Tired of sounding like a textbook? Yeah, me too.
This article is a compilation of all the things I wish someone had told me when I first started practicing speaking Korean. None of them are ‘hacks’ – I’m not going to give you a list of 10 Korean slangs that would ‘make you sound like a native’, or cool phrases that’ll help you impress your language exchange partner.
What I want to share with you, instead, is a collection of ‘patterns’ that I have picked up over the years, while I was studying Korean. Some of them are grammar structures, while others are quirks I find unique to the Korean language.
I will update this article when I think of more, but for now, here are 8 ways to sound more natural in Korean:
Let’s start with something simple – contractions. Every language has them. They are basically shortened versions of words, which are often used in conversations.
Here are some of the most common ones:
|것|| 것이 -> 게 |
것은 -> 건
것을 -> 걸
|는||With pronouns: |
저는 -> 전
나는 -> 난
너는 -> 넌
|With particles: |
에는 -> 엔
~지는 않다 -> ~진 않다
|With nouns, adverbs: |
때는 -> 땐
때로는 -> 때론
나를 -> 날
너를 -> 널
저를 -> 절
|With 뭐 (무엇): |
뭐를 -> 뭘
|에게||나에게 -> 내게|
너에게 -> 네게
저에게 -> 제게
|이/그/저 + 아이||Without 는: |
이 아이 -> 얘
그 아이 -> 걔
저 아이 -> 쟤
얘는 -> 얜
걔는 -> 걘
쟤는 -> 쟨
~아/어 가지고 vs. ~아/어서: The Difference
Most of us learn ~아/어서 first and don’t come across ~아/어 가지고 until much later in our studies, but it is actually quite common in casual speech. Functionally, the two are nearly identical, but there’s a slight difference in nuance.
Most native speakers whom I have asked about this describe ~아/어 가지고 as a little stronger, and more deliberate; while ~아/어서 is more generic in tone. One of them said that, depending on the context and the tone of voice, ~아/어 가지고 can sound a tad bit whiny, almost as if you’re complaining.
I generally see ~아/어 가지고 as the more ’emotional’ of the two, so when it comes to making more generic statements, I stick to ~아/어서. For example:
각도를 잘 잡아서 사진 이쁘게 나왔어요.
Translation: The picture came out looking pretty good because it was taken at a flattering angle.
Just a really generic statement, so I went with ~아/어서.
가고 싶은데 너무 피곤해 가지고 못 갔어요.
Translation: I really wanted to go, but I couldn’t because I was really tired.
I went with ~아/어 가지고 because I wanted to emphasize how tired I was, and because I was essentially using it as an excuse to justify my absence, in a ‘It’s not that I didn’t want to go, but I was just SO tired, you know?’ sort of tone. Depending on the context, I might even sound like I’m low-key whining about not being able to go.
For the most part, however, they’re interchangeable. Since most native speakers tend to use a balanced mix of these two structures in daily conversations, doing this will most definitely help you sound more natural.
~는 것 같다: Expressing Your Opinions
I remember the sheer satisfaction I’d felt when I first learned this grammar structure. I’d been extremely eager to learn it because it kept coming up in the videos I was watching. Variety shows, movies, drama – it seemed at least a quarter of the sentences ended with ~는 것 같다. I was certain that using it in conversations would help me sound a lot more natural, and it seems that I was right.
To this day, it is still one of my favourite grammar structures in Korean. It’s incredibly versatile – you can use it for so many things:
그 게 좀 아닌 것 같아요.
I don’t think it was right for him to do that.
이러다 고장날 것 같아요.
I feel like if we keep this up, we’ll end up breaking it.
화가 난 것 같아서 더 이상 묻지 않았어요.
He seemed angry, so I backed off.
It feels like a dream (surreal).
It’s great for expressing your thoughts, basically. Make sure you master it!
Narrating Your Thoughts
Koreans have the habit of narrating their thoughts, literally, as if they’re thinking out loud. It’s a bit like talking to yourself. Take this sentence, for example: watching him practice made me feel like I should work a little harder. If I were to translate it to Korean, it might be something like this:
형이 연습하는 걸 보고 ‘아… 나도 좀 더 열심히 해야 겠다…’ 라는 생각이 들었어요.
Direct translation: I looked at him practicing and the thought “Ah, I need to practice a little harder…” popped into my head.
Here, the thought/feeling of ‘having to work a little harder’ is turned into a direct quote, which the speaker actually vocalises. They even slip into a more reflective tone when they do this. Here’s an example:
In this video, Suga and Jimin of BTS discuss the stress that comes with performing on stage. At 1:17, Jimin recalls how his vocal instructor’s words helped put him at ease. He told him to take it slow, and that he’d already improved a lot. And Jimin, upon hearing that, thought to himself, “Ah, well. If singing was something you could become good at overnight, everyone would be doing it.” His exact words are:
‘아 그래, 뭐. 한번을 해서 잘 할거면 다 하지’라는 생각이 들어서…
Direct translation: The thought, ‘Ah, well. If you could do it well after just one try, then everyone would be doing it, right?’ popped into my head, so…
You can hear that there’s a slight change in his tone at 1:17, which is where the aforementioned sentence starts. He sounds as if he’s talking to himself, like he’s just sitting there, wondering aloud, “Oh well, if it were that easy, everyone would be doing it, right?” And then when he’s done narrating this thought, he switches right back to his original tone of voice as he proceeds to wrap the clause up with “라는 생각이 들어서…”
This act of alternating between a ‘normal talking tone’ and a ‘thinking out loud tone’ is extremely common in casual conversations, and I suggest using this structure alongside ~는 것 같다 for a bit of variety, to keep yourself from constantly defaulting to one grammar structure.
I have also explained in this article several different ways to ‘self-narrate’ in Korean – feel free to check it out if you’re interested!
~더: Sharing Your Experience
There are several grammar structures that contain the word ‘더’, such as ~더니, ~더라 and ~더라고(요). The word ‘더’ denotes experience, implying direct involvement or participation on the speaker’s part. As such, it is very useful for describing something that you’ve witnessed or experienced directly. Here’s an example:
아침에는 춥더니 지금은 따뜻하네요.
아침에는 추웠는데 지금은 따뜻하네요.
Translation: The weather was cold in the morning, but now it’s warm.
Both of these sentences mean the same thing, technically, but the first one implies that the speaker has experienced first-hand that the weather was cold in the morning. The second one is more generic in comparison – it’s just a statement about the weather.
예쁜만큼 가격이 비싸더라고요.
예쁜만큼 가격이 비싸요.
Translation: It’s as expensive as it is pretty.
In the second sentence, the speaker is merely stating that the object is expensive. It’s not clear whether it was something they’ve actually witnessed first-hand, or just something that they’ve gathered from general experience. The first sentence, however, suggests that the information was something the speaker found out through personal experience, from a specific incident. Perhaps they actually went to the shop and attempted to buy it, only to find out that it was too expensive.
The takeaway: grammar structures containing ‘더’ are great for sharing past experiences. They can help spice up every day storytelling and make descriptions of events more vibrant and personal.
It’s the um’s and uh’s – every language has them. On their own, they don’t seem to mean a whole lot, although some of them do serve to convey a certain mood. At any rate, they’re great for buying time when you can’t think of what to say. Here are a couple of examples:
The Korean equivalent of ‘um…’ – the ‘thinking’ sound, for when you’re trying to come up with things to say, or recall a certain piece of information.
It translates loosely to ‘How should I put it?’ It’s for when you’re searching for the right words for expressing your thoughts.
It’s somewhere in between “Oh, I see” and “Aha!” – the ‘realisation’ sound, mostly used in reaction to a new piece of information.
It’s often translated to ‘You know…’ and ‘Guess what?’ and is often used as a way to start a conversation, particularly when the speaker is about to share a new piece of information. It’s kind of like saying, “You know… I was in the neighbourhood last week and…”
Literally meaning ‘What is it?’, it’s for when you can’t remember what it was that you wanted to say, or the name of something. It’s like saying, “I went and bought a… What is it called again?”
부사 – The Adverbs
Koreans like to use adverbs – a lot. Personally, I find their usage of adverbs really fascinating, and it’s one of my favourite things about the Korean language. A lot of these adverbs don’t really mean anything on their own, and may appear redundant at first glance, but they can really spice up a sentence. Here’s an example:
싹 다 치웠어요.
Translation: I cleared them all away.
The word ‘싹’, in this context, means ‘all’, which seems to overlap with the meaning of ‘다’. Even if you were to remove ‘싹’, the meaning of the sentence would remain exactly the same. So what exactly is the function of ‘싹’ here? To put it simply: it strengthens the meaning of ‘all’.
When someone says ‘싹 다 치웠어요’, I picture a clean table top with nothing on it, which, up until a moment ago, had been overflowing with clutter. It’s kind of like the tiny sparkly symbols that artists put in comics to convey that something is ‘sparkling clean’. Some might argue that merely presenting a clean, empty table top would be enough to get the point across, but those tiny sparkles really do enhance the message. The table feels a lot ‘cleaner’ somehow with the sparkles added in. The same can be said for ‘싹’.
Here’s another example:
치마가 땅에 질질 끌리다.
The skirt drags on the ground.
질질 emphasises the feeling as well as the motion of ‘dragging’. Without it, the description is a little flat – I picture a skirt that’s really long, so long that it drags on the ground when the person walks, and that’s it. With 질질 thrown in, however, my attention gets drawn to the motion of ‘dragging’ itself.
If this sentence were a scene in a movie, 질질 would be something akin to a close-up shot. It makes you picture the weight of the skirt, and the way the fabric flows as it drags on the ground – you might hear the sound of it brushing against the ground in your head. The scene comes alive because of it, because the mental image it triggers is much more vivid.
Most of these adverbs are extremely varied in usage, and can take on wildly different meanings depending on the context they are used in, so they can be a bit hard to organise and memorise. I used to keep a notebook for this. I dedicated one full page to each of these adverbs, and wrote down sentence examples as I came across them in my studies. Memorising and internalising them was a slow, gradual process – I tried to use them as often as I could in both writing and speech, and grew used to them that way, over time.
Leaving Your Sentences Unfinished, or Letting Them Drag On… Forever
Koreans seem to have a penchant for long and unfinished sentences. For the purpose of illustration, I’ll be using sentences extracted from this video by SpongeMind TV, where the host, Jonson, interviews the founder of Talk to Me in Korean, Hyunwoo Sun.
At 10:00, Jonson expresses his agreement with what Hyunwoo said about the benefits of learning a foreign language. He said:
‘맞습니다. 역시 마찬가지…폭이 넓어지는 거. 사고의 폭이 넓어지고, 더 깊이 생각할 수 있고, 더 재미있게 생각할 수 있고…’
You can see that he ended his sentences quite abruptly at ‘폭이 넓어지는 거’ and ‘생각할 수 있고’. He didn’t finish them, because the endings of those sentences would have been obvious enough for the listener to deduce without him having to say them out loud.
And as for long sentences that drag on and on:
“중국어 같은 경우에는 중국에 갔을 때 사실은 전혀 관심이 없었고 중국어는 누가 돈을 준다고 해도 배우고 싶지 않다고 생각하는 언어였는데 일 때문에 한 12 년 전에 간 적이 있었어요.
그때 기본적인 회화를 모르면 자꾸 택시기사 아저씨들이 바가지를 씌우고 그래서 ‘피해를 보겠구나’ 해서 기본적인 것 배우고 그랬었고 그리고 그 뒤로도 인공어인 에스페란토어에도 관심을 많이 가지고 계속 공부했고 뭐 누구랑 대화를 해볼 일은 없었지만… 그리고 독일어 같은 경우에도 독일에 가기 전에, 여행 가기 전에 한 3 시간 정도 공부를 해 봤어요.”
Here (at 2:58), Hyunwoo is talking about his experience with studying languages. There are two sentences in total, and both of them are pretty long, especially the second one. This is because he kept joining sentences with the ~고 structure, which roughly translates to ‘and’. We do this in English as well, although perhaps not as often as Korean speakers.
Let’s take a look at the English translation:
“In the case of Mandarin Chinese, when I first went to China, I actually had zero interest in the language, and I wouldn’t learn it even if someone paid me to do it, but anyway, I went on a business trip to China once, around 12 years ago.
The taxi drivers kept ripping me off because I couldn’t say even the most basic of phrases, and I realised that there’s this real downside to not being able to speak the language, so I went and learned the basics.
Later on, I grew interested in Esperanto and studied that as well, even though there was no one I could speak the language with.
As for German, I studied it briefly, for around 3 hours, before my trip to Germany.”
I tried my best to keep the sentences as long as possible, the way they are in Korean, by using a lot of conjunctions. But even then I ended up with four sentences. And it wasn’t even a direct, word-for-word translation, which would have been even longer! Technically, I can join up all four sentences using the word ‘and’, but the sentence would end up being so long that it becomes annoying to listen to.
I think this is one of the key differences between English and Korean that are often overlooked. As fluent/native speakers of the English language, we have the tendency of breaking our sentences down and wrapping them all up nicely with neat conclusions, which, as it turns out, is not how the Korean language works.
In the case of the Korean language, leaving sentences unfinished and letting them run on and on happen a lot when the speaker is recalling past events or thinking as they speak, which means they’re very common in organic speech. Keeping your sentences short and polished, therefore, can make them sound a bit rehearsed or stiff. It’s not a huge problem, but it does make a difference in terms of how natural or comfortable you sound.
Every language has its own quirks, and I personally think that identifying and internalising them are the keys to sounding natural, because they are essentially the defining characteristics of the language. One might even argue that the mastery of a language depends on it.
It is these ‘quirks’ that make the language different from all the other ones in the world, including the one(s) you already speak. They occupy the space where the difference between your native language and your target language becomes the most pronounced. A difference one must overcome, in order to sound like a native speaker (or something close to it) in a non-native language.
I’m sure that with time, I will come to notice more ‘quirks’ as I become more fluent in Korean. When that happens, I’ll be sure to update this article to share what I’ve found. I hope you found this article useful, and if there’s anything you think I ought to include, feel free to leave it in the comments below.