Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Korean Language, a brief introduction....

I was talking to my friend Ben a few months ago.  We were discussing random things as we normally do.  Had we been in the same room the word dude would have been bandied about in numerous different forms and shapes, and may have been the only word actually used to communicate.  As we were talking he made a comment about the Korean language.  He wondered how many symbols there were in the Korean language.  In Chinese you need to memorize around 3,500 characters to be able to read the language.  In Japanese there are over 100 consonants that you have to memorize to be able to read.  In English there are only 26 letters that you have to memorize, however there are close to 42 different sounds associated with the English language. 

The Korean language is based not on symbols like Japanese or Chinese, it is based on an alphabet like English.  In fact, the Korean Language has 24 characters.  It has 14 consonants and 10 vowels.  Every word is broken up into consonants and every consonant must contain one consonant and one vowel.  You cannot have a consonant by itself, and you cannot have a vowel by itself.  It's the rules for Korean.  The language is actually quite simple to learn how to read.  You can teach yourself to read Korean in only one or two days.  It just takes a few hours of study and then some protracted practice.  Luckily I live in a place where I can practice reading everyday.  Now, I must make this point rather clear.  Just because you can read the Korean language, doesn't mean you understand what it means.  For that, just like in any other language, you have to sit down and study the nouns, verbs, adjectives, and all other parts of speech.

Ok, I know that was a really quick video introduction there.  It was also severely nationalistic and while the Korean who produced this video has an excellent understanding of English, they are still lacking words from time to time.  This is one of the problems I have noticed with the Korean language.  It has been taught to the Koreans that there language is unique, special, and a wonder for the world to behold.  They are intensely proud of their language, and in some ways they have a right to be.  The Korean language is not an evolutionary language like Spanish or English, or almost every major language in use today.  The Korean language was created in 1444 and instituted in 1446 by King Sejong.  He is considered to be their greatest King for this singular achievement.  The letters are representations of the movement of the mouth or the speech organs used to create them.  It was created so that simple peasantry could be literate and could learn the language in a short time.  Because of this South Korea has a literacy rating of 99% which is tied with the literacy rates of the United States, Canada, Australia, France and Japan.  In comparison the literacy rate of China is estimated at 93%. 

However, just because you can read the language, doesn't mean you can understand what is being spoken or written.  That part of the language is actually difficult, and some of the sounds associated with Korean are quite difficult to differentiate.  It is like trying to teach the difference between the short e sound and the short i sound.  In English it makes perfect sense, but considering how close the sounds really are it's quite difficult to tell the difference to someone whose language is not based on the Roman alphabet.  In this sense, the Korean alphabet is just another alphabet.  It is special in the fact that it was created, but other then that, it is no better or worse then many other alphabets in use today.

The language took me one weekend of studying to memorize.  It took about 4 hours of actual study time to remember what every character meant.  While this may be the case, it is the constant practice that has made reading the language an easier task.  For those that have never been in a country where you cannot read the alphabet or the language, it is a tough experience.  You realize how much you take for granted being able to understand the world around you.  Imagine trying to shop based on sight alone.  Imagine not being able to read what a product was and simply relying just on the packaging.  It's tougher then you'd think.

For those of you that are interested here is a video that will teach you the basic pronunciation of the Korean language.  There are lots of videos on youtube and if you'd like to learn how to read the language it does not take long.