Thursday, February 24, 2011

How I Learned to Read Hangul... in a Morning

While looking into different things to do in Busan, one thing that I kept reading is that I ought to learn how to read Korean. You may not know what it means, but since it's an alphabet (versus, say, kanji in Japanese), you can sound it out. Many travel blogs mentioned it's usefulness at restaurants and navigating street signs. Due to my inherent laziness, I didn't bother looking into it until the last day (literally the morning of my flight). I wasn't going to, but since I found myself with some free time in the morning, I figured I'd take a stab at it.

While looking online at different explanations, I stumbled upon this.

These pictures did little to help me though. I mean seriously... let's look at the first one, ㄱ, for G. How is their example, "G as in Games," relate in any way to the picture? It doesn't. Furthermore, after looking at this picture, I got even more confused. The characters on this chart and actual Korean writing looked nothing alike. There were similarities, but actual writing looked much more complex. 

One quick Wikipedia search later, I learned that syllables are formed using a combination of the above characters. Instead of forming words with letters like in English, their letters combine to form syllables. The chart shows how to break down the character into its components. Things were starting to make sense... but I still needed a way to memorize the basic characters unless I wanted to carry a chart around with me all the time.

I decided that I should create my own method for memorizing each letter. Below is the way I memorized it and though it may not be useful for you, it shows that we all learn differently. As in, my brain can make some pretty random pictures out of nothing and draw connections where there aren't be any. Some are more of a stretch than others, but meh... it worked for me.

(The Hangul [Korean writing] is first, followed by the expression I used to remember it. In parentheses are the pronunciation and the logic or lack thereof for the expression)

  • ㄱ - 7 Grand (Pronounced G, but it looks like a 7, doesn't it?)
  • ㄴ - NULL/LAN (Pronounced N, but looks like an L. My logic isn't always straightforward.)
  • ㄷ - DoC (Pronounced D. Looks like a C. DoC as in Doctor....?)
  • ㄹ- 2 Low (Pronounce L. Looks like a 2, as in, at a club, "Damn, girl... you're gettin' 2 Low.")
  • ㅁ- Mouth (Pronounce M. Reminds me of Japanese kanji, 口, for Mouth)
  • ㅂ - Bull (Pronounced B. Looks like a Bull with horns)
  • ㅅ - 人 Same thing (Pronounced S. As in, Japanese kanji has the Same thing 人.)
  • ㅇ- ONG Bak (Pronounced Ng, as in, O for ONG Bak, the Muay Thai movie.)
  • ㅈ - ス  (Pronounced J, reminds me the character in my name, ジャスティン.)
  • ㅊ - 小さい (Pronounced Ch, as in 小さい, which kinda looks the same... if you squint really hard...)
  • ㅋ - Quick (Pronounced K, but looks like a lowercase q. The K sound in quick [kwik?]).
  • ㅌ - ET (Pronounced T, but looks like an E as in ET.)
  • ㅍ - Part II (Pronounced P, looks like Roman Numeral II.) 
  • ㅎ - Hat (Pronounced H, looks like a guy wearing a hat.)

  • ㅏ - "Ah, zombie!" (Pronounced Ah, Looks like a zombie walking towards this sentence)
  • ㅓ - "Uh, what?" (Pronounced eo, or uh. This guy is facing away from the zombie and is confused)
  • ㅗ- "Oh, I died." (Pronounced Oh, looks like you died from the zombie.)
  • ㅜ - "You fail." (Pronounced u, or the end of yOU. You died, but running away and fell on your face)
  • ㅡ - Eu... (Pronounced eu, as in "Euh... je sais pas." The French version of "umm... I don't know.")
  • ㅣ- I (Pronounced eeh, but looks like Japanese い, which in romaji is I).

Let's take the example, 비빔밥. Looks simple enough. The first syllable, , is a bull and an I, spelling 'Bi.' The second syllable, is the first one but with a third consonant at the bottom, , which looks like a mouth, M. The second syllable is 'Bim.' That leaves the last syllable. There is still a bull, so we know it starts with B. The vowels is the zombie, Ah. The last letter is another bull (which actually changes to a p, but if you pronounced it with a b, it'd probably be understood). The full word is bibimbap, or the best cure for a long, soju-filled night.

With my new mnemonics, I hopped on the plane to 부산. Armed with my new, rudimentary understanding of한글, I was able to impress some new Korean friends, pick the right bus to the airport, eat at locals only spots, and perhaps most importantly, pick out the 갈비 onigiri at convenience stores.

All in all, a productive morning.


  1. this is actually really helpful. i've been to this page before and skimmed over it. But now I am proactively trying to learn korean so I thought i would take a second look at what you were saying. I'm glad I did! The zombie mnemonic works!

  2. Haha, I'm glad it's helpful for you. I actually I went to Seoul again recently, and it helped me a bit to review this too... but seriously, for some of these I think, really? Really? It's so random it's kinda embarrassing...

    I'm going to have to really start learning Korean too... but I think it's going to have to wait until I'm more comfortable with Japanese. Best of luck in your studies!