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Korean Translation Tip: The Two Styles of Technical Korean Writing

There are two styles of technical Korean writing and these are primarily expressed in sentence endings.

In terms of the language as a whole, this is a simplification, since there are any number of local dialects that complicate things, written endings that can also be used in spoken language to add formality, written endings to show informality, endings that can be switched out in spoken language to show affection or relative status, and even a whole other antiquated style (i.e. "Shakespearean" Korean) used today only to address God.

But from a practical standpoint, in the technical translations that we deliver in Korean, unless quoting spoken speech, we only use two styles. Furthermore, since standard Korean sentences always end in a verb, this means nearly every complete sentence in formal written Korean uses one of the two sets of endings.

The following is a simple table showing these endings. For the sake of simplicity, I've removed all the nuances you'll find in a Korean grammar book and just stripped it to the basics.

Sentence Endings in Formal Styles of Written Korean













Go ahead and take a look at a recent Korean translation your Korean translation team delivered to you. Do you see that every sentence ends in these characters?

(If you're seeing sentences ending in 요 or that don't have any of these endings, it means it's probably a spoken style.)

So when are these mainly used?

The personal form is most common in translations addressed to readers, such as marketing materials and official letters. The impersonal form is mainly used in writing without specific readers in mind, such as news articles, academic papers, software interfaces and legal contracts. In addition, the impersonal form is commonly applied to titles and bullet points within documents otherwise written in personal style.

There is room for flexibility here and so you may find variation from translator to translator. The key point though is consistency. In most cases, a translator should use the same style throughout a document.

Korean Translation Tip - A good translator will use styles correctly and consistently. This doesn't mean a client reviewer won't occasionally ask to change. As long as your translator has been consistent with one or the other style above and can provide a proper rationale for that decision in line with my guidelines, the use of styles in the translation is probably correct.

BTW, this fancy and complicated system of styles is nearly completely lost in translations from Korean to English. We have ways in English to express levels of formality and closeness (e.g. "Hey John!", "Dear Mr. Smith", "Yo!", "To whom it may concern:", etc.) but the rules aren't as systematized as in Korean and the differences must often be left out when translating to English. Otherwise, you'll get awkward translations as described in my previous My Esteemed Translation Client Reader tip.

More New Year's Greetings for 2013-2014

어느덧 또 한 해가 마무리되는군요! 
2013년은 제게 참 다사다난했던 한 해였습니다. 제게 많은 도움을 주신 사장님께 깊은 감사를 드립니다.
내일부터 시작되는 새해에도 사장님과 가족 모두 늘 행복하고 건강하시기를 기원합니다.
We're already finishing up another year!
2013 was a really eventful year for me. I'd like to deeply thank you (President) for all the help that you provided me.
I hope that you and your family will be healthy and happy in the new year that starts tomorrow.


변함없이 저희를 배려해주셔서 깊은 감사의 마음 전합니다.



배려해주시고, 함께 하는 좋은 시간이 더 많이 있기를 바랍니다.



건강 챙기시고

온 가족이 웃음과 기쁨이 가득한 새해를 맞이 하시기를 기원합니다.




복 많이 많이 받으세요.

I'd like to express our deep gratitude for your unchanging consideration to us this year also.
Please give us your consideration next year, too, and I hope that we can spend more good times together.
Always, take care of your health and I hope that your whole family will have a new year filled with laughter and happiness.
May the year year be full of prosperity for you. Happy New Year.


2014년 새해가 얼마 남지 않았네요. 다들 연말 잘 보내시구요. 
새해 건강하시고, 함께 하고 있는 학업에서도 좋은 결실 있기를 기원하겠습니다.
There's not much time left before 2014. May you all have a nice end of the year.
I hope that you are healthy in the new year that that we can achieve good results in our studies together.

새해가 힘차게 밝았습니다.

성원과 격려에 보답하는 길은

버티는 단계에서 벗어나

지속가능한 회사로 키우는 일이라 믿습니다.


2014년에도 변함없는 호의와 관심을 기대합니다.

소원하시는 일마다 두루 잘 이뤄지길 진심으로 기원합니다.


최후까지 감사하는 마음 잃지 않겠습니다.

The new year came brightly, full of energy.
I believe that the way to repay the support and encouragement of others is to break out of the competitive ways of doing things and to develop into a sustainable company.
I look forward to your unchanging goodwill and interest in 2014 and I sincerely hope that everything you wish for will come to pass.
Right to the very end, I will not lose my heart of gratitude.


성원과 배려에 감사 올리고, 새해에는 건강과 행운이 늘 함께하시기 기원드립니다.


I would like to express my gratitude for your support and consideration, and I hope that you will have health and good fortune throughout the new year.


지난 한해 바쁜데도 불구하고 포럼을 위해 봉사해 주어 정말 감사했어요.

새해에도 더욱 건강하여 지금 품고 있는 좋은 계획들 하나씩 멋있는 성과로 이룩하기를 기원해요.

늘 행복하고 풍요한 삶을 영위하세요.


I was really grateful that you served the Forum last year even though you were busy.

I hope that you will be even more healthy in the new year and that the good plans that you have now will come to fruition as really cool results one-by-one.

Always live a happy and abundant life.


For Lunar New Year specifically....


새로운 희망, 새로운 마음으로 새해 힘차게 출발하시길 바랍니다. 즐거운 명절되세요.


I hope you start the new year full of energy with new hope and a new mind. Have an enjoyable holiday.


설날을 맞아 가족과 편안한 시간보내시고... 가슴가득 행복하시기를 주님께 기도할게요.


Have a pleasant time with your family for the Lunar New Year. I will pray to the Lord that your heart will be full of happiness.

Reflections on the Benefits of Learning Korean to One's Career in Korea

** Visit the related discussion on Korea Business Central.

Learning Korean is tough; there are no two ways about it. When I first came to Korea, I planned to conquer Korean in two years and then do the same with Chinese and Japanese after that. I figured that would make me something special. However, it didn't take me long to realize that Korean was the only language of the three in which I'd manage to achieve proficiency, and that improving those skills would be a lifelong project. 

I've met other Westerners who have started along this journey but gotten discouraged. Here's a typical question and my answer to it.

Q: Will Korean skills boost my career opportunities in Korea?

A: I would like to say that the answer is a definite "yes"; however, as with many aspects of life in Korea, the answer is nuanced.

It can be a discouraging reality to accept, but your Korean abilities are not going to fast-track you in your career in Korea. In fact, though Korean skills may work in your favor if competing against someone for a job who doesn't know Korean, it is unlikely your Korean will be a crucial factor in the hiring process, no matter what job you apply for.

In general, if you're from an English-speaking country, you'll likely find your best job opportunities in positions that take advantage of your English abilities, and once that happens, your Korean is no longer an asset; in some cases, it's a disadvantage if your prospective employer is concerned you’ll be more focused on learning Korean than on helping your coworkers and/or students improve their English. Your employer is more likely to appreciate your Korean abilities if they didn't hire you for your English, but your Korean still won't be a key factor in the hiring process.

Way back when I taught English, I remember trying to inject Korean into my classes. Students (understandably) hated that. Later, when working in the LG Group as an editor/writer (and later, off-and-on translator), I was given strict instructions NOT to speak Korean in the office. I recall trying to refer an American friend to a position that had opened up in the company and when I mentioned to the director that my friend was fluent in Korean, he flat out told me nobody cared about that. Even now in my Ph.D. studies at Hanyang University, the semi-frequent job offers I get from the university to teach always involve helping the university fulfill the government-mandated requirement for classes taught in English and I often sense disappointment that I'm so focused on doing my coursework in Korean.

Having said that, I can think of some situations where your Korean skills could be helpful. The first would be where you have been hired for your English skills but where your Korean abilities let you understand and participate in office communications. This may make your more effective and fulfilled in your job. But as a foreigner, you won’t be on a career path to which you can apply this effectiveness and so the main benefit is likely to be found in helping you avoid some of the feelings of isolation that you'd encounter otherwise. But plenty of non-Koreans without Korean skills have managed their way through those situations, so it's not absolutely necessary.

You may also find that your Korean skills let you discover roles that wouldn't otherwise have existed. Your ability to leverage these roles would then be the determining factor in where you go from there. For example, being good at Korean can generate a lot of curiosity and if managed strategically may lead to hidden opportunities. I’ve encountered a few of those, such as being appointed Foreign-Investment Advisor to Gyeonggi Province when the Governor was impressed with my Korean. But networking opportunities are not the same as a career path. Besides, English skills are also a point of curiosity with Koreans and this can open doors, too. Thus, being stubborn in using Korean can close some of those English-oriented doors of opportunity, as well.

One more observation.... Even though speaking Korean is not going to make your career, the longer you spend in Korea without learning the language to a certain degree of proficiency, the more of a drag it may be on you, both personally and professionally. One reason is that Koreans may question your commitment to the country and your diligence if you never move beyond English interactions, and this can affect professional perceptions, too. Thus, speaking Korean may not help much, but not speaking Korean may also not be so great. Eventually, those who don’t learn Korean (and many who do!) end up “moving on” and not sticking around.

Speaking Korean often feels like a “brownie point” earner more than a killer resume skill. It’s a career asset if used strategically, but even that's not easy. And social pressure in Korea can provide a compelling excuse NOT to learn Korean.

I would say that if career opportunities are your primary motivation to learn Korean, then it’s not worth the trouble. The Korean learning process must have deeper value for you in personal ways -- such as the satisfaction you get from communicating in a difficult language and cultural context -- and that requires a special love for Korea.

When Koreans learn English, they can travel the world and meet people from many countries; when we learn Korean, we can... well, we can travel around Korea and meet Koreans. Ultimately, learning Korean is a niche endeavor that narrows (but deepens) your options. 

** Visit the related discussion on Korea Business Central.

2013 New Year's Greetings



희망찬 새해를 맞이하여 만사형통을 진심으로 기원드립니다.



희망 가득한 새해를 맞이하여 언제나 건강과 행복을 기원합니다.

올해 베풀어 주신 은혜에 깊이 감사드리며

2013년에도 [our company] 에 변함없는 성원을 부탁드립니다.

새해 복 많이 받으십시오.



지난 한 해 [our company]에 보여 주신 사랑에 고개숙여 감사드립니다.

올해도 기대에 보답하는 [our company]가 되겠습니다.

밝아오는 2013년 새해에는 모든 일들이 성취되기를 기원하며

언제나 건강하시고 새해 복 많이 받으세요.





올 한해

저희에게 베풀어주신 배려에 깊이 감사합니다.


새해에도 늘 건강하시고

하시고자하는 일 모두 성취하시어

복 많이 받으시고 날마다 웃음이 가득하시기를 기원합니다.


아울러, 가정에 만복이 깃들기를 바랍니다.



즐거운 연말 연시 보내세요.



이번 2013년에도 [recipient's name]의 하시는 모든 일이 잘 이루어지고 가족 모두에게 건강과 행복이 늘 함께 하기를 기원합니다!



즐거운 성탄절 보내세요


For lots more options from previous years: #1, #2 & #3


Sample Korean Email Greetings for Chuseok

웃음이 가득한

즐거운 추석 명절 맞이하세요!


추석을 맞이하여 행복한 시간되시기를 기원드립니다.


한결같은 성원에 감사드리며 사랑 가득한 한가위 되시길 기원합니다.


풍요로운 한가위 보내시고, 가정에 웃음이 가득하시기 기원합니다.


저에게 주신 성원에 감사드리며 즐거운 추석을 기원합니다.


늘 감사합니다. 가족 친지들과 행복 나누는 추석 보내시길 기원합니다.


감사하고 행복한 추석, 사랑 가득한 추석, 건강한 추석, 가족과 웃음 가득한 추석 보내시길 바랍니다. 


추석연휴, 보름달만큼 행복이 가득 넘치고, 가족과 편안하고 뜻깊은 시간 보내시길 바랍니다.


풍성한 추석 되세요.


이번 한가위는 가족들과 함께 편안한 시간 보내시길 바랍니다.

Korean Business Culture Insights: "What Do You Call a Doctor in Korea?"

The following snippet from one of my lectures in the KBC Professional Certification Program is now part of the ebook Korean Business Etiquette Guide: Take an Essential Step Toward Your Business Goals in Korea! 

Purchase and download on Amazon.


7-26-2012 1-46-02 AM


From the lecture in Chapter 6 of Korean Business Etiquette Guide: Take an Essential Step Toward Your Business Goals in Korea!

"What do you call a Korean named Kim who is a Ph.D.-holder and a university professor? Professor Kim or Dr. Kim?

"What do you call the president of a large company named Lee who is also a Ph.D. holder? Is she President Lee or Dr. Lee?

"What should you call the owner of a one-person company named Jung who has a Ph.D.? President Jung or Dr. Jung?

"What do you call your physician named Yoo? Dr. Yoo?

"Bonus Question #1 - What do you call a professor named Choi who holds a Ph.D., but whom you are currently talking with at a meeting of an association on which the professor is serving as head of the board of directors?

"Bonus Question #2 - What do you call a professor named Ryu whose son named Jaeweon is on your son’s basketball team, who’s about your age and who you’re meeting for dinner at a get-together of all the parents of the basketball team members?

Get the answers to these questions in Korean Business Etiquette Guide: Take an Essential Step Toward Your Business Goals in Korea! 

A Whole Slew of Korean Holiday Greetings for Christmas and New Year, and for the Lunar New Year Holiday

즐거운 연말연시를 맞이하세요.

Have an enjoyable end of the year and beginning of next year.


성탄연휴는 보람되게 보내셨겠지요.

Did you have a meaningful Christmas holiday?


새해 복 많이 받으시고 하시는 일마다 두루 잘 되시기를 바랍니다.

Have a New Year with a lot of good fortune and may everything you do work out well.


새해에도 많은 뜻하신 성과 있으시고 건강하시기를 기원합니다.

I hope that you achieve many of the things that you set your mind on and that you stay healthy in the New Year.


성탄과 새해를 맞이하여 건강과 만복을 진심으로 기원합니다.

I sincerely wish for your health and great fortune at Christmas and the New Year.


즐거운 성탄절 되시고 새해 복 많이 받으세요.

Have an enjoyable Christmas and a lot of good fortune in the New Year.


사랑하는 가족, 친구들과 함께 어느때보다 즐거운 크리스마스 되시고 따뜻한 연말되셨으면 합니다.

I hope you have a more enjoyable Christmas and warmer end of the year than ever before with your loving family and friends.


희망찬 새해 맞이하시고 복 많이 받으시기 바랍니다.

I hope that you have a hopeful New Year with lots of good fortune.


2012년 새해를 맞이하여 [name]과 가족의 건강과 행복을 기원합니다.

I hope that [you] and your family welcome in the 2012 New Year with health and happiness.


새해에는 더욱 강령하시고, 소망하신 일 모두 이루시길 기원드립니다.

I wish that you will have a stronger spirit in the New Year and that everything you hope for will come to pass.


2012년 새해를 맞이하여 흑룡과 같은 기상과 합께 하시는 모든 일이 힘차게 뻗어나가 바라시는 모든 소원 성취하시기를 진심으로 기원합니다.

I sincerely hope that in this New Year of 2012, everything that you do will go forth full of energy, just like the vitality of the black dragon, and that all of your wishes will come true.


희망찬 새아침에

건강과 행운을 기원하오며

새해에도 변함없는 성원을 부탁드립니다.

새해 복 많이 받으십시오.

I hope for your health and good fortune

in this new morning full of hope

and I ask for your unchanging support in the New Year, too.

May you have lots of good fortune in the New Year.


새해에 복 많이 받으셨는지요? 다시 시작되는 구정을 맞이하여 부디 건강하시어 ___과 합께 더불어 살아가는 더욱 큰 소망과 함께 만복으로 충만하시기를 진심으로 기원합니다.

Have you had a lot of good fortune in the New Year? As we approach the Lunar New Year, I sincerely hope for your good health and that you will be full of great fortune, along with even bigger hopes.


새해 복 많이 받으시고,가정에 항상 웃음꽃 피시길 기원합니다.

May you have a lot of fortune in the new year and your family always be full of laughter.

The Korean Language is as Precise and Direct as English

It's not unusual to hear non-Korean learners of Korean talk about the vagueness of the language and how Korean is inherently ambiguous. Many Koreans seem to have bought into this myth based on what they've heard from others. However, I completely disagree. Korean is a precise language where ambiguities can be eliminated if the speaker or writer wishes to do so and those who think otherwise are confusing cultural causes of ambiguity with linguistic ones.

"Would You Mind Passing Me the Raw Octopus?"

P1060596I remember that when I first came to Korea and started learning the language, I was uncomfortable with the directness of Korean in certain situations until I'd reached a more advanced stage and figured out new ways of expressing myself.

For example, in English, we avoid being too direct when asking for something. Rather than saying, "Give me the raw octopus." (or even, "Give me the raw octopus, please"), we generally soften it by saying, "Would you mind passing me the raw octopus?" In a literal sense, the correct answer is not to pass the octopus but to answer with a "yes" or "no". Still, the intent is understood and we generally pass the octopus in this situation (as in the photo above. Realistically, of course, we're not generally talking about raw octopi in English; for the original photoblog posting: "I Tried a New Raw Octopus Delicacy Today".)

Korean has roughly comparable versions too: "Give me the raw octopus." ("산낙지를 줘요."), "Give me the raw octopus, please." ("산낙지를 주세요."; Adding "제발", the dictionary translation of "please" completely misses the nuance and would only be used if begging.) But it's hard to say that the softest version in Korean for asking for the raw octopus ("산낙지를 주시겠어요?") is as roundabout as the English, "Would you mind passing me the food?". Further, depending on the situation and usage, the very slight nuance difference between "산낙지를 주시겠어요?" and "산낙지를 주실래요?" can imply quite a bit of directness if one isn't careful.

Korean is Much More Precise than English about Hierarchy

A case can be made that Korean is more precise in many ways, since the relative status of the speaker, listener and those being spoken about are all implied in the construction of sentences. When translating Korean back to English, except in extreme situations, I find myself stripping out most/all references to this hierarchy since to include all of this gets quite onerous:

"Lowly me asks that you esteemed one send lowly me information about your excellent company. Please also convey with respect my regards to the esteemed president of your excellent company."...

Uh-huh... I should try that once in a translation and see what my client has to say about it... 

Korean is a Great Language for Contracts, Scientific Papers, Patents and Engineering Specifications

Over the years, we've translated many different kinds of documents and the easiest projects are often the ones with the need to be most literal and precise. Once the cultural factors are removed, there's nothing keeping the translator from just plowing through the text with as much exactness as possible. While word order may be completely turned upside down and inside out, the terminology is generally just a matter of looking up words in the dictionary.

In contrast, it's the translation of stories, poetry and other literary works that presents the most challenges, not because of any lack of precision in the Korean language itself, but because of cultural factors that influence the expression of that Korean. Thus, any perceived or real ambiguity in Korean is due to cultural, not linguistic, factors.

Understanding the Use of Spacing and Punctuation in Korean Writing

I recently sent out the latest edition of my Korean Handbook for Translation Agencies to many of my agency clients.

In "[II] Korean Translation Style Guide" of the Handbook, there's a section on punctuation and spacing. In it, I mention that spacing around parentheses in Korean does not follow the same rules as in English, but I don't attempt to explain it in much detail. Viki Gotz of Echo International emailed me back asking for more information, and so here's an attempt to provide more perspective.

The Use of Spacing Around Periods and Commas

Modern Korean rules for the use of spacing around periods and commas generally follow the English rules. There are exceptions though. For example, when following an English initial with a period, Korean generally does not add a space after the period, nor does it add a period after the last initial:

Ex: U.S.A

This means that when writing English names, Koreans habitually forget to add a space after the initial, even though this is technically wrong:

Ex: Steven S.Bammel

The Use of Spacing Around Parenthesis

In writing Korean, there are many times when English words and phrases (as well as Chinese characters) will appear in the text. This is often done to clarify the meaning of the Korean before it, such as to provide the English source for the Korean translation or transliteration which may not be obvious to the reader without the extra information. This is analogous to providing the full term for an acronym in English the first time it's used in a document:

Ex: North Bay Rehabilitation Services, also known as NBI (North Bay Industries), is an agile company with the ability to accommodate your needs

In English, the parentheses are preceded by a space. However, when inserting English into a Korean sentence like this, there is almost never a space added before the opening parenthesis. In addition, the decision of whether to put a space after the parenthesis depends on the grammatical structure surrounding the word.

In Korean, grammatical particles are often added to the ends of nouns to indicate function in the sentence. So, if a noun which is being modified by the English in parenthesis would normally be followed by an attached particle, then the English is added between the Korean noun and particle without a space added after the parenthesis or before the particle.

Ex: 국가다문화자문위원회(National Multicultural Advisory Council, NMAC)가 1997년에 설립되었습니다.

In the above case, the characters before the parenthesis are the name in Korean of the NMAC. As you can see, the writer even included both the full name and acronym in English within parenthesis together here. But since the NMAC is the subject of the sentence, a grammatical particle must be attached to the subject, so there is no space between it and the closing parenthesis.

To clarify, here's how it would have looked without using the parenthetical English at all:

Ex: 국가다문화자문위원회가 1997년에 설립되었습니다.

However, there are some cases where a particle is not added to a noun and if the Korean noun would normally have been followed by a space, then the closing parenthesis is also followed by a space, even though no space is added before the opening parenthesis:

Ex: 아시아에서 지적재산권(Intellectual Property Rights) 보호에 대한 인식...

In this case, without the English in parenthesis, it would have been like this:

Ex: 아시아에서 지적재산권 보호에 대한 인식...

In fact, sometimes an English word or phrase is inserted directly into a sentence without including the corresponding Korean word and in this case, the English is used without parenthesis and it functions grammatically as a Korean word. Thus, it may or may not be followed by a space and this depends on the Korean grammatical rules:

Ex: American Civil Liberties Union의 한 변호사는... (without a space)

Ex: Schengen 지역을 자유롭게 여행하도록... (with a space)

Unfortunately, there really is not way to know whether a space should be used or not without knowing Korean. But just because the spacing around parenthesis looks inconsistent doesn't mean it's necessarily wrong. I should also point out that when parenthesis are used with pure Korean phrasing, the same rules apply:

Ex: 브랜드 자산은 다양하게 맞춤화된 기준(브랜드 가치를 포함아여)으로 구성된다.

Ex: 소위 '안철수 바람'이 (단일화 논의가 알려진) 어제를 기점으로...

As well, the same rules apply when using English both inside and outside parenthesis:

Ex: SBS(Special Broadcasting Service)와 같은 정부자금으로...

Here are a couple more possible variations on the combination of parenthesis, English, Korean and Chinese characters. 

Ex: 이러한 이데올로기는 1850년대 금광열(金鑛熱, Gold Rush)이 지속되는 동안

Ex: 다문화주의는 단순히 "용광로(a melting pot)"를 의미하는 것이 아니다.

In addition, the spacing rules in Korean aren't hard and fast when it comes to the use of parenthesis outside of a sentence. Here's a sentence I came across in a PowerPoint presentation:

Ex: Period: 2001 Jan-Apr (4개월)

It could have just as easily been typed this way and been correct (although it sure does look better to English eyes in the above example):

Ex: Period: 2001 Jan-Apr(4개월)

Finally, a small but useful detail... When the name of a corporation is written in Korean, the "Co. Ltd." part is translated as (주) and put at the beginning of the company name and without a trailing space. Thus, "(주)피죤" would be the Korean for "Pigeon Co., Ltd."

The Use of Spacing Around Quotation Marks

The rules for spacing around quotation marks are also similar to those for parenthesis. Again, it depends on what would have come after the last letter before the closing quotation mark, had the quotation mark not been there.

Ex: 의무성 간부들은 "경악스러운 인사"라며...

I'll point out here that ' and < > are often used in place of quotation marks in Korean and the spacing rules with these also follow the same rules.

Insights into Levels of Speech and Bus Violence in Korea

A couple months ago, an African-American teacher in Korea got into a fight with an elderly Korean on a bus. More specifically, the American thought the Korean had used racist speech against him and he hit the Korean, which another passenger managed to get on video:


This incident caused quite a stir in Korea, with a lot of commentary online, including this one over at Marmot's Hole, the top expat blog in Korea:

I discussed the incident with Ken Clark, President of 1-800 Translate and he followed up with an interesting posting about the situation too, with some linguistic explanation:

It is unfortunate that "nigga" does have the meaning of "you" in some situations in Korea, and it seems possible that the use of this Korean word was partly responsible for triggering the situation. However, Ken's blog post indicated that "nigga" is a polite form of "you", which gave me the opportunity to clarify:

Interesting insights! Thanks for sharing.

I should point out that 니가 is actually the least polite way of expressing “you” in the subject form. When used between friends, it implies closeness; and when from an adult to a small child, it indicates a degree of affection. But when spoken between people of similar status or adults who don’t know each other, it’s extremely rude.

The only way this word could have been used in a positive sense is if the senior citizen was attempting to show a great deal of affection (for lack of a better word) for the American. However, in this situation, the potential for misunderstanding due to cultural and language factors (not to mention that Korean senior citizens don’t generally get overly friendly on buses with black Americans), it would have been an extremely inappropriate and risky expression to use. If 니가 was used, it was an insulting choice of terminology.

Besides, I’ve heard that the senior citizen did not say 니가; he actually used Korean slang for a “nigger” equivalent on the assumption that the “stupid American” wouldn’t understand it. In this case, even though the American may have only picked up the nuance from his body language and not understood the word used, the insult was clearly intended.

In the end, the American was not deported. He apologized and paid for the medical care of the senior citizen, and considering that Koreans were at least as embarrased that a foreigner would be treated with such disrespect in their country as they were angry at the violence, giving the American a second chance was the choice made by officials in charge.

Certificate of Translation Competence, Grade I

In April I posted my Certificate of Translation Competence, Grade II. I went back for the Grade I test last month and just got notification online that I passed. Until I receive the official certificate by mail, this screenshot from the Korean Society of Translators will have to suffice as evidence (my name is the one shown with the red box near the top). Only two people passed at the top level of Grade I this time around, and I'm not aware of any other non-heritage translators who have passed at this level before.

* September 19, 2011 - I just picked up my certificate. It can be viewed here.

8-10-2011 4-42-41 PM

Test of Proficiency in Korean, Level 6

I took the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK) last month and I passed at the top level, which is Level 6. This test is the leading Korean counterpart to the various standardized tests non-English speakers take to prove their ability in English, such as the TOEFL and TOEIC tests.

8-10-2011 4-52-42 PM

 [April 24, 2013 - I finally downloaded and printed out the full certificate. Here it is.]


Closing Greetings for Korean Emails

DongI've got a colleague here in Korea, Dong-Hyuk Kim (pictured at right), who always closes his emails with the most creative and charming expressions. I'm collecting some of them here for safekeeping:

달콤한 휴식을 즐기는행복한 저녁 보내세요.

가을의 정취와 더불어즐거운 하루 보내세요.

맑고 향기로운 하루 보내세요.

상쾌한 하루 보내세요.

좋은 하루 보내세요.

즐거운 주말 보내세요.

편안한 시간 보내세요.

빗소리를 벗삼아 즐거운 하루 보내세요.

유쾌한 주말 보내세요.

행복한 주말 보내세요.

유쾌한 오후 보내세요.

참, 좋은 하루 보내세요.

편안한 저녁 보내세요.

활기찬 오후 보내세요.

빗소리를 들으면서 아련한 옛 추억과 함께 낭만을 즐기는 참, 좋은 하루 보내세요.

시원한 하루 보내세요.

편안한 밤 보내세요.

힘찬 새해 시작하세요.

즐거운 저녁 보내세요.

즐거운 휴일 보내세요.

기쁨이 넘치는 활기찬 하루 보내세요.

기분 좋은 주말 보내세요.

웃음이 빵빵 터지는 유쾌한 주말 보내세요.

점심, 맛있게 드시구요 힘찬 오후 보내세요.

환절기에 감기 조심하시구요, 즐거운 한 주일 보내세요.

봄의 기운과 더불어 즐거운 하루 보내세요.

날마다 활기찬 하루 보내세요.

좋은 일이 많이 생기는 즐거운 한 주일 보내세요.

즐거운 주말 맞이하세요.

점심, 맛있게 드시구요, 힘찬 오후 보내세요.

추위를 이겨내는 따뜻한 하루 보내세요.

따뜻하고 포근한 하루 보내세요.

올해의 마지막 주말, 뜻깊고 재미있게 보내세요.

뜻깊은 날이 맞이하여 훈훈하고 즐거운 시간 보내시기 바랍니다.

따뜻한 커피 맛도 즐겨보는 여유로운 하루 보내세요.

힘이 솟는 기운찬 하루 보내세요.


What Are the Real Benefits to Learning Korean in Korea?

A member on Korea Business Central seems to be losing enthusiasm for studying Korean and posted a discussion question this week asking what he's really going to get out of the effort if he just wants to work in Korea. Seeing as how Koreans in business generally want to learn English and often don't place value on the efforts of foreigners to learn Korean, it's not hard to understand this KBC member's doubts. I think it takes a deeper perspective to fully appreciate the situation; here's how I replied to him:

"This is a very interesting question because it seems like the answer should be obvious, but as you pointed out, it's not.

Nobody is going to hire you in Korea simply because you speak Korean well. Why would they? And having mediocre Korean in the workplace is no better than no Korean at all, in most situations. In general, I've found that Koreans trying to learn English are less than thrilled to meet Korean-speaking foreigners, unless the foreigner's Korean is significantly better than their own English. And I definitely agree that getting from intermediate to advanced is going to take a whole lot longer than it took to get from beginner to intermediate.

But I don't think this is the whole story. If you speak Korean, then you're not left getting only the information Koreans choose to share with you; you've got direct access to the "primary sources". This is extremely important in countless subtle ways. And as David Yeo shared above, you can build stronger bonds with those around you both through the language and through cultural understanding (though I don't necessarily agree that Korean is better suited to emotional expression than English; both languages seem equally robust in this regard).

I think you also earn respect from Koreans you work with if you prove your mettle through Korean skills, and this can be a huge asset in business. Don't underestimate the value here. Foreigners who've been in Korean for decades but haven't learned Korean properly are kidding themselves if they think the Koreans around them don't look down on them, at least in limited ways, and this is in spite of what Koreans will tell them. Ironically, I find that foreigners who've learned Korean tend to be more understanding of Korean shortcomings (especially lack of English skills) than those who haven't learned Korean.

If you've got language skills in a business setting, it means you're closer to functioning as an equal and not as someone who's there as an English chat buddy and/or who continuously needs to be explained to. If you see yourself staying and working in Korea over the long-term, I encourage you to redouble your language learning efforts and to never be satisfied with your current ability level."

Click here to read the rest of the discussion, including insightful comments by other Korea Business Central members.

Clarifying My Controversial 15% Statement About Learning Korean

I Ruffled Some Feathers

Back in June, I posted an article here about learning Korean and asserted that I've only mastered about 15% of the language even after spending over 15 years as a Korean language learner. I even went so far as to use this number as a key theme in a recent video about learning Korean:

I've been asked how I can claim proficiency in Korean and say I'm a decent translator if I admit that I still haven't learned 85% of what is knowable about the language. This is a fair question and having taken this position a few months ago, I've put a lot of thought into it since then. I agree that it needs more clarification.

My First Effort at a Clarification

Here's an online exchange I had with Ondrej Slecht, an associate over at Korea Business Central, and someone whose Korean ability easily qualifies him to ask the question:

Ondrej's question:

I'd be interested in knowing more on how you got to the 15-20% figures.

I personally tried the following:

  • number of words in a written text I understand
  • number of words in spoken Korean I understand (news, movies, documentaries)
  • percentage of actively/passively known hanja in a mid-size hanja dictionary (7000 characters)
  • percentage of actively/passively known grammatical structures in a grammar dictionary
  • accuracy of consecutive interpreting
  • accuracy of simultaneous interpreting

Best regards


My answer:

Thanks for the question, Ondrej.

I should say, first of all, that there isn't an objective way to measure this kind of thing. And it doesn't mean I'm only 15% functional in Korean life. By 15%, I mean there's another 85% that could be learned and improved, not only in terms of vocabulary and grammar, but also by just being able to make better use of what I know, and even through having a deeper understanding of Korean history, culture and literature.

So when speaking, I figure I have about 5-6 times as many ways that I can express myself in English as I have in Korean, thus the 15-20%.

Even on the simplest Korean words, phrasings and grammar, I often don't know all the situations in which they are used. And I can't connect them together as naturally and with as much nuance as I would in English. There's no doubt I can write six English emails in the time I'd write one Korean one; probably many more!

If we were to look at it from a "reading" perspective, I estimate I'm about three times as fast of a reader in English than in Korean. So, even if you assume I'm picking up only twice as much of the meaning in English as I would in Korean, it still means I'm processing Korean at about a 15% level.

Frankly, looked at this way, 15-20% may be giving me a lot more credit than I deserve.

Ondrej's reply:

I see now - so it is mainly based on the comparison of the way/speed the brain processes a native language as opposed to a second language learnt later in life.

This is truly particularly challenging in Korean as there are virtually no cognates (words that have a similar meaning/form across languages) from the perspective of an English speaker. The same goes for syntax and grammatical structures.

Let alone the fact that certain clusters of the vocabulary are difficult to capture for the native speakers too.

Then there is the "real" language usage which sometimes differs from what is presented in standard textbooks. As an example, I have noticed that there seems to be much higher variety of nuances in "real" usage of 하더라, 했더라, 했었더라, 하겠더라, 했겠더라, 했다더라, 했었다더라 then what is explained in standard dictionaries.

In fact, there are probably more exceptions than rules!

The basic idea is that there is far more to "knowing" a language than just memorizing words and grammatical constructions. It requires the ability to put all that together in the activities of speaking, listening, reading and writing. 

Limited Brain Power and Its Perception

I would also say that the lack of fluency in a foreign language degrades one's ability to express meaningful thoughts. I remember being at a seminar last year where a Korean expert on advertising was to speak to the audience of mostly expats. While his English would have probably been fine for a normal conversation, he chose to speak in Korean and let an interpreter communicate his meaning in English because he said that when he speaks in English, he sounds like an elementary school student. 

I remember thinking about that statement after the meeting and realizing how aptly it applies to my ability in Korean. First, if I'm using 6X the brain power to express myself in Korean, it leaves that much less brain capacity to be insightful. Secondly, even when I have something profound to say, if my expressions in Korean don't match up with what the audience things an insight like that should sound like, I'll be perceived as having less to say than I really do. Unfortunately, I have felt both of these dynamics at work in my communications at university in Korea.

A Word About Translation and Fluency

As for translation, when I'm asked if I can understand a particular Korean written document, I always answer that it's just a matter of time. Give me enough time and a dictionary, and I can get the meaning... just about all of it! But if it takes me 10X as long to fully grasp the meaning on a Korean passage as it would on an English passage, can I still say I'm as functional in both languages simply because I did figure it all out in the end? 

I might also add that in the subject areas I generally translate, such as business, legal and technical, I'm much more proficient than in some others, such as literature, which I never translate. So if my 15% estimate is an overall level, it still leaves room for superior performance in specific subjects and skill types (i.e. reading).

Thoughts Regarding "Everything Else"

Another way to really understand how deep an understanding of a language fluency requires is to realize the historical and literary background of much of what we say. If we're going out to a movie tonight but get there only to find it's sold out, you might say, "Oh, I didn't really want to see the movie anyway." to which I'll reply, "Oh, that's just sour grapes." 

If you've memorized that "sour grapes" refers to a situation of saying you don't want something you can't have anyway, then you've understood the phrase at its shallowest level. If you were a good ESL student, you might have learned Aesop's fable of the Fox and the Grapes. This would give you a bit more understanding. But if you really want to understand it at its deepest level, you would need to have studied about ancient Greece and the role of these fables in society both then and now. I don't think many of us realize how much language is tied to our historical and cultural contexts.

Finally, knowing what it means when I say it is only one aspect of knowing it; to be truly fluent in this phrase, it will need to come to mind naturally in appropriate situations whether you're speaking, listening, reading or writing. It's this level of fluency that is only achievable to people who have learned a language from an early age.

We Don't Normally Use It All Anyway

In day-to-day life, we don't use everything we know anyway. I heard somewhere that although the average English speaker knows thousands and thousands of words, daily English usage only includes a small fraction of this. And even if a word comes along that one doesn't know, the context often explains it. So it's possible for me to be 90% functional in daily Korean life (especially if the Koreans I associate with speak "down" to me just a tad) while still not having mastered most of what can be known and used.

A Little Perspective from the Standardized Tests

I've taken a standardized Korean language test and scored near the top.

This test is written for foreigners learning Korean and Koreans taking it would probably find it extremely easy. (Just as I'm sure I'd be close to 100% on the TOEIC or TOEFL.)

But there is a Korean exam for Koreans:

I have no doubt that if I took this exam, I would score at the very, very bottom. Perhaps I'd get around, oh, 15%...

I'd Like Another 15%er to Tell Me I'm Wrong

So, I hope the above explanation helps to shed some light on my 15% statement. Perhaps I should have said that I've only "mastered 15%" of Korean, rather than "learned 15%". But I don't think it's realistic for any English speaker coming to Korean later in life to expect to reach deep understandings of the language that are much higher than this.

I would be especially keen to hear back from non-Koreans who have scored respectably on the KBS 한국어능력시험 but who disagree with what I've written here. I have a hunch that almost anyone who's actually gotten to the 15% level will share my opinions on most of this.

A Few More Thoughts on Learning Korean (Part 5 of 5)

What Doesn't Help as Much As I Wish It Would

Having a Korean Wife

Many Koreans who have been impressed with my Korean ability thought it only natural that I'd be improving my Korean thanks to Myunghee's help. But frankly, I feel that the language learning benefits have been relatively limited since a) she knows how she has to talk to me for me to understand and b) she knows what I'm saying even when my Korean expressions would be nonsense to others. 

It means that we get into ruts that don't stretch my abilities anymore. We also talk about subjects and in situations which aren't similar to many that I find myself in on a daily basis with other Koreans. In fact, it's amazing how I can feel fluent in Korean at home... and then like a complete beginner outside. 

Thus, for me, another key to learning Korean well has been to make sure I get myself into as many situations as possible where I'm forced to perform in Korean and to not rely on one "all-purpose solution" to reaching my Korean-language goals.

Working as a Translator

It's been several years since I was an active translator, but from 2000-2006 or so, I was averaging about 15-25 hours per week of Korean>English translation, in addition to reviewing and working with the English>Korean translation jobs my teams in Korea were handling. I'm sure this helped my overall ability to penetrate difficult meanings in Korean documents, but I don't think it did much for my Korean reading speed, and I suppose I promptly forgot nearly every word I ever looked up for a translation job since my goal in those projects was not to learn, but to finish.

6a011279704a5b28a40133ef5eff4c970b-800wi  Hanja Study

A little over 10 years ago, I took a correspondence course on Chinese characters ("Hanja" - See cover of Booklet #1 at right). It was enjoyable and I learned a lot... I also forgot most of the characters promptly thereafter, but I can still explain the concepts behind how they work. 

It's a shame that the Chinese characters have largely disappeared from everyday usage in Korea today but it sure makes it easier for people like me to get through the newspaper without them. 

I definitely think it would be helpful to relearn them, but I also feel my efforts are better spent on just learning new words, rather than going back and memorizing Chinese characters. Koreans often express that without understanding the Chinese characters, I won't be able to grasp the meanings of Korean words properly. But I didn't have to learn Latin and Greek to do just fine with the English words derived from those languages, and I think the same is true with Chinese characters in Korean.

Final Thoughts

There are some people from English-speaking countries who have learned Korean very well. A surprisingly large number of these are former Mormon missionaries and I have great respect for many of their abilities in Korean. But not every former Mormon missionary becomes fluent; many struggle right to the end or get into the ruts mentioned above where their ability is excellent in certain situations but not adequate in others. 

There are a number of foreign Korean speakers who appear on TV and speak very well, especially when reciting lines for their parts in Korean TV shows. I often wonder if I could do that well if I were memorizing a script, or if they could hold their own in a real-life spontaneous discussion. 

Some people, though, come to Korea after reaching adulthood and learn remarkably good Korean (including the Mormons and TV personalities mentioned above). I think it's safe to say that they do it by studying very hard and for a very long time.

I don't regard my approach here as being unique or better than any other; it's simply what fit my situation and my study style. In the end, there aren't any short-cuts and learning the language is a matter of time and effort. It's also subject to the laws of diminishing returns and I'm pretty confident now that even with continued effort, I'm getting pretty close to the limits of where I'll ever be able to get my Korean ability.

I'm Studying Korean This Way Now (Part 4 of 5)

I Force Myself Into Korean-Language Situations

One of my primary goals in studying for a masters degree at Hanyang University in Ansan (see photo below of me in front of the Business Administration Building) is to improve my Korean. This purpose almost comes in at a higher priority than the actual information being taught in the classes or the degree I'm trying to get. It's been an excellent way to push myself out of my comfort zones, though my initial hope that two years of graduate school would put me over the top in terms of Korean fluency reminds me of my original unrealistic two-year horizon for learning Korean in the first place. And indeed, my progress since starting at Hanyang in early 2008 has only been incremental.

6a011279704a5b28a40133ef5efb6f970b-800wiStill, now that my Korean is at a level that I can go head-to-head with most Koreans in terms of their English ability, I generally do not associate anymore with Koreans who won't speak to me in Korean. 

It always weighs on my mind a bit, particularly at university when I know that my professors (and other students) who studied at universities in the US or elsewhere would like to speak (and are very capable of speaking) to me in English, but I've learned the following from long experience in Korea: 

"A relationship based on a mixture of English and Korean eventually gravitates to exclusive use of one language or the other and communicating at any time the idea that an English-based relationship is possible makes the task of getting back to Korean much more difficult." 

As a side note, this Korean-only approach can be an effective way to identify who one's true friends are too; as crude as it sounds to say it, I've experienced many cases where someone was extraordinarily friendly to me but bolted when they found out that I wasn't going to be of help to them in their English.

At any rate, I find it excruciatingly difficult at times to maintain this Korean-only approach, especially as it works against me quite often. For example, I figure that when communicating in Korean, I come across as less intelligent than I (like to think I) am. I frequently struggle to come up with the Korean words needed for a particular situation and that doesn't convey the best impression of my true knowledge or insights on the topic at hand.

In fact, this can be a double-whammy with Koreans who have practiced their English in an academic environment since their English teachers will have "talked down" to them to make communication easier. If someone learns English in this way without a realistic view of how they would perform in the real world, and then meets a foreigner who is struggling to speak in Korean, if the Korean doesn't realize the help they got in their English and/or make the effort to "talk down" to the foreigner in Korean, they may not give the foreigner due credit for his/her actual ability. I think this happens to me from time-to-time, too.

Still, by forcing myself to communicate in Korean, I feel it can only help my Korean skills in the long run.

Using Korean in Everyday Life

Outside of class, my Korean study focuses mainly on building fluency and vocabulary. I do this by concentrating explicitly on the four main aspects of language usage (speaking, listening, reading and writing) and by integrating these into my daily life.  In every case, I'm trying to carry out an actual life task or learn something I want to know anyway, at the same time that I do it in Korean. I think this is a key aspect of learning the language past the beginner stage, especially as I find it harder now to commit time to dedicated Korean-language study.


As mentioned above, I generally enforce a "Korean-only" policy with the Koreans I associate with. This can be a little extreme, but it's the way I do it.

There are also a million situations in life (calling the Internet service provider to figure out a connection issue, dealing with the office building manager, etc.) in which it is just easier to ask Myunghee to handle, but on my disciplined days, I handle those myself to stretch my skills in new situations.


Watching Korean TV is a great way to relax AND improve skills in the language. I also feel it helps me learn about Korean culture and history.


It took a long time and was a traumatic experience, but about a year ago, I finally cancelled my subscription to The Economist and I am now getting most of my news from the Korean Jungang Ilbo newspaper. This was one of the best decisions I made in terms of learning Korean and I carry the day's paper with me wherever I go since I love having a portable "package" of timely information available to read whenever I have a little free time.

I've also read the Korean translations of a couple English books I wanted to read anyway; it takes a lot longer this way, but I get the information I wanted to know, as well as the Korean practice, and both are important.

When I come across articles with a lot of difficult vocabulary, I'll often circle the ones I don't know, look up the meanings and write them on the paper and then cut the article out to carry around and study. I often don't follow through in learning these words after looking them up, but if I don't, I just end up wasting time looking the words up again later.

Reading is a chance to go deeper in understanding particular expressions, words and grammatical constructs than I can do when I'm listening to speech where just getting the main idea is often an accomplishment.


For me, writing is the very hardest Korean-language activity to integrate into my daily life. Studying at Hanyang University has been a great help for this as the frequent reports, presentations and tests force me to write. (Again, I enforce a Korean-only policy on my work at the university, even though the professors often remind me that submitting them in English is fine.) I also try to find opportunities to email. 

I often wonder what kind of nonsense I'm putting on paper and so I get help from a business associate of mine, as well as Myunghee, from time-to-time, but I generally ask them to help me only to the point that a) my writing communicates what I'm trying to say and b) doesn't insult anyone or look really stupid. I don't ask for stylistic help since at this point, just being completely understood is hard enough.

The advantage in writing is that I have time to think through what I want to say and try to write at a higher level and with expressions and vocabulary that I wouldn't think or dare to use in spontaneous speaking. In fact, speaking is often about just surviving the exchange and this leads to "defensive" speaking approaches; by stretching my abilities while writing, I hope to develop new writing skills which I can transfer to speech later.

This Is One of the Things I'm Talking About When I Refer to the Challenges of Speaking Korean in Korea with Koreans

The following is an extreme example; I don't usually get corralled into conversations like this in Korea anymore, though, for obvious reasons, it used to happen a lot more often when I taught English.

Fortunately for me now, my ace-in-the-hole is that I can converse in Korean. Without that, this would have been an English discussion where I couldn't have stopped the chat cold by insisting on Korean. 

Also, I would have had to come up with some nonsense excuse to turn down an invitation to dinner or out for drinks. Or, I could have been really brazen and said, "Sure, I'll be glad to have dinner with you. My English tutoring rates are W40,000/hour so be sure to bring about W100,000 to cover dinner and conversation!"

As it is, I think it's pretty safe to say I won't be hearing from this guy again and so I don't have to spend extra brain capacity trying to weasel my way out of an unpleasant get-together.

The mindset described here follows people from English-speaking countries around as we live and work in Korea. I understand the reason for it but it also serves as a perfect excuse for foreigners in Korea to not have time to study Korean and miss opportunities to speak it. I think it also leads to a lot of shallow relationships, which likely contributes to the disillusionment many foreigners end up experiencing in Korea, as well as misunderstandings some Koreans have about foreigners.

Those of us who have learned Korean to any degree and formed real relationships have often done so by sticking to our guns in day-to-day life.

The Conversation

So I'm heading home from work yesterday and as I'm waiting on the ground floor for the elevator in our apartment building at the spot in the photo here, a guy walks up to me and says, "Hello". Those were the only words of English spoken (thanks to my stubborness); the rest was in Korean and here's a paraphrased translation of what we said.

Me: Hi.

Him: You live here, right?

Me: Yes.

Him: Have you lived here long?

Me: About four years.

Him: Oh! I live right here on the first floor, in that apartment over there.

Me: It's very nice to meet you.

Him: Yes. I've seen you walking by many times but I didn't have the chance to greet you. Where are you from?

Me: The US.

Him: Where do you work?

Me: Over at Dongseo Core in Jungang-Dong.

Him: Are you an English teacher or something?

Me: No, I have my own business.

Him: Doing?

Me: Translation.

Him: Oh, OK. Here's my business card.

Me: Thanks. Here's mine. Oh! I see you're a professor at Hanyang University. Did you know that I'm also a masters student over there.

Him: I'd really to learn English from you. 

[Note that he didn't give a hoot about my connection to his university. In fact, in the actual conversation, I think I remember trying to mention my Hanyang University connection again since I thought he must not have heard me the first time. Turns out he wasn't listening the second time either.]

Me: Oh, really. I don't teach English.

Him: Really? Why not?

Me: Well, I have my own business doing other things.

Him: Well, couldn't you help me learn English?

Me: I have a rule that I don't speak English to Koreans anymore.

Him: What?! Why?

Me: I've worked hard to learn Korean and I live in Korea. So I am very stubborn about only speaking Korean with Koreans in Korea.

Him: But couldn't you speak English with me? I really need to learn. It would be just as if we're friends. Besides, we live in the same building together.

Me: Yes, thank you. But no, I wouldn't be willing to do that.

Him: Hmm.... You really wouldn't? We'd be just life friends.

Me: Yeah, Koreans approach me for this kind of thing quite often; you're not the first, believe me! But as I've thought about it, when people just want to be my friend so they can speak English with me, I feel used. I realize they aren't real friends. That's why I have this rule that I follow about not speaking English.

Him: How old are you?

Me: 40

Him: Oh. Do you like to drink?

Me: Yeah, somewhat.

Him: So, we could get together and just be drinking buddies.

Me: Sure, but I'm not going to speak English with you.

Him: You can't speak English just to me? I need to improve my English before I go overseas for travel.

Me: Well, there are lots of English professors over at Hanyang University. You could learn from one of them.

Him: No, that won't work. If someone at my level is seen to be studying English, it would really reflect badly on me.

Me: OK, then how about going to an English institute?

Him: Nope. Word would get around.

Me: Fine, then you could go study at an English institute in another city in the area.

Him: [laughs] You really won't help me with my English?

Me: No, I'm sorry. That's my rule. If I don't stick with it, bad things happen. 

Him: [Facial expression of trying to think of something to say to extend the conversation]

Me: It's been nice to meet you. I need to get going; my son's waiting for me at home.

Him: Bye

Me: Bye.

I Started Learning Korean This Way (Part 3 of 5)

I Got a Tutor

I think one of the cardinal rules of studying Korean has to be this: "Reject all invitations to trade English study for Korean study." The first reason is that if you trade one hour of English for one hour of Korean, you'll spend one hour talking in English about English and then another hour talking in English about Korean. How useful is that? 

Secondly, if you go out and teach English for money, you can charge about 3-5 times what you would have to pay a Korean to teach you Korean. To alleviate this imbalance, I remember trying to trade two hours of Korean for one hour of English but that left me feeling pretty guilty at my chutzpah for such an "uneven" trade. 

So at first I paid cash to Korean teachers at my ESL institute for lessons and this was helpful for getting English-language explanations of grammar and vocabulary (especially at the beginning), but I wasn't forced to think in Korean AND, as English teachers, their time was worth more than I was willing to pay. So relatively soon into my Korean-study program, I moved to four-hours per week of one-on-one Korean lessons with a college student at W10,000/hour (later W15,000/hour).

I would study on my own during the week and prepare questions and practice exercises for my weekend tutoring. When my Korean teacher showed up, I did not expect her to come with a lesson plan; I would simply go through my notes asking questions and asking her to do the practice problems with me. It was intense, hard work, but about a year and a half of this was enough to get through a lot of material.

Organized Korean Classes Weren't for Me

There are a number of universities in Korea offering good Korean language programs; but being out in Ansan and working an ever-changing schedule at my foreign-language institute, it was not an option for me to travel into Seoul to attend Korean classes.

Later, when I worked at LG International in Yoido, I did take a one-semester evening class in 1997 at Ehwa Woman's University. But by the time I got home after 11pm each night, it was just too exhausting and so I didn't continue there either.

My Early Study Materials


I picked up the Korean-language textbooks published by Yonsei University and worked through those in order to learn grammar. I also grabbed a few other grammar books with English explanations. I would go through these with a fine-toothed comb during the week and then with my tutor, we would do the exercises over and over in our weekly class. (After all, four hours of one-on-one study each week is a LONG time... sometimes, the classes felt like they'd never end. I'm sure my teacher felt the same way.)

Printed Materials

In addition to the textbook vocabulary, I would find printed materials with information that looked interesting and read it. On the way through, I'd circle words I didn't know and then look them up. After that, I'd transfer them to vocabulary cards/pages and carry those cards/pages around with me to review whenever the opportunity arose, such as walking to classes, waiting for a bus, etc. The graphic at right shows what I did to a page of the LG International Corp. company newsletter back in 1996; I still have hundreds of pages of notes like this which I created over the years.


I am not a great small talker and much less so when weighed down by the burden of trying to put together meaningful sentences in a language that makes little sense. So I missed many opportunities in the early days to use my Korean outside of the tutoring sessions.

Furthermore, trying to understand the TV, radio and church sermons was generally an exercise in futility, though I certainly gave it my best shot when I could. Reading the newspaper was almost as hard since, with so many unknown words, the reading was very slow indeed! 

I did get one big language study break/opportunity early on, which is that I landed a job at LG International Corp., where I worked for almost five years. During working hours, I wasn't all that busy, and though I was prohibited from speaking Korean in the office, my boss didn't mind if I studied Korean at my desk when there wasn't other work to do. I put this opportunity to good use.

** Click here to visit a page on Korea Business Central with links to Korean-language learning resources.

Notable Challenges of Learning Korean (Part 2 of 5)


The Language is All Backwards

I'm told that Korean is one of the hardest languages in the world for English-speakers to learn. When I was first studying the language, I didn't really sense this though. Spanish had seemed pretty hard to me too and improving my Korean appeared to be just a matter of memorizing words and grammatical structures, and then practicing to assemble them together into sentences. 

But having advanced beyond the beginner stages, I relate a little more with the assessment of how hard Korean is for English-speakers; this is reinforced by comments from Japanese saying how easy Korean is for them (and how difficult English is!) because the underlying grammars of Japanese and Korean are so similar.

6a011279704a5b28a40134828e1441970c-800wi The radically different grammatical structures and phrasing concepts between English and Korean make it much harder to get used to the Korean ways of saying things. 

It is also much more difficult to intuitively guess new ways of putting words together; if I haven't studied a specific usage before, it's pretty risky to suppose it will work in Korean just because that's the way we say it in English.

It's Downright Impossible Sometimes to Speak Korean with Koreans Who Want to Speak English

Another obstacle for many of us in learning Korean is the fact that we first came to Korea as English teachers. Becoming an English teacher in Korea can be a deal with the devil: easy short-term access to a job in exchange for permanently handicapping oneself in the learning of Korean. Once we reach Korea, start teaching English and establish friendships with Koreans wanting to learn English, it takes a tremendous amount of initiative to break out of that and find a Korean-speaking social group. 

In fact, even those not coming to Korea to teach English still find that those in their circle either a) already speak excellent English and don't want to chat in baby Korean with a foreigner or b) don't speak excellent English and want to practice English. 

This is not a small issue; it is one I still struggle with even after all these years. But I should point out that in many cases, I choose the easy way of seeking out an English-speaking option (sometimes by default; sometimes deliberately) and then feeling victimized for not getting to improve my Korean. In these cases, I have nobody to blame but myself.


A Realistic Answer to "How Did You Get So Fluent in Korean?" (Part 1 of 5)

I'm Not Fluent!

The only proper first answer to this question is, "I'm not fluent." Fluency implies a level of comfort in the language that I don't ever expect to achieve. The word I've used for at least the last ten years or so is "proficient" and even that is a pretty generous assessment of my ability, particularly when I'm trying to put together a complex thought.

But this is a question I get a lot from non-Koreans who are frustrated with their progress in learning the language (as well as Koreans that just want to compliment me... such kind folks, really). In fact, I was contacted just a couple weeks ago by the CEO of a US company in Korea who is trying to improve his Korean skills and wanted some pointers. I've put together a few posts here to reflect on my thinking and experience, hoping it can be helpful to others.

I should point out that much/most of what I'll share is not unique to learning Korean; it is equally applicable to learning any language... I am constantly amazed at the level of fluency reached by a few people, particularly in English, and especially those from Europe. I have no idea how they do it. Thus, these articles will likely be more relevant for the "rest of us" who lack those superhuman language-learning skills.

Evolving Thinking

When I first arrived in Korea in late 1993, I planned to learn Korean (completely, no less) in about two years. Then I wanted to go to Japan and learn Japanese... and finally head to China to learn Chinese. I figured I'd be a pretty smart guy after all that. As ridiculous as it seems when written down like this, I don't think my expectations were unusual as I get the feeling this is the kind of unrealistic goal many people have when they come to Korea and start learning Korean.

6a011279704a5b28a40134828ca4e9970c  And the delusions don't end once the first lessons are over. I had a friend from Bangladesh tell me that after a year of studying Korean back home before arriving in Korea, he felt he'd reached a 50% level on the language. I was contacted a few months ago by someone who had apparently done most of his Korean-language study outside Korea and told me he'd gotten to 70% proficiency; he wanted to know how he could knock out the last 30%. 

If I were to put a number on how much of the Korean language I know, I'd estimate it at around 15%. Fortunately, a lot of communication can take place within this small range, but to think I'll ever get past 20% is unrealistic.

My experience with learning Korean has often reminded me of some wise words first shared with me by my high school chemistry teacher Mr. Kastrop: "I finished college knowing less than when I started." As I study Korean, I realize just how much more there is to learn and how little of that I know... and can even hope to learn. 

It's Harder Than I Ever Expected

Kids are a different story, of course, but anyone coming to Korea for the first time after finishing university back home (I was 23 when I got to Korea) should have a realistic view of how much work it's going to take to learn Korean and how far they will ever get. In fact, it often seems that every expat in Korea and his brother is studying the language at various levels but those who reach proficiency are a very small number. 

I've also rarely, if ever, met a non-Korean who spent a year or two in Korea before getting serious about language study and then buckled down to make huge improvements. Everybody I know who got good in Korean hit the ground running right from the beginning.

Yet More Help with 그것이 알고 싶다

4-22-2010 12-00-27 AM

I've gotten help with a particular Korean grammatical construction twice now already (Post #1, Post #2) Today, my colleague D. Bannon emailed me as follows:

[Here are] my two bits on the "that's what I wanna know" discussion.  I asked this question years ago, back in the 80s, but never found a satisfactory answer until I read Prof. Sohn's book, quoted in the attached document.  Enjoy! 

With D. Bannon's permission and help from Prof. Sohn's book, here's his (as always, very helpful!) explanation:


그것이 알고 싶다!—THAT’S what I want to know!

나는 그것을 알고 싶다/나는 그것 알고 싶다, does it make ANY sense?  It does, actually, and it all depends on the verb.  A nominative case particle (이/가) is used in place of usual accusative particle (을/를) to add emphasis.  Think of이/가as a verbal italic, as in, “THAT’S what I want to know.”  [나는 그것이 알고 싶다]  In speech this places the focus on the object of the embedded verb, but the decision for which particle to use is based on the verb itself.  The verb dictates if the nominative or accusative must be used or if they are interchangeable, as explained by Ho-Min Sohn:

The desiderative construction with the adjective siphta ‘be wishful, be de-sirable, wish’ is a peculiar type of sensory construction.  First, the adjective must be preceded by a clause, which is its object.  Second, this object clause is nominalized by the gerundive suffix –ko.  Third, when the clause before –ko siphta is transitive, the object of the embedded verb may be marked with either a nominative or an accusative particle.  When siph-e hata occurs, the object is always in the accusative case.

na  nun   kheyik      i/ul     mek-ko    (ga/lul)   siph-ta 

I    TC     cake     NM/AC  eat-NOM   NM/AC  wish-DC

‘I want to eat cake.’

Mia nun kyeyik    i/ul        mek-ko    (ga/lul)   siph-e      ha-n-ta

Mia TC   cake   NM/AC   eat-NOM  NM/AC   wish-INF  do-IN-DC

‘Mia wants to eat cake.’

Simply put, if the verb is desiderative, as with –고 싶다, a nominative case particle may be used to add emphasis.  Again from Sohn:

The desiderative adjective siphta ‘be desirable, wish’ is a special transitive sensory adjective.  It is a bound adjective and is used only when preceded by a verb clause that ends in the nominalizer suffix –ko.  

na  nun  ku  chinkwu  ka   po-ko     siph-e

I    TC   the   friend  NM  see-to  wishful-INT

‘I wish to see that friend.’

이/가 plays an essential role in spoken language, bringing the focus of a given sentence directly to the most important point of the speech—which may or may not be the subject of the sentence.  As Sohn explains:

The accusative particle alternates with the nominative particle in causative sentences. . . . Desiderative sentences show similar alternation.

hyeng    un   tampay      lul/ka      phiwu-ko      siph-ess-e-yo

brother TC  cigarette   AC/NM   smoke-NOM    wish-PST-POL

‘My older brother wanted to smoke.’

In desiderative sentences, the accusative-marked nominal is associated with the transitive verb (e.g., phiwuta ‘smoke’), whereas the nominative-marked nominal is related to the emotive adjective siphta ‘wish’, as in hyeng un [tampay lul phiwu-ko] siph-ess-ta and hyeng un tampay ka [phiwu-ko] siph-ess-ta, respectively.

If the emphasis is on my own curiousity, I would say, “That’s what I want to know.”  나는 그것을 알고 싶다. However, in colloquial usage, the desiderative auxiliary verb indicates “that the speaker or subject wishes for the action or state of the main verb to happen or come about,” as explained Ihm, Ho Bin, Hong, Kyung Pyo and Chang, Suk In.  The emphasis rests on the object to be known, requiring the nominative case particle to emphasize this point.  So why the이/가 nominative case particle?  그것이 알고 싶다!  


Im, Ho Bin, et al.  Korean Grammar for International Learners: New Edition.  Yonsei University Press (2001): 354.  Translated into English by Ross King.

Sohn, Ho-Min.  Cambridge Language Surveys: The Korean Language.  Cambridge University Press (2001): xix-xx, 287, 331, 384.

Key to Sohn’s abbreviations:

NM  Nominative case particle

TC   Topic-contrast particle

INT  Intimate speech level or suffice

AC   Accusative particle

NOM Nominalizer suffic

PST  Past tense and perfect aspect suffix

POL  Polite speech level suffix or particle

INF  Infinitive suffix

DC   Declarative sentence-type suffix

I Received More Help with Understanding the Grammatical Nuances of "그것이 알고싶다".

A few months ago I posted an answer from a Korean linguist about a grammatical point that had stumped me for a long time. (Click here for original post.) 

Just recently, another kind linguist, "Xwind", shared more insights on this matter which has further helped me to grasp the nuance. 

He first posted a short comment on the previous posting:

Hi Steven,

I think the particle "-이" in "그것이 알고싶다" is more related to topic or focus marking. For example, the difference between 영희를 in (4a) and 영희가 in (4b) may come from the contrastive focus marking. With (4b) you might imply that IT IS YENGHI (영희) who you don't like to meet (not someone else). Thus my contention is that the particle '이' in 그것이 is basically related to focus marking. 

I replied with the following clarification question:

Thanks for the insights.

Then would you say that 그것이 알고싶다 might be translated as "That is what I want to know." but 그것을 알고싶다 might be "I want to know that"? Both are the same in meaning but the focus is slightly different.

He then provided this very detailed additional message:

Dear Steven,

I will elaborate on my comment a bit here. 

First of all, I would like to say that a few semantic factors promote the use of the subject particle -이/-가 for the object noun. 

The contrastive focusing effect is only one of them, which is also closely related to the example '그것이 알고싶다'. 

In linguistics, the relationship between the two constructions 'It is easy to please John' and 'John is easy to please' is assumed to be derived by a special type of verbs,i.e., easy, tough, seem, etc.

Avoiding complex linguistic terminologies and concepts, I assume that verbs like 알다 'to know' do not belong to the same class of verbs like 'easy'. 

Thus, the derivational relationships between the two sentences in (1) and (2) would not be the same.

(1) may be the Korean equivalent of the English examples in the post but (2) would not be. 

In (1a), 철수 is the object of the sentence. In (1b), it is the grammatical subject of the sentence. (logically, it is still the object of the sentence).

In (2), on the other hand, the noun 그것 remains as the object in both sentences whether it is marked by the object particle -을 as in (2a) or by the subject particle -이 as in (2b).

This is because the subject position is occupied by the pronoun 우리 'we' in both sentences. 

Since the subject 나는 and the object 그것을/그것이 in (2) do not change their respective grammatical roles the only difference remaining between 그것이 and 그것을 is the alternation of the particles between -을 and -이. 

What would (else) the effect of the alternation of the particle be? 

Given all this, the use of the particle -이 in 그것이 in (2b) must be primarily motivated for the effect of the (contrastive) focus. 

(1) a. 철수를 만나기 쉽다. 

     b. 철수가 만나기 쉽다.

(2)  a. 나는 그것을 알고싶다.

     b. 나는 그것이 알고싶다.  

The focusing effect becomes more prominent when you use the Korean equivalent of the ’Not A but B’ expressions in English. 

For example, 

In a), which is a semantically-neutral context, you can use either the object particle -를 or the subject particle -가 for the object noun 사과 without much difference in the overall meaning.

If the sentence is uttered out of the blue 사과가 sounds more natural.

1a)     나는 (지금) 사과가/사과를 먹고싶다.

     ‘I just want to eat an apple (now)’

Now, suppose if I want to give a sense of contrast to the sentence like below.

2)  아침에는 사과를/사과가 먹고싶었는데 지금은 배가 먹고싶다.

    ‘I wanted to eat an apple in the morning but I want to eat a pear now.’

As you can see, the object noun ‘사과’ is okay either with the object particle ‘사과를’ or with the subject (once again focus) particle ‘사과가’ in the main clause.

On the other hand, the use of the object particle -를 for the noun in the subsequent clause, as in ‘배를’ in (3) sounds quite unnatural to me, hence I give two questions marks for 3).

3) ?? 아침에는 사과를/사과가 먹고싶었는데 지금은 배를 먹고싶다. 

Today, I can only give one case where the subject particle -이 can be used for the object noun, for the effect of focusing, but as I said there are some more cases where the use of the particle -이 is grammatically required.  

I hope this rough explanation would be helpful to you. 

All the best,


 Whew, I can't write this insightfully no matter how hard I try. Thanks, Xwind!

Searching for the Meaning of 체하다 in Korean

Background: How it All Started

Koreans are forever referring to a digestive problem called “체하다. I've always wondered if it's just “indigestion”? Or something more? All I could decipher is that it seems to happen for no good reason.

Google Dictionary is no help:

Yahoo! turns out to be more on the mark:


Phase I: My First Stabs at a Meaning

A colleague of mine suggested that it's a catch-all for "You've got an upset stomach" but he also admitted that the Korean usage of the term is so broad that pinning down the exact meaning is hard. He also wasn't asserting that 체하다 is actually "upset stomach".

Besides, probably the best translation for “upset tummy” is 속이 않 좋다 since in the Korean mind, 체하다 implies a diagnosis of a specific digestive condition. 

For example, if my son throws up, I’ll hear Myunghee saying something like this to herself later: “왜 그랬지? 체했나?”. Then she’ll run down the list of foods he’s eaten in the last few hours to try to determine which one caused it. 

If we translate 체하다 as “upset stomach”, then we’d have to translate her comment as “Why did that happen? Did he have an upset stomach?”. Well, duh… The question isn’t whether he has an upset stomach, it’s the question of what caused it. And in this case, 체하다 gets blamed for a lot of upset tummies, but it’s not the condition of the upset tummy itself. This is why I keep getting stumped on the exact meaning in English.

As a test one morning last week, on our way to climb Nojeok Hill, I suddenly said to my wife, “오, 나 체했다”. To which she replied, “말이 않 되. 뭘 먹지 않았는데.” So I asked her (yet again) what 체하다 means and she explained, “음식이 명치에 걸려서 않 내려갈때야”. But how does food get stuck in the pit of one’s stomach and not go down?

At that point, I was suspecting that we just don’t recognize this particular medical phenomenon in the West and that it’s one of those things Koreans have invented. It’s certainly a catch-all phrase, but it appeared to be a catch-all for various causes of upset tummy, and not the upset tummy itself.

Phase II: Some New Insights

I shared the above thoughts with my colleague and he kindly send me this English translation of a reply from a Korean pharmacist:

체하다 needs something to act on it: that is, an object for the verb.  When customers complain of 체하다, they are complaining of a symptom, usually a blockage in the stomach caused by some outside source.  It is not just overeating or acid reflux; that is incorrect.  This blockage is not constipation.  It is a general sense of gastrointestinal unease due to poor digestion.  Certain teas can relieve the symptom of 체하다, but the causative element must be discovered for a long-term cure.  I would define it as follows [the following written in English]:  "The definition of 체하다 is dyspeptic (suffering from dyspepsia): gastrointestinal unease due to poor digestion brought on by ingesting incompatible elements."  [She then inserted this English-language link]:  https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/dyspepsia

He also gave me this insight:

However, 체하다 seems to be used MOST often in relation to overeating (과식하다) or binge eating (폭식).  That is, when the digestion isn't moving along nice and comfy (소화가 되다), usually from eating too much or too fast or both.  I've heard it used for acid stomach (위산), too, and acid reflux (위산 역류), once from a friend whose meds made her stomach awful, and even just an equivalent of "my tummy's blech" -- but I suspect the most common usage is the bloated ugh feeling you get after eating too much or too fast.  Allow me to say that this is strictly my inferred meaning from experience and not an exact definition.  

Phase III: The Final Definition

“Blockage” seems to be a key word here… In fact, when I pestered Myunghee about it some more on another walk last week, she finally got exasperated, picked up some pine needles in her hand and asked me if we were to throw these into a sieve (a 체!), would they get caught in the mesh or slide right through? 

And that's when it clicked for me. 

체하다 really refers to a condition where food gets stuck in the stomach.

Of course, that begs the question as to whether it’s even medically possible for food to “get stuck”… 

Korean<>English Dictionary from Google

I generally go to Yahoo! Korea's Korean<>English dictionary for definitions when translating. It's pretty good and has several subject-matter specialties. Korean portal sites Naver.com and Daum.net also have about the same offering but I've stuck with Yahoo! simply because the interface is more familiar to me. It probably doesn't matter though because I think all three are based on the same database.

Anyway, Google's just released their own competing service at Google Dictionary, which includes Korean<>English and a whole lot of other languages too. In typical Google fashion, the display pages are pretty austere, but what does it matter if the information is good?


Time will tell whether I end up switching to Google from Yahoo, but based on my past history, it seems that this is yet another service for which I'll be migrating over to Google.

One more bit of interesting news. Google just integrated translation into their Web search results too. Here's the intro post from Google's weblog: 


A Very Helpful Explanation about Korean Grammar from Linguist Yongjoon Cho

I just posted an announcement on my Nojeok Hill blog regarding a survey of learners of Korean. Having completed the survey myself, I emailed the author, Yongjoon Cho, with a Korean grammatical question that's been on my mind for awhile.

My message to Mr. Cho:

Hi Yongjoon,

I’ve got a question that I’ve never been able to get a proper answer to. Since it’s related to the grammar in your survey, I was thinking I’d run it by you.

There’s a Korean TV program called “그것이 알고 싶다”. Why is it “그것”? Everything that I know about Korean says it should be “그것”. Perhaps both are OK and there’s a nuance difference? But the “그것” just seems wrong to me.

I’d be really grateful if you could explain it for me.



Here is the excellent reply I got back:

Hi Steven,

The constructions are called "desiderative constructions" in Korean.

In the constructions, the object of an embedded predicate can also be the subject of the matrix clause. It is not the same, but in English apparently similar constructions exist:

(1) a. It is easy to please John.

     b. John is easy to please.

Originally "John" is the object of the embedded predicate "please", but it can appear in the position of the matrix clause as in (1b).


(2) a. 철수를 만나기 쉽다.

     b. 철수가 만나기 쉽다.

철수, the object of the embedded predicate 만나다, can be the matrix subject, as in (2b).


(3) a. 나는 그것을 알고 싶다.

     b. 나는 그것이 알고 싶다.

the object in the desiderative constructions, as in (3), can have the object marker (3a) as well as the subject marker (3b).

So the two alternatives, as in (3), are both grammatical in Korean. There is no semantic difference between those two options. If there is any slight difference in nuance, it might be related to the "focused reading" on 그것이, rather than 그것을.

The predicate of the opposite meaning, 싫다, also has the same structure, as in (4):

(4) a. 나는 영희를 만나기 싫다.

    b. 나는 영희가 만나기 싫다.

I hope this is a helpful answer to your question. 

Please let me know if you have any other questions.

Thank you.



Korean Wiki Project - A Very Useful Online Korean Language Resource

Matt Strum, a fellow member at Korea Business Central (www.koreabusinesscentral.com), and his associate Chris Kwon are working on a Korean language resource called the Korean Wiki Project (www.koreanwikiproject.com). It is packed with easily accessible and useful information about the Korean language. I encourage anyone interested in the Korean language to check it out and contribute.

6a011279704a5b28a4012875c4a201970c-800wi  Ever have the need to type in Korean on a computer which doesn't have the Korean IME installed? Use Hangeul Assistant), a small flash app Matt wrote to help people type Korean on any computer. All you have to do is click on the keyboard and start typing away like you would if you had enabled the Korean IME. 

For information about Matt, with links to even more Korean resources, check out his weblog at https://www.mstrum.com/onmywaytokorea/, his Twitter page at www.twitter.com/mstrum or his Korean language videos on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/user/mattstrum

The Use of Chinese Characters in Korean Writing

I recently prepared a short video for my translation agency clients. These clients make up a large segment of my business and I maintain a personal relationship with many project managers at dozens of agencies around the world. Considering this, it was a good chance to try out a new, more informal, approach to video production. The following video is my first attempt and several people have commented that the video is too shaky and "homemade". Still, the message is clear and relevant to someone who needs to understand this stuff in daily interactions with clients.


I hope you find this information interesting and helpful. I'll be keen on receiving any feedback readers have about the video.

Misusing Korean

During my years in Korea, the most embarrassing language situations have occurred when I’ve misused the honorific forms. Of course, I’ve spoken 존대말 (respectful form of Korean) to children more times than I can count and from time-to-time, I’ll say a little 반말 (low form of Korean)  to adults. Usually I can fix the issues with the adults pretty quickly, but the kids always start laughing immediately and any attempt to fix it is “too little, too late”.

Here are a couple specific situations that had me grimacing long after the events recounted. It takes a little Korean knowledge to understand exactly what I did wrong, but the main error is that I referred to myself in the respectful form, which is something one should never do. The characters in red font indicate the grammatical tag which I added but shouldn't have.


  • Many years ago, I was having trouble with my computer and called in to LG technical support for someone to come out and get it running for me. I was pretty upset, and in the process of my pushing them to send out a technician quickly, the customer service representative asked me if I really needed to use the computer or not, to which I replied in a loud voice, “컴퓨터가 얼마나 필요하 몰라요!”… It was only later when my wife told me what I’d done wrong that I realized how silly I must have sounded. 
  • More recently, I was at the hospital for an x-ray and as I entered the exam room, the nurse asked me if I spoke Korean (a rather common question for me!), to which I replied, “, 한국말 .” I caught myself quickly, but not before she’d replied with a sly smile, “, 한국말 하시는군요!”… I felt pretty stupid.

Saying "Please" and "Thank You" in Korean

I'll start with "thank you" because its usage is straightforward. There are actually two words for it: "kahm-sahm -ni-da" and "ko-map-sum-ni-da". The two words are interchangeable and if you use them often, you will do well in Korea.

Saying "please", however, is a bit more complicated since its usage depends on the context and involves grammatical understanding. If you want to ask someone to give you or pass you something, then that is easy: [Thing you want given or passed] + "ju-seyo". Here is an example:

"bbahng" [bread] + "ju-seyo" = Please give me some bread.

To make it a bit more polite here, you could add the word "johm", as in "bbahng johm ju-seyo".

The word "jeh-bahl" means "please" in the literal sense and you might find it in a Korean phrasebook but its meaning is close to "I'm begging you" and is therefore not appropriate for everyday situations. Instead, polite requests are formulated by modifying the ending of the verb that you wish to request and adding "ju-seyo", which is the word for "give". Together in a combined grammatical structure, they have the meaning of "please [do something] for me".

Explaining the rules for modifying the endings of verbs is beyond the scope of this article so I will just leave you with a few simple examples. The text in bold is changed when adding "juseyo".

"seol-myung-ha-da" + "ju-seyo" = Please explain it to me. - "seol-myung-hae ju-seyo"

"bo-i-da" [show] + "ju-seyo" = Please show me. "bo- yeoh ju-seyo"

"sonmul bahd-da" [accept gift] + "ju-seyo" = Please accept my gift. "sonmul bahd-ah juseyo"

"dashi mahl-ha-da" [say again] + "ju-seyo" = Please say that again. "dashi mahl-hae ju-seyo"