I spend a lot of time on the internet, and most of that time is split between watching Youtube videos and interacting with other language learners, particularly Korean learners. There’s a chatroom that I especially hang around in a lot, and every now and then someone looking to get in to learning Korean from step 1 comes in. When they ask for resources and advice, the first thing that I tell them to do is to learn Hangul by sight and sound, avoiding romanization (writing Korean words in the Roman alphabet) as much as possible. I usually link them this video because it doesn’t use romanization like most learn-Hangul sources.
So, what’s the deal with romanization and why is using it so bad? Today I’ll focus on what exactly romanization is and why I am so very against its use as a tool for learning Korean pronunciation.
Romanization—What is it?
Romanization, as I have already mentioned above, is using the Roman alphabet to write Korean words (for example, writing “annyeong” or “anyong” or anything else instead of “안녕”). Reliance on romanization is bad for learning Korean for a few reasons, including lack of adherence to the standard, differences between speakers, and ultimately its failure to accurately match the actual sounds of the Korean language.
There is an official romanization standard for Korean called “Revised Romanization of Korean.” Revised Romanization of Korean (from here on out, RR) is the standard that has been in place since 2000, introduced as a way to fix some problems with an earlier system… and yet this one also, in my opinion, is very unsatisfying. It fails for a few reasons, some that are an issue with the system itself and some factors that lie outside of the system.
Lack of adherence to the system
While RR is the standard romanization system of Korean and has been for some time, adherence to it outside of instances mandated by the government is not guaranteed. While most Korean language textbooks will use RR, some will go with another system or maybe even some other romanization that was deemed to “fit better.” I’ve read academic linguistic papers on Korean meant for English-language audiences, and some of those papers, despite being published after the introduction of RR (in some cases many years after) use incredibly strange romanization that doesn’t match either RR or the previous system.
More important than the usage of romanization in some obscure academic articles, at least for the purpose of this blog, is the use of romanization by Korean learners and Korean people—and going off of what I have seen on this website and other language exchange sites and apps, Korean learners and Korean natives alike tend to use romanization that is not in line with the standard and that can differ greatly from person to person. How can romanization possibly be a useful tool for learning when nobody seems to use it the same way? How can you be sure you’re expressing the same sounds?
Confusion due to unfamiliarity
In addition to confusion caused by using different romanization types, just the presence of romanization itself can cause confusion! Many Koreans are of course not too familiar with romanization outside of place names because… they have no reason to be! They have Hangul, so of course they don’t use romanization in their daily lives. If you check out this video, you can see how hard it can be for native speakers to try to read Korean that is written in romanization. Supposing that your goal in learning Korean is to be able to communicate with native speakers, moving away from romanization and getting cozy with Hangul for writing is definitely the way to go.
RR’s failure to match the actual sounds of the language + differences between speakers
One of my other major bones to pick with RR—probably my largest, actually— has to do with the fact that it doesn’t really match up with the actual sounds of the Korean language. Have you ever seen someone ask (or asked yourself) if ㄱ is “k” or “g”? Maybe you’ve wondered if ㅂ is “p” or “b”? Sometimes ㄱ is written as “k” and sometimes as “g” in RR so it must be both, right? That’s a natural assumption to make, but it’s not the right answer.
Korean makes use of some sound distinctions that English (and other languages that use the Roman alphabet) don’t make. In fact, there is no sound in Korean that corresponds to the sound an English speaker would think of when they see “g,” and the same goes for “b, j, ch…” NONE of those sounds as our English-speaking brains know them exist in Korean, but there they are in the romanization. It wouldn’t be a problem, I suppose, if you knew which speech sounds exactly correspond to which letter (combinations) in RR… but I’m sure that pretty much nobody studies phonetics just for the sake of making sure they’re reading romanization correctly.
The large majority of people who look at romanization are not reading it correctly, and if you’re using it to learn Korean pronunciation, then your pronunciation will end up sounding more unnatural than it would if you just forwent the romanization altogether and just learned it more naturally, from sound (and with Hangul, sight-sound correspondence) alone. And add on to all this the fact that one’s native language and dominant dialect of that language will color the way one ends up pronouncing romanization that they see and read… it’s a jumbled path that can easily carry you off the path of more accurate pronunciation.
So, is romanization totally useless?
No, I’m not saying that romanization is useless by any means. In this globalized society, it is obviously necessary for the large majority of the world’s population who can’t read Hangul. However, romanization is used in such a scattered way by learners and native Korean speakers, and even the standard romanization fails to match Korean phonology properly, so it’s really not an ideal tool to use when learning Korean pronunciation. Please try your best to use all the great audiovisual resources online, like the video I linked at the start of this section, to learn the sounds of Korean without romanization~!
Happy studying, everyone!