulary – again this is an obvious challenge for every new language, but Korean can be incredibly challenging especially when the translations don’t look similar to English.

On the Bright Side: What Makes Korean Easy?

Everything isn’t all struggle with the Korean language.

There are parts in Korean that make it easier to learn:

  1. Hangul is a Simple Alphabet – while you definitely need to learn a new alphabet, Korean alphabet is one of the easiest writing systems out there. It’s not as daunting as Japanese and Chinese, where you have to memorize thousands of characters before starting to use it. In fact, in a few hours you’ll be able to read and construct Hangul characters once you get the gist of the rules.
  2. Simply Combine Characters to Form Blocks – the word for love, 사랑, is made up of ㅅ andㅏ for the first block, and ㄹ, ㅏ, and ㅇ for the second block. That’s literally the foundation of all Korean words, which is how you’re going to be able to read and write once you master Hangul.
  3. There are English Words in Korean – words such as ice cream, banana, and cake are literally the same in Korean, it’s just spoken a bit differently. And there are many of them that you will learn along the way.
  4. Combining Korean Words Can Form New Vocabulary – if you combine 화 (fire) and 산 (mountain), you form 화산, which is “fire mountain” or as we call it – volcano. As you discover more of the basic words, you’ll find that longer words are just the combination of these shorter words.
  5. No Tones and Stresses to Worry About – this means the meaning won’t change if you speak the words in a different way (unlike Chinese or Thai), and Korean syllables have equal stresses all throughout.
  6. Korean Particles Can Help You With Grammar – particles are characters which you add to words to designate the role of the word in a sentence. There’s a specific particle to tell you what the subject of the sentence is, as well as a particle to tell you the object, and so on. As you delve deeper in Korean, these particles will guide you to understand grammar better.

Take these features to your advantage because not all languages have them.

Korean Is Hard, But It’s a Worthy Challenge

I can relate to the struggles of everyone learning Korean, especially those who are starting out. My progress was so slow at first until it eventually picked up speed.

No new language can be mastered overnight – it takes time until it can become a natural part of you.

Depending on where you’re coming from, Korean can be an incredibly tough and long journey.

But it doesn’t actually take long before you can see its benefits – a sharper brain, a window to a new culture, better career opportunities, and the ability to talk to Koreans.

Every language learner’s journey is unique, and it’s okay to move at your own pace. Finding Korean hard doesn’t make you a terrible person in any way. In fact, it can be an opportunity for you to grow as you brave through that difficulty.

The question now is: Will you take Korean as a challenge, despite how hard it looks according to some people? Or will you pass and take on something else? Let us know in the comments.

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