korean age system

Korean Age: How to Calculate and Talk About It

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The concept of age is so important to native Koreans that it affects many aspects of the Korean language and social norms. 

The Korean way of calculating one‘s age is unique and sometimes confusing. Non-Korean speakers don’t understand why they are sometimes one or two years older in the Korean age system.

Age also affects how you would talk to and treat the other party in Korea. You could accidentally offend people if you are not careful!

This article will guide you through a complete introduction to the Korean age system and help you understand age-related Korean culture and language more authentically. 

What’s My Age in the Korean Age System?

“What’s my age in the Korean?” You might think that is a simple translation problem, but it’s actually way more complicated than that.

Here are two formulas for you to calculate your Korean age easily:

  • Formula 1: current year +1 – birth year
  • Formula 2: biological age + 1 if you have already celebrated your birthday this year or biological age +2 if you haven’t celebrated your birthday this year

Here are two visuals to help you calculate:

Korean age system: how to calculate Korean age (1): Korean age = current year + 1 - birth year

Korean age system: how to calculate Korean age (2): Korean age = international age + 1, if birthday has passed this year OR = international age + 2, if birthday hasn't passed this year

The Differences between Korean Age and Biological Age 

Now you know how to calculate your Korean age! Did your Korean age turn out to be the same as your legal age?

Let’s take a more specific look at the differences between the Korean and legal age systems.

Korean Age vs. Biological Age: Different Calculation Methods

As you have probably noticed, the biggest difference lies in the calculation method, which causes one’s Korean age to be one or two years older than his or her international age.

There are two reasons for this difference. 

First, Korean people consider the 9 months of your mom’s pregnancy as the first year of your life. Therefore, a Korean baby is considered to be 1 year old as soon as s/he is born. 

Second, Korean age depends on the calendar year instead of your actual birthday. As soon as a new year starts, Koreans add 1 year to their age, no matter if their birthdays have already passed in the current year or not. 

Korean age system: comparison of the Korean and international age systems

Korean Age vs. Biological Age: Different Usage Scenarios

Now, you’re probably wondering if native Koreans use the Korean age system only. The answer is NO.

You might be surprised to find that the standard, biological system is also used in Korea, but usually only for official paperwork and legal purposes.

In daily conversations and social interactions, such as giving a self-introduction, people always use the Korean age system.

Korean age system: occasions for Korean and international age systems

Why is the Korean Age System So Important?

So, why do Koreans use a different age system anyway? Isn’t that over-complicating something simple?

To fully understand the way Koreans count their age, we need to dive deeper into Korea’s history and culture. 

Korean Age System: Cultural Background

As we mentioned in our guide on Korean speech levels, due to the influence of Confucianism, the Korean society has a vertical hierarchy, where age and social status play a huge role in everyday life. 

Due to the belief in a strict order, age plays a huge role in shaping interpersonal relationships. For example, it’s a big deal for Koreans to show proper respect to older people.

Korean age system: Korean manners to show respect to the elders
Original illustrations from DramaFever

Age Decides How You Use the Language in Korea

For Koreans, age is significant enough to be a determining factor for the way they use the Korean language.

Asking about age or mentioning it is usually one of the first topics people touch on when meeting each other for the first time or introducing themselves. This is because age sets the tone and implicit rules for future interactions. 

To explain, age determines the level of formality and politeness in language, known as the speech level. For thorough explanations about Korean speech levels, read this article

In general, people should use polite speech and honorifics when talking with older people, and casual speech with close friends or younger people.

Age also determines how people should address each other.  Oftentimes, Korean learners from non-Asia regions are confused by the way Korean people address each other — they literally just call each other “brother” or “sister” when they are not at all related. 

For example, if you’re male, you call an older male 형 (hyung), which means “older brother”, and call an older female 누나 (nuna), which means “older sister”.  As a female, you address an older male as  오빠 (oppa), which means “older brother”, and an older female as 언니 (eonni), which means “older sister”.  

Regardless of sex, you can address a younger person as 동생 (dongsaeng). If you want to specify their sex, add 남 (nam) or 여 (yeo) before 동생 (dongsaeng) respectively, indicates that they are male or female. 

후배 (hubae) refers to people who are younger and 선배 (seonbae) for people who are older than you at school or work. People don’t usually use these terms to address other people directly.

In addition, you might use 선배님 (seonbaenim, 님 nim is a commonly used honorific in Korean) to address people who have seniority in a position.

A special note to add is that sometimes the division of 후배 and 선배 doesn’t necessarily depend on the age, but on people’s relative seniority in a specific situation. For example, a younger man can be referred to as 선배 by an older man if the younger man served in the military earlier than the older man.

Korean age system: how to address other people in Korean: 후배, (여)동생, (남)동생, 오빠, 언니, 형, 누나, 선배

Implications of the Korean Age System

As you learn more about Korean age system, you should also learn about how age difference affects the behaviors of the Koreans around you.

Being the older person in your group could mean these for you: 

  • You’re allowed to ask younger people (동생) to run errands for you. 
  • Younger Koreans greet you with a bow. 
  • Younger Koreans address you with a respectful term, such as 오빠/누나, 선배님. 
  • Younger Koreans speaking to you in polite speech. 
  • You are expected to pay the bill that’s shared with younger people. 
  • You are expected to be the leader of the group. 

The implications of being younger works the other way around.

As you can see, being older brings both benefits and obligations. 😉 

Have you fully understood why Korean people care so much about age? Then, it’s time to learn how to say your age in Korean.

How to Say My Age in Korean?

The general rule for saying your age is to use the native Korean number plus 살 (sal), the word for “year(s) old”. 

A typical sentence for introducing your age would be: 

저는 __살입니다. (jeoneun __ salimnida)

I am __ years old.

For age between 10 and 99, the formula is: terms for tens + terms for 1-9 + 살 (sal). For examples:

  • 12 years old is 열두 살 (yeoldu sal)
  • 35 years old is 서른다섯 살 (seoleundaseot sal)
  • 78 years old is 일흔여덟 살 (ilheunyeodeol sal) 
Ages in Korean
English Korean Romanization
1 year old 한 살 han sal
2 years old 두 살 du sal
3 years old 세 살 se sal
4 years old 네 살 ne sal
5 years old 다섯 살 daseot sal
6 years old 여섯 살 yeoseot sal
7 years old 일곱 살 ilgop sal
8 years old 여덟 살 yeodeol sal
9 years old 아홉 살 ahop sal
10 years old 열 살 yeol sal
20 years old 스무 살 seumu sal
30 years old 서른 살 seoleun sal
40 years old 마흔 살 maheun sal
50 years old 쉰 살 swin sal
60 years old 예순 살 yeseun sal
70 years old 일흔 살 ilheun sal
80 years old 여든 살 yeodeun sal
90 years old 아흔 살 aheun sal

 

Important notes: some native Korean numbers do not remain in their original forms when they are followed by 살. These numbers are 하나, 둘, 셋, 넷 and 스물. 

Korean age system: form change of native Korean numbers followed by 살

Which one to use, 살(sal) or 세(se)?

In Korean, [native Korean number + 살] is not the only way to express age. The Hanja counter 세 (se) also means year(s), and can be used with Sino-Korean numbers to express age. 

The difference is, [native Korean number + 살] usually refers to one’s Korean age and is normally used in conversations, while [Sino-Korean number + 세] is reserved strictly for one’s legal age. As a result, the former is used much more frequently than the latter in spoken Korean.

Korean age system: comparison of 살 and 세

How to Ask and Talk About Age?

We are now going to learn some really useful conversational phrases including age. These phrases cover how to ask other people’s age, stating your own age and setting the roles after age comparison.

5 Ways to Say “How old are you?” in Korean

Depending on your estimation of the other party’s age with relevance to yours, there are five ways to go about this.  

If the other person seems significantly older than you, you need to use 연세 (yeonse), which is the honorific term for the noun 나이 (nai), meaning “age”.

In formal polite language, the sentence goes: 

연세가 어떻게 되십니까? (yeonsega eoddeoke doesimniga?)

How old are you? 

Or in informal polite language: 

연세가 어떻게 되세요? (yeonsega eoddeoke doeseyo?)

How old are you?

If the other person seems to be around the same age as you, you don’t need to use the honorific term anymore: 

나이가 어떻게 되세요? (naiga eoddoke doeseyo?)

How old are you?

Or: 

몇 살이에요? (myeot salieyo?)

How old are you?

If the other person seems significantly younger than you, you can use casual language: 

몇 살이야?  (myeot saliya?)

How old are you?

Korean age system: how to ask "how old are you" in Korean

How to Introduce Your Own Age

When you give a self-introduction or are asked about your age, you can state your Korean age directly.

For example, if you are 23 years old in Korean age: 

저는 스물세 살이에요. (jeoneun sumulse salieyo.)

I am 23 years old. 

Or you can answer with your year of birth: 

저는 구십팔년생이에요. (jeoneun gusippalnyeonsaengieyo.)

I was born in ‘98.

If you feel it’s necessary to specify your legal age, you can include [만으로] for clarification, similar to “even though, but” to do so:

저는 올해 스물세 살이지만 만으로는 스물두 살이에요.
(jeoneun olhae seumulse salijiman maneurosms seumuldu salieyo.)

Although I am 23 years old (in Korean system), I am actually 22 years old. 

How to Declare Your Role After Exchanging Age Information 

After exchanging information regarding age, you’d typically establish your role in this relationship. 

If you find out that you’re older than the listener, you can refer yourself as an “older brother” or “older sister”: 

저는 형/오빠/누나/언니예요.
(jeoneun hyung/oppa/nuna/eonniyeyo.)

I am hyung, the older brother (if the other person is male)/ oppa, the older brother (if the other person is female)/ nuna, the older sister (if the other person is male)/ eonni, the older sister (if the other person is female). 

Because you’re older, you can also use casual speech to talk to the other person from now on. 

If you find out that you’re the younger one, then you would refer to yourself as a 동생 (dongsaeng):

저는 동생이에요. (jeoneun dongsaengieyo.)

I am the younger brother/sister. 

As the younger person, you need to keep the polite speech when speaking to the older listener unless s/he gives you the permission to talk casually. 

If you find out that you and the listener are the same age, then you use the term 동갑 (donggap) to describe the equal age relationship.

우리 동갑이에요. (wuli donggapieyo.)

We are the same age. 

From now on, you can also refer you two as 친구 (chingu), meaning friends. 

우리 친구예요. (wuli chinguyeyo.)

We are friends. 

Because both of you are the same age, you may speak casually to each other when you feel comfortable and close enough.

That’s it! You’ve made it to the end of the incredibly complicated Korean age system and culture! Now you can test what you’ve learned in language exchange events and see how age affects your interactions in action.

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