I’m learning to read, write and speak Korean

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I’m learning to read, write and speak Korean. It was recommended that I learn a new language as part of retraining my brain. I chose Korean mainly because I have quite a few Korean friends.

The Korean language is classified as a member of the Ural-Altaic family (other members of this family include the Mongolian, Finnish, and Hungarian languages.) Until the early 1400s, most documents were written in classical Chinese characters (known in Korean as Hanja). As the idiographs are difficult to learn, only the educated people could read and write. King Sejong, the 4th ruler of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), set up a special committee of scholars in 1443 to create a new writing system specifically suited to the Korean language.

The result was Hangul (meaning ‘the one script’). It originally contained 28 symbols, although 4 have dropped out of use. The alphabet has 10 vowels and 14 consonants. The consonants represent the simplified outlines of the parts of the mouth and tongue used to pronounce them. The vowels are associated with elements of the philosophy of the Book of Changes.

In 1994, Discovery magazine described Hangul as the most logical language writing system in the world. The simplicity of Hangul led Korea to become one of the most literate countries in the world. U.S. novelist Pearl Buck said that Hangul is the simplest writing system in the world and likened King Sejong to Leonardo da Vinci. Even though Hangul is a system of phonetic symbols, it is categorized as new level of feature system, the first and the only in the world. On Oct. 1, 1997, UNESCO designated Hunminjeongeum as world archive property. Koreans commemorate the creation of Hangul each year on October 9.

The Hangul Characters

Hangul Korean language characters

The symbols are combined into blocks, each one representing a single syllable. Each syllable must start with a consonant, although the iung is silent in the initial position. Text is arranged either in the traditional vertical fashion, with columns reading from right to left (as in some newspapers and old books) or in rows reading left to right (as in most modern novels and magazines). The alphabet may appear complicated, but it is actually easy to learn. Once you are familiar with the characters, looking up words in a dictionary becomes easy.

When speaking Korean, you use formal or informal words and phrases, depending on the status of the person to whom you are talking. For example, you generally use informal speech to children and formal speech to older people. It is better to err by being too formal rather than showing disrespect. However, Koreans do not expect foreigners to be fluent and will usually excuse minor mistakes.

The above writeup about Hangul is from the website Life in Korea and can be found here.

I’m in week four of learning the alphabet and much to my surprise I can now recognize a few words as I become more and more familiar with the alphabet. One of the really wonderful things about learning Korean is that the words are pronounced just as they are written…unlike English. I’ll be making updates about my Korean language progress.

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