If you are a native speaker of English, you may encounter many obstacles when trying to learn a language like Korean. One of the reasons you may struggle when going from English to Korean is because the Korean language is very different from English. Korean is a member of the Altaic language family while English is a member of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. In other words, there are many differences between these two languages, and this sometimes causes students to struggle.
One difference you will surely notice when going from English to Korean is the pronunciation. Korean has some sounds that are difficult for English speakers to make. These sounds can be learned, but many students struggle a lot with trying to sound like a native Korean speaker. Some English consonants do not exist in Korean, and Korean has several consonants that are similar to some English sounds. The Korean language has some consonants (such as the one Romanized as k) that can also appear as a double consonant (kk in Romanization) or an aspirated consonant (k’ in Romanization). This can be very confusing for people who are trying to go from English to Korean—the sounds sound very similar to native English speakers, so it is really hard to learn the difference. The best way to learn the differences in pronunciations is to listen to native speakers of Korean. If you do not know any native speakers or do not have a native Korean teacher, you can buy language programs with Korean audio recordings.
Another difference noticeable when going from English to Korean is the sentence structure. This relates back to Korean and English belonging to different language families. The structure of a typical Korean sentence is subject-object-verb. This is flip flopped from what native English speakers are used to (subject-verb-object). Because of this difference, native English speakers trying to speak Korean often feel like they are talking backwards. Sometimes it helps to form the sentence in your head in English, translate it to Korean, and then change the order of the structure. Others will find that thinking in Korean helps to overcome the tendency to place words in subject-verb-object order.
The Korean alphabet, although different from English, is probably the easiest transition for native English speakers who wish to study Korean. The alphabet consists of simple symbols that stand for consonants and vowels, very much like the Latin system English speakers use. These symbols are combined to form words, and are typically written horizontally from left to right, which makes it easier for English speakers to get used to it. The main Korean writing system, called Hangul, can be transliterated into Roman characters. This is a good exercise for beginners, and it can help new students of Korean learn some quick words. The unfortunate part of transliteration is that the Romanized version of Korean is very misleading. Romanization works for some languages, but when applied to Korean, a lot of the sounds are not true to how they are supposed to be pronounced. After gaining some experience with transliteration, you will be able to tell that some of the words are not pronounced like they are spelled in the Romanized text. However, if you have practiced enough with the transliterated version, you can probably figure out how a word should really be pronounced versus how it looks on paper.
Although the alphabet is fairly easy for native English speakers to learn, there is also one other writing system: hanja. Hanja is an older writing system that is based off of Chinese characters (but these characters are given a Korean pronunciation). There are very few hanja that are common in daily usage of Korean, so you won’t have to worry about learning many of these more complicated symbols!
Yet another difference between Korean and English lies in grammar. English sentences almost always consist of a subject and verb, but they can sometimes appear as a verb only (as in imperative sentences where “you” is the understood subject). Korean, on the other hand, often works on understood subjects. There are many occasions where a Korean sentence can consist of a verb only. This may seem odd to some native English speakers as they study Korean.
An additional grammatical difference occurs in verb conjugation. The Korean language works on a system that does not conjugate the verbs according to the subject of the sentence. Korean is more concerned with the social context of the sentence. Verb endings are adjusted based on who the speaker is and his or her relationship to the one being spoken to. In English, we rely on articles instead of verb endings to get this job done. Having the same verb ending for different subjects can seem strange at first for native English speakers, but with a little practice, anyone can catch on.
The Korean language, like many other languages, has many regional dialects. Most of these dialects can be understood by speakers of a different dialect, but in some cases this is not as easy. If you are going to learn Korean, make sure you learn the official dialect which is based on the dialect spoken in Seoul. Depending on whom you learn Korean from, you may not be able to get around if you go there for a visit! Be aware of the differences between the dialect you are learning and the Seoul dialect if you intend to learn a different type of Korean.
One of the upsides of going from English to Korean is that the Korean language has absorbed some English word influences over the years. Although the English words that have been adopted into Korean are often pronounced a bit differently and are written in Hangul, if you listen very carefully you can probably pick out many of them. Since some English vocabulary is present in Korean, the English speaker’s task of learning Korean is a little easier.
Going from English to Korean can be a hard task. With a little help and good amount of regular practice, you too can be on your way to learning Korean. Don’t worry about facing obstacles—native English speakers can definitely learn Korean! Don’t be afraid to give it a try, and just remember to keep at it, even when the going gets tough.