Little Language Lessons 1: Ten Basic Korean Phrases to Find Some New Friends
I have never felt as much like a genius as I did buying a Bacon Potato Pizza toastie in the back streets of Seoul’s Jongno-gu.
Let me explain.
See, on my first trip to Korea, I swore that I would practice using whatever Korean I knew anywhere that I could or die (of embarrassment) trying. Between successful train ticket purchases and rough direction-getting, I started to become confident in thinking that I could Do This. My first real hurdle came with the discovery of Isaac Toast, a true pinnacle of toasted sandwich perfection. The menu of Isaac Toast was riddled with mouth-watering, bacon-filled goods.
It was also provided entirely in English.
A sudden conflict arose. Was this where I finally succumbed and returned to my safe, English-speaking ways? Nay, said I. I had come so far, and I was a new woman. I was confident that I could make like a true speaker and read the Korean menu. Having picked out my choice and practiced it a few times, I was sure that I had mastered the phrase ‘Bacon Potato Pizza’ like none other before me.
Admittedly, my actual attempt at ordering was probably a little awkward. (Hey, the words ‘baecon potaetoh pijja’ just don’t roll off the tongue.) Almost immediately my friends start laughing.
‘Okay,’ I think. ‘I probably deserve that, fraudulent Master of Korean that I am.’
I knew that I sounded silly, and I certainly felt silly. But… when I looked up, it wasn’t to see them making fun of me. No, they were looking at the ajusshi running the stand, who in turn was staring at me.
My first instinct was to think that I had really messed up. Maybe it was time I handed in my ‘Korean Master’ badge and quit while I was ahead. If my terrible pronunciation was going to offend anyone that badly it, was probably best that I just embraced failure and abandoned Korean entirely. Then I realised... he wasn’t looking at me with the burning eyes of someone offended by my very existence.
No, I’m pretty sure that this ajusshi thought that I was a genius.
'How?' He says in shock. 'You pronounced it like a true Korean!'
Suddenly, I went from terrified that I was going to be laughed all the way back to Melbourne, to brimming with confidence. Not only was I going to get my bacon potato pizza, but my confidence that I was the pinnacle of Korean language learning perfection was fully restored. Even what I thought was the most basic of Korean had managed to bring such surprise – and dare I say excitement – to a random toast maker somewhere in Seoul.
The point of this story isn’t to brag about how awesome my Korean skills are (even though it’s clear that they are, in fact, very awesome). Instead, I want to highlight just how far even a little bit of practice can take you. This interaction was far from the only time I shocked someone by speaking Korean. In part it was a fun game, but it was also incredibly motivating. Just a little bit of effort and I got to see a side of Korea that I never would have otherwise. Free Yakult in Namdaemun market, a vintage shop eonnie in Hongdae, a small-but-feisty ajumma in Busan—I made countless memories with just a quick ‘hello’ or a ‘how much is this?’
And I want you all to be able have these experiences too.
Together, let’s cover ten basic Korean phrases that you can use to find your own toast ajusshi and make the most of your next trip to Korea.
1) Start your conversation with a classic ‘hello!’
2) Follow it up with a ‘nice to meet you’
만나서 반가워요 Man-na-seo ban-ga-wo-yo
It’s nice to meet you
3) Make it personal by telling them your name
If your name ends in a consonant, use:
저는 [your name]이에요
Jeo-neun [your name]-i-e-yo
My name is [your name]
If your name ends in a vowel, try:
저는 [your name]예요.
Jeo-neun [your name]-ye-yo
My name is [your name]
4) Show some Aussie pride and let people know where you’re from
호주 사람이에요 Ho-ju sa-ram-i-e-yo
5) A shopping essential
이거 얼마예요? I-geo oel-ma-ye-yo?
How much is this one?
TIP: Replace ‘i-geo’ with the word for whatever it is you’re asking the price of
6) Ask and you shall receive (probably)
[item] 주세요 [item] ju-se-yo
Please give me [item] TIP: With this base phrase, you can ask for any number of things. For example: 한 개 주세요 Han gae ju-se-yo
Please give me one or 떡볶이 주세요 Tteok-bokk-i ju-se-yo
Please give me spicy rice cakes
7) Yes and No
네 / 예 Ne / Ye
아니요 / 아뇨 A-ni-yo / A-nyo
8) When you need some help with translating words
Use this to translate something into Korean:
'Australia' 한국어로 뭐예요? 'Australia' han-gug-eo-ro mwo-ye-yo?
What is ‘Australia’ in Korean?
To translate something in Korean, back to English:
‘호주’ 영어로 뭐예요? 'Ho-ju' yeong-eo-ro mwo-ye-yo?
What is ‘hoju’ in English?
9) Is someone complimenting your great Korean? Say thanks!
10) When your conversation comes to an end, wish your new friend farewell
When the person you are speaking to is leaving first, say:
안녕히 가세요 An-nyeong-hi ga-se-yo
Goodbye (to someone leaving)
When you are leaving first, use:
안녕히 계세요 An-nyeong-hi gye-se-yo
Goodbye (to someone staying)
TIP: the way I like to remember the difference is by thinking that the ‘y’ in ‘An-nyeong-hi gye-se-yo' stands for 'you,' as in you are leaving first.
Language is about forging connections, and I hope that you all are able to use what we have learned from this lesson to connect with the Korean community around you in newer, deeper ways.
I encourage you to take these phrases with you where you go. Try them out at restaurants, Korean grocers, anywhere you can. People can see when you are putting in effort, and I’ve never found people more enthusiastic to see others learning their language than the Koreans that I met during my travels. Let their enthusiasm encourage you, and together let’s learn how to build new connections.