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Mastering the basics: essential Korean phrases for your first visit

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Are you planning a trip to Korea? Very good choice! 

As you begin to plan your trip, one thing that can be quite intimidating is the language. But fear not! While the Korean alphabet system may look intimidating, it is surprisingly easy to learn. 

Don’t take my word for it. See for yourself. 

So, can you work out what 바나나 means? 

Yep, banana. Just like that, you’ve learned your first Korean word! 

But that was just a warm-up. Read on for your essential beginner’s guide to Korean phrases and words, that will help you to have the best experience, impress the locals and better understand Korean culture in the process. 

Ju-se-yo (Please give; 주세요) 

From the moment you arrive in Korea, this Korean phrase will be super useful. The literal translation of ‘ju-se-yo’ is ‘please give’ or more naturally, ‘please can I have’. You can add this after any item to order or ask for it. For example, in a café, you can say ‘A-A (pronounced ‘ah-ah’) ju-se-yo’, and you will receive an iced americano. 

If you’re not sure of the Korean word for the item, you can simply point and say ‘i-geo (this; 이거)’ or ‘jeo-geo (that; 저거)’ before ‘ju-se-yo’. Now you can ask for whatever you want! 

Eol-ma-ye-yo? (How much is it; 얼마예요)

Once you’ve placed your order, the next step is to ask for the price and pay. One of many cultural differences you’ll encounter in Korea is that you always pay the cheque on your way out, not at your table. When you’re ready to go, head up to the till and ask ‘Eol-ma-ye-yo?’.

If they ask a follow-up question, it’s probably whether you want to pay with ‘kaa-du (card; 카드)’ or ‘hyun-gum (cash; 현금)’ or if you need a ‘yong-su-jung (receipt; 영수증)’. Be prepared, often when you’re eating with Koreans, they will really insist on paying, or even sneakily settle up while you’re not looking. 

Jal-mok-gget-sseum-ni-da (Bon appétit; 잘먹겠습니다)

Another essential Korean phrase you need to remember is ‘jal-mok-gget-sseum-ni-da’, the Korean version of ‘bon appétit’. The literal meaning is ‘(I) will eat it well (thanks to you)’. In Korean culture, food plays a vital role, and many cultural traditions have developed around the table. It is important in Korea that you express appreciation to people who have given you food, before and after each meal. Once everyone has finished, say ‘jal-mo-ggot-sseum-ni-da’, meaning ‘I have eaten well’, to thank them for the delicious meal. 

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Mae-wo-yo (Is it spicy; 매워요)?

Can you handle the heat? If not, this Korean phrase could be a lifeline for you. You may have heard of the ‘spicy chicken noodle challenge (불닭볶음면 챌린지)’, which drew the attention of spice fiends around the world. In general, Koreans love spicy food and see it as a stress-reliever. If you’re a fan of Korean dramas, you may have seen dishes like ‘tteok-bok-ki’, ‘Korean fried chicken’ and ‘army stew’, which are all covered with Korean Cheongyang chillies or chilli-based sauces, like gochujang. If you don’t need any extra spice in your life, you can double-check the spice level by asking ‘mae-wo-yo?’.

a plate of South Korean food

Image source:Jisong Seo

Gwen-chan-a-yo (alright; 괜찮아요)

‘Gwen-chan-a-yo’ is a versatile phrase that can be handy in many situations. Meaning ‘alright’, it is used both as a question and a response depending on the intonation, similar to in English: ‘All good?’, ‘Yeah, all good’.

It’s not always affirmative though. If you were offered more ‘banchan (side dishes)’ in a restaurant, you might say ‘gwen-chan-a-yo’ to politely refuse, as in, ‘no thanks, I’m good. Banchan are complimentary in Korean restaurants by the way, so you should definitely take advantage of them! 

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Sajin, jjik-eo-ju-se-yo (please take a photo; 사진 찍어주세요)!

Koreans are serious about photos. If you ask anyone on the street to take a quick picture of you, they’ll be happy to oblige. But it might feel more like you’ve paid for a photo shoot – especially when they lie down on a floor to find the perfect angle and composition. 

Beauty standards are quite different in Korea. If your photographer says you have a small face, or large eyes, don’t be offended – it’s a compliment! 

If you want a photo with your new Korean friend as a souvenir, ask to take one together (gachi) – ‘gachi sajin jjik-eo-ju-se-yo’!

Hwa-ee-ting (Good luck; 화이팅)

If you’ve watched K-Dramas before, you might have heard this Korean phrase a lot. ‘Hwa-ee-ting’ is actually borrowed from the English word, fighting. 

It’s not a violent or aggressive phrase though, but a positive exclamation of encouragement. The natural translation is ‘good luck’ or ‘you’ve got this’, and the phrase is often used to encourage others (or yourself) in a competitive or difficult situation. 

For example, you can shout ‘hwa-ee-ting’ to support your favourite baseball team or even say it to your friend who is completely exhausted from walking around Seoul! Even to yourself, whenever feeling low, try clenching your first and saying ‘Hwa-ee-ting’ out loud. You might get a sudden burst of energy.

 Mi-an-ham-ni-da (I am sorry; 미안합니다)

It is always useful to learn how to say ‘I am sorry’ to avoid any misunderstanding in a foreign country. Although many people will understand ‘sorry’ in English, making an effort in Korean will seem much more sincere. In addition, Korean people will bow when saying hello (anyoung-ha-se-yo), thank you (gamsa-ham-ni-da) or sorry (mi-an-ham-ni-da) to show respect, especially to older people or strangers. If you ever find yourself needing to apologize, a small bow and ‘mi-an-ham-ni-da’ will do the trick. 

Yo-gi-yo (Here please; 여기요)

Have you ever struggled to get your server’s attention to order or get the cheque? The good news is that you don’t need to wait awkwardly in Korea, as it is not seen as rude or disrespectful to call restaurant staff over to your table. ‘Yo-gi-yo’ means ‘here please’, which effectively implies ‘here I am ready’. These days, many restaurants have a button on your table to call staff over instantly, but if not, don’t feel scared to shout out! 

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Chae-go (The best; 최고)

Let’s finish on a positive, and very useful Korean word – ‘Chae-go’! When you’ve really enjoyed the food or experience, this is how to tell your friends you’re having the BEST time. 

If you say ‘chae-go’ with a thumbs up, you’re sure to impress the locals, and they might even throw some freebies your way. You can use this one generously on your travels. I wish you a ‘chae-go’ time in Korea!

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