The official writing system for South Korea is Hangul, which is the name for the Korean Alphabet system. Hangul is also written “Hangeul”. “Han” means “Korean”, and “gul” means “letter”.
Pretty cool, isn’t it?
Throughout this page, we’ll use the terms Korean letter and Korean character interchangeably. You can use either one.
Korean Alphabet Structure
Did you know that there are fewer Korean characters in the Korean Alphabet than there are letters in the English alphabet?
The Korean Alphabet has 14 consonants and 10 vowels.
Unlike Japanese or Chinese, which have thousands of characters and each can have 10, 15 or more strokes, the most complex Korean character has only five strokes.
Hangul is a very scientific writing system. It was developed with precision in mind about 500 years ago by King Sejong the Great.
How to learn the Korean Alphabet
This post makes use of psychological techniques to help make learning fun and easy. Namely, it uses associations and stories to help everything stick in your brain so you can’t forget it.
This guide covers the how, what, and why of the Korean alphabet.
This is Korean, broken down and simplified. This is language learning for the everyday language learner.
Let’s get started!
The Korean Consonants
The Korean language has both consonants and vowels just like English.
Let’s learn the consonants to start.
First, let’s take a look at the English alphabet. Instead of looking at the actual letters, let’s just look at the sounds they make.
In doing so, we can find the closest equivalents in Korean so that we can start to make associations.
In Korean, there are no F, R, V, or Z sounds, so let’s take them out.
The rest of the sounds exist in the Korean language. However, the Q, W, X and Y sounds must follow one of these two rules:
a) They only be made by combining two or more sounds (ie., X = K+ S)
For example: The X sound can be made by combining the K and S sounds (X = K + S). Try it now!
b) They cannot be made without adding a vowel sound after (ie., “ya” or “yo”)
For example: In Korean, we can create the sounds ya or yo but not the standalone Y sound.
So let’s take these letters out too.
Finally, let’s remove the English vowels, since we are first focusing on the consonant sounds.
How many are left in red?
But we can group C and K together, since in English, they make the same sound.
This leaves a total of 12.
Let’s take a look at those 12 first. Since we’re learning a new language and have never seen these shapes before, it will be very difficult for us just to memorize them. Therefore, we need to ‘link’ them to something already in our minds in order to create an association.
Let’s do this using a visual learning technique to associate the new characters with pictures and sounds we already know.
The first letter of the English word in the picture has the same sound as the Korean character.
This will help to start to create the associations.
The character ㅂ, which has a sound similar to B in English, looks like a bed with a post at either end. Look for a yellow speaker icon followed by the word, and click on the yellow speaker. Here’s an example:
Make this association in your mind. Write it down and commit it to memory.
Likewise, the character ㄷ could seem as a doorframe or the panels on a door. Correspondingly, this character makes the sound D.
The Korean character ㄱ has the appearance of a gun and sounds similar to an English G.
The same goes for ㅎ(H), which looks like a man with a hat.
And ㅈ (J) which could be seen as a jug with a spout at the top.
Try creating these associations now.
Next is the character ㄹ, which has 5 strokes and could be compared to the rungs of a ladder. Its sound is most similar to an English L and can be made the same way by pressing down with your tongue.
Finally, there are the characters ㅁ, ㄴ, and ㅅ, which have the sounds M, N, and S respectively.
The ㅁ is a square box like a message on a phone or a piece of mail.
The ㄴ points up and to the right like a compass pointing to the north (and the east at the same time).
The ㅅ is like a seashell or clam, having only two strokes which slightly overlap.
The Korean Aspirated Consonants
Now, let’s take a look at four of the sounds we just learned.
B, D, G, and J.
Make each of these sounds now. “B”. “D”. “G”. “J”.
What if we made them stronger, aspirating as we spoke them? What sound would we then make?
For B, a more aspirated sound forcing out more air would make P sound.
How about D? It would result in a T sound. “T”. Try it now.
And G? A “K” sound, like a C or K. In English, these two sounds are very similar. Try saying “I’ve got a cot” five times.
The C is really just an aspirated G.
Finally, if you aspirated a J, it would result in a “ch” sound. Try saying “cheap Jeep” several times and you’ll notice how similar the sounds are.
Let’s match up the non-aspirated English sounds with their aspirated sound pairings.
See how similar these sounds really are?
When we do the same in Korean, we’ll see some visual similarities in the characters, which can help greatly for memorization.
It’s almost as if all we did was add a small line to each consonant to create the aspirated equivalent.
The next four Korean characters are called the aspirated consonants and are similar in sound to their non-aspirated counterparts.
Let’s make a visual association as well to really drill them in.
The ㅋ (K) could be compared to a key.
And the ㅌ, which has a “T” sound, could be associated with teeth (like the ones in your mouth or the teeth of a fork).
Remember math class? I hope so!
What’s that number? Pi! And the Korean character with a similar sound to P looks very similar to the symbol for pi. That makes it easy to remember.
So there we have it. That’s how you learn the Korean alphabet!
But we said there were a total of 14 consonants in Korean, so what are the last two?
One of them is special because it doesn’t have a direct equivalent to an English letter. Instead, it represents a sound in English.
ㅊ, the character representing the “ch” sound in English (“choose”), looks like a church with a steeple at the top. We can associate it this way, or remember it as an aspirated J (ㅈ) and add an extra line.
Ok, so that’s 13 Korean characters already! You’re more than halfway there.
The last consonant in Korean is really just a placeholder, and makes no sound by itself when placed in front of another character. Nonetheless, it is considered a consonant.
Just like in math, where we use the number 0 as a placeholder, in Korean, the placeholder character (ㅇ) is a round shape that looks like a zero.
This is a very special character!
It acts as a placeholder and is silent most of the time. After you learn the vowels in the next part of this challenge and see them next to placeholder character, you’ll know what sound to make based on the vowel.
However, if the placeholder character ends a particular syllable, it is pronounced “ng” like the “-ing” in English.
This is a very important rule to remember. Without it, we would be tempted just to skip over the consonant, assuming it had no sound.
This will be easier to understand later, but just wanted to make a note of it for now.
The Korean Vowels
In Korean there are ten basic vowels that you need to learn. They are the basic building blocks from which from which you can create all other vowel sounds.
But before we get into that, it will be helpful to do a basic review of English grammar.
In English, we have short and long vowel sounds.
All of these sounds exist or can be made using Korean characters except for the short I sound (this just doesn’t exist in Korean and so is very difficult for Koreans to pronounce).
The characters for the vowels are all pretty easy to learn. No complex shapes here, just good ol’ lines!
The first four we’ll learn are horizontal or vertical lines with a perpendicular line in the middle facing in a particular direction. They look like this:
The only problem is that we need to remember which way the perpendicular line points and associate that character with the particular vowel sound.
Let’s use a little bit of psychology to do this.
First, memorize the following acronym:
A little fun fact: did you know the first iPod came out in 2001?
That makes it old.
The iPad came out in 2010, making it comparatively new.
Now listen carefully to the vowel sound in each word.
old. Long O sound.
iPod. Short O sound.
new. Long U sound.
iPad. Short A sound.
Great! Let’s go back to the acronym. We’ve placed it on a timeline to represent when each gadget was released.
Recite “Old iPod, new iPad” working counterclockwise around the circle.
Now all we need to do is line up the characters with the corresponding sounds.
The character with the line pointing up is “old” and has the long O sound.
The character pointing to the left has a short O sound like the O in “iPod,” while the character pointing to the right has a short A sound like the A in “iPad.”
Finally, the character pointing down has a long U sound like the e-w in “new.”
Not too bad so far, right? Commit these to memory and let’s keep the momentum going!
Remember how we added an extra line to some of the consonants to change the sound and make it aspirated? Well, can also add a line to the four vowels we just learned to create new sounds!
You may recall back to the beginning of this challenge when we explained how we couldn’t create a Y sound on its own. But we did say we could if we added a vowel sound after it!
Well, we can do just that when we add a line to each of the first four vowels. That way, we can simply learn four more of the vowels!
The vowels we have learned so far are:
We can now create the following sounds by just adding a second line:
So, once you memorize the first four, the second four are really easy. All you need to do is double up the line and remember to add a Y sound in front.
Commit these to memory.
So, there are only ten Korean vowels and we already know eight of them.
Luckily, we saved the easiest two for last. The last two vowels are just lines as well — one horizontal and the other vertical.
The hardest part is just remembering which one makes which sound.
Luckily we’ve got some visual associations for that!
We love nature, and these two vowels do too.
The first is the “tree vowel.” It is so-called (at least by us) because it’s tall and straight!
Notice how the double e in “tree” creates the long E sound. The Korean character with the same sound (ㅣ) looks like a tree, making it easy to remember.
And the most picturesque landscapes are not complete without a brook. This next vowel is long and straight just like a brook!
Also, notice the sound the double o in “brook” makes. This is the same sound the final Korean vowel makes. This vowel (ㅡ) is just a horizontal line.
Reading Korean Words
Just like English, you read Korean left to right, top to bottom.
However, the characters stick together, existing within small invisible “boxes”. Each box can have up to four characters.
Each little “box” is considered a syllable.
Instead of reading straight across as we do in English, we read one “box” at a time. Within each box, we read using the rule left to right, top to bottom. Then we move to the next box. That’s all there is to it!
This is the Korean word for “hello.”
In the first two boxes, there are two characters on the top and one on the bottom. Following our rule of left to right, top to bottom, we would read in the order 1, 2, 3 as shown above.
The same goes for the second syllable (or box). But remember, the placeholder character here is ending the syllable so it would have to be pronounced “ng.”
The third, fourth and fifth syllables are more straightforward and are just read simply left to right.
So going box by box, could you determine which order we would read the characters in? Give it a try!
It would look like this if we wrote the numbers in. Now, if we use our associations we learned earlier we can pronounce the word!
The word sounds like “an-nyeong-ha-sae-yo” when you read it correctly.
If you’ve gotten the associations with the characters and vowels down pat in the previous sections, you can start to read some Korean words on your own.
Let’s try it out. Give each a try first, then check your answers below. Use the associations we made to help you out!
How would you pronounce the words written below? Try reading them aloud. We’ll write the pronunciations below using romanization so you can check afterwards!
For the first two, we would just read left to right.
1. k for key + a as in iPad = ka. This is the Korean word meaning “car.”
2. n for northeast + eo as in iPod = neo. This means “you.”
Now, for the third one, we just read left to right for the first syllable, then top to bottom for the second syllable.
That would make it:
3. b for bed + a as in iPad plus b for bed + o as in old = babo. This is the Korean word for “fool.” If you can read these words already, you are definitely not a 바보!
Now, remember the placeholder character ㅇ that doesn’t make any sound if placed in front of a vowel? It exists for a special reason!
Syllables (or “boxes”) must always start with a consonant, and then have a vowel following it.
Let’s do a quick recap of the consonants and vowels:
Base consonants: ㅂㅈㄷㄱㅅㅁㄴㅇㄹㅎㅋㅌㅊㅍ
Base vowels: ㅗㅓㅜㅏㅛㅕㅠㅑㅡㅣ
The ㅇ is a consonant, so that means it can start a syllable! But remember that is silent when it does!
Let’s try reading some more difficult words and we can practice this rule. If you get stuck, remember to ignore the placeholder if it exists before a vowel and just read top to bottom and left to right as you normally do!
Ready, let’s go for Round 2! Look at the words written below. How would you pronounce the following?
How did it go? Did you remember all of the characters from the associations we made before?
4. Did you remember to ignore the placeholder? Good. For the first syllable, o as in old. Then n for northeast + eu as in brook + l for ladder. Romanized is written as oneul, 오늘 means “today.”
5. m for mail + i as in tree plus g for gun + u as in new + g for gun again. This word is written in romanized English as miguk, and is the Korean word for “U.S.A.”.
6. k for key + eo as in iPod plus p for pi + i as in tree = keopi, the Korean word for “coffee.”
Congratulations! If you got these, then you are now able to read 6 vocabulary words in Korean (and many more!).
Mastering the Korean Alphabet
It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? You’re already more than halfway toward learning the Korean Alphabet!
We wanted to make things super easy for you to print out and study, so we’ve created a download for you to continue the 90 Minute Challenge toward learning how to read in Korean. It also contains some written activities so you can practice what you’ve learned.
Get the free guide here, and you’ll be reading Korean everywhere you go!
After You Learn to Read the Korean Alphabet
Once you know how to read Hangul, you’re going to want to put it to use! Practice reading Korean names, or try out a sentence or two from a book. It’s ok if you don’t know the meaning yet, just start sounding out the syllables.
You might want to join a Korean course, or start an online course, get a language exchange partner, watch Korean movies, learn some Korean phrases, create your first Korean sentence, or memorize some Korean words.
Here are some awesome resources for Korean language and culture that you will definitely want to check out. Pick which ones apply to you, and head over:
- Interested or curious about Korean culture?
- Moving, visiting, or living in Korea?
- Are you a fan of K-Pop, K-Dramas, or Korean movies?
- Need some useful Korean phrases?
- Want to see the most common and useful Korean words?
How long did it take you to learn to read the 6 Korean words? Let us know in the comments below!