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The Korean Language

The Korean language,  otherwise known as 한국말 (hangumal), is the official language of South Korea.  It is spoken by all cultures on the Korean peninsula as well, however there are several dialects.

The written form of Korean is actually unique in the fact that it did not evolve with the spoken language originally.  For many years the ancient Koreans had used Chinese characters known as 한자 (hanja) as the basis of writing.  In the 15th century AD a king by the name of Sejong the Great which is based on the Chinese characters and also uses the position of the mouth and tongue as reference.

The Korean language uses a mixture of Chinese as well as base English words for its vocabulary.  However its grammar takes on for what many westerners is a very opposite of that of the English language.  This in many ways leads to general confusion at first when a native English speaker begins learning the language.

Spoken language
The form of speaking takes on a different use of your speaking skills that those normally used for English.  Many of the sounds are made in the back of the throat and a minimal use of the front of the mouth.  There are also many subtleties of vowel sounds that aren’t so easy to mimic by using the similar English equivalent.  Basically the sooner you start learning to read the Korean language directly, as opposed to trying to use Romanized characters, the easier it will be to get the spoken language down better.

The positive aspect about the spoken language is that, unlike English with all of its different pronunciations, Korean follows, and will always follow, the same pronunciations rules.  That is when you have the similar characters in the same position in a different word, they will always sound the exact same way.

Now, when you feel you have even a basic understanding of the spoken language, there are a couple loops that you are thrown into.  These are the many different dialects of the Korean peninsula.  This may not seem to be the case considering the size of the country.   However, with the population size of nearly fifty million, this does lead to some regions of the country to having their own personal touch with the Korean language.  The dialect of Seoul is considered to be the main dialect of the Korean language as you will learn in most books.

One other point about Korean is that it uses different forms of speaking depending on the person you speak to.  There is the low form which is used for children, those who are below you in position (work and socially), friends, and family.  Middle form is generally used for those who are more of equals but not necessarily friends.  Finally there is the high form, which is used for all those who are higher than you (work and socially).  Generally the high form is taught first as the other forms are easily learned soon after.  Most foreigners are forgiven for making mistakes with these forms, but, if you are interested in learning the language, it puts a greater impression on the Korean people you will meet if you remember and use the forms at their proper times.

The written language is composed of 19 consonants and 21 vowels.  They are not difficult to learn as they are fairly easily drawn characters and require little time to learn how to write.   The main point is to learn how they are written for the word combinations.

The characters are put together in groups of syllables.  The syllable groups are put together to form the words of the language.  The groups of syllables are formed always by beginning with a consonant (either silent or voiced) followed by a vowel and sometimes by a final consonant. 

Being able to read the written characters is also a relatively easily process, depending how early you can get away from using the Romanization, due to its phonetic nature unlike Chinese characters. 

The Korean vocabulary takes on many words from the Chinese language as it had for many years used it for the main Korean language.

Starting with the numeral system, Korea actually uses two sets of numerals.  There are the Chinese numerals and the original Korean numerals.  They are so integrated that with even telling time you use the Korean numerals for the hours and the Chinese numerals for the minutes.  At first this could get confusing as throughout the language you need to remember which set of numerals to use for counting certain objects or counting ordinals. 

There are also many words that draw from the original Chinese characters that sound very similar to the original Chinese.

Sentence Structure
 As mentioned before the Korean language seems to take an opposite form to that of English.  The basic form of English is a Subject, Verb, Object grouping whereas Korean takes on a Subject, Object, Verb grouping.  So here is the more complicated part of the Language.

 The basic rules for sentences:
1.   Always any time based words or phrases go first.  This ranges to just talking about the time or day of the week.

2. The subject goes next.  However due to the nature of the Korean language, in many cases, the subject is often implied and not always spoken or written.  For example, I, you, he, she, etc. may often times be left out of the sentence subject as it is generally understood by the way the sentence is being spoken.  One easy way the subject can be noticed is by a grammatical marker which always will follow the subject of the sentence.

3. The object is next.  This is more often than not located in the sentence, but again could also, on occasion, be implied.  Again, due to the grammar of the language, this also has a convenient marker to let you know where it is located.

4. Finally is the Verb.  This will always be located at the end of the sentence along with a form of conjugation.  The conjugation is put in place to add many different enhancements to the sentence.  These enhancements can determine past, present, or future, as well as the level of politeness of the sentence (Korean maintains difference forms of politeness depending on the person you are talking to), and to determine whether it is a statement or a question.

 The grammar of the Korean language is the where the true struggle comes for most foreigners learning the language.  It takes a good amount of concentration at the beginning to know where to place all the parts of the sentence, know which grammatical markers (as mentioned above), and to finally conjugate the final verb correctly to agree with the tense, polite form, etc.

Final Point
 Learning the language of Korea has been, and continues to be, a major struggle for many who come to this wonderful land.  Another hindrance is due to the fact that you are an English teacher, and for the most part that is what you are expected to speak.  However, if you can get past the initial fears, you will find a new level of enjoyment with the Korean people as well as more autonomy with travelling around the country to see its many different wonders.  It could also be another tool to even learn a few words here and there along the way that can help you better explain English to your students as well.

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