When learning a new language such as Korean, making mistakes is expected and normal. However, there are a few mistakes which are best to avoid entirely from the beginning. You will benefit immediately if you are able to avoid these three major mistakes in Korean.
Check out this video, and also read the article below.
Mistake #1: Word Order
Most beginners do well with basic S.O.V. Korean sentence structure (Subject, then the Object, and then the Verb) but it is common to find mistakes in longer sentences. The longer the sentence, and the more types of words used, the easier it is to make more mistakes. This is especially common when making sentences that include multiple adjectives or adverbs, and other details such as the date and time. Using the right words in the wrong way is a common mistake made by Korean learners, and quickly leads to incomprehensible sentences.
Korean word order follows a set of specific rules, and these rules can be learned just like anything else in the language. These rules can also be reviewed regularly through practice. It is important to practice making sentences as often as possible. Every time you learn a new concept, practice by using it in a sentence and checking that your sentence is correct with an instructor or a native speaker. If you first learn and practice the basic rules for using adjectives, adverbs, and other details, then you will have no problem using them together in a sentence.
Here are a few quick tips on Korean sentence structure.
Tip #1: Korean is a S.O.V. language (Subject, Object, and Verb). English is a S.V.O language.
So instead of this sentence:
- 저는 좋아해 사과를.
Use this sentence:
- 저는 사과를 좋아해요.
- (I like apples).
Tip #2: Locations come before a verb.
- 저는 학교에서 공부해요.
- (I study at school).
Tip #3: Time comes right before or right after the subject.
- 오늘 저는 학교에 갈 거예요.
- 저는 오늘 학교에 갈 거예요.
- (Today I will go to school).
Tip #4: Time is ordered from largest to smallest unit.
- 오늘 오전 10시 55분에 학교에 가요.
- (Today I am going to school at 10:55 A.M).
Tip #5: Adjectives come directly before the noun.
- 저는 더러운 방에서 공부할 수 없어요.
- (I can not study in a dirty room).
Tip #6: Adverbs come directly before the verb.
- 내일 집에서 열심히 공부할 거예요.
- (Tomorrow I will study hard at home).
Mistake #2: Particles
Problem: Korean particles can be learned in a short amount of time, but require a large amount of time in order to master. This is because many Korean particles do not translate directly to English, and can vary depending on the context of a sentence. One of the most commonly misused Korean concepts is particles, specifically, the Subject Marker (이/가) and Topic Marker (은/는).
Solution: Do not let the simplicity of these particles fool you. While it is true that they are simple, they are surprisingly time-consuming to fully understand when learning them for the first time. Even after you have understood their meaning, that does not mean you will always be able to use them correctly in a sentence. Take the time to go back and review Korean particles over and over again, even if you already feel you have a decent understanding of them.
Because of how frequently particles are used in Korean (particles appear multiple times in every sentence), you will need to have a mastery of them in order to even make the most basic sentences. Using the wrong particle, while it might seem like a small mistake, can often cause a sentence to change its meaning completely, often to something you did not mean to say.
Practice and review Korean particles as often as you can. Over time, these particles will become second nature to you and you will come to think of them as simple.
Tip: If you are not sure when you should use the Topic Marker or Subject Marker in a sentence, you can translate the Topic Marker (은/는) in your head to “as for” or to “when it comes to.” This will not be a literal translation, but it will help you to better understand when to use it in your sentences. If the sentence sounds better in your head using the “as for” or “when it comes to” meaning, then you should use the Topic Marker in that sentence instead of the Subject Marker.
- (As for me…)
- 사과는 맛이 있어요. 하지만 오렌지는 맛이 없어요.
- (As for apples, they are delicious. But as for oranges, they are not delicious).
- 생선은 도미가 최고지.
- (When it comes to fish, snapper is the best).
Mistake #3: Politeness Levels
Problem: Among these errors, misusing politeness levels (such as casual speech, the 요 form, the 니다 form and honorific speech, among others) can lead you into the biggest amount of trouble. Koreans are fully sensitive to these politeness levels, and will behave differently depending on how you speak with them. Simply using the wrong politeness level in Korean can change a polite sentence into an insult.
Korean politeness levels can seem complicated for beginners, because there are so many forms that a person must learn in order to make even the most basic sentences.
Solution: Koreans understand that their language has politeness levels, and that they are not easy for beginners. They will be forgiving of first-time learners who are not yet able to create simple Korean sentences. Foreigners who can only say a few simple phrases will be forgiven, but once that foreigner is able to create even the most simple sentences, he or she will be expected to at least use politeness levels appropriately, or he or she will be seen as being rude.
This is why it is best to learn politeness levels right from the beginning. Learn the various forms of politeness early on, so that you will not have to stress about being polite once you become able to hold a conversation. If you are already able to construct basic sentences but have not yet learned how to use politeness levels, go back and review them as quickly as you can.
Here are some tips to use when you are not sure what to do. These will not make your Korean perfect, but they will help you avoid making large politeness errors.
Tip #1: When speaking with a stranger, use honorifics with the 요 form.
So instead of this sentence:
- 혹시 강남역이 어딘지 알아요?
Use this one:
- 혹시 강남역이 어딘지 아세요?
- (By chance do you know where Gangnam Station is?)
Tip #2: When speaking to a close friend, use 반말 if they are your same age or younger.
Tip #3: When speaking to a friend, and you are not sure if they are the same age or younger, use the 요 form. You will not sound overly polite if you do this, since they are not a close friend.
Tip #4: When speaking to a person in power, such as your boss, use honorifics and the 니다 form. Speak as politely as you can.
So instead of this sentence:
Use this one:
Tip #5: When speaking to anyone else, use honorifics with the 요 form.
Tip #6: And finally, avoid saying “you” or using any titles, unless you are sure of what to call the other person. Remember that pronouns are assumed in Korean by the context. Koreans know if you mean “you” or “I” or “that person” based on what you are talking about. Therefore, it is not necessary to specify most of the time anyway. It is better to be safe than sorry.
Mistakes are normal when learning a language, but some mistakes are best avoided entirely. Of course, there are many other mistakes that Korean learners can commonly make, such as misusing vocabulary or grammar, but I feel that these are the three most important ones to avoid.
Hero image by Ervins Strauhmanis (CC BY 2.0)