Learning to Speak
A quick guide to learning Korean for your cycling trip across Korea.
Korean is nothing like English. The sounds. The alphabet. The grammar structure. So, why bother learning? You just want to cycle.
Firstly, Korea invests heavily in English education. However, most Korean’s find it hard to speak and listen to English.
Ninety-percent can say “hello” and “good-bye.” One-percent can say, “Hello. Pleasant day we’re having. Oh, I see you’re out for a bike ride.”
Picking up a few phrases goes a long way to bridge the gap and show respect to the people of Korea.
Secondly, it’s easier than you think. Hangul (한글), the written language born in Korea, is one of the most phonetic languages in the world. Unlike English, each letter makes only one sound. You can learn Hangul read in an afternoon.
Here are a few quick Korean language tips for your cycling trip across Korea.
Let’s learn Korean with four quick chapters.
First chapter. We’ll teach you how to read Hangul in under a minute.
Second chapter. We’ll point out some Konglish (Korean/English words) and break down a road sign you’ll see on the cycling path.
Chapters Three and Four, we’ll give you a quick list of phrases to listen for and speak.
Chapter One: Hangul Basics
We’re going to teach you Hangul in under a minute. Its easier than 1+1. (Understanding the meanings of the words is a whole other thing.)
First, English assigns every letter a sound or two (or three). Hangul, the written alphabet created by Koreans, does one better. They assign only one sound per letter. No silent letters, consonant pairs, or digraphs.
Any non-Korean speaker can glance at the 24 letters on Hangul’s phonetic chart and learn to read in the afternoon.
Learning Hangul is like a times table. Trace your finger across the chart until they meet. Then, combine the vowels with the consonants.
- ㄱ (g sound) + ㅏ (a sound) = 가 (ga sound)
- ㄷ (d sound) + ㅗ (o sound) = 도 (do sound).
- ㅎ (h sound) + ㅕ (yeo sound) = 혀 (hyeo sound)
Simple? Yeah. Under a minute? Maybe.
Consonant and Vowel Combos
Wait! Let’s make it two minutes.
There are a few strange vowels and consonant pairs.
Double consonants (ㅃ, ㅉ, ㄸ, ㄲ, ㅆ) are simple. When you see them doubled up, it just means: put your back into it. Extra stress. Give ㅉ (jj) a sharp edge.
The double vowels (ㅐ, ㅒ, ㅔ, ㅖ) are a little trickier. ㅐ sounds like the long Aa vowel, like in bake. ㅔ sounds like a short Ee vowel, like in set.
Some Koreans can’t even pronounce or hear the difference between ㅒ (yae) and ㅖ (ye). So, don’t fuss over the specifics. Koreans easily forgive foreigners that try.
The Mighty ㅇ Ng
Sorry. Three minutes.
Korea has one ghost letter: ㅇ. From above, its invisible. From below, it moans nnnnng.
The rules of Hangul state that the first character in a letter must be a consonant. But, not all words begin with a consonant. So, ㅇ becomes a placeholder.
When you see ㅇ at the beginning of any letter or word, it makes the sound of the succeeding vowel.
What a waste. Why have one letter that makes no sound at all? Well, Korea thought of that.
When you see ㅇ at the bottom of letter or word, it makes an ng sound.
- 동 (dong; neighborhood)
- 영 (yeong; zero)
- 안녕 (anyeong; hi).
Wi, We, Wo, What?
Okay. We straight-up lied. Four minutes.
If you like making Ww sounds, you’re in luck. There are seven letter combinations to choose from.
Simply, if you see a wide vowel (ㅗ, ㅜ, ㅡ) followed by a tall vowel (ㅏ, ㅓ, ㅣ, ㅐ, ㅔ), you have Korea’s equivalent to a Ww sound.
You want an example?
How about everybody’s favorite: 원. That is ㅝ (wo) + ㄴ (n) = won. The money (₩), not the victory.
One more: 외국인. Let’s put it together: 외 (we) + 국 (gug) + 인 (in). That equals you: waygookin (foreigner).
Why does Hangul look like Hangul? It is said that each letter reflects the shape of your mouth when pronouncing them.
Your tongue latches to the top of your mouth when pronouncing ㄱ (g). The ㅗ (o) letter mimics how your tongue curls and leaves space between your tongue and the roof of your mouth.
Chapter Two: Reading
Now that you have a few basics, let’s read some words. This will help you read signs and pick out the cities on bus schedules.
First, let’s start with something a little closer to home: Konglish.
What happened when Korea adopted western-born things? Make up a wholly Korean name? Or, just write the western name in Hangul? Mostly the second one.
Korea did their best. But, the East and West grew up in separate historical spaces. Transcribing English is like jamming round English words into square Hangul hole.
But, once you get a hang of it, it’s 이시 브리지 (ee-shi beu-ri-ji; easy breezy).
English Letter Subs
The Korean language doesn’t have a few English sounds. Here are their creative substitutions.
- ㅍ (p) — often used for Ff
- ㅈ (j) — often used for Zz
- ㅂ (b) — often used for Vv
- ㄹ (l/r) — used for both Ll and Rr
- ㄸ (dd) — used for Th
Let’s make a word: 주스. ㅈ (j) + ㅜ (u) + ㅅ (s) + ㅡ (eu). Put it together. What do you get? Juseu. Do you want a glass? Of juice.
One more practice round: 커피. ㅋ (k) + ㅓ (eo) + ㅍ (p) + ㅣ (ee). Do a little mish and a little mash. Say it aloud: keopi. Do you want a cup? Of coffee.
Let’s see if you can figure out what these Konglish words mean. Use the chart above.
Wasn’t that fun? It’s like a puzzle. You just put two and two together. Sound it out a few times. You’ll eventually hear it.
Korean Sign Language
Okay. Enough with the easy stuff. Let’s try out some Korean words for your cycling trip.
We’ll start with an important one: bicycle. 자전거. Let’s sound it out. 자 (ja) 전 (jeon) 거 (geo). Easy!
Now we can look at some of the road signs you might see along the bike trail.
- 자전거 전용 — bicycles only
- 자전거 주차 — bicycle parking lot
- 자전거 횡단 — bicycle crossing
Notice 자전거 is on every one of those signs. Once you can spot the word for bicycle, you’re halfway there.
Let’s take a look at another bike sign.
Let’s read the sign from top to bottom. Here’s what it says:
- 현위치 — current (현; hyeon) location (위치; wui-chi)
- 부산 — Busan
- 하구둑까지 21 km — 21 kilometers until (까지; gga-jee) estuary bank (하구둑; ha-gu-duk)
- 긴급신고 199 — emergency (긴급; gin-geub) report (신고; shin-go) phone number 119
You won’t be able to translate every sign you come across by yourself. However, spotting a few easy words will make your life a little easier.
To aid you along your journey, here’s a list of city name’s you’ll pass on your cycling trip through Korea.
인천 (Incheon) 서울 (Seoul) 하남 (Hanam)
양평 (Yeonpyeon) 여주 (Yeoju) 충주 (Chungju)
수안보 (Suanbo) 문경 (Mungyeong) 상주 (Sangju)
구미 (Gumi) 대구 (Daegu) 남지 (Namji)
양산 (Yangsan) 부산(Busan)
Chapter Three: Listening
Listening to a language casually spoken by a native is like climbing Everest. Words run into each other, get chopped off, flipped on their head.
However, if you can train your ears to pick out the most common words, you’ll bring some order to the seeming chaos.
Here are some basic words to learn to listen for.
Nothing (don’t have).
Chapter Four: Speaking
Let’s hop into full expressions. These are important phrases to utter out of your parched mouth. It’s good to keep these in your back pocket. It’ll get you beyond simple finger pointing and mad arm waving.
Where is a bike shop?
Jajeon-geo ga-gae-neun eo-dee iss-nee?
Where is a motel?
Where can I eat?
Eo-dee-seo meog-eul su eess-eul-kka?
Where is a hospital?