10+ Useful Korean Phrases for Expats (and Travellers!) Part 1/2

English teachers in Korea are in a unique situation where they are not required to learn Korean to work here. Unlike foreigners working in other places, like factories, offices or government agencies, there is no need to know Korean for our jobs – in fact it’s quite the opposite. Korea is well known for being obsessed with learning English, so almost everyone you encounter knows at least a little bit. Shop assistants, bank tellers and hairdressers usually know enough for a basic transaction and in most cases body language will fill in the gaps. Some of them will even surprise you with their perfect (or near perfect) English.

So if you can move to Korea and get by on absolutely no Korean, why learn Korean at all?

Just because you don’t need to doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Language is part of a country’s culture and if you are going to be living here, whether it be for one year or five, you may as well make the most of that culture by experiencing it through the language. Not only will it make everyday life a bit smoother, it can also help you make new friends, impress (or scare) the kids in your classes and help you get home after a night out. There’s also nothing quite like having a chat with a shop owner in a mixture of broken English and Korean, punctuated every few seconds with exaggerated miming and gesticulating.

All the English teachers I’ve spoken to know at least a couple of phrases in Korean, usually more. With their input, I have compiled a list of the most commonly used phrases and provided some explanations to help you use them.


1. Learn to read Hangeul

The best (and first) thing you should do, even if you don’t learn any phrases at all, is learn how to read the Korean alphabet, 한글 (Hangeul). Hangeul is very easy to learn. It consists of a set of consonants and a set of vowels which fit together to create words. The reason learning Hangeul is so useful is because many words in Korea are written in Konglish. This is where English words are transferred almost directly into usage in Korean, but spelled using Hangeul. This is where I started when I learned Hangeul (more on resources later in another post!).

For example, coffee in Korean is 커피 (keopi) and in coffee shops almost all the drinks are English spelled out in Hangeul. A cappuccino is a 카푸치노 (kapuchino) and a café latte is a 카페라떼 (kape ladde). Most cafes also have the names in English, but not always. If you see a menu, a sign or some other Hangeul that you don’t recognise, try sounding it out first and you’ll be surprised at how many “AHA!” moments you have when you realise it’s actually English.

Note: Not all Kongish words retain the same meaning in Korean. For example, a 원피스 (wonpisu, one piece) is a dress (a fancier dress is called a 드레스, deureseu however), a 샤프 (shapu, sharp) is a mechanical pencil and a 노트 (noteu, note) is a notebook. A 핸드폰 (haendeupon, hand phone) is a mobile phone, and going out 헌팅 (heonting, hunting) is what younger guys often call going out to pick up girls.


2. Yes and No

네 (ne), or sometimes 예 (ye) = “Yes.”
However “네”  is a little more than just yes. One of the first things you’ll notice in Korea, is how many times you hear “네” being said over and over again. Not only does it mean yes, it can also mean the kind of words you say to show you are listening to a friend’s story, like “oh right”, “I see”, “hmmm”, “really?” and so on. It’s a very multipurpose word, and all depends on the tone with which you say it. Rather than being a direct translation of the English “yes”, “네” means you agree with a statement. For example in English if someone asks you “You don’t like coffee?” usually you would reply with a “No” being short for “No, I don’t like it.” But in Korean if someone asked you this, you would say”네”, to agree with the statement that you don’t like coffee, i.e. “Yes, you are correct, I don’t like coffee.”

아니요 (aniyo) = “No.”
This is not just a simple no either, as it shows you disagree with what someone said. So using the same example as above, if you are asked, “You don’t like coffee?” but in fact, you do like coffee, you would say “아니요” to disagree with the statement that you don’t like coffee. You are basically saying, “No, you’re wrong, I do like coffee.”


3. Hello, thank you, good job

안녕하세요 (annyeonghaseyo) =  “Hello.”
Literally, “Are you at peace?” so also can have a “Hello, how are you?” meaning, however an answer is not expected. You can answer with “안녕하세요” in return.

감사합니다 (kamsamnida) = “Thank you.”
There are other ways to say thank you but this is the most common and will be good in almost all situations – unless you are talking to children, in which case say “고마워” (gomawo) which is the common informal usage for those younger than you.

수고하세요 (sugohaseyo) = Literally “keep working hard.”
Usually you say this when you leave a shop after you have bought something or the store assistant has helped you. In this case, it’s more like you are thanking them for their hard work. “감사합니다” is also okay in this situation.


4. Goodbye, sorry, excuse me

안녕히 계세요 (annyeonghi gyeseyo), 안녕히 가세요 (annyeonghi kaseyo) = “Goodbye.”
The first is literally “Stay in peace” so this is for when you are leaving and the other person is staying. The second is literally “Go in peace” so is for when the other person is leaving, or you are both leaving.

죄송합니다 (jwesonghamnida) = “Sorry.”
This is very useful and is the best way to say sorry. However note that this kind of sorry is you accepting fault for something, so if someone is having a bad day and you say “죄송합니다” it won’t make any sense (unless it was your fault they had a bad day!). You can also use this as a form of “excuse me” when trying to get past people, especially useful on the subway.

잠시만요 (jamshimanyo), 잠깐만요 (jamkkanmanyo) = “Excuse me.”
However these are only “excuse me” when you are trying to get past someone, and they both literally mean “just a second.” And like I mentioned before, you can also say “죄송합니다” in this situation too. These can be used as “just a second/moment” when someone needs your attention but you are currently busy. Drop the “요” if it’s your students that need you.

실례합니다 (shillehamnida) = “Excuse me.”
We have this way to say “excuse me” as well. This can also be used when trying to politely get through a crowd, in the same way as the previous two. However, this has another useful application. When you want to check if someone is home, you can call out this. Often delivery men will say this when you answer your apartment’s intercom.


5. Please give me… (Ordering food/drinks)

저기요 (jeogiyo) = “Excuse me.”
This is what you say when you want to order at a restaurant/cafe/bar or need something extra from the server. Only used as “excuse me” for getting the attention of the server or to get a stranger’s attention.

서비스 (seobiseu) = Konglish for “service”
Service is when the establishment gives you something for free, usually an extra side dish and sometimes drinks. In a Korean BBQ joint if you order enough meat, you will usually get 된장찌개 (doenjangjjigae, soybean stew) and in an Italian restaurant I have been given salad and a fruit platter. If you want to get 서비스 then you can be more friendly to your servers by calling older ladies 이모 (imo) which means aunty, and very old ladies 할머니 (halmeoni), which means grandmother. Of course you don’t have to have an agenda to be friendly!

[thing] + 주세요 (juseyo) = “Please give me [thing].”
At a cafe you order a cappuccino by saying “카푸치노 하나 주세요” (kapuchino hana juseyo), which means “Please give me a cappuccino.” You can easily apply this to ordering anything, as long as you know the word for what you want. For example:

  • 물 좀 주세요 (mul jom juseyo) = “Please give me water.”
  • 김치 [더] 주세요 (kimchi [deo] juseyo) = “Please give me [more] kimchi.”
  • 밥 [더] 주세요 (bap [deo] juseyo) = “Please give me [more] rice.”

Some items you may want to order:

  • 맥주 (maekju) = Beer
  • 소주 (soju) = Korea’s favourite alcohol, a vodka-like rice liquor
  • 막걸리 (makgeolli) = Korean rice wine
  • 파전 (pajeon) = Korean pancake
  • 삼겹살 (samgyeopsal) = Pork belly
  • 갈비 (galbi) = Short ribs
  • 찌개 (jjigae) = Stew (many different kinds!)
  • 죽 (juk) = Rice porridge (similar to Chinese congee)
  • 삼계탕 (samgyetang) = Korean chicken soup (with a whole chicken)

Want to order more than one thing? You’ll find that in Part 2 (coming soon!).

Hopefully you found these basics useful! Go on to Part 2 which carries on from number 5’s ordering phrases, and goes into more situation-based language. I’m trying to keep it simple, however don’t think you have to learn all of these to get around in Korea! Just learn what you need, and then learn what you want.

If you have any experiences using these phrases (or others), comment and let me know how it went!


Follow Kiwi in Korea on Facebook!

You may also like...

7 Responses

  1. kei says:

    Thanks for introducing these phrases! I don’t know Korean, but I love studying other languages and am excited to learn useful phrases.

    It’s interesting that some of the Konglish words you mentioned are very close to the Japanese loanwords for the same words (dress, notebook, etc). We never say one piece in the US for dress, but both Korea and Japan use that word for dress.

    • Alice says:

      Interesting! I heard from some people I know who study both Japanese and Korean, that apparently even some non-loan words are very similar (which sounds quite confusing actually haha).

      • kei says:

        This is true… When I first started studying Japanese I sometimes had trouble distinguishing it from Korean in casual conversations I overheard.

        My husband likes the phrase 微妙な三角関係 (bimyou na sankaku kankei) or “delicate three-sided love triangle” because his Korean friend told him that it was pronounced the same (or at least similarly) in Korean ^^

  1. December 5, 2015

    […] continues on from Part 1 where we […]

  2. March 8, 2016

    […] out nicely, but the one I’m most proud of so far and I had to put the most work into, is my 10+ Useful Korean Phrases for Expats (and Travellers!) Part 1 & Part 2. The reason it’s a favourite is because I feel like it’s actually helpful! […]

  3. August 8, 2016

    […] continues on from Part 1 where we […]

  4. August 8, 2016

    […] out nicely, but the one I’m most proud of so far and I had to put the most work into, is my 10+ Useful Korean Phrases for Expats (and Travellers!) Part 1 & Part 2. The reason it’s a favourite is because I feel like it’s actually helpful! […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *