If you’re an intermediate Korean learner looking to improve your speaking skills, then this article is for you. You probably have a pretty good grasp of Korean grammar already, and a decent-sized vocabulary. Yet you can’t help but feel like you sound a little robotic sometimes.
You’re no longer content with merely conveying your thoughts and experiences. You want to sound more natural - more like a native speaker. It seems like a daunting task, and at times impossible - but it isn’t. You will get there.
Why You Sound Like a Robot (Sometimes)
There are various factors that contribute to this, but personally, I think that a lot of it boils down to what I consider one of the most defining characteristics of the Korean language: it relies heavily on morphology – the way sentences are structured – to provide emotional context.
For example, verb endings such as ~네요, ~군요 and ~더라고요 contain rich connotations that add layers of nuance to otherwise straightforward sentences.
Consider the difference between ‘너무 비싸요’ and ‘너무 비싸더라고요’. In most cases, both of these sentences would be translated into ‘It’s very/too expensive’. On the surface, they appear to convey the same meaning. But there IS a difference, a subtle but important one that is often lost in translation.
The English language, on the other hand, tends to accomplish this through intonation and word choice. A great example of this is the ‘~긴 하다’ structure, which is often used to simultaneously confirm and downplay an action or a fact:
‘본 적이 있긴 한데 자세히 기억은 안 나요.’
(I have seen it before, but I don’t remember it clearly/ I don’t remember the details.)
With English, all you have to do is stress on the word ‘have’. Or all-caps it, if you’re texting. You don’t need to memorise a separate structure for it.
What This Means for You
It is something every language learner faces eventually – that stage where one’s focus in learning shifts from accumulating vocabulary and grammar knowledge to learning how to craft sentences that not only make sense, but sound natural as well.
The more you try to translate your thoughts from English to Korean, the more pronounced the gap between the two languages becomes. You’ll notice that your sentences tend to lose a certain something when you translate them into Korean. They sound less lively, less expressive.
For me, this was particularly noticeable when it came to relaying past events. I found it very difficult to accurately describe situations and most importantly, how I felt about them. I kept wondering, “Why do all my stories end up sounding 10 times duller when I try to tell them in Korean? What’s going on?”
As an English speaker, or someone whose native language is similar to English in this respect, we are used to relying on intonation and word choice to accomplish what the Korean language does via verb endings. Without these verb endings, our sentences can come off sounding flat and dry, devoid of the emotional undertones that make natural speech vibrant and colourful.
The mastery of these verb endings, therefore, is crucial to sounding natural in Korean, which, at the end of the day, is all about wording things the way a Korean would.
What You Can Do About It
So what can you do about this, now that you’re aware of this important difference between Korean and English (or perhaps your native language)? How do you go about mastering these verb endings?
Here are a couple of exercises that you can incorporate into your studying routine.
Collect Sentence Examples
I’ve seen a lot of people moving on after just reading a simple explanation of how a verb ending works and writing down a couple of sentence examples. I used to do the same. It worked fine for a while - mostly with simpler, more straightforward structures like ‘아/어서' and ‘~기 때문에’, but it quickly proved insufficient as I ventured into the more challenging territories and was confronted with complex endings such as ‘-더라고', ‘-군요' and ‘-네요’.
Some of these endings even appeared sort of similar at first glance. My shallow understanding of them made it difficult for me to distinguish them and actually put them to use. In fact, after a while, I noticed that I wasn’t using them in conversations at all.
It’s not hard to see why. All these verb endings have one thing in common - they are all ‘emotional’ in nature. In order to use them, I needed to feel them, to really understand the emotions they are meant to convey. I can’t do that by simply memorising their textbook definitions and conjugation patterns.
So I started collecting sentence examples. A good source of this is NAVER dictionary, which provides a pretty balanced mix of standard textbook sentences and more colloquial ones pulled from V LIVE videos. Every time I learned a new verb ending, I would dedicate at least one hour to scouring the NAVER dictionary for examples of how the verb ending is used.
For example, when I was studying the ‘-더라고(요)’ structure, I made sure to search for sentence examples with keywords such as ‘-더라고’, ‘하더라고', ‘그러더라고', ‘먹더라고’, ‘있더라고' and every other variation I could come up with, using common verbs that I tend to use a lot in daily conversations. This brought up a ton of sentences. I then went through as many of them as I could, and wrote down the ones I could see myself using.
The first time I did this, I ended up with 30-40 sentences. I then made it a habit to review them daily, reading them aloud each time. I kept this up for 2-3 weeks, until they were practically etched into my mind.
The purpose of this exercise was to get myself used to actually saying this verb ending out loud, as well as familiarising myself with ways in which it is used. It also made it a lot easier for me to use it in conversations, because by then I’d gotten so used to its conjugation pattern that I was able to conjugate it fairly quickly.
Watch and Mimic
Now, obviously, collecting sentence examples isn’t enough on its own. If you want to be able to use these verb endings appropriately and naturally whenever the situation calls for it, you need to train your brain to start associating them with the emotions they are supposed to convey.
To do this, you need to expose yourself repeatedly to real-life examples of native speakers using these verb endings. Look for them in everything you watch, be it movies, drama or vlogs. Pay close attention to the tone and context they are used in. Repeat the sentences out loud and try to mimic the speakers as best as you can.
I used to do the same thing with a drama series - watching it over and over again, memorising all the lines and reciting them out loud while doing my best to replicate the actors’ pronunciation and tone. By the time I was done with the whole series, I had 22 episodes’ worth of sentences in my head that I could recite at will.
While I didn’t fully understand all the structures and verb endings that were used in the dialogue, it did expose me to the various contexts they can be used in. When I eventually came across these verb endings in my studies later on, I was able to instinctively deduce their meanings even though I had never actually studied them, like the ‘-더라’ ending. It was almost as if I could feel what it means, and the emotions behind it.
Use it, Over and Over Again
Now that you have a pretty solid idea of what the verb ending means and how it is used, you need to start using it in both writing and conversations. A good way to do this is to keep a journal in Korean, write a new entry everyday, and make a point to use the verb ending each time. I usually submit my entries to italki and Lang-8, where native speakers can review and correct my sentences.
Try to use the verb ending whenever you get the chance, both in writing and conversations, even if you aren’t sure if it’s appropriate, or if it’s the right way to do it. Someone is bound to correct you, and that’s a good thing - you’re supposed to learn through trial and error.
I used to pepper my entries with sentences constructed around the same verb ending - with minor variations in terms of how they were worded - just to see which one works (judging on the feedback provided by native speakers on italki and Lang-8). I started doing this after coming across a video of an adorable Korean girl who was just learning to talk. In the video, she was telling her mother she wanted ice cream. The conversation went a little something like this:
Girl: We eat ice cream?
Mom: It’s too cold for that. Let’s have something else instead.
The girl didn’t understand what ‘something else’ meant. Perhaps it was her first time hearing that phrase. So she tried again, by repeating what she knew.
Girl: We eat… ice cream?
Her mother corrected her again, slowing down to place emphasis on the words ‘something else’.
Mom: No. We eat something else.
Girl: Something … else?
Mom: Yes. Not ice cream. Something else.
To illustrate her point, the mother took out a box of chocolates. The girl’s face lit up and she pointed to the treat. “Something else!” Her mother smiled and nodded, “Yes, something else.”
That was probably her first introduction to the phrase ‘something else’ and the concept it represents. That knowledge will solidify gradually as she’s exposed repeatedly to various usages of the phrase. Each time she encounters it, the notion of ‘something else’ becomes a little more defined in her mind; and each time she uses it, or attempts to, she reinforces her memory of it.
She will probably correct herself a lot along the way, too. Perhaps she thought ‘something else’ refers to ‘chocolate’ in particular. This will change when she hears someone using ‘something else’ to refer to a box of cookies, or a jug of orange juice.
We all learned our native language this way, through repeated exposure and experimentation. Mastering verb endings is no different.
You’ve already succeeded once - you can definitely do it again.
To Sum it Up
English and Korean are two entirely different beasts, which is why I believe the key to mastering the latter lies in understanding the similarities and the differences between the two languages.
You have to grow into the language. But first, you have to get to know it.
After all, what we are trying to achieve here is essentially a transition from one framework of thinking to another - from thinking in English, to thinking in Korean. It’s not enough to just identify their differences - we must internalise them.
It’s about rewiring our brain to start relying more on those verb endings and less on intonation or word choice to communicate the emotions it wants to convey. This can only be done through repeated exposure and experimentation - the same way anyone’s ever learned a language. It’s a matter of time, dedication and patience. The climb is long and arduous, but anyone who’s gone through it will tell you that it’s worth it.
See you at the top!
A copywriter by day, a language blogger by night, Heather has been self-studying Korean since 2016. Heather runs the blog The Malaysian Polyglot in her free time, where she shares her thoughts on language learning, and her experiences with growing up in a multicultural environment. She also speaks Mandarin Chinese, English and Malay.