korean age system

Korean Age: How to Calculate and Talk About It

Linguistics student based in Europe. Passionate about natural language for how it is encoded in our humanity and how it can be integrated with technologies to brighten our future.

“How old are you” is one of the very first questions you get from meeting Koreans for the first time. Many find this a bit shocking because it can be quite personal. Also, they may suddenly find themselves one or two years older in the Korean age system. (read on to find out the exact calculations) Why is it so?

The Korean age system is an important yet very basic part of the Korean culture. This article will give you a complete introduction to the Korean age system and help you understand how to apply Korean age in real-life scenarios. You will also learn about all the age-related Korean culture and authentic language use.

Why Are Korean Age and Biological Age Different?

The biggest difference between one’s Korean age and one’s standard biological age lies in the calculation method, and there are two reasons for this.

First, Korean people consider the 9 months of your mom’s pregnancy as the first year of your life. Therefore, the Korean age for a baby is 1 at birth. Biological age, in contrast, starts with 0 at birth.

Second, your Korean age is calculated based on calendar years, not by the actual number of years passed since your date of birth. 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. Biological age is counted based on the actual date of birth and one year is only added after that date.

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

 

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 
    • 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

 

Why is the Korean Age System So Important?

So, why do Koreans exchange their age information at the very first meeting? Because age affects many aspects of the Korean language and social norms. Age determines how you would talk to and treat the other party in Korea. You could accidentally offend people if you are not careful! 

Although, Koreans also use the international or biological age system 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.

So, as a foreigner, you have to know how Korean age works. 

Korean age system: occasions for Korean and international age systems

 

What Does It Mean to Be Older or Younger in Korea?

To fully understand this part, we need to dive deeper into Korea’s history and culture. 

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. 😉 

Korean Age System: The Historical and Cultural Background

Due to the influence of Confucianism, 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. It is called “Jang Yu Yu Seo”, meaning that there is a social order between the older and the younger. 

 

How Does Korean Age Affect the Way Koreans Speak?

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

To explain, age determines the level of formality and politeness in language, known as the speech level. 

  1. In general, people should use polite speech and honorifics when talking with older people, and casual speech with close friends or younger people.
  2. 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,

  1. you call an older male 형 (hyung), which means “older brother”, 
  2. and call an older female 누나 (nuna), which means “older sister”.  

As a female, 

  1. you address an older male as  오빠 (oppa), which means “older brother”, 
  2. and an older female as 언니 (eonni), which means “older sister”.  

When addressing a young person:

  1. regardless of sex, you can address him or her as 동생 (dongsaeng).
  2. add 남 (nam) or 여 (yeo) before 동생 (dongsaeng) If you want to specify their that they are male or female, respectively. 

When at school or work (not used to address other people directly):

  1. 후배 (hubae) refers to people who are younger, 
  2. 선배 (seonbae) for people who are older than you.

👉 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 (more senior) by an older man if the younger man served in the military earlier than the older man.

When addressing someone at a more senior position:

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

 

Asking Koreans  “How old are you?”  in 3 situations

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

Situation #1: 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?

Situation #2: The other person seems to be around your age

In this case, you don’t need to use the honorific term anymore, you can say:

나이가 어떻게 되세요? (naiga eoddoke doeseyo?)

How old are you?

Or: 

몇 살이에요? (myeot salieyo?)

How old are you?

Situation #3: The other person seems significantly younger than youThen you say:

몇 살이야?  (myeot saliya?)

How old are you?

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

 

How to Say Your Own 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”. 

This article provides you with a complete guide to Korean numbers systems and how to count in Korean.

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

“Years old” in Korean, 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

 

Different Ways to Introduce Your Own Age in Korean

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 to yourself as an “older brother” or “older sister”: 

  • 저는 형예요. / I am hyung (the older brother of a younger male).
  • 저는 오빠예요. / I am oppa (the older brother of a younger female)
  • 저는 누나예요. / I am nuna (the older sister of a younger male)
  • 저는 언니예요. / I am eonni (the older sister of a younger female)
  • (jeoneun hyung/oppa/nuna/eonniyeyo.)

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.

Let’s summarize in a chart: 

 

 

You address yourself as

You talk to the other person in

If you’re older

형/오빠/누나/언니

Casual speech

If you’re younger

동생

Polite speech (unless permission is given to talk casually)

If you’re the same age

친구

Casual speech

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.

(Click here for the most comprehensive Korean learning guide for beginners.)

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How to Say I Love You in Korean: An Essential Guide to Survive in Romantic Korea
7 months ago

[…] Korean Age: How to Calculate and Talk About It – July 23, 2020 […]

Kjetil Stewart
Kjetil Stewart
5 months ago

The one thing I’m still really confused about (unless I totally skipped over it) is how do you address someone if they’re a few months older than you. Like what if they’re 3 or six months apart in age, would you still address them as “oppa” or “nuna”, “hyung or eonni”?

Last edited 5 months ago by Kjetil Stewart
Xiaoxiao Lu
Editor
Xiaoxiao Lu
4 months ago
Reply to  Kjetil Stewart

that’s why the Koreans count their age by the year they are born in, not the actual birthdate. If they are just a few months apart within the same year, they’d probably ignore the age difference and seniority. But… if the person is really finicky then ya, you’d still have to follow the seniority rules and call them “oppa” or “nuna”, “hyung or eonni”

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