Whether you are coming to Korea as a tourist or are planning to live here and want to start learning some Korean, reading hangeul, the native Korean alphabet, will be the first and most basic skill you acquire.
Although in Korea important signs and messages come in English as well, romanized hangeul can look confusing and difficult to pronounce. With the ability to read hangeul, however, you will be able to decipher the pronunciation of any writing from bus stop names to restaurant menus and generally make your stay in Korea a lot more comfortable.
Do not be intimidated by how it looks; hangeul is a script composed of consonants and vowels representing sounds, just like the English alphabet. In hangeul, however, the letters are arranged in syllabic blocks instead of being written side by side. Hangeul is generally a very regular alphabet, so all you need to learn to start reading in Korean are hangeul’s 24 basic letters and the way consonants and vowels are arranged together.
ㄱ (g/k) : Reads similar to a ‘g’ or ‘k’ sound as in “good”
ㄴ (n) : Reads like an ‘n’
ㄷ (d/t) : Reads similar to a ‘d’ or ‘t’ sound as in “dance”
ㄹ (r/l) : Reads like an ‘r’ at the start of a syllable, but like an ‘l’ at the end
ㅁ (m) : Reads like an ‘m’
ㅂ (b/p) : Reads similar to a ‘b’ or ‘p’ sound as in “big”
ㅅ (s/t) : Reads like an ‘s’ at the start of a syllable, but like a ‘t’ at the end
ㅇ (Ø/ng) : Silent at the start of a syllable, but reads like ‘ng’ at the end, as in “sing”
ㅈ (j) : Reads like a ‘j’ at the start of a syllable, but like a ‘t’ at the end
ㅊ (ch) : Reads like a ‘ch’ at the start of a syllable, but like a ‘t’ at the end
ㅋ (k) : Reads like a strong ‘k’ sound as in “kettle”
ㅌ (t) : Reads like a strong ‘t’ sound as in “tell”
ㅍ (p) : Reads like a strong ‘p’ sound as in “pear”
ㅎ (h) : Reads like an ‘h’ as in “here”
ㅏ (a) : Reads similar to the ‘a’ sound in “arm”
ㅑ (ya) : Reads similar to the ‘ya’ sound in “yard”
ㅓ (eo) : Reads similar to the ‘o’ sound in “sock”
ㅕ (yeo) : Reads similar to the ‘yo’ sound in “your”
ㅗ (o) : Reads similar to the ‘oh’ sound in “soap”
ㅛ (yo) : Reads similar to the ‘yoh’ sound in “mayo”
ㅜ (u) : Reads similar to the ‘oo’ sound in “boot”
ㅠ (yu) : Reads similar to the ‘yoo’ sound in “youth”
ㅡ (eu) : Reads similar to the ‘uh’ sound in “son”
ㅣ (i) : Reads similar to the ‘ee’ sound in “breeze”
How to Read
Within each syllabic block of hangeul, the letters are arranged from left to right and from top to bottom.
The first consonant of the block is arranged according to the direction of the main stroke of the vowel that follows it. If the vowel’s stroke is vertical, the first consonant appears to its left; if it is horizontal, it appears above it.
For example, the main strokes of ㅏ (a), ㅓ (eo) and ㅣ (i) are vertical, so if preceded by a consonant, say ㄱ (g), they appear as such: 가 (ga), 거 (geo), 기 (gi). The main strokes of ㅗ (o), ㅜ (u) and ㅡ (eu), however, are horizontal, so when preceded by a consonant, for example ㄷ (d), the are written as 도 (do), 두 (du) and 드 (deu).
All syllabic blocks must start with a consonant, so when the first sound of the word is a vowel, the block starts with a silent ㅇ (Ø). For example: 아 (a), 어 (eo), 오 (o), 으 (eu).
When a syllable ends with a consonant, that consonant appears on a second stage under the block’s first consonant and vowel. The syllable 한 (han), for example, is composed of an initial ㅎ (h), which is followed by an ㅏ (a), and then ends with a ㄴ (n). Put ㄱ (g), ㅡ (eu) and ㄹ (l) together and you have 글 (geul). Combined, these syllables form the word 한글 (hangeul).