While learning Korean, it’s important to remember that South Korea is a hierarchical society. There’s an emphasis on age and status, and you really need to pay attention to how you speak to others. This can be hard for native English speakers because we don’t have to do this – there are times when we’re mindful of our word choices and phrasing, but our grammar and sentence structure don’t change depending on whom we’re talking to. This isn’t the case in Korean, where there are very specific speech levels and verb endings depending on the situation and/or your relationship to the person you’re speaking with. Also known as politeness levels, these can be very confusing and stressful for beginning Korean learners – so I’m going to try and break them down as much as possible.
I know I always make a disclaimer that these posts are supposed to be a simple introduction to certain aspects of Korean, but I REALLY mean it here. Speech levels are extremely complicated and nuanced, and I don’t have the knowledge or expertise to tell you everything about them. This post is CRAZY LONG because I have a lot to cover, but I’m trying to stick to need-to-know information as much possible. I assume most people reading this post are learning Korean through self-study – so although I explain how to form these speech levels and when to use them, my main goal is to really provide lots of examples so you know what to look out for. And since this is a K-pop blog, I’ll mention when these speech levels are used in K-pop or on variety shows because I imagine that’s how a lot of my readers do listening practice.
Another important note I want to point out is that as a non-Korean, you don’t need to worry too much about politeness levels. In my experience, Koreans generally don’t think foreigners know much about their language and culture – and they certainly don’t expect foreigners to know all the details and nuances. Most mistakes I’ve made were forgiven and kindly corrected because the people I spoke to were so happy that I was even trying to speak Korean beyond basic expressions. (And seriously, my Korean speaking level is high beginner at best.) Koreans will be pretty understanding of any errors, unless you make a serious one like using casual language with a complete stranger or someone much older.
“Formal” vs. “Polite”
I watched a ton of Korean learning videos on YouTube to prep this post, and I saw something in a lot of them that I want to address. When Korean people use the words “formal” and “polite” to explain speech levels, they actually mean two different things. This was confusing to me because they’re somewhat interchangeable in English, and there isn’t as clear a distinction between them. It brought me back to a few years ago when my Korean teacher would about “formal” and “polite,” and I’d alway think something like, “But I AM being polite when I’m being formal… so what’s the difference?” If you’re like me, you might struggle with this particular choice of terminology.
Basically, “formal” and “polite refer to two different (but often connected) conditions. The words “formal” or “informal” refer to the situation that you find yourself in. For example, whether you’re in a work meeting or whether you’re just hanging out with friends. These are called “격식체” (formal speech) and “비격식체” (informal speech). Meanwhile, the words “polite” or “impolite” refer to the relationship you have with the person you’re talking to. This include factors like your ages, your statuses (usually in a work context), and how well you know each other. These are referred to as “존댓말” (polite speech) and “반말” (casual speech), and you’ll hear Korean teachers mention them a lot. There’s obviously some overlap – which is why it’s a little tricky in the first place – but it’s mainly about “situation” versus “relationship.”
A Brief Word About Verbs and Sentence Structure
I won’t really cover grammar and sentence structure aside from what we need to learn about speech levels, since going further would introduce many more complicated elements. However, there are a couple of things that I need to mention to make this post easier to understand. To keep things simple, we’re going to stick to verbs in their infinitive form and in the present tense. When Korean verbs are in infinitive form, they all end in “다.” Here are some examples:
- 이다 – to be (as in, “to be American”)
- 있다 – to have, to be somewhere/to exist (as in, “to be at school”)
- 하다 – to do
- 가다 – to go
- 먹다 – to eat
- 좋아하다 – to like
- 행복하다 – to be happy
Note that the last one is a descriptive verb, which might confuse native English speakers since we usually consider adjectives separate from verbs. If I say “I’m happy” In English, I’m using a conjugation of the verb “to be” with the adjective “happy.” In Korean, both are combined together to get the descriptive verb “행복하다” – “to be happy.” So I don’t need to conjugate it using the verb “이다”, since the “to be” part is already included. This is a little advanced for beginners, but I’m bringing it up since some of my examples are descriptive verbs. (You can watch this video if you want to know more about adjectives in Korean.)
The last important thing to remember is that Korean sentence structure is slightly different from English. In English, a basic sentence or question is “Subject + Verb + Object.” But in Korean, it’s “Subject + Object + Verb.” For example, the English sentence “I like coffee” would come out as “I coffee like” when directly translated from Korean.
Analyzing the Korean Speech Levels
Technically, there are six or seven Korean speech levels that indicate various degrees of formality and/or politeness. Some of them are kind of outdates and not used in modern conversational Korean, so I’m going to skip those. Instead, I’m focusing on the speech levels you’re mostly likely to encounter while learning and practicing Korean. While they have their own names in Korean, I won’t add them here since you don’t really need to learn them. (I literally just found out what they were while I was writing this post). Also, my terminology might not be exactly the same as what textbooks or videos use – but based on what I talked about earlier in terms of “formal” and “polite,” I think this word choice is clearer for beginners.
Speech Level #1: Formal Polite (-ㅂ니다)
This speech level is considered both formal AND polite, the most that you can be in while speaking Korean. In my experience, teachers and textbooks don’t cover this in a lot of detail. The Korean books I use for self-study barely include it at all, and I didn’t see many videos on YouTube that specifically addressed it. (Actually, I was actually hard pressed to find a video that covered all the speech levels.) Personally, I think Koreans might not focus on teaching foreigners “formal polite” speech because it’s generally way too formal to be in used everyday conversation. I’ve lived in South Korea for two and a half years, and I’ve rarely needed to use it aside from pleasantries. (But I work as an English teacher and I’m not expected to speak Korean, so things might be different if I were working at a Korean company.) But although you might not have to use “formal polite” speech yourself, you’ll still hear and read a fair amount of it.
How to Form It
There’s one very important pronunciation note to remember with these sentence endings: in all these cases, the letter “ㅂ” is pronounced as the Korean letter “m,” NOT the Korean letter “b” (or “p”). So for example, “입니다” would be pronounced as “imnida” and NOT “ibnida.” (Another reason why Romanization isn’t always helpful.) As a non-native speaker, I don’t really get the logic – but you can see a more detailed explanation in the video below.
When to Use It
You use this speech level in the most formal situations, like for giving a speech or a presentation. Depending on your work situation, you also might speak primarily in this form at your job. And you’ll hear it a lot in news or television broadcasts. Variety shows are slightly different since they’re supposed to have a more comfortable and familiar environment, but the MCs will occasionally switch to this speech level when they’re introducing a corner or explaining something to the viewers at home – basically, when they’re in “announcer mode.”
You also speak like this with people whom you want to be extremely polite and respectful to. In many cases, this means people who are much older than you – typically senior citizens who are the same age as your grandparents. (And depending on your family dynamic, maybe your actual grandparents as well.) This also includes anyone who would be considered higher than you in social rank, usually in the workplace. There’s an aspect of humility that comes with this speech level – you’re showing your respect to the other person, but you’re also humbling yourself while doing so. In other words, you’re acknowledging they’re higher than you in social standing somehow (by Korean standards).
Because talking like this is both extremely formal and polite, you generally won’t use it for everyday conversation or even with most people you meet. There’s not really an English equivalent, but I guess constantly using it would be similar to talking like a news anchor all of the time. However, there are some common pleasantries and expressions that everyone usually says using the “formal polite” speech level. Even if the situation isn’t overly formal and you’re not necessarily humbling yourself to the other person, you use these expressions because you DO want to be as polite as possible. There are probably some exceptions, but I almost always hear all the following sentences in “formal polite” :
- “만나서 반갑습니다.” / “Nice to meet you.”
- “감사합니다.” / “Thank you.”
- “실례합니다.” / “Excuse me.”
- “죄송합니다.” / “I’m sorry.”
When it comes to K-pop, you’re generally not going to hear a lot of this speech level. The big appeal of groups and idols is that they’re supposed to seem relatable and approachable, which they can’t really be if they’re using the most formal speech level possible. You’ll mostly hear them speaking in “formal polite” when they’re introducing themselves, engaging in pleasantries (like the examples I listed above), thanking staff members and people they work with, talking with higher-ups at their companies, etc. But sometimes they’ll use it if they want to clearly communicate humility and respect – for example, when they’re at a concert and they want to express their love and gratitude for their fans.
Speech Level #2: Informal Polite (-요)
You might already be familiar with this speech level, since it’s the most commonly used one. When you begin learning Korean, this is the form that your teacher will probably start you with. Most of the Korean learning videos I see on YouTube usually focus on “informal polite” speech as do the textbooks I use. As a foreigner, it’s probably safest to stay within this speech level since it’s less likely you’ll offend anyone.
How to Form It
Typically, you can easily recognize “informal polite” speech because you’ll hear the “요” at the end of the sentence. However, there’s a little more to it than that. How you conjugate the verb depends on two things: whether the syllable ends in a consonant or vowel, and what kind of vowel it is. If you watch some videos about this on YouTube, you might notice some Koreans talk about “bright” and “dark” vowels. They’re basically referring to how the vowels sound: “ㅏ” and ” ㅗ” are considered bright vowels because they often have a lighter and more uplifting vibe, while “ㅓ” and “ㅜ” are the dark vowels since they feel a little heavier. There are three basic rules for conjugating verbs in the “informal polite” speech level:
- If the verb stem has a bright vowel (“ㅏ” or ” ㅗ”), then you add “아요.”
- If the verb stem has a dark vowel (“ㅓ” or “ㅜ”), then you add “어요.” (This actually also applies to most vowels aside from the two bright ones.)
- If the verb ends in “하다,” then you change it to “해요.”
Here are some more specific examples, using verbs that end in most of the simple vowels: “ㅏ,” “ㅗ,””ㅓ,” “ㅜ,” and “ㅣ.” (I left out “ㅡ” because it has some irregular conjugations.)
Keep in mind that these are the basic rules for conjugation, and there are several exceptions with irregular verbs – I didn’t mention them because I feel they’re not really beginner level. But if you ready to tackle those, then you can watch this video. It explains everything I did, plus it shows you regular and irregular conjugations and even talks a little bit about past tense. And if you want a simpler explanation of everything I just covered, you can look at the two short videos below.
When to Use It
If you’re a foreigner living in South Korea, you’ll probably be speaking “informal polite” around 85-90% of the time. (Unless you have close Korean friends you can speak casually with.) It’s the form people use for normal conversation or everyday situations, and it’s a safe neutral zone to be in. Like I mentioned before, using “formal polite” implies that you’re humbling yourself and acknowledging the person you’re talking to is above you in some way (usually in regards to age or status). With “informal polite,” you don’t need to lower yourself like that – but you are still being well-mannered around others. A lot of people on variety shows speak in “informal polite,” and watching them can help give you a good idea of how it’s used. Although the environment is more comfortable and relaxed, the hosts and guests use this speech level to indicate they’re still being respectful to each other.
Sidebar: Honorific Speech (-세요)
This is NOT a grammar point for beginners, and there’s a lot more to this that you should look into when your level is higher. However, I want to briefly explain a couple aspects of it since I noticed that a decent amount of YouTube videos on speech levels bring it up. Honorific speech and speech levels are two separate elements – speech levels show respect to the person you’re talking TO, while honorific speech shows respect to the person you are talking ABOUT. For example, say that I’m speaking in “informal polite” and I want to say, “My grandmother likes strawberries.” If I were saying *I* liked strawberries, then I would use the verb ending “-좋아해요.” But the subject of the sentence is my grandmother, who’s much older than I am and my senior in Korean society. So, I would use honorific speech and say ” -좋아하세요.”
As a Korean beginner, you’re more likely to see and hear honorific speech in the imperative form – aka giving commands or telling someone to do something. This means the person whom you’re talking to and talking about are the same, so you want to use honorific speech with them to be extra polite. For example, you might have heard people use the expression “_______ 주세요” when they order something. “주세요” is the honorific form of “주다,” which means “to give.” “커피 줘요” versus “커피 주세요” is basically “Give me a coffee” versus “Please give me a coffee.” The first one can come off as rude, but the second one is polite.
Though you can conjugate honorific speech with the “formal polite” and “casual” speech levels, I’m just going to show you how to do it with “informal polite” since that’s what you’ll probably see the most. There are two basic rules:
- If the verb stem ends in a consonant, you add “으세요.”
- Example: 앉다 (to sit) becomes “앉으세요” or “Please sit down.”
- If the verb stem ends in a vowel, you add “세요.”
- Example: You might hear people say “어서 오세요” whenever you enter a store or restaurant. “오세요” is the honorific form of “오다” (to come), so this sentence basically means “Welcome” or “Please come in.”
Again, honorific speech is a more difficult concept that beginners don’t really need to know. But if you’re curious and want to learn more about it, the video below is a really thorough and detailed breakdown.
Speech Level #3: Casual
If you’re a foreigner in Korea, you might not be using casual speech all that much. You’d really only use it if you had a close friend or significant other that you regularly spoke Korean with. But you’ll definitely hear it a lot in general conversation and in dramas and variety shows, so it’s important to recognize it.
How to Form It
The Korean word for casual speech is “반말.” “반” means “half,” and “말” means “language” or “speech.” So it literally translates to “half speech” – which is actually a pretty apt way of describing it. Since you just learned how to speak in “informal polite,” speaking casually is even easier: you conjugate the verb stem the same way, but you just drop the “요.” Here are some examples:
|Informal Polite Korean||Casual Korean|
|Where are you going?||어디 가요?||어디 가?|
|Do you eat pizza?||피자 먹어요?||피자 먹어?|
|Drink some water.||물 좀 마셔요.||물 좀 마셔.|
|I’m so tired.||너무 피곤해요.||너무 피곤해.|
When to Use It
In general, you should only use casual speech with those whom you are VERY close to – aka your friends or people you spend a lot of time with. (This does NOT include work colleagues, since that’s a professional setting and should always have some level of propriety.) You can also use casual speech when talking to people who are younger than you or the same age as you. However, you should NEVER speak casually to anyone on the first meeting, regardless of age. You should speak to them with “informal polite” while you get acquainted, and then you can address them casually once you have some level of familiarity.
If you want to get a feel for speech levels and when Koreans use “informal polite” and “casual,” I really recommend watching Kingdom. (The K-pop boy group reality show, not the zombie drama.) There’s an added layer of professionalism since K-pop artists have to think about age AND seniority when choosing speech levels, but I still think it gives an accurate picture of young people developing friendships and working relationships. During the show, there was a part when members from different groups got put together into new units. The video below features one unit getting to know each other: Bobby from iKON, Hwiyoung from SF9, and Sunwoo from The Boyz. While you probably won’t understand everything they say, try and look at the verb endings in the Korean captions.
Among these three, Bobby is both the oldest AND the most senior. So if you look and listen carefully, you’ll notice that he spoke to Hwiyoung and Sunwoo quite casually. Meanwhile, both Hwiyoung and Sunwoo were mostly speaking to him using “informal polite” speech since they’re younger than him and their groups debuted after his. Interestingly, Hwiyoung also spoke to Sunwoo in “informal polite” despite being a year older and having debuted a year earlier. I obviously don’t know him personally, so I don’t really know the reason behind that. My guess is that he might not have felt comfortable enough with Sunwoo to speak casually to him yet, even if Sunwoo wouldn’t necessarily have minded. (There’s another scene in the episode when Hwiyoung addressed Sunwoo with a polite title and he responded, “Why are you calling me that?”) So, there are times when it’s up to the (older) person to decide if they want to speak casually or not.
Of course, friendships and relationships naturally evolve over time. And if you become really close with someone who’s older than you, you *might* eventually be able to use casual speech with them. For example, you’ll probably see this with K-pop groups who have been together for many years. In the video below, you can see NCT Dream is mostly speaking casually with each other – even the youngest member. (Although they use “informal polite” when talking to the staff or answering an official “interview” question.) But as the younger person in the relationship, you can’t just automatically switch to speaking casually when you feel like it – you have to mutually agree on making that permanent change. And typically, the older person is the one to suggest shifting speech levels. So if you’re younger than your Korean friend, you’ll probably have to wait until they bring it up.
One last thing related to K-pop – you might have noticed that song lyrics are usually in casual speech (at least like 95% of the time). I was curious why, so I asked my Korean friend about this. She said that it’s because the singers want to establish a comfortable dynamic with the listeners of the song, who are most likely their fans. They use casual language so that the listeners can feel close to them, which matches what I was saying earlier about how idols are marketed as approachable and relatable.
Comparing the Three Main Speech Levels
Up until now, I’ve covered three speech levels: “formal polite,” “informal polite,” and “casual.” While there’s a fourth speech level I’ll get to later, these are the main three that you’ll hear the most and really need to kow about. While I’ve already provided some examples, I wanted to show you some more direct comparisons. So, I’ve chosen four fairly common expressions that I’ve heard during my time here in South Korea. And more importantly, I’ve heard Korean people say them using different speech levels.
You probably know the standard Korean word for “hello,” which is usually “안녕하세요.” But while this phrase means “hello” or “hi” in modern Korean, that’s not its actual direct translation. This expression actually comes from the verb “안녕하다,” which means something like “to be at peace.” If you look closely at “안녕하세요,” you’ll notice the syllable “세” is included. This indicates that it’s not just “informal polite” Korean, it’s also honorific speech like I spoke about earlier. On top of that, “안녕하세요” was originally said as a question, NOT as a statement. So when you’re converting it to the “formal polite” speech level, the ending becomes “십니까” and NOT “십니다.” (You don’t really need to know all of this, but I just mention it because I find it interesting.)
|Formal Polite Korean||Informal Polite Korean||Casual Korean|
There’s a very common phrase for “thank you” that I brought up earlier, which is “감사합니다.” And as I said before, I almost always hear people say it using the “formal polite” speech level. I’ve heard “감사해요” maybe five times, and I’ve NEVER heard it said casually. However, there’s another way to say “thank you” in Korean. It’s not used quite as often as “감사합니다,” but I’ve heard Korean people say it using the three different speech levels.
|Verb Infinitive||Formal Polite Korean||Informal Polite Korean||Casual Korean|
One thing I want to point out: “고마워요” is actually an irregular conjugation. The verb stem of “고맙다” is NOT “고맙” – it actually changes to “고마우.” And as we learned before, verb stems that have “ㅜ” in them are followed by “어요.” So if you add the “ㅜ” sound to “어,” you end up with “워.” This also happens with several verbs that end with “ㅂ” as the final consonant, like “덥다” (to be hot) and “춥다” (to be cold). However, it doesn’t apply to EVERY verb like this, so you have to be careful.
Again, I previously mentioned a pretty common expression for “I’m sorry” – which is “죄송합니다.” Much like “감사합니다,” I rarely hear that phrase outside of the “formal polite” speech level. But there’s another way to say “I’m sorry” in Korean, and you can frequently hear this version used throughout the three speech levels.
|Verb Infinitive||Formal Polite Korean||Informal Polite Korean||Casual Korean|
“I love you.”
Truthfully, I just included this phrase since you hear it so often in K-pop – it’s in a ton of lyrics, and groups constantly say it to their fans. However, it’s worth noting that there are times when saying “I love you” in Korean doesn’t carry as much weight as it does in English. For example, the principal and vice-principal at my school say “I love you” to all the kids as they come into school every day (in “formal polite” speech). They even say it to me, sometimes. In the United States, that’s almost definitely not a good idea because it would probably come off as inappropriate. But in South Korea, it’s not as big of a deal – it’s more like expressing fondness.
|Verb Infinitive||Formal Polite Korean||Informal Polite Korean||Casual Korean|
Speech Level #4: Plain Speech
The fourth speech level commonly used in Korean is known as “plain” speech. It’s not as necessary for beginner learners, as the other ones, but you will hear Korean people use it a lot on variety shows and in dramas. I remember I had a bunch questions about it when I started studying, so I thought I’d include it here for the equally curious. “Plain speech” is somewhat unique – it’s considered formal, but it’s also considered impolite. So it’s a little tricky since there are some specific times when it’s okay to use in more formal settings, but it’s mostly like casual speech and therefore reserved for people you’re close to.
How to Form It
Unlike the other speech levels, “plain” speech is conjugated four different ways depending on how you use it: as a sentence or statement, as a question, as a command (imperative), or as a suggestion.
When to Use It
As I mentioned before, “plain” speech is considered both formal and impolite – which is kind of a weird combination. I think the reason that “plain” speech is labeled as “formal” is because you see it in a lot of Korean writing: newspaper articles, magazine articles, social media, etc. But aside from that, you should focus more on seeing “plain” speech as “impolite.” It’s actually considered even less polite than “casual” speech, so it’s truly reserved for people who are very close to you.
There’s one example of “plain” speech that you can sometimes use outside of informal settings. This is when you’re thinking out loud, you’re making a general statement, and/or you’re not addressing anyone specifically. For instance, my students tend to make lots of comments during my classes (because they’re kids and they’re very reactive). There are a lot of food lessons in elementary school English – when I show them pictures of food, at least one kid always says, “맛있다!” (“Delicious!”) Or sometimes when we’re playing a game, they’ll say “재미있다!” (“This is fun!” or “This is interesting!”) They’re not speaking to anyone in particular; they’re just making an observation. You’ll also see people do this on variety shows, so these statements are okay to use in environments that are “informal polite.”
Aside from that, you’re really just going to use “plain” speech with your good friends and your significant other (if you have one). Though you don’t have to worry about mistakes when speaking to people your age or younger, there are some times when you probably shouldn’t use “plain” speech with older friends – even if you’re super close or the age difference isn’t that big. This is outlined in the table below.
|Form||With Close Older Friends||With Same Age Friends||With Younger Friends|
|Question||No||Yes (as “verb stem + 냐”)||Yes (as “verb stem + 니”)|
If you want to learn more about “plain” speech, check out the video below. I was pretty familiar with this speech level before writing my post, but watching this video actually helped me understand it even better. A lot of the examples come from dramas or variety shows, but I don’t think there are really any spoilers. (I don’t watch dramas and I didn’t feel like they were ruined for me, but that’s my own opinion.)
Some More Helpful Videos
This is the fourth “Korean Dream With J” video I’ve recommended in this post, so you can tell I really like her channel. Her videos are so detailed, and they really break down everything in a clear and succinct way. In this one, she outlines all of the speech levels I explained plus a couple other ones that are more old-fashioned. She explains a little bit about honorific speech at the end, as well. The drama examples in this video are a *little* more spoiler-like than the one about “plain” speech – I still don’t know much about the stories, but I feel like there are some scenes that could give away potential plot points. So be careful with this one if you haven’t seen Descendants of the Sun, The King: Eternal Monarch, or Crash Landing on You and if you want to remain 100% spoiler free.)
This video talks a little bit more about the differences between “informal polite” and “casual” speech. She describes a few different situations, which speech level to use, and why she would use it. There was a lot in this video that I didn’t know before, so I found it super interesting and enlightening.
NOTE: The featured image is a custom design I requested from my friend specifically for this blog and this column. Please do not alter it, repost it, or re-upload it without my permission. If you want to see the artist’s work, you can go to to her Instagram account here and/or her website here. The other images in this post are ones I made myself, so please don’t reuse or repost them without my permission either.