Korean For Beginners

Let’s learn all the basic grammar concepts and everyday phrases for beginner Korean learners!

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By Keehwan Kim · June 20, 2024 · 15 minute read

When you learn Korean, it’s important to learn some of the most basic grammar concepts as the way we form Korean sentences differs from English. Learning the basic grammar concepts will not only help you to understand Korean, but also help you to form sentences correctly.

In this article, ‘Korean for beginners’, we will first learn about the Korean alphabet Hangul. We will then look at the Korean number system, and learn the most common everyday phrases in Korean. After that, we will learn about different parts of speech, such as nouns, verbs, and articles, and we will round things off by learning about Korean verb conjugation. By the end of this article, you will have a basic understanding of how the Korean language works.

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Korean alphabet - Hangul

For beginners, the first thing you need to learn is the Korean alphabet Hangul. Hangul is made up of consonants and vowels, and there are 19 consonant letters and 21 vowel letters

Letters in Hangul

Consonants ㄱ, ㄴ, ㄷ, ㄹ, ㅁ, ㅂ, ㅅ, ㅇ, ㅈ, ㅊ, ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, ㅎ, ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ, ㅉ
Vowels ㅏ, ㅑ, ㅓ, ㅕ, ㅗ, ㅛ, ㅜ, ㅠ, ㅡ, ㅣ, ㅢ, ㅔ, ㅐ, ㅖ, ㅒ, ㅘ, ㅝ, ㅟ, ㅙ, ㅞ, ㅚ

We write Korean by forming blocks of syllables. Below is an example.

  • 가 [ga]

This syllable is made up of the consonant ㄱ [g] and the vowel ㅏ [a], so this is read [ga]. When the vowel has a vertical bar, it is positioned next to the consonant. However, some vowels have horizontal bars.

  • 구 [gu]

The vowel in this syllable, ㅜ [u], has a horizontal bar, so the vowel is positioned below the consonant.

Some Korean syllables can have another consonant.

  • 간 [gan]

The third consonant is ㄴ [n], and when a syllable has a third letter, it is always positioned below the first two-letter combination. Korean syllables can have a maximum of a three-letter combination, but there are combinations where the third consonant is made up of two consonants, such as this.

  • 닭 [dak]

In this syllable, the third consonant is made up of the consonants ㄹ [l] and ㄱ [g/k], but when the third consonant is made up of 2 consonants, one of them is silent.

Korean numbers

The Korean language has two number systems. One of them is based on the Korean language, and we call these Native Korean numbers. The other is based on the Chinese language, and we call this Sino-Korean numbers. Native Korean numbers are only used from 1 to 99, and we use Sino-Korean numbers from 0 to large numbers. Each number system has specific uses, so it’s important to learn both number systems in Korean.

Different uses of the number systems

Native Korean number Sino-Korean number
- To count things in Korean
- To say the hour in time
-To talk about money
-To say the date
-To talk about phone numbers
-To talk about codes, such as PIN numbers

One of the most common uses of Sino-Korean numbers is money, and because Korean currency works in large numbers, talking about hundreds of thousands, or even millions is very common. For example, 100,000 won is only about 90 dollars, and 1,000,000 won is only about 900 dollars, so unlike numbers in other languages, you have to learn how to say large numbers in Korean.

Korean phrases for beginners

The main goal of learning any language is to speak that language, so let’s learn five must-know phrases for all Korean learners.

  1. 안녕하세요 [An-nyeong-ha-se-yo] - Hello.

Most people are familiar with 안녕 [An-nyeong], but this is the casual way of saying ‘hello’. If you want to say ‘hello’ to people you meet for the first time, you have to say 안녕하세요 to be polite.

  1. 감사합니다 [Gam-sa-ham-ni-da] - Thank you.

Similar to 안녕하세요, there are more casual ways of saying ‘thank you’ in Korean, but to say ‘thank you’ to servers in restaurants, and to strangers on the street, you have to say 감사합니다.

  1. 미안합니다 [Mi-an-ham-ni-da] - Sorry.

This is the formal way of saying sorry in Korean, and it’s the most appropriate one you can use when apologizing to people in public places. Another word that has the same meaning is 죄송합니다 [joe-song-ham-ni-da].

  1. 괜찮습니다 [Gwen-chan-seum-ni-da] - It’s fine. / It’s okay.

괜찮습니다 is one of the most useful phrases, and we can use it to mean ‘it’s okay’, ‘it’s not a problem’, or ‘I’m fine’. You can use 괜찮습니다 when someone says sorry, when a server apologizes for getting the order wrong, or when someone asks if you’re okay after you have fallen.

  1. 주세요. [ ju-se-yo.] - Please give me ____.

주세요 literally means ‘please give me’, and when we ask for things in Korean, instead of asking:

'Can I have ___ ?'

or ‘Could I get ___ ?'

we say ‘Please give me ____. '

So when you’re ordering in restaurants and cafes, when you’re buying tickets at train stations, or when you’re asking for things in clothing stores, you simply say the thing you want and then say 주세요 - it’s that simple.

Check out our articles on ordering food in Korean for more useful phrases!

Korean sentence structure

For beginners, Korean sentence structure seems quite tricky, but it’s actually not that difficult to learn. The single biggest difference between a Korean sentence and an English sentence is word order. Below is an example of a typical English sentence.

A typical English sentence

Subject Verb Object
I like BTS.

As you can see, the word order of an English sentence is ‘Subject-Verb-Object’. However, in Korean sentences, it’s a little different.

A typical Korean sentence

Subject Object Verb
저는
(I)
BTS를
(BTS)
좋아해요.
(like.)

Korean sentences can be a lot longer with multiple phrases to say where or when something happens, but one aspect of Korean sentences which never changes is that the final word in a Korean sentence is always a verb.

Korean adjectives

One of the unique features of Korean is adjectives. Like English adjectives, we use Korean adjectives to describe nouns, but unlike English adjectives, Korean adjectives function like verbs. This means that they take up the same position as verbs, and they can be conjugated into different tenses.

Here’s a typical English sentence that uses an adjective.

  • The bag is pretty.

In this sentence, ‘pretty’ is the adjective, and it describes the subject, ‘the bag’. However, in Korean sentences, the adjective combines the meaning of the verb ‘to be’ and the adjective ‘pretty’, so it means ‘is pretty’.

  • 가방이 예뻐요. [Ga-bang-i ye-ppeo-yo.] - The bag is pretty.

In this sentence, 예뻐요 is the adjective, and it doesn’t just mean ‘pretty’, it means ‘is pretty’. And 예뻐요 is the present tense, and we can conjugate this into past tense, ‘예뻤어요’ or future tense, ‘예쁠 거예요’.

Because Korean adjectives work like verbs, we often refer to them as descriptive verbs.

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Korean nouns

Korean nouns are not too different from nouns in English. Korean nouns are mainly used as:

  1. Sentence subject
  2. Object of the verb

Example sentence

  • 선생님이 커피를 마셔요. [Seon-saeng-nim-i keo-pi-reul ma-shyeo-yo] - The teacher drinks coffee.

In this sentence, the noun 선생님 (teacher) is the sentence subject, and the noun 커피 (coffee) is the object of the verb, and they are used with particles 이 & 를 - we will discuss what particles are shortly.

One important aspect of Korean is that because so much of the Korean language is rooted in Chinese language, some words have a native Korean term and words rooted in the Chinese language, Sino-Korean words. For example, we have two words that mean ‘age’. One is 나이, and the other is 연세. 나이 is a native Korean word, and 연세 is a Sino-Korean word. When we have two words that have the same meaning, the Sino-Korean word is usually more formal.

Native

English Native Korean word Sino-Korean word
name 이름 성함
country 나라 국가
wife 아내 부인
shop 가게 상점
home

Particles

Particles are a unique group of words, and many of them function like English prepositions. A typical example is the particle 에. 에 is similar to the prepositions ‘in’, ‘on’, and ‘at’, and we can use 에 to say where someone or something is.

  • 저는 학교에 있어요. [Jeo-neun hak-gyo-e i-sseo-yo.] - I’m at school.

In this sentence, 학교 means ‘school’ and it’s used with 에 to mean ‘at school’, so we can use 에 to say where someone or something is. However, we can also use 에 in other ways.

  • 저는 학교에 가요. [Jeo-neun hak-gyo-e ga-yo] - I go to school.
  • 저는 토요일에 학교에 가요. [Jeo-neun to-yo-il-e hak-gyo-e ga-yo] - I go to school on Saturday.

In the first sentence, we’ve used 에 with 학교 (school) to mean ‘to school’, so we can use 에 to say where we are going to. In the second sentence, 에 is used with the time phrase 토요일 (Saturday) to mean ‘on Saturday’, so we can use 에 with time phrases to say when something happens.

Common particles

Particle Meaning
로/으로 to/towards, by/with
하고 and, with
나/이나 or
of, possessive meaning
까지 to, until

In Korean, we use particles to mark the sentence topic, subject, and object.

  • topic marking particles - 은/는
  • subject marking particles - 이/가
  • object marking particles - 을/를

And earlier we saw this sentence.

  • 선생님이 커피를 마셔요. [Seon-saeng-nim-i keo-pi-reul ma-shyeo-yo]
    The teacher drinks coffee.

In this sentence, the subject is 선생님 and the object is 커피, and they are used with the subject marking particle, 이, and an object marking particle, 를.

Many particles come in pairs as we use one or the other depending on the noun they are used with. For example, 선생님 ends in the consonant ‘ㅁ’, so it’s used with 이, but for 친구 (friend), as the noun ends in the vowel ㅜ, we use it with 가 and say 친구가.

Korean adverbs

Korean adverbs work just like English adverbs, and we mainly use them to modify verbs. Here’s an example sentence.

  • 선생님이 천천히 말해요. [Seon-saeng-nim-i cheon-cheon-hee mal-hae-yo.] - The teacher speaks slowly.

In this sentence, 천천히 (slowly) is an adverb, and it describes how the teacher speaks, ‘slowly’. Many Korean adverbs end in either 이/히 or 게.

Common adverbs

English Korean
clean 깨끗이
quietly 조용히
simply 간단히
busily 바쁘게
prettily 예쁘게

Do note that some words can be formed into adverb forms ending in 히 and 게. For example, as well as 조용히, we can also say 조용하게 to mean ‘quietly’.

Also, as well as verbs, we can use adverbs to modify adjectives, namely descriptive verbs. Here’s an example sentence.

  • 날씨가 아주 더워요. [Nal-ssi-ga a-ju deo-wo-yo.] - The weather is very hot.

아주 (very) is an adverb, and it modifies the adjective 더워요 which means ‘is hot’.

Adverbs that modify adjectives

English Korean
extremely 엄청
really 진짜
a little 조금
a lot 많이
too, very 너무

Korean verbs

Let’s first consider what Korean verbs look like. The infinitive form of all Korean verbs is made up of ‘the stem + 다’. Here’s an example.

  • 가다 [ga-da] - to go

In this verb, the stem is ‘가’ and knowing the verb’s stem is important as the way we conjugate verbs depends on the Hangul letters used in the stem.

Common verbs

English Korean
to give 주다
to eat 먹다
to drink 마시다
to read 읽다
to meet 만나다

Many Korean verbs are made up of ‘Noun + 하다’. 하다 in itself is a verb, and it means ‘to do’, so these verbs kind of mean ‘to do the noun’. Here’s an example.

  • 공부하다 [gong-bu-ha-da] - to study

In this verb, 공부 is a noun and it means ‘study’, so together with 하다 (to do), it kind of means ‘to do study’ or ‘to study’.

Common verbs with 하다

English Korean
to exercise 운동하다
to cook 요리하다
to clean 청소하다
to drive 운전하다
to work 일하다

There are also irregular verbs in Korean and these verbs conjugate differently to other verbs, and altogether there are 7 kinds of irregular verbs. The irregular verbs are identified by the way the stem ends. For example, one type of irregular verb is one whose stem ends in ㄷ consonant, such as 듣다 (to listen).

Additionally, Korean has an extensive list of causative verbs. Causative verbs are verbs we use to talk about doing something for another person. However, rather than having separate causative verbs like English, we can add an extra syllable to certain verbs and form causative forms. For example, the verb 먹다 means ‘to eat’, but we can change this into a causative form by adding 이,and 먹이다 means ‘to feed’.

Korean verb Conjugation

One of the unique features of the Korean language is how Korean verbs, and also adjectives, conjugate.

To conjugate verbs and adjectives, we add different verb endings to the stem of verbs and adjectives. For example, to change the verbs into their present tense forms, we can add 아요 or 어요 depending on the makeup of the stem.

  • Korean present tense ending - 아요/어요/여요
  • Korean past tense ending - 았어요/었어요/였어요
  • Korean future tense ending - (으)ㄹ 거예요

As well as different tenses, we can also add various endings to form complex verb phrases, and various endings can have similar meaning to English modal verbs, such as ‘must’, ‘can’, and ‘will’.

  • must / have to (obligation) - 아야/어야 되다
  • can (permission) - 아도/어도 되다
  • will (intention) - (으)ㄹ게요
  • want to - 고 싶다

These are some examples of common verb endings in Korean, but Korean has many different endings which we can use to form complex verb phrases.

Korean present tense - 아요 / 어요 / 여요

English Infinitive form Present tense
to go 가다 가요
to see 보다 봐요
to be good 좋다 좋아요
to eat 먹다 먹어요
to drink 마시다 마셔요
to give 주다 줘요
to study 공부하다 공부해요
to rest 쉬다 쉬어요

Korean past tense - 았어요 / 었어요 / 였어요

English Infinitive form Past tense
to go 가다 갔어요
to see 보다 봤어요
to be good 좋다 좋았어요
to eat 먹다 먹었어요
to drink 마시다 마셨어요
to give 주다 줬어요
to study 공부하다 공부했어요
to rest 쉬다 쉬었어요

Korean future tense - (으)ㄹ 거예요

English Infinitive form Future tense
to go 가다 갈 거예요
to see 보다 볼 거예요
to be good 좋다 좋을 거예요
to eat 먹다 먹을 거예요
to drink 마시다 마실 거예요
to give 주다 줄 거예요
to study 공부하다 공부할 거예요
to rest 쉬다 쉴 거예요

Check out our articles on Korean verb conjugation for a more detailed overview!

Speech levels

One of the unique features of Korean is that we have to use appropriate levels of formality depending on who we are speaking to. We use more formal and polite speech to those with seniority (i.e. seniority in age or rank) and those we are not familiar with. We use casual language to our friends and close family members.

Overall, there are 7 speech levels, and of the 7, 3 are commonly used in everyday speech. The most common way of expressing different speech levels is by using the appropriate form of verbs and adjectives.

3 common speech levels

Speech level Usage Examples
Formal Use with people with a high level of seniority 갑니다 (to go)
먹습니다 (to eat)
좋습니다 (to be good)
Polite Use with people with seniority, and unfamiliar people (the most common speech level) 가요 (to go)
먹어요 (to eat)
좋아요 (to be good)
Casual Use with friends and close family 가 (to go)
먹어 (to eat)
좋아 (to be good)

Conclusion

The aim of this article was to introduce some of the key concepts in the Korean language, which are important for beginner learners to be aware of, and they are:

  1. Hangul
  2. Korean numbers
  3. Korean phrases for beginners
  4. Korean sentence structure
  5. Korean adjectives
  6. Korean nouns
  7. Particles
  8. Korean adverbs
  9. Korean verbs
  10. Korean verb conjugation
  11. Speech levels

Now that you have a basic understanding of these key concepts, it’s important for you to carry on developing your understanding. At Busuu, we have a number of helpful articles which will help you to learn about Hangul, Korean numbers, Korean sentence structure, and also Korean verb conjugation, so make sure to check out these articles - and to start learning how to speak Korean, open our app, and start your day 1 streak today!

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