In the Republic of Korea (South Korea), the official language at the national and official level is Korean, with about 80 million people around the world who can speak Korean. Although its origins are debatable, the most widely accepted thought is that the Korean language belongs to the Altaic family of languages, a macro-family that includes the Tungusic, Mongolian, and Turkic families.

Korean: An Altaic Linguistic Marvel

Several languages can be heard across South Korea, such as Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese. Korean, unsurprisingly, is the most commonly heard language, the standard version of which is understood throughout the entire country. Korean is vastly different from Western languages, which can make it tricky to learn even a few key words and phrases.

Hangul: Korea’s Ingenious Phonetic Script

Written Korean uses a phonetic system called Hangul (Hangeul), which stacks sounds into blocks which represent syllables, making it fairly easy to get a hang of, despite its uniqueness. Hangul is the official writing system of Korea, invented by King Sejong the Great in 1443 in order to make the language more accessible and easier for larger population to learn, particularly those with little education. Prior to the creation of Hangul, Koreans primarily used Classical Chinese (Hanja) for writing during the ancient times. Due to this, more than half of the Korean words today have actually originated from Chinese. Even though Chinese loan words and Korean-originated words have always co-existed, the Chinese loan words gained dominance and led to the complete erasure of a lot of the native Korean equivalents.

Different dialects are spoken in different areas of South Korea, such as the Gyeongsang dialect which is spoken in the south of the country, around Busan and Daegu, and which sounds quite rough compared to standard Korean. However, despite the slight differences, standard Korean will be understood almost everywhere in the country. Other dialects spoken in South Korea include the Seoul dialect (Gyeonggi), the Yeongseo dialects, the Chungcheong dialects, the Jeolla dialects, and the Jeju dialect.

Multilingualism in Contemporary South Korea

English is spoken by many South Koreans, and the government has been working on improving the levels of English classes across the country. However, Koreans often don’t have the chance to actually practice English despite taking classes, which is why they might struggle with understanding English in actual conversation. This is more likely to occur in rural areas as opposed to major cities, such as Seoul, where English comprehension is unlikely to be an issue.

Another widely spoken language in South Korea is Chinese, particularly Mandarin and Cantonese. However, the use of Hanja – the practice of Chinese characters being used to write Korean words – is more likely to be encountered.

Apart from Chinese, Japanese may also be spoken by some older people in South Korea. This is particularly common in Busan at the south of the country, where, due to the geographical proximity to Fukuoka in Japan, a large number of Japanese speakers can be found.