As with most visits to another country, learning a few basic phrases in Korean is the polite thing to do, and will serve you well on your visit.
A friend of mine was planning to visit Korea for the first time and asked me for a little help, so I compiled a quick list of basic phrases that would come most in handy for her trip. I’ve reproduced the list there for everyone’s benefit. If you’re going to find yourself in South Korea (or North Korea, although that seems less likely!) you’ll do yourself a favour by knowing at least this much Korean when you get there!
No matter where you are in the world, polite behaviour will go a long, long way towards making your visit more pleasant. To say hello in Korean when being formal (someone older than you, or when first introduced), say annyeonghaseyo (ON-young-HA-say-yo).
If you’re familiar with the person or they are younger, you can instead say annyeong (ON-young). It’s more casual and intimate.
Your mother, I am sure, taught you to say thank you. In Korean this is gamsahabnida (COM-sah-mi-DUH).
In order to show respect (and respect is very important in Korean culture) you should stretch out the middle and end “ah” sounds a lot. It sounds odd to Western ears, but Koreans will appreciate the touch.
To say excuse me formally in Korean, you say sillyehabnida (she-LAY-ah-me-DUH). Korea can be quite crowded, especially in the cities, so you’ll get a lot of use out of this phrase.
Most Koreans speak at least a little English, so you can get by with some English and a bit of imagination. When shopping, when asking prices, say olmahyeyo (OL-MA-ye-YO), which literally means how much for this? However, in most shops and stalls if you ask in Korean they will respond in Korean, so learn Korean numbers if you plan to pursue this strategy!
The most important phrase you’ll ever learn in any language when playing tourist is, of course, where is the bathroom?
To ask this vital question in Korean, say eodi e hwojangsil? (oh-dee e ha-WONG-SHE).
Trust me when I say knowing where the bathroom is becomes incredibly important when you’re running around an unfamiliar city!
Of course, you could learn a great many more Korean phrases, but these five simple ones will actually get you pretty far, combined with some English and enthusiastic gesturing. Korea’s a great country to visit – especially when you can ask after the bathrooms!