Headed to South Korea? Love Korean Dramas? Have a Korean friend you want to impress?
These simple expressions can be applied in numerous circumstances and will not only help you navigate the streets, markets and social situations you may find yourself in, but will also earn you a lot of respect from the locals. You will often hear them being said in Korean dramas, TV shows, and YouTube clips (even songs!) by your favorite Korean celebrities.
Whatever your reason may be for wanting to learn these, we encourage you to be patient and diligent with getting these under your belt and constantly practicing until it is natural to you.
안녕하세요 – An-nyeong-ha-se-yo. – Hello.
Although straightforward, this expression is a necessary inclusion and is without doubt the most common phrase anyone in Korea will use. There are dozens of variations to account for slightly different situations and levels of respect, which can get fairly complicated for the non-Korean speaker. The trick is to say it quickly and slur the syllables together. Do this and everyone will understand you. Joking.
This greeting is a very simple one, although it may be long, so it will be worth it to hear how natives say it and get it down pat. A shorter, more informal version of this greeting is
안녕 – An-nyeong. – Hello.
This is reserved for saying hello (hi) to friends and those who are younger than you. Do not greet anyone that you just meet, someone older, or someone that you are not friends with (yet!) with this phrase. They might see it as the equivalent of you giving them just a nod of the head instead of a proper greeting.
반갑습니다 – Ban-gap-sum-ni-da. – Nice to meet you.
Just like its English equivalent, this expression should be used whenever you find yourself suddenly introduced to a new face. In formal settings, this expression is usually accompanied by a bow and a handshake to show respect. This is a good one to know because you will have to introduce yourself a lot in Korean culture and language. Koreans are all about how you present yourself, so introducing yourself and first impressions must be done carefully.
감사합니다 – Kam-sa-ham-ni-da. – Thank you.
This is the most important phrase to learn in Korea if you are going to travel. The most important phrases are those that you need to say, even if your phone dropped and cracked into a million pieces and you could not rely on Google to provide you information.
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There is a more casual version of this that is reserved for friends and those who are younger than you.
고마워 – Go-mah-wuh. – Thanks.
As you can tell, there is a difference in the message that is conveyed through a Thank you vs a Thanks. Thanks is reserved for very casual situations and amongst friends. Do not say this in front of an elder or someone that you do not know. In Korean culture, it is best to be over-polite than rude or impolite.
밥 먹었어요? – Bap meo-geo-seo-yo? – How are you?
Literally meaning, “Did you eat rice?” this phrase is used to show your concern for someone’s well-being. Instead of saying “how are you?” Koreans ask each other if they have eaten yet.
In Korea, food was not always so easy to come by for the average citizen. While Korea has an abundance of food now (as you can tell from the restaurants, supermarkets, night markets you can go to), the phrase still remains as a greeting to show concern for others.
If someone asks you this, simply reply “Nae, meo-geo-seo-yo” (Yes, I ate), which is the expected response, even if you haven’t actually eaten anything. If someone does happen to say no, respond kindly and ask them if they would like to grab a meal together. This can be used as a good opportunity to bond with your new friend or acquaintance.
잠시만요 – Jam-shi-man-yo. – Excuse me./Just a moment.
Literally, “little time stop”, use this to get the attention of others, ask them to move out of the way or tell them to wait. If you’re trying to get off an elevator, for example, but no-one’s moving, you can use this to say “excuse me”. Use this phrase to politely maneuver your way through the crowd.
When you are maneuvering through the crowd, make sure to say this. Otherwise, you might get a lot of angry glares your way for being rude. The rudeness isn’t the maneuvering; it’s the lack of asking for permission / acknowledging that your actions may be affecting others.
There are two ways to be apologetic in Korean. The first is an “I’m sorry I bumped into you” sort of apology, while the latter is more of a “I’m really sorry I forgot about your birthday, please forgive me”, kind of apology.
The first one is more for general situations, where you might have bumped in to someone or made a mistake a work or spilled something at a restuarant. They are for situations where the mistake made is in a public setting and not intended to purposely hurt the other person.
The second version carries a more emotional connotation, where it is often reserved for gaffes that you make in a relationship with someone, or when you have done something greatly wrong that has not only offended but has damaged your relationship with them. It carries a more pleading tone.
주세요 – … ju-se-yo – Please give me…
Add this word on the end of just about any verb stem to make a request to receive something. This phrase is handy because it is something that can be added to a plethora of phrases and used in countless situations. Even when you order something, you say this phrase. When you are asking someone to pass you something, you use this phrase. When you are asking for a hug, you use this phrase.
If you ask for a hug or a kiss with this phrase and you don’t get anything except a cold stare back, we are not responsible for their response. Use at your own risk in those situations.
어디예요 – Eo-di-ye-yo…? – Where is the…?
You will have to use this phrase at some point or another, especially if you travel to Korea. Although Korea has advanced greatly to have a lot of things translated for foreigners and tourists, you will have to ask people for directions. You can use this easily by pointing towards the name of something and then asking where this is. It may be tough to hear what directions they give you and to understand where to go, but at least you know how to ask!
얼마예요 – Eol-ma-ye-yo? – How much is it?
This is critical. You want to buy stuff when you are in Korea. And yes, some things will be dirt cheap. And yes, some things will be super expensive, much more expensive than you think it ought to ethically and legally be. But that’s okay because you can find out how much something is by simply asking them this phrase!
If it’s too expensive when you are trying to buy something from a single merchant in a night market or street market, try saying “Oh, bi-ssa-yo!” (It’s too expensive) with a sad face and see if the store owner is willing to give you a discount. Many people may not want to give a discount to foreign travelers, especially because they know this customer most likely will not be a repeat customer, but some may. Bargaining is a staple in Korean shopping areas (not department stores, but at street markets and night markets) and is common so don’t worry about offending someone by asking this.
What to Say When You Eat
We cover this in detail in our Ultimate guide on how to eat Korean food, but here are the basic phrases anyone should know when you go out to eat.
This means “eat a lot!” when literally translated. Because Koreans faced a long time of poverty and hardship, especially during the time of the Korean War and the subsequent years where the majority of the popular was destitute, food was difficult to come by. If one did have food, it was considered a great fortune and it was also considered a great fortune to be able to say “eat a lot” because it implied that there was plenty to eat. Although Korea no longer faces poverty to that level for most residents, this is still considered a very fortune-bringing thing to say and also reminds us that we must be grateful for everything that we receive. Regardless of what the dish is, we should eat it well, a lot, and joyfully.
잘 먹겠습니다 – Jal meok-ge-sseum-ni-da – I will eat well.
Same intention as the above phrase. While the host tells the people to eat well, the people in turn respond that they will indeed well the food that has been provided for them out of care and love. Make sure to say this phrase BEFORE digging into your food, not afterwards. It is polite to say this to the chef and the host of the meal before picking up your utensils.
잘 먹었습니다 – Jal meo-geo-sseum-ni-da – The meal was good.
Once you have finished eating your delicious Korean meal, say thank you and express your gratitude for the food towards those that provided it. We say this by saying ” I ate well!” when literally translated. To one who has been slaving away in the kitchen to provide the very meal, these words are sweet words that make the efforts and difficulties worth it. This is why Korean mothers love to feed people until they are bursting at the seams.
사랑해 – Sa-rang-hae – I love you.
This is an informal way of saying, “I love you” and you hear it often in dramas and Korean love songs. However, the term it self can be used between friends, family, boyfriends and girlfriends, and even yes, to inanimate objects. It is the general term for ‘love’ that people use commonly.
If someone says this to you, then you have to understand the context that they are saying it in. If you want to reply to someone that you love them as well, all you have to do is add “나도 – Na-do.” Which means “Me too.”
However, this is not a term you would use to your boss or those you don’t know, or those who are older than you. You can express that same heart of love and appreciation in different ways.
가세요 – Ga-se-yo – Go (Please go ahead, leave).
The phrase means “Go ahead, or go”. Although it may sound like you are dismissing the case, it is quite the opposite. It is acknowledging that you are noticing the person’s departure or desire to leave. It is considered rude if one does not greet the person that is leaving because it is rude to act as if that person’s absence does not matter to anyone.
화이팅 – Hwa-it-ting – You can do it!
This is the Korean version of “fighting” which was previously use before. I am not too sure where that went, but it used to be pretty popular in Korea back then. Today, it is something that is still said to give encouragement and as part of pep talks for those who are down.