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Speaking the Language

South Korea - Speaking the Language


Koreans speak Korean, and knowing a few words of this will come in very handy. Unfortunately, the language is rather drastically different from any Western language in its grammar and pronunciation, which while not tonal, is rather difficult for the English speaker to get right.

Written Korean uses a unique phonetic writing system called hangeul where sounds are stacked up into blocks that represent syllables. It was designed by a committee and looks like it, at first glance all right angles and little circles, but is remarkably consistent and logical and quite fast to pick up. Korean can also be written with much more complex Chinese characters, known as hanja in Korean, and these are still occasionally mixed into text, but are increasingly few and far between. Nowadays, hanja are mainly used for disambiguation if the meaning is ambiguous when written in hangeul. In such instances, the hanja is usually written in parentheses next to the hangeul. Other uses for hanja include the marking of pieces in Korean chess, known as janggi in Korean, as well as in personal names.

Learning to read Hangeul before you arrive in Korea will make traveling much easier, as many signs and menus are written in Hangeul only. Even basic pattern-matching tricks come in handy: for example, if you know that a circle at the bottom of a block is read -ng, you can already distinguish Pyongyang from Seoul. Further, the Korean words for many common products -coffee, juice, computer- are often the same as the English words, but will be written in Hangeul. If you can read Hangeul, you'll find survival Korean surprisingly easy.

The spelling of Korean words in Roman letters can be quite inconsistent, so don't be too surprised to see adjacent signs for Gwangalli and Kwanganri — it's the same place. In 2000, the government officially standardized on the Revised Romanization system also used in Wikitravel, but you will frequently encounter older McCune-Reischauer spellings and just plain weird spellings. Notably, words beginning with g, d, b, j may be spelled with k, t, p, ch instead, and the vowels eo and eu may be spelled o and u. The letters l, r and n also get swapped often, and the vowels i and u are sometimes written as ee and oo respectively.

All Koreans have taken English lessons as part of their education, and the English level of the country is being improved by government policy and investments. However, due to lack of practice (as well as fear of mispronunciation), many Koreans have little more than a very basic grasp of English phrases in actual conversation. Reading and writing comes much easier however, and often people will be able to read and understand a great deal of English even without any practice with real conversation. Nonetheless, travellers can get by in major cities with English only; however it goes without saying that learning basic Korean phrases will enrich your travel experience.

A common experience for western travellers in South Korea is to be approached by children interested in practicing their English skills. They will often take a picture of you, as proof they really talked to you.

Older folks may also still speak some Japanese. The city of Busan, being a short trip from Fukuoka in Japan has a larger number of Japanese speakers per capita, and the dialect itself is more similar to Japanese in the same way that the Japanese dialect in Fukuoka also has a large Korean influence. Nevertheless, as far as possible, one should try to avoid addressing a Korean in Japanese(except at tourist shops) as many Koreans(especially older ones) still resent the Japanese for the atrocities committed during the 35 years of Japanese occupation.

Due to the "Hallyu" phenomenon which has been going on in East Asia for the past few years, many shopkeepers in touristy areas would also be able to speak some Mandarin, Cantonese or Japanese. This is especially so in places which have appeared in various popular Korean drama serials. As such, some knowledge of East Asian languages might also help. However, do not count on your average Korean in the street being able to speak these languages.


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