Narrating Your Thoughts in Korean

If you watch a lot of Korean content, you might have noticed that Koreans have the tendency to narrate their thoughts out loud.

As I’ve explained in this article, they often express their thoughts or feelings as if they are quoting themselves. Instead of saying, “Watching him practice made me feel like I should work harder”, they might say “I saw him practice, and the thought ‘Ah, I should work harder’ popped into my head.”

This is quite common in organic speech, so learning to apply this to your daily conversations will definitely help you sound more natural. Here are a couple of tips on how to get started!

How to Use It

First of all, let’s look at how you should conjugate it. There are a couple of grammar structures you should familiarise yourself with before you start and I’ve divided them into two categories, based on their usages:

For Stating Your Opinions in General

~다고 생각하다

This is the most basic form, as well as the most straightforward. It’s what you use to state your thoughts, or your opinions on something, in general:

무엇보다 건강이 제일 중요하다고 생각해요.
I think health is the most important thing.

그렇게 비싸지 않다고 생각해요.
I think it’s not that expensive.

How to Study Korean has a very detailed lesson on the conjugation of this grammar structures. Feel to free to check it out!

For Expressing a Thought or a Feeling You Had at a Specific Moment

This is the type of ‘thought-narrating’ that we’ll be focusing on in this article. In most of the examples I’m going to share with you, the speaker is looking back at a past event and recalling a certain thought or a feeling they had as they experienced said event.

~라는 생각을 했다

Conjugated in past tense, this is used to refer to a thought that you had at a specific moment in the past. It’s often conjugated in the past perfect tense (~라는 생각을 했었다) as well, to indicate that the statement is no longer true. For example:

‘처음에는 열심히 하면 결과가 잘 나오겠다’ 라는 생각을 했었죠. 
I’d thought at first that as long as we work hard, the results would be good.
(The speaker no longer believes that this is the case)

Of course, you can also use the ~다는 생각을 했다’ form, instead of conjugating the thought as a direct quote:

처음에는 열심히 하면 결과가 잘 나오겠다는 생각을 했었죠. 

In terms of the meaning, there is practically no difference between the two. The first one does sound a bit more reflective in tone, however. It’s mostly a matter of mood and preference.  

~하는/라는 생각이 들었다

While the first two are more ‘active’ – in that the thoughts are something the speaker actively came up with by themselves – ~하는/라는 생각이 들었다’ is slightly more passive in nature. It refers to thoughts and feelings that just sort of pops into your head, usually in reaction to something that you’ve just witnessed or experienced. For example:

언니의 말을 듣고 ‘아 나도 더 열심히 해야 겠다’ 하는 생각이 들었다.
After listening to what she said, the thought –”Ah, I need to work harder” popped into my head.
(What she said made me feel like I need to work harder.)

~해서/ 싶어서

This is mostly used to connect a thought and an action. The thought usually functions as a justification for the action, which comes later in the sentence. Like this:

혹시 아직도 기다리고 있을까 싶어서 전화했어요.
I thought, “Maybe she’s still waiting”, so I called her.
(I called her because I thought she might still be waiting / I was wondering if she was still waiting, so I called her.)

When to Use It

There are countless (well, maybe not literally ‘countless’, but there are a lot) ways and contexts in which you can do this, but I’ve picked out four that I think are among the most common, and I urge you to try them out!

When You Realise Something

This is usually in reaction to something you have just seen, heard or experienced. Let’s say you’ve just spent a day helping out at a local kindergarten, and the experience has made you realised how hard teaching is. In that case, you can say:

이게… 정말 아무나 있는 일이 아니구나 하는 생각이 들었다.
The thought “Teaching isn’t something just anyone can do” popped into my head.

When You Make a Decision

Again, the decision is usually prompted by something you have just witnessed and experienced. I’m going to use the example I brought up in the intro, which is:

형이 연습하는 걸 보고 나도 더 열심히 해야 겠다 라는 생각이 들었어요.
I saw him practice, and the thought “Ah, I need to work harder as well” popped into my head.

When You Wonder About Something

This is best illustrated with actual examples. Scenario one: you witnessed a fight between two of your friends. Horrible things were said, and things got really ugly. Afterwards, you told a close friend of yours about the fight. You might wrap up your account of the incident with something like this:

정말… 이렇게까지 해야 되나 싶네요.
I really wonder, ‘Do/did they really have to go that far?’

Scenario two: you decide to give your best friend a call late at night. She sounds surprised, and asks you why you’re calling at this hour. You might say, “Oh, nothing, I was just wondering how you’re doing”:  

Friend: 이 시간에 무슨 일이야?
You: 그냥. 잘 지내나 싶어서.

When You Predict Something 

The prediction is often juxtaposed against a contrary result if it turns out to be untrue. Let’s say you’ve hurt your elbow somehow. You thought it was a minor injury and the pain would go away in a couple of days, but it never did, and now five days later, it seems to have gotten worse. You might say:

하루 이틀 지나면 괜찮겠지 했는데 계속 아팠어요.
I thought, “It’ll get better after a day or two, right?” but it went on hurting.

Conclusion

I find this tendency to self-narrate to be one of the most fascinating characteristics of the Korean language. Whenever they recount a past event, they go into full-on introspection mode, like they’re reliving the memories as opposed to just describing them from a more removed standpoint.

It may feel strange at first, because it’s like you’re constantly thinking out loud, but it’s actually pretty fun once you get the hang of it. Until then, practice often, and pay close attention to how they’re used in daily conversations and the content you watch, be it k-drama, web series or Youtube videos. Try writing down sentences that you can see yourself using, and reading them out loud twice a day for a few weeks to help get your brain used to these grammar structures!

Happy learning!