From an outside perspective, there's one thing about the major languages of east Asia that stands out sharply from the rest: their writing systems.
While much of the western world relies on the twenty-plus letters of the Latin alphabet, China, Japan, and Korea are different—China uses a collection of thousands of drawing-like glyphs, Japan uses those same glyphs and supplements them with two syllabaries, and Korea uses a different system entirely.
If you're set on learning Korean, you may be worried that the journey to learning the Korean writing system could be similar to what Chinese and Japanese learners have to face: years and years of memorizing the meanings and stroke order of Chinese characters just to reach the reading level of a small child.
If that's you, then I've got great news: learning Korean 한글 (hangul), shouldn't take you or anyone else years to accomplish.
I'm not kidding. Even at the slowest possible pace, basic literacy in Korean is achievable in a few sittings, even less if you're motivated.
In this article, I'm going to lay out a roadmap that you can use to learn the Korean writing system today, even if you don't know a word of Korean. I'm not going to teach it to you outright, but rather I'll lead you through the tools and resources that will help you get the job done quicker than even you think is possible.
Things get even easier when you associate each symbol with its correct sound. For example, if you know that "ㅏ" makes an "ah" sound like in "father", then you'll quickly learn that adding a second dash to the letter (ㅑ) makes a "yah" sound, like in "yard".
Here are two short videos that will walk you through the pronunciation of all of the vowel symbols described above:
Let me lead you through the symbols you will encounter for Korean consonants. Again, don't worry about the sounds for now. Just focus on the pieces, and how different elements can be added to a symbol to change the sound.
First off, there are 9 shapes that make up the basic consonants:
Like vowels, these consonant shapes can be combined in interesting ways to create variant consonants, all related to the sound of the initial consonant above.
For example, some of these consonants can be "doubled", creating a tense sound. These are often referred to as "double consonants".
ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅉ, ㅆ
Adding one (or more) lines to several of these symbols creates aspirated versions of these consonants, which are simply the same consonants accompanied by more air flow out of the mouth when pronounced.
However, you can't write ㅎㅏㄴㄱㅡㄹ all in a row and call it a day. That doesn't work at all.
Instead, Korean symbols within words are grouped into "syllable blocks". The symbols that make a syllable in Korean are grouped into a roughly square-like shape, and ordered from left to right, and top to bottom.
One important exception to syllable-block building that I have yet to mention: If a syllable in a word is meant to contain only a vowel sound, that written syllable needs to start with a "ㅇ" symbol, which is known in this case as a "null consonant".
Once you know the individual symbols for vowels and consonants, in addition to how they are organized into syllable blocks, it's time to practice reading simple syllable blocks, consisting of only one consonant and one vowel.
When written, these syllables look a bit more crowded than their CV counterparts, so you'll need to pay special attention to the left to right, top to bottom rules that are followed when making these syllable blocks.
Unfortunately, this is where pronunciation can get a little extra tricky, as well.
Consonants that follow vowels in a syllable block are known in Korean as 받침 ("batchim") or "final consonants". While the pronunciation of these consonants generally remains the same as you've learned, there are frequent exceptions where a syllable-final consonant will be pronounced differently than usual.