Hi! I’m Hyunku, and I've given over 3,000 Korean lessons. So far, I’ve worked with around 300 people. I’ve encountered many student errors during my lessons, and over time, certain errors began to stick out as being especially common.
Today I'm going to talk about mistakes that are characteristic of learners at a given level of Korean — some linguistic, some cultural, and some more individual in nature. None of them are the sort of thing where being aware of their existence will enable you to immediately fix them. Like most things, learning a language takes work. To that extent, please see these mistakes as being the "sort of thing" that I think learners of different levels should be working on.
Mistakes that beginners make
Beginners usually make a lot of mistakes with basic grammar. There are many learners who think grammar is easy, but it's really rare to see a student (even at the intermedlate level) who actually knows the beginner grammar points and can use them perfectly.
Down the road you'll learn how to make longer sentences and how to more efficiently express your thoughts. For now, don't worry about being fancy. Learn to use the grammatical tools Korean gives you and focus on expressing your thoughts in short, simple ways. I promise you: simple done right is better than complicated done wrong. Taking the time to master this "easy" stuff now is the best gift you can give to future-intermediate and future-advanced you.
1. Subject marker “이/가” and object marker “을/를”
Korean uses many postpositions — little grammatical words ("particles") that attach to to the end of words and phrases in order to show the function of that word or phrase. It's complicated at first, but this grammatical infrastructure allows the structure of Korean sentences to be very free. You'll appreciate it in the future when you read Korean literature and poetry.
For now, though, you must learn to use the "subject" and "object" markers accurately. Otherwise, you might end up getting eaten by a hamburger.
- Subject marker 이/가 — attaches to the subject of a sentence; shows who/what is doing the act of a sentence
- Topic marker 은/는 — attaches to the topic of a sentence; how that differs from 이/가 is tricky to explain and beyond the scope of this article (a few rules of thumb)
- Object marker 을/를 — attaches to the direct object of a sentence; shows the person/thing the action is being done to
That disctinction in mind, consider the following examples. I've put the pospositions in [brackets] so they're easier to find.
- 저[를] 햄버거[가] 먹어요.
(jeo[leul] haembeogeo[ga] meog-eoyo)
A hamburger eats me.
저[는] 햄버거[를] 먹어요.
(jeo[neun] haembeogeo[leul] meog-eoyo.)
- I eat a hamburger.
- 저[를] 모기[가] 사랑해요.
(jeo[leul] mogi[ga] salanghaeyo.)
A mosquito loves me.
저(는) 모기(를) 사랑해요.
(jeo[neun] mogi[leul] salanghaeyo.)
I love a mosquito.
Notice that the position of 저 never changed in the Korean sentences, whereas I comes at the beginning of some sentences in English and me comes at the end of others. To be clear, the position of 저 could change, but it doesn't have to. The speaker gets to make that decision themselves, depending on what they want to emphasize.
Anyhow, this should be reason enough to pay attention to your particles. Getting a grasp on the particles is what enables you to say what you mean to say. Mosquietoes may love you, but you probably don't love them.
2. Direction marker “에" vs location marker "에서”
These two particles can be tricky because they both translate to similar things in English: “에 (e)” translates to “at; in; to”, while “에서 (eseo)” means “at” or “in”. Worse yet, they sound very similar. Many learners feel confused about which one they should use in a given sentence.
While it's not 100% accurate, you can remember this as a rule of thumb:
- Direction marker 에 — (a) is often used to show direction, and (b) can be used with verbs of existence to show where you live or where something is located at --> use 에 to say you're going to parking lot
- Location marker 에서 — shows the location where an action is happening, but is not used to show the direction of movement --> use 에서 to say that you're dancing in the parking lot
Or, in even more straightforward terms:
- Use “에” with verbs like “가다 (kada) to go”, “오다 (oda) come” or “다니다 (tanida) to attend” — verbs that involve going from place A to place B — and also with verbs like “있다 (idda) to exist” or “살다 (salda) to live” that speak to something's existence
- Use “에서” for all other actions
3. Pronunciation errors (ㄱㅋㄲ/ㅈㅊㅉ/ㄷㅌㄸ/ㅂㅍㅃ/ㅅㅆ)
Yes, I know. It’s hard. Many learners can sympathize with the frustration caused by these sounds. Unfortunately, they all sound very different to Koreans and it can be confusing if the wrong one is used.
As you know, or as you will know, achieving perfect pronunciation requires bloody practice. You need to train your Korean mouth muscles. If you practice hard, I'm sure you’ll be able to pronounce these sounds perfectly (or at least better). If you have trouble, I recommend practicing by comparing your attempts to make these sounds with a recording from a native speaker. You'll notice little differences, an as you work through those differences, your pronunciation will get clearer.
How exactly these sounds differ is beyond the scope of this article, so here's a video comparing these three sets of tricky consonants.
4. Confusing similar vocab words (거울 mirror / 겨울 winter / 가을 fall)
This is related to mistake number 3 — If you are not familiar enough with Korean pronunciation, you may end up making some embarrassing mistakes when you talk For example:
- “조카 (joka) nephew” vs “조까 (jogga) [a vulgar word I won't type out...]”
- “거의 (geoui) almost” vs “거위 (geowi) goose”
- “주의 (juui) caution” vs “주위 (juwi) around”
I'm sort of intentionally doubling up on this point because it's really important. Korean has many similar little sounds, and it's really worth taking the time to make sure you can comfortably/confidently/accurately make each one.
5. The word “you”
Don't use it. Please.
When I have lessons, many students use the word “너 (neo)” to address me. That word does mean "you", but it’s actually quite impolite. When first meeting someone, we usually refer to them by their name plus “씨 (ssi)”
- 다니엘 씨 (daniel ssi) — Mr. Daniel
- 사미 씨 (sami ssi) — Mr. Sami
- 현구 씨 (Hyeongu Ssi) — Mr. Hyunku
“너” is only used between close friends, or with people who are younger than you. Similarly, we don’t say “she" (그녀 [geunyeo])” or “he" (그[geu]), either. Instead, you should say:
- 그 사람 (geu salam) — that person
- 그 여자 (geu yeoja) — that woman
- 그 남자 (geu namja) — that man
If the person is very near to you, then you might say 이 ( i — this) instead of 그 (that); if they are quite far away, you might say 저 (cho — [way over] there).
Mistakes that intermediate learners make
Whereas beginners make concrete mistakes in terms of what they say, people at the intermediate level more often make mistakes with how they’re saying things. (Of course, people at this level also still struggle with the finer details of some grammar points, too.)
In other words: when you’re speaking Korean, you should make an effort to speak Korean.
Many people actually continue speaking English (or their native language), but they just happen to be using Korean words to express their thoughts. If you copy English idioms / phrases, or even just use an English way to approach a discussion, it often won't translate well. At best, you will sound a little strange. At worst, you’ll be impossible to understand.
That in mind, you should learn how Koreans talk about different things. It is necessary to understand Korean in Korean, not through your mother tongue.
6. Errors with idioms and expressions
Language is connected with food, clothing, and shelter — the entire world. Intermediate learners should work at understanding the culture behind the language they’re learning, rather than merely translating their own culture into Korean.
Consider the following expressions:
Used when you can't buy what you want —
- 그림의 떡
The rice cake in the picture
- 하늘의 파이
The pie in the sky
Used when someone can decide whatever they want —
”swing left and right”
- 곡조를 정하다
“call the tune”
If you say “pie in the sky” in Korea, people probably won’t understand you. The sentence 하늘의 파이 is perfectly grammatically correct Korean — it's not "wrong" per se — it's just that people don't say that. You shouldn't, either.
While idioms are an easy example to give, know that this isn't only about idioms. The way you respond to certain situations, the way you should approach certain topics, and the way you should frame certain ideas might be different between Korean and English.
To get to the next level, you now need to start thinking about not just what you want to say, but how Korean people would go about expressing that same idea.
7. Honorific mistakes
Just as Korean verbs conjuate for past tense and future tense, they also conjugate to show respect and formality. This system of conjuations is referred to as honorifics. How Korean honorifics work is beyond the scope of this post, but know that there are several "flavors" of them that you'll need to use, depending on the situation.
Consider the (modern) forms of the verb 공부하다 (kongbuhada) — to study:
The choice to be polite or formal is quite a personal thing in English, but it's not in Korean. Just as you couldn't skip using past tense because you don't want to be seen as someone who dwells on the past, you can't just choose to not use formal language in Korean because you want to be seen as a friendly person. Korean honorifics are much less about the type of person you are or aren't and much more about the nature of the relationship between you and the person you are talking to.
That in mind, just know that honorifics are very important, especially when talking with older people. If you make a mistake with honorifics, there's literally a possibility that the random person you're taling to on the street will nag you.
There are a lot of different verb forms, and it's complicated, but you're at an intermediate level now. You must learn to not just speak Korean that makes sense, but to speak Korean that is appropriate for the situation you are in.
8. Family vocab mistakes
Sometimes I misunderstand my student when we have conversations about family. Whereas a sister is a sister in English, for example, in Korean there are specific words for an older sister and younger sister. Furthermore, the words are gender locked: girls use one set of words to refer to their sister(s), and boys use a different set of words.
I've decided to place this into the intermediate level because because many of my intermediate students still struggle with it. They speak otherwise OK Korean, but have a hard time keeping all of the terms straight.
Here are a few words to get you started (there are a lot):
- 친할머니 (chinhalmeoni) — paternal grandmother
- 외할머니 (oehalmeoni) — maternal grandmother
- 삼촌 (samchon) — paternal uncle
- 외삼촌 (oesamchon) — maternal uncle
- 형(hyeong) — older brother (from a male's perspective)
- 오빠 (oppa) — older brother (from a female's perspective)
Mistakes that advanced learners make
Advanced learners need a lot of linguistic and cultural knowledge. You should learn Korean from everything, such as by meeting people, watching the news and a variety of TV programs.
At this level you can probably do anything you want in Korean, but not quite perfectly. There are many similar words and grammar points, some of them being more or less formal, or only used in certain situations. The way a business email is written is different than an academic paper, which is different than a text message. It’s important to be able to adapt to these different registers of the language.
At this level, things get nitty and gritty. You may occasionally feel like leaning headfirst into a wall.
9. Contextual vocabulary choices
In Korean, many vocabulary words have both a casual and formal variant. As an advanced learner, you should know when to use the casual one and when to use the formal one. This isn't necessarily difficult, but it does require learning multiple words for many vocabulary words and having the cultural awareness to know when you should use one or the other.
Failing to do so won't make you be understood, but it will make your Korean seem a bit off. That extra little level of polish is part of what it means to go from the intermediate to the advanced level.
To have an accident:
- casual — 사고가 나다 (sagoga nada)
- formal — 사고가 발생하다 (sagoga balsaenghada)
To eat food:
- Casual — 음식을 먹다 (eumsig-eul meogda)
- Formal — 음식을 섭취하다(eumsig-eul seobchwihada)
To buy an apple:
- Casual — 사과를 사다 (sagwaleul sada)
- Formal — 사과를 구매하다 (sagwaleul gumaehada)
(Note: The reason for these word pairings is that, just like with Korean's system of numbers, there is a Korean and Chinese/Sino-Korean variant of many ordinary words. The Korean vocabulary word is considered to be more casual, and the Sino-Korean word is considered to be more formal. As they're derived from Chinese languages, these Sino-Korean words also have hanja [Chinese character] forms, but you likely won't ever see the characters used. 발생 -->發生; 섭취 --> 攝取;구매 --> 購買.)
10. Slang / errors when using new expressions
If you are studying slang and expressions, I think you’re already a Korean master. But, just because you can does not mean that you should. Great power comes with great responsibility. You have to be careful when using these new slang expressions. You can cause misunderstandings by using them wrong — especially when your Korean is also so good that the person you are talking to is going to assume you know what you just said and that you meant it.
To give a random example, some adjectives can take the intensifying slang word 존 (jon), but others can’t:
존맛 (jonmad) — so delicious!
존잘 (jonjal) — so handsome!
존예 (jon-ye) — so pretty!
But it would be an error to say 존비 (jonbi) — so expensive! or 존커 (jonkeo) — so big!
I recommend to use trendy expressions and/or slang only with your close friends.
If there were a common denominator between, something all the levels had in common, I suppose that would be pronunciation. There's always something to work on with pronunciation. At first it'll take a lot of effort just to figure out the basic sounds, but from there, you can also look at acquiring a more-Korean rhythm and intonation. After that you can pay more attention to how Korean people use their voice to communicate emotion, and things like that.
If you take anything from this post, I guess I hope you remember not to say 조까 when you really want to say 조카. Please don't do that.
But more importantly, while "study" is important, "practice" is also important. Maybe more importnant. Don't forget that language learning is also a sort of physical exercise. Learning about the above concepts is one thing, but becoming comfortbale and confident using them is another thing — to do that, you need to practice using Korean in the real world!
Thinking about learning Korean?