You might think that there is no way that you can learn Korean before you can travel to South Korea, but it’s not really that hard. Here are some essential Korean phrases to help you in a number of different situations, such as when shopping or eating out. The Korean language might look very unusual, and even scary, but don’t worry, there are ways to survive. These basic Korean phrases are quick and easy to learn but will help you so much.
Firstly, you can get by with only a few simple words and phrases (I speak from experience) in most situations. Secondly, the Korean language has adopted a lot of English words that have been translated into Korean with roughly the same pronunciation. These words are known as Konglish and they are really helpful. If you’re stuck, try saying the word in English and a Korean person might understand it anyway.
This short video will help you to understand how to pronounce Korean words. It will also show you the Korean characters so you can start to learn how to read the Korean alphabet – hangul. Korean writing isn’t that difficult to pick up, and learning hangul would be really, really beneficial before you arrive in Korea. Learning hangul isn’t necessary for mastering these essential Korean phrases, but it’s certainly helpful.
As well as this list below, there are some really useful apps that will help you whilst travelling or living in South Korea. Google translate is a basic translation app that will translate words into Korean and also show you how to say it. A better option for those who want a Korean specific language app is Naver Dictionary. Naver, a large Korean tech company, provides a lot of good apps for travelling in Korea, including Naver Map.
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1: The Basics – 10 Essential Korean Phrases
If you’re only going to remember one set of essential Korean phrases, it should probably be these basic Korean phrases. These are the most basic Korean words and if you can master these, you’ll be able to get by. I can travel around in Seoul with just these 10 words and be fine.
One of the most useful words on this list is the word for ‘please’ – ju-seh-yo. This word can be very flexible. You can use it when shopping, ordering food, or even when asking for something from a friend. For example, you can say pen ju-seh-yo to ask for a pen, or pizza ju-seh-yo to order a pizza.
Above all, these will help you be polite and show the locals that you’re willing to learn a little bit of language when you visit their country. This little sign can open the door to conversations and who knows what else. It’s nice to be polite when you travel.
2: Greeting People – 10 Essential Korean Phrases
Now that you know how to be polite, why not learn a few words to introduce yourself and learn how to make a simple conversation? A simple greeting can go a long way to breaking down cultural barriers and getting to know more about Korean people when you visit or move to Korea. These essential Korean phrases for greeting people will really help you stand out.
One really useful phrase from this list is ‘do you speak English?’ – yong-oh hal su iss-oh-yo. The ‘yong-oh‘ part means ‘English’. You might be surprised at how many people can speak English in Korea and once you’ve asked them, they will often open up and start talking more. If you’re lucky, that’ll be in English, too.
If in doubt, you can greet people with a simple ‘hello’ – ahn-yong-hass-eh-yo – from the previous list. I usually use this when I meet a stranger or get in a bus or taxi.
3: Ordering Food & Drinks – 10 Essential Korean Phrases
You can’t travel to another country and not try the delicious local foods! Ordering food in a Korean restaurant can vary from being really easy to a real challenge. Some restaurants will have picture menus and English translations, whilst others may all be entirely in Korean.
Don’t worry, though, a lot of restaurants in Seoul will have picture menus or pictures on the wall. If in doubt, point to something and say ‘ju-seh-yo‘ (please). This simple Korean phrase will help you get what you want most of the time. It really is one of the most versatile of all these essential Korean phrases.
With this list of 10 essential Korean phrases for ordering food, you should be able to order food in Korea with few problems. Follow the link for a more complete list of food phrases, as well as a pronunciation video.
If you’re not sure what foods you might find in Korea, check out these great guides to the best traditional Korean dishes and the best Korean winter foods. The braver people out there might also want to try some of these strange Korean foods.
4: Getting Around – 10 Essential Korean Phrases
Travelling in Korea is a lot easier than you might think. Almost all of the signs at the airport, train stations, in subways, and on buses, are in English. They’re also in Chinese and Japanese most of the time.
Korea is a very modern country when it comes to transport and there are a lot of different transport options. These useful phrases will help you to avoid getting lost and, if you do, help you find your way around. When you travel in Korea, don’t forget to pick up a Korea Tour Card or T Money Card. These are great transportation cards that’ll make travelling around Korea a real breeze.
In case you need to ask for directions, or want to know where something is, these essential Korean phrases will let you both ask and understand what the other person is saying. I know that I’ve had to ask where the toilet is many times in Korea, and it’s probably the most useful phrase on this list.
Remember, if you can’t understand these Korean phrases, you can always use gestures.
5: Shopping – 10 Essential Korean Phrases
Many people come to Korea with one thing on their mind – shopping. There are so many famous markets in Korea, such as Namdaemun and Myeongdong Markets. Why would you pay full price when you can learn these simple phrases to help you get a discount.
Shopping in Korea will be a lot easier with these essential Korean phrases, whether you’re in a department store or trying to buy some delicious Korean street food. Learning to give your opinion about how cheap or expensive something is shows the shop owner that you know a good price and will hopefully get you a discount.
The traditional markets in Korea are great places to get some bargains on local and international brands. You’ll also find some of the best food available here and a window into traditional Korean culture. Besides Namdaemun and Myeongdong markets, I’d definitely recommend visiting Gwangjang Market in Seoul. If you’ve watched Netflix’s Street Food programme, you’ll know why. It’s home to lots of delectable Korean foods.
6: Emergencies – 10 Essential Korean Phrases
Hopefully you will never need to use these emergency Korean phrases, but they are here for you just in case. Crime rates in Korea are some of the lowest in the world but you can never be too careful. If you are worried about crime in South Korea, why not check out some safety tips for travelling to South Korea.
If you need to get some medicine, then visit one of the many pharmacies located throughout any city. You can tell what they are by the universal symbol for pharmacies and healthcare – a big cross. The word for pharmacy is pronounced ‘yak gook‘ – 약국. You can find out more about getting medical treatment in Korea in the link.
There are separate numbers for the different emergency services in Korea. Dial 112 to contact the police and 119 for fire and medical emergencies. Check out this list of other emergency numbers if you need help.
Bonus – Korean Numbers
There are two ways to pronounce numbers in Korean. Firstly, there is the Korean system. Secondly, there are numbers based on the Chinese system. The Chinese system is older and based on Chinese characters (called hanja 한자 in Korean).
The Korean system only goes up to 99 and is a more modern version than the Chinese system. However, I find that the Chinese system is much more common in everyday use, especially as a tourist. Therefore, the numbers below are based on the Chinese system. These should be useful when you want to order food, ask for prices, or swap phone numbers.
The numbering system in Korea is done in 10,000’s, not 1,000’s, which can be confusing. Find out more about how the Korean numbering system works from this helpful post on the Korean number system.
Some Other great Resources:
I hope you found these lists useful. Remember, a few essential phrases will get you a long way. However, there’s nothing like learning a language to help you understand more and get the most out of a culture. Using these essential Korean phrases, as well as being able to read hangul, will really put you at an advantage when you travel to Korea.
If you’re interested in learning Korea, then I’d recommend checking out the language courses available (including lots of free goodies) from the lovely folks at 90 Day Korean. They have lots of different courses available. These courses cover everything from the basics, to learning fun slang words to make you sound like a true Seoulite. Some other awesome websites include Talk To Me In Korean and Korean Class 101.
Feel like learning Korean in Korea? What could be better than learning the language in the place that you’re visiting? You can take Korean language courses in Korea that range from a few hours of private tuition to study courses up to 1 year long. There’s something for everyone.
One final Korean word for you to learn – ‘hwaiting‘ 화이팅, which is Konglish for ‘fighting’ – or ‘you can do it’!
Learn More Than Just These Essential Korean Phrases
If you’re interested in learning to speak like a local, or want to travel around Korea without the help of translation apps or local guide, then I’d really recommend learning Korean online with 90 Day Korean.
They have a wide range of courses available, from beginner to advanced. You can study online from anywhere – home, work, on the bus or train, or even while you take some ‘toilet-time’! Honestly, that’s when I do a lot of my best studying, haha.
Their inner-circle course includes access to live monthly online training to watch and participate in. This online course can seriously help you improve your conversation and pronunciation skills. The chance to practice talking in Korean and get feedback is certainly a real advantage that you usually can’t get unless you’re living in Korea.
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Here are some other great articles that you might want to read about travelling in Korea. Remember, if you have any questions about anything, please feel free to post a comment or join the Korea Travel Advice and Planning Facebook Group.