Unless you grew up learning Korean at home or in Korea, speaking like a native is no small feat. No matter how much you study Korean grammar, pronunciation, intonation, slang, and proverbs, your speaking style will sound and feel different to Koreans.
However, there are some things you can learn in just 5 minutes to both impress your Korean friends and sound like a native. Just be prepared for some shocked reactions, as they will wonder how you learned to speak Korean so naturally!
In English, there is a term called “onomatopoeia” which is a word that imitates a sound it describes. Some examples are “zoom” for a motorcycle, “beep-beep” for a car horn, and “moo” for a cow. You can study Korean onomatopoeia (의성어) as well.
The cool thing is that Korean takes this concept a step further with the concept of “mimetic” words (의태어). Mimetic words are similar to onomatopoeia, except they are describing a movement instead of just a sound. An easy way to think about this concept is to imagine a street mime. The mime is stuck in a box, but can’t get out. He can’t speak. Instead, he must silently demonstrate his motions. The mimetic words would help describe his motions.
In English, we don’t use onomatopoeia in quite the same way as Koreans do. If someone said, “Yesterday a bunch of motorcycles rode by my house vroom-vroom really loudly”, you might think it was a little strange.
However, using mimetic words in Korean is much different. They are seen as very rich, descriptive, and colorful words that help paint a picture of what is really happening. Koreans learning English say that they have a hard time explaining themselves sometimes because these words don’t have a direct translation in English. Incorporating mimetic words into your vocabulary as you study Korean will make your descriptions much more powerful.
Quite a fun concept, isn’t it? Well, let’s get to it! Here are 7 common mimetic words that you can use to up your native-ness AND surprise your friends.
If you can’t read Hangeul yet, you can learn for free in about an hour here.
1. 반짝반짝 (bahn-jjak-bahn-jjak)
반짝반짝 is similar to saying that something is twinkling or glittering. Remember the song “twinkle-twinkle little star”? Well, imagine looking up at the stars and hearing “반짝반짝 little star” instead! Use 반짝반짝 to describe sparkling things such as jewelry or stars.
2. 두근두근 (du-geun-du-geun)
Think back to your first crush you had. Maybe it was in high school, and every time you saw that person, your heart began throbbing 두근두근! You can use this word to help describe a heart throbbing, often because of an exciting situation.
3. 주룩주룩 (ju-look-ju-look)
If you’ve been in Korea in June, then you’ve definitely heard the sound of rain pouring down 주룩주룩. This mimetic word is similar to the word “streaming” or “dripping”, and is often used with rainfall or tears.
4. 쿵쿵 (kkoong-kkoong)
Imagine that you live in a large two-story house with ten kids that run around all day long. As you sit on the sofa and enjoy your new book, you constantly hear the sound of footsteps pounding 쿵쿵 up and down the stairs. Time to get some Tylenol! You can use 쿵쿵 to describe thump noises, such as someone going up the stairs (쿵쿵) or something being dropped on the floor (쿵).
5. 쨍쨍 (jjaeng-jjaeng)
If you’ve ever been to Haeundae Beach in July, then you know that the sun will be blazing 쨍쨍 down on you. 쨍쨍 is used to describe a blazing hot sun. Make sure you get an umbrella and bring plenty of sunscreen!
6. 솔솔 (sol-sol)
After setting up your umbrella and laying out your beach blanket, you finally get to relax. Thankfully, a gentle breeze begins blowing 솔솔 to cool you down. Use 솔솔 to describe a gentle, soft breeze.
7. 말랑말랑 (mal-lang-mal-lang)
You’re all set up on the beach, so now you can finally enjoy the delicious snacks you brought with you. You pull out gummy bears and marshmallows. Those snacks are so soft 말랑말랑! You can use 말랑말랑 to describe specific soft and chewy food, such as chewy candy, marshmallows, or Korean rice cakes (떡).
Now that you know these words, it’s time to put them to use when you study Korean! Even if you aren’t conversational at Korean yet, try using them to help describe things in English. Your Korean friends will appreciate the extra richness and vividness of your words! Or use the topic for conversation to make new Korean friends!
If you’d like to see a unique representation of some mimetic words in Korean, check out this amazing project called “The Mimetic Words of Hangeul.” It displays the words in a magical way.
What are your favorite mimetic words to use? Feel free to leave a comment below!