How Much Korean Do You Really Need To Know?

We are excited to announce that Korea Ye now has several staff writers who will be writing for us on a weekly basis! Please welcome Sibo, who’s kicking off her “career” with this post about how much of the Korean language you really need to learn in order to thrive during your time here.

For those of you who have been sending us your submissions – or those who have been wanting to but haven’t yet – don’t worry! We are still accepting submissions for anyone who would like to contribute their new find with us.


Songtan- Korean Language- Sibo Lungu- Correct Destination

Ok, I know I got it this time. Here goes.

Me (entering a cab confidently): Annyeonghaseyo! (Hello)

Friendly cab driver: Annyeonghaseyo! (Hello)

Me: Jang Dung-ri Kwan Kwang godeunhakkyo ka juseyo (“I want to go to Jang deung-ri Korean tourism High school please.” The school is the lifesaving landmark that helps me give directions to our home. )

Cab driver: Heh?

Me (talking slower): Kwan Kwang godeunghakkyo….ka juseyo.

Cab driver: Heh?

Me (I’m throwing out any variation at this point.): Jang dung-ri? Kwan Kwang? Uh…high school? Hakkyo?

Cab driver (excitedly): Aaah! Kwan Kwang godeunhakkyo! Ne! Ne! (Yes! Yes!)

But that’s what I just said! Well, in my mind it sounded right. He proceeds to give me a say-and-repeat lesson of how to properly pronounce my address and we laugh it off. Or wait, is he laughing with me or at me?

Korean Language- Correct Bus

This is just another day in a foreign land. After 3 months here, I have to say it happens less and my husband thinks sometimes the guys just like to have a friendly laugh with us about it. And I have no doubt we sound funny to them as we struggle to get the foreign syllables to roll off our tongues like pros.

So how much Korean does one really need to know to not just survive here – because that you can do anywhere – but live here happily?

The Koreans in Songtan are used to having foreigners around and my impression is that they try to be accommodating if they can. Key word: “IF”. Many people cannot speak English so I’d say knowing the basics will make life easier, particularly when living off base.

Songtan- Korean Language- Mostly Locals on Bus

I didn’t really have a plan of action for how I was going to learn once we arrived. However, even though our tour is only for a year, I knew I wanted to learn Korean out of pure fascination, with the new sounds and alphabet that surrounded me everywhere I went.

Once I got my greetings and thank you down, I moved onto numbers. This came about because I do a lot of my shopping off base. Many shop owners will hold out a calculator with the amount you owe, but I decided that learning at least the numbers 1-10 for money (there are 2 ways to count) was doable. Also, I’m a bargain hunter, so I need to know my numbers if I want to haggle. Or else it will be like the battle of the calculators on the streets as we show each other our screens!

The next set of situations that arose that required me to know more Korean words were when getting home by cab, riding the bus and yep, more shopping. I needed to know my left, right, straight, stop, here, there and also the where? When? What? Do you have? and How much?

Sontang-Korean Language

Prior to this, I had mobile apps, but the apps were frustrating because of some bad translations so I decided it was time to get social to learn the “true talk” from Koreans here.

After a bit of searching I found that there are several language exchange groups in the area. There is a group that meets in Songtan and one in Pyeongtaek (click here for more Osan-area groups). I have only been to the one in Songtan but it was a great casual environment in a coffee shop of Koreans and English speakers chatting while learning.

Another learning option is to go on base to the Family Readiness Center to sign up for the monthly (maybe more) basic survival Korean class.

As for reading, one can easily self-study. The characters look intimidating at first, but sitting down for an hour is all you need to be able to identify the letters and do some basic reading. I get tripped up on long words but I can sound it out like a 4-year-old. As long as I can identify and order Kimbab on a menu, I am good!

Songtan-Korean Language- Both Languages near Osan AB

To be honest, at first I thought reading Korean was pointless but fun. However, it proved to be useful a week ago when we went to Jinju by bus. A couple of places in Korea have similar sounding names so being able to identify the name in Korean letters can save you from ending up on the wrong side of the country! Romanized spellings vary too so that doesn’t help. You have Jinju, Chunju, Cheonju and Gwanju that can sound similar when said fast over a bus terminal speaker. It’s a good idea to say where you want to go and double up by writing it in Korean. With that said, the attendants are helpful and do try find an English speaker. So all isn’t lost!

So all in all, this new land does require some basic knowledge of the language especially if one is residing and spending a lot of time off base. But the good news is that it is absolutely doable! And absolutely worth it! The smile on my face and the cab drivers face when we laugh about my pronunciation are some of the funniest and most memorable moments I will have about my time in Korea.

5 thoughts on “How Much Korean Do You Really Need To Know?

  1. Kelly says:

    This is a great post. I’m inspired to give my Korean language learning another go after falling off the wagon about 6 months ago. I have such a hard time with it. I don’t know why I have so much more difficulty learning Korean than any other language. Wait, yes I do — because I haven’t sat down and had “true talk” with Koreans like I used to in other countries pre-kid, at a bar or coffee shop writing on a napkin. Maybe I just need to grab my local Twosome Place barista in my building and force him/her to speak with me in Korean! I can’t commit to a class, but I definitely need help!


  2. amy says:

    I love this! Living in Seoul, I don’t *need* to know much, but I have learned a few key phrases past Hello and Thank You. I find it very difficult to learn too, but it is fun to try! And I do find that Koreans seem very happy when they can see I have made an effort to learn the language!


  3. Jennifer says:

    I remember first learning how to read Korean, and being on the side of the road, outside of the subway station, seeing where all of the buses went. I was so excited about being able to read all of those places, that I was practically jumping up and down on the sidewalk! It truly opened up a whole new world for me! Then there was the time I had a conversation with a taxi driver about all of the foreigners in Korea who don’t take time to learn their language. He was quite annoyed… but the whole conversation I had with him was in Korean.. so.. that was kind of funny. 🙂 Ahh.. I miss Korea!


  4. sibo says:

    Yes! I like how many Koreans are nice when you can’t understand something. It certainly makes the learning experience less intimidating. 🙂


  5. sibo says:

    Today the owner at a little take-away spot I found was so happy when I ordered in Korean. It took me forever to read the menu, but I got it!


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