Here are some useful questions and words you can practice before visiting South Korea!
Planning your first trip to Seoul? Learn more about traveling to South Korea here!
Traveling to Seoul without speaking Korean is definitely possible, but learning some simple phrases will make communicating and getting around a lot easier! We’ve compiled a quick list of words that we found useful during our first trip to Korea–and we hope they will help you too.
Whether you have just begun planning your trip or you are on the plane ride there now, we promise you this guide will be worth reading!
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What will we cover in the guide?
- Formal vs. Polite vs. Informal Speech
- The three most commonly used types of speech:
- Why are there different types of speech?
- When to use each type of speech?
- Saying “Excuse Me”
- Saying thank you
- How to express more gratitude
- Saying hello/goodbye
- Asking for directions
- Asking for English/Explaining you don’t speak Korean
- What other languages are spoken in South Korea?
Formal vs. Polite vs. Informal Speech
Before we start going over phrases, it’s important to address the special types of speech that Koreans use! Koreans actually have six styles of speech, but today we will just be covering the main three.
The three most commonly used types of speech:
- Formal (Honorific speech)
Why are there different types of speech?
No matter what language you are brought up with, you naturally change the way you speak based on the person you are with. You do not talk to co-workers the same way you talk to your best friend, or even your teacher!
However, if you grew up speaking English, you are not used to changing individual words and phrases to match the age/relationship of the person you are with. This is actually a really common trait in most languages, and so it will definitely help you out if you are learning another language as well!
When to use each type of speech?
Formal (Honorific/Defrential speech)
Use this speech form to talk to elders, teachers, and people who are ranked higher than you, like an upper level executive. You will hear this type of speech used in newscasts!
Polite Speech (존댓말)
This type of speech is intended for talking to strangers, classmates, colleagues, and just anyone who you would normally speak politely to! This style of speech is usually identified with a -yo (요) at the end of the word.
Note: Although it is considered polite, do not use this with people who are in much higher positions than you or elders!
Informal Speech (반말)
Unless you are meeting friends in Korea, you probably won’t be using this style of speech! This style of informal speech is only used if you are well acquainted with someone, and might even be considered rude if you use it to strangers or elders. This is why it’s very common for Koreans to ask for age when they first meet, because they want to know how to address the other person!
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Saying “Excuse Me”
You will use this phrase quite a bit when talking to locals, so let’s practice!
Saying Thank you
Okay now that you know about the different styles of speech, let’s start with the most important phrase! Thank you!
Note: Both are formal but you will find the phrase “감사합니다” is more commonly used in formal situations than “고맙습니다”
Notice how we add the “-yo” at the end!
How to express more gratitude?
If you would like to be a little more thankful, considered using the phrase “thank you so much”.
Thank you so much
Just add 너무‘ (neo-mu) at the start!
Ex: 너무 감사합니다 (neo-mu gam-sa-ham-ni-da)
Saying Hello and Goodbye
Let’s learn the different forms of greetings in Korean!
Hello: 안녕하세요 (an-nyeong-ha-se-yo)
Goodbye: 안녕히 계세요 (an-nyeong-hi-ge-se-yo)
Note: Interestingly, 안녕 (an-nyeong) can be used as both hello and goodbye, so it makes it easier to remember!
Asking for Directions
It’s easy to get lost in the beauty of Seoul, so keep these phrases handy as you make your way through the city! We don’t want to make you memorize too much, so let’s start with these two phrases!
Where is ___?
___ 어디 있어요? (udhi issuhyo?)
Example: Where is Myeong-dong?
명동이 어디 있어요? (Myeong-dong udhi issuhyo)
Where am I?
여기 어디예요? (Yeogi uhdiyeyo?)
Note: We have just shown the formal style as we believe it will be most useful when asking strangers or passerby for directions.
Asking for English/Explaining you don’t speak Korean
Do you speak English?
영어 할 수 있어요? (yung-uh hal su-eet-suh-yo?)
I don’t speak Korean well!
한국말 잘 못해요! (hahn-guhk-mal jal moht-heh-yo!)
Note: You might want to begin the sentence with “Sorry, I don’t speak Korean well”! In this case, say “죄송합니다” (joesonghabnida) and then “한국말 잘 못해요”! (hahn-guhk-mal jal moht-heh-yo!)
What other languages are spoken in South Korea?
While Korean is the primary language spoken in South Korea, you will find that many citizens speak other tongues as well. This is generally applicable to Seoul and other major cities as they are more tourist oriented.
Also keep note that most signboards and directions in Seoul are quadrilingual with Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and English.
As the number of Chinese tourists increase rapidly–now becoming the number one nationality represented in international tourists–you will find many street vendors and shops have begun speaking Manderin or Cantonese.
It’s also interesting to note that you might spot hanja, which are chinese characters used to write Korean words. This has become quite infrequent, and if you do catch it, it will most likely be accompanied with hangul.
The second most represented international tourist nationality is Japanese. As Busan is located near Fukuoka, many residents there actually speak Japanese and understand it.
While you will almost always find an English translations on menus and signboards, do not expect all the shop owners and passersby to understand and speak English. The Korean government has been pushing English comprehension in schools, so many younger Koreans are becoming more fluent in English.
When we visited we tried to avoid speaking English and attempted to talk to the locals in Korean, and we were surprised at how kind their responses were! On our first day of the trip the restaurant owner kindly offered to correct our pronunciation and conversed with us in Korean–she was so kind we returned to the restaurant on our last day to say goodbye!
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