Survival Korean

Survival Korean

A few shortcuts to get you reading and speaking in Korean.

Korean is nothing like English. The sounds. The alphabet. The structure. So, why bother learning? You just want to get on your bike and go.

Two things.

A picture of a Korean classroom.
The birth of Hangul created a education revolution in Korea.

First, Korea invests heavily in English education. However, most Korean’s find it difficult to use what they learned.

The majority of Korean’s know “hello” and “good-bye.” About one-percent can say, “Hi. Top of the morning. I see you’re cycling. What a joyous day to be on two wheels.”

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.

Let’s study!

Chapter 1: The 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.

A phonetic Korean alphabet chart.
This phonetic chart shows consonants in the columns and vowels in the rows.

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 & Vowel Combinations

Wait! Let’s make it two minutes.

There are a few strange vowels and consonant pairs.

A Korean phonetic double consonant chart.
The double consonants in Korean produce a stronger sound.

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.

A Korean phonetic double vowel chart.
The double vowel chart creates subtlety different long vowel sounds.

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.

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.

A Korean phonetic chart that shows vowel combinations.
There are many different vowel combinations that create a w+long vowel sound.

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: . 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 2: Reading

Reading the Korean alphabet is as simple as 1+1.

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).

Letter Substitutes

The Korean language doesn’t have a few English sounds. Here are their creative substitutions.

  • (p) — often used for Ff
  • (j) — often used for Zz
  • (b) — often used for Vv
  • (l/r) — used for both Ll and Rr
  • (dd) — used for Th

Common Konglish Words

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.

Konglish Words

  • 버스
  • 피자
  • 모텔
  • 택시
  • 카메라
  • 펌프
  • 타이어
  • 배터리
  • 체인
  • 헬멧

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.

Here are some more Konglish words.

Sign Language

A picture of a no biking sign in Korea.
You don't need Korean language tools to read some signs.

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.

This sign tells you only bicycles are allowed on the path.

  • 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.

A Korean road sign that says "Bike Lane Only."
You need a little more Korean skills to decode this one: Bike Lane Only.

Let’s take a look at another sign.

A bike sign on the bike path in near Busan, in South Korea.
This sign tells you your location, how far to the next checkpoint, and an emergency number.

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.

City Names

Here are some of the major Korean cities you’ll pass on the Cross-Country Route.

  • 인천 (Incheon)
  • 서울 (Seoul)
  • 하남 (Hanam)
  • 양평 (Yeongpyeon)
  • 여주 (Yeoju)
  • 충주 (Chungju)
  • 수안보 (Suanbo)
  • 문경 (Mungyeong)
  • 상주 (Sangju)
  • 구미 (Gumi)
  • 대구 (Daegu)
  • 남지 (Namji)
  • 양산 (Yangsan)
  • 부산(Busan)

Chapter 3: Listening Phrases

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 4: Speaking Phrases

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.

Water, please.

Help me!

Where is the hospital?

Where is a motel?

Konglish Word Answers

  • bus
  • pizza
  • motel
  • taxi
  • camera
  • pump
  • tire
  • battery
  • chain
  • helmet