Counting in Korean


Recently I went on a road trip to attend a beautiful family wedding – however the road trip itself was not beautiful. It was awful. It stormed the entire ten hours it took to drive there (it was supposed to take just under eight hours), a flipped hazmat truck caused a massive backup, and at one point the fog was so dense that we couldn’t see any of the other cars around us. I sat in the backseat with my Korean notebook, reading through my notes, hoping we wouldn’t die due to rainy weather and crazy turnpike driving, and wishing I had something I could really concentrate on besides thinking I-refuse-to-die thoughts and staring at the road signs and passing semis.

Aha! I began counting the signs in Korean.

It sounds thrilling, I know, but it actually worked very well.

Since I started studying Korean, I found the Sino-Korean numbers pretty easy to remember. I had studied some Japanese before I began teaching myself Korean, and they also have a set of numbers influenced by the Chinese (hence the Sino in Sino-Korean).

Japanese numbers go ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku, nana, hachi, kyu, jyu, and so forth, while Sino-Korean numbers are il, i, sam, sa, o, yuk/ryuk, chil, pal, gu, sip. Perhaps these don’t look very similar to you but spoken, some of them sound relatively alike. Like 2 – ni/i, or 3 – san/sam etc.

My problem was and has continued to be with native Korean numbers. I hate numbers to begin with because I don’t like math and so why on earth would I want to study numbers not even in my own language but in another? But numbers aren’t something you can just skip knowing in a language. Money, time, date, amounts of things – these are vital to everyday life. Even a tourist usually learns some numbers. And here I am, Miss I’ll-teach-myself-fluency-in-a-language, struggling with 1-10 in Korean...awkward.

And also, I find it difficult to memorize that 넷 means four or 여덟 is eight. What good is memorization in this situation? I don’t have any sense of what 넷 or 여덟 means because I’ve merely plastered the words in my brain.

When you learn numbers as a child in your own language, do you learn that five is five? No, you learn that five is how many fingers you have on one hand. And look! You have five toes on each foot. Two hands. Two feet. Ten toes. Eight fingers. Two thumbs. You figure out that Johnny has three apples and then he eats two so now he has one.

That’s how you learn numbers – not through memorizing, but through literally experiencing what a number means.

As my family cruised along the turnpike and occasionally gripped our seat belts with white knuckles, I referenced my notes on numbers in Korean and started counting signs or semis. First I practiced my Sino-Korean, because while I do much better with that set than the native, I still have problems with it. I counted signs until I reach ten (several times, from 일 to 십), and then moved upwards from there. After a while, I realized I had easily counted up to 백. I had never done that before, never even used any of those numbers without worriedly double-checking on linguanaut or my Learn Korean app.

The native Korean numbers took me a while because I kept mixing up 아홉 and 일곱 but I now know 하나 through 스물아홉. I kept practicing since then, too. I count the forks, knives, and spoons in Korean while taking care of dishes at my workplace. I count little things, randomly, just to test myself. I made the most of my time on that long trip and finally learned something that I needed to know – and now I’m continuing to use that knowledge.

Have you learned numbers in your target language yet? Do you struggle with one kind over another? Don’t neglect an area of vocabulary, grammar, or general language knowledge just because you don’t like it. If it’s commonly used and useful, you’re going to regret not learning it (I’ve embarrassed myself several times by not knowing how to properly tell a language partner my age). And it’s probably not as difficult as you think it is – just find a creative way to use it (maybe a method more interesting than counting road signs).

Here’s some useful places to check out for learning numbers:

Omniglot – Numbers in Korean

Talk To Me In Korean – Sino-Korean Numbers

Talk To Me In Korean  – Native Korean Numbers

TTMIK – Teach Me Korean Numbers Video Lesson

TTMIK – Telling the Time in Korean




P.S. This is what I’m listening to…


P.P.S. I’m not sorry for all the Hiddles gifs.


2 thoughts on “Counting in Korean

  1. I am sooooo bad with numbers in Korean! Until now I can’t say what is 6 or 9 or 8 or 15 right off the top of my head. I have to count from 하나 / 일. And most of the time it gives away the fact that I am not Korean. Say, I’m talking to an 아줌마 for quite some time and she’ll ask me something and the answer is a number, I’ll start counting and the next reaction would almost always be “You are not Korean, are you?”

    I love your point on how we acquire numbers. I thought I was just an odd ball who can’t get her Korean numbers right. 🙂


    • ㅋㅋ 그지?? Numbers can be so confusing. I think they just take time to learn and it’s easy to become frustrated and give up when learning them in a new language – because it took a childhood worth of playing games with counting and numbers, as well as lots of schooling with math, to get us to our….’number knowledge’ that we have in our own language 😀 And it’s haaaard to say a number off the top of your head! It’ll just take practice, practice, and more practice…number learners, 화이팅!! Thanks for the comment^^


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