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The first step to learning Korean is to study Hangul. This article will provide you with valuable guidance on how to learn Hangul fast and easily.
What is Hangul?
Hangul is a Scientific Writing System
Hangul is a writing system invented by King Sejong, who ruled during Korea’s Joseon Dynasty from 1418 – 1450. Before the invention of Hangul, Asia was dominated and influenced by Chinese culture, so Koreans could only write in Chinese script. The inconsistency between their spoken and written languages caused a high rate of illiteracy amongst Korean people. Thankfully, King Sejong’s introduction of Hangul has enabled Koreans to have the freedom to write in their own language and improve the literacy rate.
Hangul is similar to the English alphabet in the sense that words in both languages are spelled out with individual letters. In addition, Hangul is similar to the Chinese script in the sense that both languages feature syllables that are represented with characters. With its simple visualization and the organization of syllables, Hangul is regarded as a scientific writing system that is easy and efficient to read and write with.
Hangul is the First Step in Learning Korean
Is Hangul the first thing to learn if you’re an absolute beginner to Korean? The answer is a definite yes! As the Korean alphabet, Hangul is the cornerstone for you to have a grasp on in order to build up on more complex. Fortunately, Hangul only includes 14 consonants and 10 vowels, and after learning it, you will literally be able to read anything written in Korean. Doesn’t that sound magical? It’s guaranteed to be an effective, cheerful and motivational start of your journey to learning Korean!
A Crash Course in How to Learn Hangul
Now, let’s dive into a fast and fun crash course which covers everything you need to know about how to learn Hangul.
Step 1: Getting to Know Some Basic Vowels in Hangul
The first step is to get to know some basic vowels in Korean. They will be introduced in groups, according to their appearance or sound for better memorization.
Group 1: A stick with one twig
The first group has four vowels, and each one looks like a wooden stick with a twig. The only difference between them is the direction they face. This group includes the basic single vowels in Korean.
Group 2: A stick with two twigs
Remember the sounds of the four sticks in Group one? Well, the vowels in Group 2 look very similar to the first four, but they appear as wooden sticks with two twigs. The extra twig adds a y /j/ sound before the four original single vowels. Do you get it?
Group 3: A straight stick
There are also two straight wooden sticks in the Korean alphabet: one vertical and one horizontal. They are also basic single vowels.
Group 4: Burgers….and with extra ingredients
The first two of this group look like two types of burgers rotated for 180 degrees – /ae/ with cheese and /e/ with an olive on top. The latter two are upgraded versions of the first two. The extra ingredients have the same function as the extra twig in Group 2 does – adding the sound y /j/ before the basic vowels.
Step 2: Getting to Know the Consonants in Hangul
Group 5: Start with some easy ones
Consonants in this group are not related to one another, but they are tough, independent individuals who contribute nasals and liquids to the Korean language.
**Nasals are consonants produced by releasing air through the nose instead of the mouth. On the other hand, liquids are consonants in which air is released through the mouth, but involves more tongue movement and positioning.
Group 6: Three brothers in the same family but with different tempers
Consonants in this group have family relations. Almost each family has three brothers. The elder brothers in each family are the strongest, they are produced intensely with an expulsion of air. The middle brothers require no aspiration, but are still intense sounds. Lastly, the little brothers are the weakest: they are not tense, nor are they produced with aspiration.
Step 3: Getting to Know Complex Vowels in Hangul
Group 8: /w/ + simple vowel
Vowels in this group are all made up of two vowels introduced in Step 1. These complex vowels all start with a /w/ sound.
Group 9: A versatile one
This vowel forms a group on its own because it is very versatile and plays different roles depending on the occasion. When it is by itself, it is pronounced as /ui/. When it functions as a possessive marker, it is pronounced as /e/. When there is a consonant, it is pronounced as /i/.
Step 4: Building Syllable Blocks with Two Bricks of Hangul (Minimum)
From Step 4, we will start building syllable blocks, also known as Korean characters. The smallest syllable consists of two bricks: a consonant and a vowel.
Left + right
The two bricks can be placed in a left + right structure, with the consonant on the left and the vowel on the right.
ㅇ + ㅓ = 어
ㅂ + ㅏ = 바
ㅎ + ㅣ = 히
Up + down
The two bricks can also be placed in an up+down structure, with the consonant on the top and the vowel at the bottom.
ㄷ + ㅗ = 도
ㅋ + ㅜ = 쿠
ㅈ + ㅛ = 죠
Left + right (complex)
In a left + right structure, if the vowel is a complex vowel, then the consonant only takes the upper left quarter of the syllable block.
ㅈ + ㅟ = 쥐
ㅅ + ㅚ = 쇠
Step 5: Building syllable blocks with three bricks of Hangul
A fancier syllable block is built with three bricks: it has a foundation now.
Left + right + bottom
Left + right structure in Step 4 can be built on top of a final consonant at the bottom.
ㅂ + ㅏ + ㄴ = 반
Up + down + bottom
Similarly, the up + down structure can also be built on top of a final consonant.
ㅂ + ㅗ + ㄴ = 본
Left + right (complex) + bottom
What if the vowel on the right is a complex vowel? The final consonant does not interfere with the part above it at all.
ㄱ + ㅟ + ㄴ = 귄
A member we almost missed! ㅇ with a cloak of invisibility
We almost missed a consonant member, because this naughty little one carries a cloak of invisibility! When it serves as the initial in building a syllable block, it remains absolutely silent. When it serves as the final in building a syllable block, it’s pronounced as the nasal /ng/.
ㅇ + ㅔ = 에 e
ㅁ + ㅏ + ㅇ = 망 mang
Step 6: Building Syllable Blocks with Four Bricks of Hangul (Maximum)
Level up! Now we are trying to build syllable blocks with four bricks, the maximum number of letters a syllable block can accommodate.
Left + right + left bottom + right bottom
One step forward: building the foundation with two final consonants.
ㅁ + ㅏ + ㄴ + ㅎ = 많
Not any possible combination of two consonants can serve as the final consonants, and there are only 7 possible pronunciations for the 27 possible final consonants.
Step 7: Trying to Read Hangul
After becoming familiar with the letters and the construction of syllable blocks, now we can try to read Korean words and phrases. The rule is: in a word or phrase, read character by character, and one character at a time. Within one character, read from left to right, from top to bottom. The following image illustrates how to read 안녕하세요 letter by letter. It’s the most common greeting phrase in Korean and I bet you’ve heard of it.
Step 8: Trying to Write/Type Hangul
The next step, after being able to read, is to attempt to write or type Korean characters. If you try to write a Korean character, you need to know the correct sequence of letters and strokes. The rule on the character level is the same as in reading: from left to right, from top to bottom. When we zoom in on the letters, you also need to know how many strokes each letter consists of and the order to write the strokes. For example, ㄱ is written with only one stroke as shown in the following picture.
The following image illustrates the stroke order to write all the basic vowels and consonants.
If you try to type out Korean on your computer or phone, knowing the Korean keyboard layout is indispensable. After getting familiar with the Korean keyboard layout, you can try to type out letters just in the order just like how you would write them.
Step 9: Practice Makes Perfect
You might take one or two more weeks to memorize the entire set of Hangul. During this period, we have a few tips for you.
First, stop relying on Romanization! It might be slow to try to read things directly in Hangul, but do not take the easy way or you will never learn.
Second, use flashcards to strengthen your memory and test yourself the ones which are especially hard for you.
Third, keep reading and learning new words. Memorizing the alphabet and new words simultaneously is way more efficient.
Try to read the following words:
Level 1: 이, 거리, 아버지, 어머니, 여자
Level 2: 줘, 왜, 사귀다, 사과, 퀴즈
Level 3: 여관, 습관, 상상, 형, 일기, 은행
Level 4: 괜찮다, 읽다, 귀찮다, 없다, 값
Beyond the Alphabet
As you familiarize yourself with the Korean alphabet, they are a few more things that will be helpful to your learning.
A Couple of Important Phonological Rules in How to Learn Hangul
You can basically read almost anything in Korean by knowing Hangul, but here are a couple of important phonological rules that can help you read particular words correctly.
Plosive sounds [ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ] are unreleased at a final position. Your mouth needs to be prepared to produce the plosive finals but never actually released to make the sounds audible. Try to pronounce the following words.
Syllable contact law: the end of the previous syllable cannot be more sonorant than the beginning of the following syllable. Usually, when the former syllable ends with a final ㅋ, ㄲ, ㄱ and the following syllable starts with a nasal, the previous final consonant will be nasalized as a /ng/. See the following examples.
국민 -> 궁민
닉네임 -> 닝네임
Younger brothers in the families (step 3), also known as plain/lax Korean plosives, are voiced in intervocalic positions. Try to pronounce the following words.
Chinese Characters Popping Up?
If you try to learn Korean through news reports or TV shows, you are probably surprised to see some Chinese characters popping up in Korean texts every now and then. Here are a few examples of commonly used Chinese characters in Korean, known as Hanja.
北 North. Typically used to represent North Korea.
南 South. Typically used to represent South Korea.
無 Nothing, non-existent.
中 Center, middle. Typically used to represent China.
This is likely to be a lot of information for you as a beginner to process. Don’t worry if you cannot pronounce words perfectly at this stage!
Wondering what the next step in learning Korean is? Common greeting and phrases? Grammatical rules? Which app is better for learning Korean? Keep following our blog and getting useful tips about everything you need to know in learning Korean.