So, it’s finally happening. You’ve got your contract in hand, your plane ticket purchased, and you’ve been practicing your polite bow in the mirror for weeks. You’re all set to leave familiarity behind and embrace life as a teacher in Korea.
Or almost, anyway. If I could give one piece of advice to new expats, it would be: learn some Korean before you get here. Not only will it impress your coworkers and win you a few points for cultural awareness, it will also make the transition between your old life and new infinitely easier.
The best way to begin learning Korean is to start with Korea’s written alphabet, known as Hangeul (한글). There are 14 consonants and 10 vowels, which can be used on their own or combined in a variety of ways to form digraphs. Memorize their shape and the sound that each letter or digraph makes. Learning to read Hangeul will make your Korean pronunciation much more accurate than if you simply try to sound out the romanized versions of Korean words. You can find helpful guides on how to begin learning Hangeul here and here. Information on the revised romanization of Hangeul can be found here.
That being said, this article is not meant to be a lesson on Hangeul, or really a proper foundation of any kind. This is all about survival Korean, those quick and dirty (in a grammatical sense) phrases that will help you navigate through your first few months with at least a modicum of grace.
Whether you’ve been cornered by a chatty ajumma on the bus or are attempting to order in a restaurant, combining these sentences with some wild gesturing should hopefully do the trick. And remember, even if things don’t turn out quite how you planned, it’s bound to make a great story later. Happy studying!
Your standard, run-of-the-mill expressions.
Self-explanatory. Use with wild abandon!
Use either of these words to confirm something, agree with someone, show that you’re listening carefully, or accept a task that’s been given to you. 예 (ye) has a slightly more formal feeling than 네 (ne), but 네 is more commonly used and perfectly acceptable in almost all settings.
Another self-explanatory one. Infrequently written as 아니오 (a-ni-o).
One of two ways to say goodbye. This version is used when you are staying somewhere but the other person is leaving.
The second of two ways to say goodbye. This version is used when you are leaving somewhere but the other person is staying.
A little politeness goes a long way! Make sure to incline your head while thanking someone for that extra dash of respect.
Literally, “Because I met you, I’m glad.” Pulling this phrase out when you first meet your boss will win you major brownie points. If both words are a bit tricky to remember, you can also simply say 반갑습니다 (ban-gap-seum-ni-da) to achieve the same meaning.
Use this phrase when you need to get around someone who is blocking your way, or if you want to tell someone to hang on for a second.
Of the two phrases, 죄송합니다 (joe-song-ham-ni-da) is the more formal and should be used with strangers, those older than you, and your superiors at work. 미안해요 (mi-an-hae-yo) is a less formal option that could be used with acquaintances and coworkers, though it is still a bit too formal for close friends. Keep in mind that Koreans do not use these phrases to express condolences or sympathy (i.e. “I’m sorry to hear that”), so you should only roll out these expressions when you are at fault for something.
When spoken with a falling intonation, this phrase has the meaning of “That’s okay” or “I’m okay.” With a rising intonation, it becomes the question “Are you okay?”
Korea is likely a very different place from your home country. You might feel a bit like Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas when you first arrive (“What’s this? What’s this?”), but at least you’ll be able to express your bewilderment in the native language.
If you visit Korea, people are bound to ask you where you’re from. Now you know how to tell them!
If you want to make friends while in Korea, you’ve got to know how to tell people your name. This phrase not only allows you to do that, but also to tell people other information (about your job, lifestyle, etc.).
If you offer someone a casual 안녕하세요 (an-nyeong-ha-se-yo) they might get excited and start bombarding you with rapid Korean. Instead of staring at them like a deer caught in headlights, stem the verbal tide by meekly uttering this sentence.
You’ve got places to be and things to see! Let’s not get lost, shall we?
This simple question will prove invaluable when you’re trying to find your way around. Simply insert any place, person, or thing into the blank space and you’ll be able to ask where it is/they are.
It might be hard to admit, but sometimes you just have to come out and say it. Use this phrase to win the sympathy of passersby and hopefully convince someone to help you out!
Use this sentence when taking a taxi to tell the driver where to go.
This question might seem a bit unnecessary to learn, but trust me, it’s incredibly helpful when taking a taxi in Korea. It’s much easier to have a cab driver punch your address into his GPS than for you to try telling him how to get there yourself.
Another taxi-related phrase. Use this to tell the cab driver when you’re ready to get out.
Three expressions that will help you both give directions and understand them when they’re given to you.
Korea’s big cities are a mecca for shoppers. These phrases should help you score some sweet deals!
Combined with some pointing, you can inquire about the price of any object.
A simple sentence that will allow you to ask whether a seller has a certain item. This phrase is useful in almost any situation, not only when shopping.
Use this sentence to ask a shop assistant if you can try on those pants you’ve been eyeballing. Be aware that many of the tiny boutique shops (such as those found in subway stations) have no dressing rooms.
That top is pretty cute, but beige looks horrible on you–you can use this sentence to ask if it comes in another colour.
You might not use the latter sentence that often during your time in Korea, but odds are you’ll be pulling out the former more than once! Clothing and shoe sizes in Korea generally run smaller than what Westerners are used to, and many Korean shops stock clothing exclusively in “free size” (a.k.a. one size fits all).
The Korean language has dozens of counting words that are each used with different kinds of things: 명 (myeong) for people, 마리 (ma-ri) for animals, etc. 개 (ge) is probably the most general counting word, and even if it’s not the right one for the object you’re indicating, a Korean should still be able to figure out what you’re trying to say if you use it. Ask to be given more than one of something with this sentence.
*개 is used with Native Korean numbers. See the section on “Counting & Numbers” for more information.
There are lots of shops in Korea that only accept cash, so it’s a good idea to carry some around with you at all times. You can inquire if a store accepts bank or credit cards with the above sentence.
Two phrases that occasionally come in handy at the end of a transaction.
With kitchen space at a premium in your tiny Korean apartment, you’ll find yourself dining out more often than not. Use these phrases to ensure you end up with the food you wanted on your plate.
In most Western countries, it’s considered a bit rude to shout across the restaurant to call your waiter over, but in Korea it’s standard practice. Use this phrase, or the interchangeable 여기요 (yeo-gi-yo), when you’re ready to order, want the bill, or need to summon a server for some other reason.
Like 개 (ge), 명 (myeong) is another Korean counting word. It is used when talking about a number of people. When you enter a restaurant, the host or one of the servers will ask you how big your party is–use this phrase to tell them how many people will be dining. Keep in mind that 개 (ge) should never be used in place of 명 (myeong), as it essentially translates to “thing” and is therefore an extremely disrespectful way to refer to the people you’re numbering!
*명 is used with Native Korean numbers. See the section on “Counting & Numbers” for more information.
You might recognize the ending 주세요 (ju-se-yo) from previous sections. When attached to another verb, it has the meaning of “please do for me,” but when on its own after a noun it simply means “please give me.” This is the polite way to order food or drinks.
인분 (in-bun) is a Korean counting word that translates roughly to “servings.” Although 개 (ge) can be used to describe objects in most situations and will still be understood even when incorrect, when ordering dishes (food, not drinks), 인분 (in-bun) is the better option to indicate how much you want to order. You can use this phrase to answer a waiter when asked how many servings of something you want.
*인분 is used with Sino-Korean numbers. See the section on “Counting & Numbers” for more information.
If you have any kind of dietary restrictions or are simply a picky eater, you’re bound to encounter some dishes in Korea that you won’t be able to eat. This phrase will help you explain to your perplexed Korean coworkers why you’re only eating rice during the staff dinner.
Another sentence for you picky eaters to remember. Use it to request that a dish be modified.
This is an important question to memorize if you’re a wuss about spicy food like I am. It’s good practice to avoid anything with red sauce in Korea if you can’t handle the heat, as it’s likely got 고추장/gochujang (spicy red pepper paste) in it.
Doggie bags are not ubiquitous in Korea, but generally restaurant chains or places that sell Western-style food will have no problem boxing up your leftovers or packaging your entire meal for takeout. And if you’re having trouble remembering 포장 (po-jang), saying 테이크 아웃 (te-i-keu a-ut) in its place will often do the trick.
There is really nothing worse than being oceans away from home and feeling sick. Best to be prepared!
A short sentence that you will hopefully not have to use, but is good to learn just in case.
It would take a while to memorize the Korean names of all of the various body parts–I find that pointing to the affected area and using this phrase works just fine.
If you’re really in trouble and can’t get there yourself, you might have to ask someone else to take you to the hospital.
If you have any serious allergies, it’s a good idea to know how to tell people that fact.
119 is the emergency number in Korea. Use this phrase to ask someone to call for you.
COUNTING & NUMBERS
Numbers and methods of counting are some of the more frustrating bits of Korean to learn. The Korean language has 2 different number systems: Native Korean and Sino-Korean, which is derived from Classical Chinese. Different counting words (words that come after a number and correspond to the object being counted) use only one number system, and that system changes depending on which counting word is being used.
Essentially, it’s a whole lot of memorizing and guesswork until you become more fluent. As this is survival Korean, the following section will cover only numbers 1~10 in both systems, as well as some basic monetary vocabulary. Check out this page to learn more about counting in Korean.
Of the two systems, the native Korean numbers are a bit more difficult to memorize and pronounce. These numbers are used with the previously-mentioned counting words 개 (ge) and 명 (myeong), and are also typically used when talking about one’s age, the frequency or repetition of an action (as in, “I exercise three times a week”), the “hour” portion of the time, and when counting physical objects.
Sino-Korean numbers are used with the previously-mentioned counting word 인분 (in-bun). They are also typically used when talking about the date (day, month, year), the “minute” portion of the time, phone numbers or numbers in addresses, money, math, and when measuring something.
Money is counted in Korean using the Sino-Korean number system, but can be a bit tricky to memorize due to 만 (man), which means “ten thousand.” When dealing with large sums of money, everything is counted from 만 (man) upwards: for example, where we would read ₩100,000 as “one hundred thousand won” in English, a Korean would say “십만원 (sib-man-won),” which translates literally to “ten ten thousands won.” Luckily, prices from ₩10,000 downwards are comparatively easy to understand, so digging out the change for those convenience store cup noodles shouldn’t pose too much of a challenge.
Below you’ll find some of the most frequently-used words when talking about money in Korean.
원 (won) is the name of Korea’s currency. You’ll usually see it either written at the beginning of a price as a symbol (₩) or written at the end of a price in Hangeul.
The Sino-Korean word for one hundred. It combines with numbers 2~9 to make 이백 (i-baek / 200), 삼백 (sam-baek / 300), 사백 (sa-baek / 400), etc.
The Sino-Korean word for one thousand. It combines with numbers 2~9 to make 이천 (i-cheon / 2,000), 삼천 (sam-cheon / 3,000), 사천 (sa-cheon / 4,000), etc.
The Sino-Korean word for ten thousand. It combines with the numbers 2 and up to form 이만 (i-man / 20,000), 삼만 (sam-man / 30,000), 사만 (sa-man / 40,000), etc.
This brings us to the end of Survival Korean 101, but that doesn’t mean the learning has to stop here! Below is a list of helpful resources for self-studying the Korean language. And if studying alone isn’t your thing, there are plenty of Korean classes offered to foreigners in Korea’s major cities, ranging from free to university-tuition-level expensive. Simply google the name of your city and “Korean class” to see a variety of in-class options.
The main thing to keep in mind is that practice really does make perfect–speak Korean every chance you get, no matter how badly mangled your sentences are, and you’ll find yourself improving in no time. Koreans will appreciate the effort, and you will often be rewarded for it in unexpected and wonderful ways.
*Featured image courtesy of Freekpik