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How to Communicate in South Korea: Quick Guide to Essential Korean Phrases and Body Languages

Updated: Aug 24, 2023


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When traveling to a new country, learning the essential local phrases and body language can help you communicate with the locals and navigate the culture. Not only will it make your travels smoother and more enjoyable, but it can also help you avoid misunderstandings and show respect for the local people and their customs. In this blog, we’ll be teaching you 12 essential phrases and a few important body language and gestures you need to know.


12 Essential Korean Phrases

Once you arrive in Korea, you’ll notice that most Koreans speak a basic level of English. Not to mention, most signage and the announcements on public transportation will be in English in the bigger cities. However, by taking the time to learn just a few essential phrases, the locals will appreciate your efforts to speak the Korean language and you’ll be able to make more meaningful connections, unforgettable memories, and maybe even some “service” (suh-bi-seu) which are freebies in Korean.

In the Korean language, there is a distinction between formal and informal speech levels. Formal speech, known as "jondaetmal" is used to show respect to seniors, colleagues, and acquaintances. Informal speech, called "banmal," is used among friends and family. It is important to use the appropriate speech level based on the social context in Korean communication.

To approach locals with politeness and respect, here are the only 12 formal phrases you need to know that will help make your stay in South Korea more enjoyable.

1. Hello: 안녕하세요 (ahn-nyeong-ha-sae-yo)

In Korea, greetings are typically expressed through a combination of words and actions. The most common way to greet someone is by saying "안녕하세요" (annyeonghaseyo), which translates to "Hello" in English. Additionally, a slight nod of the head and a warm smile are often used to accompany the greeting. Handshakes are also common, particularly in more formal or business settings, but it is important to note that physical contact may vary depending on the level of familiarity and age difference between individuals.

2. Yes: 네 (ne)

In Korean, "yes" is typically expressed as "네" (ne). It is the most common and casual way to say "yes" in everyday conversations.

3. No: 아니요 (ah-ni-yo)

This is the standard and most common way to say "no" in Korean. It is polite and can be used in various situations.

While "아니오" (aniyo) is a formal way to say "no" in Korean, "괜찮아요" (gwaenchanayo) is a phrase that means "It's okay" or "I'm fine." It is not a direct translation of "no," but it can be used in certain contexts to express agreement or reassurance.

4. Thank you: 감사합니다 (gam-sa-hab-ni-da)

This is the standard and formal way to say "thank you" in Korean. It is appropriate to use in most situations to express gratitude. Two other ways you can express gratitude is by saying:

고맙습니다 (gomapseumnida): This is another formal way to say "thank you" in Korean. It is similar in meaning to 감사합니다 (gamsahamnida) and can be used interchangeably.

고마워요 (gomawoyo): This is a more casual and informal way to say "thank you" in Korean. It is suitable to use with friends, family members, or peers in informal settings.

5. Excuse me: 저기요 (jeo-gi-yo)

If you’re trying to get the attention of a stranger, ask for assistance, or call a waiter/waitress in a restaurant, 저기요(Jeogiyo) is a casual and versatile way to say "excuse me".

실례합니다 (silryehamnida): This is the most formal way to say "excuse me" in Korean. You can use this phrase to get someone's attention, apologize for interrupting, or when you need to pass through a crowded space.

6. Please help me: 도와주세요 (dowa-ju-seyo)

To ask for help in Korean, you can use the phrase "도와주세요" (Dowajuseyo). It translates to "Please help me" and can be used in various situations where you need assistance. Whether you're lost, in need of directions, or require general assistance, using "도와주세요" will convey your request for help.

7. I would like this one: 이거 주세요 (ee-geo joo-seyo)

In this phrase, "이거" (igeo) means "this one," and "주세요" (juseyo) is a polite request meaning "please give me this" or "this give please". When you want to indicate a specific item or point to something you want, you can use this expression to ask for it.

8. Sorry: 죄송합니다 (jwe-song-hab-ni-da)

“죄송합니다” (Joesonghamnida) is the most common and formal way to say "sorry" in Korean.

If you want to apologize in a more casual manner, you can say “미안합니다” (mi-ahn-hab-ni-da). You can use this phrase among friends, family, or in informal situations.

9. How much is it?: 얼마에요? (ul-ma-e-yo)

“Eolmaeyo” directly translates to “How much?”, and "Igeo" means "This". You can say 이거(는) 얼마예요? (Igeo(neun) eolmayeyo?) to ask "How much is this?" or "What is the price of this?"

You can replace "이거" (igeo) with the specific item or product you want to inquire about. The particle "는" (neun) is optional and can be used for emphasis, but it can also be omitted.

Example:

Igeo eolmaeyo? (How much is this?)

Icecream eolmayeyo? (How much is this icecream?)

10. I don’t like it: 싫어해요 (sil-uh-hae-yo)

You can say “싫어해요" (shireohaeyo) to express your dislike for something or someone. It translates to "I don't like it" or "I dislike it."

Example:

Igeo shireohaeyo (I don’t like this)

Kimchi shireohaeyo (I don’t like kimchi)

11. I like it: 좋아해요 (jo-ah-hae-yo)

To say "I like it" in Korean, you can use the phrase "좋아해요" (joahaeyo) in polite form.

Example:

Bibimbap joahaeyo (I like bibimbap)

K-Pop joahaeyo (I like K-Pop)

12. I love you (or it): 사랑해요 (sa-lang-hae-yo)

To express that you love someone or something, you can say “사랑해요” (saranghaeyo).

Example:

Ajumma saranghaeyo (I love you Ajumma)

BTS saranghaeyo (I love BTS)

These 12 phrases, ranging from greetings and expressions of gratitude to asking for help, will help you navigate daily interactions and connect with locals on a more meaningful level. By making an effort to learn and use these phrases, you not only show respect for the local culture but also open doors to genuine experiences and deeper connections with the people you encounter.

Korean Body Language & Gestures

Korean body language plays an important role in communication and social interactions. Now that we’ve gone over the 12 essential Korean phrases, here are some key aspects of Korean body language:




Bowing

Bowing is a significant gesture in Korean culture. It is a non-verbal way to show respect, greet others, and express gratitude. The depth and duration of the bow can vary based on the formality of the situation and the level of respect being conveyed.


Using both hands to give and receive

It is considered polite and respectful to use both hands when receiving or offering items to someone, particularly to elders. Using both hands shows a gesture of respect, attentiveness, and sincerity in the interaction.


Shaking hands

Handshakes are commonly used in business or formal settings when greeting someone. A firm handshake with a slight bow of the head is considered appropriate. In more casual situations, a simple nod may be used for greeting instead of a handshake.


Personal space

Koreans tend to have a closer proximity when interacting compared to some Western cultures. It is common to stand or sit in closer proximity to others during conversations, especially among friends or colleagues. Respecting personal space is still important, and it is essential to gauge the comfort level of the person you are interacting with.


Nodding

Nodding the head up and down is a common gesture in Korean culture. It is used to indicate understanding, agreement, or acknowledgement during conversations. Nodding can vary in intensity and speed, from subtle nods to more pronounced ones.


Finger heart

The "finger heart" gesture has become a popular trend in Korean culture and has gained recognition worldwide. It involves creating a heart shape using the thumb and index finger, with the other fingers extended. The finger heart gesture is commonly used to express affection, love, and support. It is often seen in photos, particularly among K-pop idols and their fans, as a way to show adoration and connection. The finger heart has become an iconic symbol of positivity and has been embraced by people beyond Korean culture as a sign of love and happiness.


Drinking etiquette

When drinking with Koreans, it's important to remember these essential drinking etiquettes:

Turn your head away from your seniors as you take a sip.

It is common to turn your head away or cover your mouth with your hand while drinking as a sign of respect.

Never pour your own drink.

It is considered impolite to pour your own drink. Instead, take turns pouring for others, and they will reciprocate by pouring for you. Be attentive to others' cups and offer to refill them when they are empty.

Use both hands to accept drinks.

When someone offers you a drink, receive it with both hands as a sign of respect. It shows appreciation for the gesture and acknowledges the giver.

Avoid turning down drinks.

In Korean drinking culture, it is generally expected to accept drinks when offered. If you must decline due to personal reasons or if you have had enough, it is best to politely explain your reason rather than outright refusing.

It is important to note that body language can have cultural nuances, and interpretations can vary among individuals. It is advisable to observe and learn from the local customs and adapt your body language accordingly to show respect and foster effective communication.

By learning a few essential phrases and non-verbal languages, you'll be able to forge meaningful connections with the people you meet in South Korea.

We hope you have a wonderful time in South Korea!

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