Korean learning tip #1: Learn as much about Korean culture as you can

If you’re thinking about studying Korean or are already learning and want some advice about how to keep improving, we are launching a new series of Korean learning tips to help you on your way. Today’s article is about the importance of learning about Korean culture.

Culture plays a vital role in shaping nearly all languages around the world but in few other languages is it more clearly seen than Korean. Korean society is built on a strict social hierarchy based on Confucianist principles. This has resulted in a complex system of different levels of speech and honorifics. Who you are talking to makes a huge difference to the way that you talk. You would talk very differently to a stranger, particularly one who is clearly older than you, than to a young child. If you used non-polite speech with the adult you would seem extremely rude and using polite speech to a child just makes you look a bit silly.

If you want to learn Korean, do not let this put you off. Although there are many different types of speech, they are fairly easy to learn, the basic at least. The difference between the two most frequently spoken types of polite and non-polite speech is mostly just that verbs and sentences in the polite speech form have -yo (요) on the end. It’s also worth remembering that when you first begin speaking Korean that you will be using almost exclusively polite language as most of the people that you talk to will be strangers.

The different uses of honorifics and speech levels also get much easier to understand the more you know about Korean culture. As you become more familiar with the behaviour that is expected between people of different ages and statuses, using and understanding honorifics becomes much easier. Now the question is: how do I get to understand Korean culture better?

Read about Korea in general

You can read specifically about levels of speech to get a basic understanding of how they work but if you read about absolutely anything to do with life in Korea, from trashy K-pop news to ex-pat accounts of working in Korea you will find the topic of social hierarchy and speech levels being discussed in some way.

Check out koreaBANG for a great selection of articles translated from Korean online news portals with added social commentary and translations of online reactions of netizens. This is a great site which offers a lot of insight into modern Korean social trends and it also gives the original Korean text which is great for learners. There are some great sociology blogs around as well if you want some thoughtful insight into Korean culture, I particularly like The Grand Narrative and Ask A Korean.

Watch YouTube videos about life in Korea

There are lots on people making great videos on YouTube about everyday life in Korea. They are mostly vlog-style videos about issues and experiences of life there and instructional videos about how to act in certain social situations or survive in daily life.

Some of the best are Eat Your Kimchi and Seoulistic are great for a closer look into day to day life and advice about how to act in social situations.

Watch Korean TV

Although they are light entertainment, Korean variety programmes and interview programmes do actually present a pretty well-rounded view of how people interact with each other depending on age and standing. As Korean celebrities are put under a lot of pressure to appaer to be good role models, these shows usually give an idealistic view of how people ought to interact with each other. This can be a great way of learning what expectations Korean society has as to how individuals should communicate. Most variety shows have a fairly large cast and so offer a wide range of examples of different dynamics. You can see the difference between how hosts talk to individual interviewees and how they address the audience, a large group, using more formal speech. The guests also offer a lot of insight into this. You can notice the difference between people who are close to each other but of different ages, such as members of the same K-pop group, talk compared with those who aren’t close and are of different ages or levels of seniority, when they interact with other celebrities. Speech levels usually become a topic of conversation at some point during these programmes and hosts may comment on the relationship between idols based on the way they speak to each other. This can offer even more insight into honorifics.

Korean dramas can be a little misleading in their portrayal of honorifics as characters are often given intentionally improper dialogue to highlight aspects of their character (too rude, too polite, very humble etc.) and this can be quite subtle and difficult to notice. Keep in mind as well that historical dramas use types of speech which are no longer used in modern Korean. However dramas are good for learning how to hear the difference between polite and non-polite speech. They also give much better examples of how to interact with those who are significantly older or more senior than variety programmes do.

Some good variety programmes to watch are group interview shows like Strong Heart where you can see the interesting group dynamic. Invincible Youth is a good example of a show which shows a little bit of the more traditional Korean culture through light hearted entertainment. You can also head over to TV section of this site for some more drama and variety recommendations.

Let us know if you are learning Korean or thinking about trying to learn. Tell us if these tips are helpful to you and please share any tips or suggestions of your own. We may include them in future articles!