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Are English and Japanese the Hardest Languages for Koreans to Learn?




Are English and Japanese the Hardest Languages for Koreans to Learn?

Ever wondered why so many Koreans are striving to learn English or Japanese? South Korea boasts a remarkable literacy rate, and a significant portion of the population aspires to fluency in a second language.

Globalization and cultural exchange play a big role. English opens doors to international communication and careers, while Japanese offers access to technology, business opportunities, and popular culture.

But are English and Japanese the most difficult languages for Koreans to learn? The answer might surprise you!

The simple answer will be “No, English and Japanese aren’t necessarily the most difficult languages for Koreans to learn.

While both languages present challenges, Korean learners might have a hidden advantage.

In this article, We will explore

  • The factors that influence the difficulty of learning a language for Koreans.
  • Some of the surprising similarities between Korean, English, and Japanese that can smoothen the learning curve.
  • Specific challenges of each language and provide resources to help you overcome them.

Let’s dive into the factors affecting difficulty for Koreans…

Table of Contents

Similarities Between Korean, English, and Japanese (Your Advantage!)

Learning a new language can feel daunting, but what if you already have built-in tools to make the process smoother? Here’s some exciting news for Korean learners considering English or Japanese: both languages share surprising similarities with Korean that can give you a head start!

Shared Grammatical Structures:

Ever noticed that Korean sentences typically follow a Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) order, like “저는 책을 읽습니다 (Jeo-neun chaek-eul ilk-eum-nida)” (I read a book)? Well, this isn’t a Korean quirk! Both English and Japanese primarily use SOV structures too.

Talk to Me in Korean (TTMIK) is a fantastic resource, available as a website, app, and a series of books, and is a treasure trove for Korean learners. Their lessons often highlight grammatical parallels between Korean and Japanese.

For example, in their “Korean Grammar Level 1” book, they specifically compare sentence structures in all three languages, helping you visualize the similarities. Imagine learning a new sentence structure in English, then realizing it applies almost identically in Japanese – that’s the power of TTMIK!

Question: How can you leverage this knowledge in your learning?

When studying English or Japanese sentences, actively identify the Subject (who/what), Object (what is being acted upon), and Verb (the action). This focus on core sentence elements will make understanding the overall meaning much easier.

Pay particular attention to how particles (words like “은/는 (eun/neun)” in Korean) function in both languages – these tiny words play a crucial role in indicating the grammatical role of each word.

Vocabulary Connections:

Korean has a fascinating history of borrowing words, especially from Chinese characters (Hanja). Here’s where things get even more interesting: many of these characters are also used in Japanese writing, known as Kanji! This shared vocabulary base can be a goldmine for Korean learners.

Korean Etymology delves into the etymology of Korean words, tracing their origins back to Chinese characters (Hanja) and other languages.

By understanding the root of a Korean word, you can often predict the meaning of a similar-looking Kanji character in Japanese. For example, the Korean word for “teacher” is “선생님 (seonsaengnim),” which comes from the Hanja characters “先生 (xiānsheng)” with a similar meaning in Chinese.

Recognizing this Hanja character in Japanese (先生 (sensei)) can give you a strong hint about its meaning!

Challenges of English for Koreans (The Hurdles You’ll Face)

So, you’ve discovered the secret weapon of shared grammatical structures and vocabulary connections. Now, let’s tackle the specific challenges you might face as a Korean learner venturing into English.

Pronunciation Differences:

This might be the biggest hurdle Korean learners encounter with English. English pronunciation features sounds not present in Korean, like the “th” sound in “think” or the “v” sound in “very.” Additionally, English vowels can be quite complex, with subtle variations that can drastically change the meaning of a word.

Resource: ELSA Speak:

This innovative app uses speech recognition technology to help you identify and correct pronunciation issues. It provides real-time feedback, allowing you to compare your pronunciation with native speakers.

Imagine saying a word and instantly receiving guidance on how to adjust your tongue placement or airflow for a more natural-sounding English pronunciation!

Question: How can you tackle these challenges?

Here are some strategies:

  • Shadowing: Listen to a native speaker and repeat what they say, mimicking their intonation and pronunciation as closely as possible.
  • Minimal Pairs Practice: Focus on words that differ only by one sound (e.g., “ship” vs. “sheep”) to train your ear to distinguish subtle pronunciation variations.
  • Online Pronunciation Dictionaries: Utilize resources like to hear native speakers pronounce individual words.
  • Taking help from English Tutors (영어 과외): You can take help from professional native english tutors. Just Visit AmazingTalker and search for it. You will get a list of tutors to seek help from. 

Lack of Tonal System:

Korean is a non-tonal language, meaning the pitch of your voice doesn’t affect the meaning of a word. English, however, relies on stress to convey meaning. For example, the word “present” can be a noun (“This is a present for you”) or a verb (“I present my findings”) depending on which syllable you emphasize.


Korean Englishman YouTube Channel is an entertaining channel, run by a British national living in Korea, explores the differences between English and tonal languages like Mandarin Chinese. By understanding how stress functions in English pronunciation, you’ll be better equipped to navigate the nuances of English communication.

Question: How can understanding stress benefit Korean learners?

Here’s how:

  • Focus on listening for stressed syllables. Pay attention to how native speakers emphasize certain words within a sentence.
  • Practice minimal pairs with stress variations. Find words that differ only in stressed syllables (e.g., “record” vs. “reCORD”) and practice pronouncing them correctly.
  • Shadow with a focus on stress. When shadowing native speakers, actively try to mimic their emphasis patterns.

By understanding these challenges and utilizing the resources available, you can overcome the pronunciation hurdles and master the art of speaking clear, natural-sounding English.

Challenges of Japanese for Koreans (Difficulties):

Korean learners, rejoice! While English pronunciation might require some extra effort, conquering Japanese presents its own set of challenges. Here’s what you need to know:

Complex Writing System:

Unlike Hangul’s beautiful simplicity, Japanese throws a curveball with its three distinct writing systems: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Hiragana and Katakana are phonetic systems, while Kanji are adopted Chinese characters with rich meanings. Mastering all three is essential for Japanese literacy.

Question: But with Hangul already under your belt, what’s the recommended learning order?

Here’s the breakdown:

  1. Hiragana: Mastering this basic phonetic system is crucial as it forms the foundation for grammar and basic vocabulary.
  2. Katakana: Primarily used for foreign words and names, learning Katakana shouldn’t take as long as Hiragana due to its less extensive character set.
  3. Kanji: This is the marathon runner of the trio. Leverage your existing knowledge of Hanja characters in Korean to identify familiar Kanji and build your vocabulary progressively.

More Complex Verb Conjugations Compared to Korean:

Korean verb conjugation might seem like a breeze compared to the intricate world of Japanese verb conjugations. Japanese verbs change depending on tense, formality, politeness level, and transitivity (whether the verb has a direct object).

Question: How do Japanese verb conjugations differ from Korean?

Here are some key differences:

  • More verb tenses: Japanese has a wider range of verb tenses compared to Korean.
  • Formality levels: Japanese utilizes different verb conjugations depending on the formality of the situation.
  • Transitivity: The way a verb is conjugated changes depending on whether it has a direct object or not.

Strategies for Korean Learners:

Start with the most commonly used tenses and formality levels.

  • Utilize flashcards and mnemonics. Create flashcards with verb conjugations and employ memory aids to remember them.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Look for opportunities to use your newly learned conjugations in speaking and writing exercises.

You can also hire Japanese tutors (일본어 과외)to move with a structured strategy on your learning process.

By understanding these challenges and utilizing the provided resources, you can effectively navigate the complexities of the Japanese writing system and verb conjugations.

Potential Easier Alternatives

While English and Japanese present challenges, they might not be the most difficult languages for Korean speakers to learn due to the shared features discussed earlier. However, if you’re looking for languages with potentially easier grammatical structures or pronunciation for Koreans, here are some considerations:

Languages with Similar Grammatical Structures:

Southeast Asian Languages (e.g., Vietnamese, Thai). These languages share a similar Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) word order with Korean and rely less on verb conjugations. However, tonal variations in pronunciation can be a hurdle.

Languages with Phonetic Writing Systems:

Western European Languages (e.g., Spanish, Italian). These languages generally have a more predictable relationship between spelling and pronunciation compared to English and Japanese. However, verb conjugations can still be complex.

Important Note: Ease of learning a language is highly subjective and depends on individual factors like learning style, motivation, and prior language experience.

Related Questions:

Is Korean similar to any other languages besides English and Japanese?

Yes, Korean shares similarities with other languages besides English and Japanese!

Here’s a breakdown:

Altaic Languages (Theory):

While not widely accepted by linguists today, some historical theories proposed a connection between Korean and Altaic languages like Mongolian and Turkish. However, the evidence for this connection is debated.

Japonic Languages (Distant Cousin):

Korean belongs to the Koreanic language family, which is considered a distant relative of the Japonic language family that includes Japanese. This means they share some deeper historical roots, but not a close enough relationship for mutual intelligibility.

Vocabulary Connections:

Korean vocabulary has been influenced by Chinese characters (Hanja) similar to how it has influenced Japanese (Kanji). This can give Korean learners a head start when encountering these characters in other languages like Vietnamese (Chữ Hán).

How much harder are tonal languages compared to English and Japanese for Korean speakers?

Tonal Languages can be a Challenge, but Resources Can Help! For Korean speakers, tonal languages like Mandarin Chinese or Thai might present a steeper learning curve compared to English and Japanese. Here’s why:

  • Pitch Matters. In tonal languages, the pitch of your voice can change the meaning of a word. Korean, lacking tones, requires learners to adjust their pronunciation to navigate these variations. 
  • Extra Layer of Complexity. Mastering tones adds another dimension to learning pronunciation, requiring extra focus and practice compared to the non-tonal English and Japanese.

Are there any resources available to help Korean speakers learn romance languages like Spanish or French?

Absolutely! Resources for Romance Languages Abound!

Korean speakers interested in Romance languages like Spanish or French are fortunate. There’s a wealth of resources available to help them on their learning journey:

Popular apps like AmazingTalker, Duolingo, Babbel, and Memrise offer beginner-friendly courses in Spanish and French, often with features specifically designed for Korean learners.

Platforms like Coursera and edX offer online courses in these languages, sometimes with Korean subtitles or specifically designed for Korean speakers.

Textbooks like “Complete Spanish Grammar” or “French for Beginners” can provide a structured approach to learning grammar and vocabulary, often with accompanying audio resources.

Many online communities cater to Korean language learners, and some might have sub-sections dedicated to learning other languages like Spanish or French. These communities can offer a supportive environment and connect you with other Korean learners on a similar path.

Besides business and popular culture, are there other reasons why English and Japanese are popular languages for Koreans to learn?

While business and entertainment are major drivers for learning English and Japanese, Korean learners are motivated by a wider range of cultural factors.

English proficiency is often seen as a gateway to prestigious universities abroad, and both English and Japanese are commonly offered as second languages in Korean schools.

English unlocks global travel opportunities, while Japanese allows deeper immersion in Japanese culture during travel or working holidays.

Learning a new language can be a personal challenge and a way to connect with different cultures and ways of thinking.

Korean Wave (Hallyu)! The global popularity of Korean music, dramas, and movies has sparked interest in learning Korean among foreigners. Reciprocally, some Koreans might learn English or Japanese to connect more deeply with the source material they enjoy in these languages.

What are some realistic milestones Korean learners can set for themselves when learning English or Japanese?

Here’s how Korean learners can set achievable milestones for themselves when tackling English or Japanese:

Short-term Goals (1-3 Months):

  • This strong foundation will help you recognize cognates (words with shared roots) between Korean and Japanese (due to Kanji)
  • Focus on learning greetings, introductions, and simple phrases for everyday situations (ordering food, asking for directions).
  • Learn the basic sentence structure (Subject-Verb-Object) and common verb conjugations (present tense) in your target language.
  • Aim for 5-10 new words per day, focusing on high-frequency words relevant to your interests or daily life.
  • Immerse yourself in your target language through music, podcasts, or beginner-friendly TV shows.

Mid-term Goals (3-6 Months):

  • Practice conversations beyond basic greetings, discussing hobbies, interests, and expressing opinions.
  • Focus on commonly used tenses (past, future) and grammatical structures you encounter in your listening practice.
  • Increase your daily word intake to 10-15 words, focusing on vocabulary related to specific topics like work or hobbies.
  • Transition from listening comprehension to reading short articles or children’s books in your target language.
  • Practice writing simple sentences and short paragraphs, focusing on correct grammar and spelling.

Long-term Goals (6 Months+):

  • Engage in conversations on a wider range of topics, expressing yourself clearly and confidently.
  • Deepen your understanding of grammar rules and tackle more complex sentence structures.
  • Read news articles, blogs, or even short stories in your target language with increasing ease.
  • Practice writing emails, letters, or essays, demonstrating your understanding of different writing styles.
  • Consider participating in language exchange programs or traveling to a country where your target language is spoken.

Remember, these are just general guidelines. Adjust your goals based on your learning pace and personal goals.


Remember, the difficulty of learning a language is relative. It depends on your individual learning style, motivation, and prior language experience.

A Korean learner who thrives on memorization might find the structured approach of Japanese grammar appealing, while someone who enjoys mimicking sounds might find English pronunciation less daunting.

The key takeaway? Don’t let the challenges deter you! With the right resources and strategies, you can overcome these hurdles. This article provided some valuable resources like “Talk to Me in Korean” and “Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese” to empower your learning journey. Additionally, remember the importance of practice!

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