If learning Korean Taekwondo terminology seems daunting, it’s understandable: the US State Department has included Korean in the top tier of “most difficult” languages for native English speakers to learn.1 The alphabet isn’t hard to learn, but the sounds don’t correspond exactly to the sounds of American English, and the grammar and seven formality levels of speech can make the brain spin, then melt.
Fortunately, recognizing Korean terms in a Taekwondo workout is nothing like learning a language. You don’t have to understand whatever’s thrown at you, or to learn how to make sentences that express what you’re thinking: it’s just memorization of a few dozen words. Once you learn the Hangeul alphabet,2 it’s just a matter of putting in the time with flash cards.3 If you practice, you’ll get it.
That said, there’s a small subset of words you can learn that will take you halfway there. Once you know these terms, you’ll understand most of the basic techniques and commands that we use over and over in every class. In a future lesson, you’ll learn a few terms that aren’t as common, but which will fill in another ten or fifteen percent of the intermediate and advanced techniques. After that, I’m afraid you’ll just have to crunch through what’s left. But this lesson’s the low-hanging fruit, so don’t worry about the hard stuff yet, just dive in and see how satisfying it is to understand these basics. You might be surprised at how much of what used to just be random sounds suddenly makes sense.
Chinese martial arts often have beautiful, poetic names for techniques: Grasp the Bird’s Tail, White Crane Flashes Its Wings, and so forth. I admire and enjoy these names, but good luck learning to read, write, and speak them in Chinese! Korean techniques are clinical descriptions, spare and concise. Often the name of a technique is simply the body part, the type of motion, and a direction. Here are some of those directions.
- 앞 Front
- 뒷 Back
- 옆 Side
- 내려 Downward
- 돌료 Upward
- 안 Inside/Inward
- 바깥 Outside/Outward
- 서기 Stance
- 곱이 Deep, Traditional Stance (as distinguished from modern upright stances)
- 마기 Block
- 차기 Kick
- 지르기 Straight/Thrusting Hand Attack (e.g. a punch)
- 찌르기 Straight Piercing Hand Attack (e.g. a spear hand thrust)
- 치기 Curving Hand Attack, Strike (e.g. an outside chop)
Can you memorize thirteen different words? Of course you can! Once you know this short list, you know the names of many things that we all do every day in the dojang. Try to use what you’ve learned above to translate these:
Front 앞 곱이, 앞 차기, 앞 지르기
Back 뒷 곱이, 뒷 차기
Downward 내려 마기, 내려 차기
If you take a few hours to learn Hangeul (한글) you’ll find the investment pays off with both accuracy and comprehension. Stay tuned for common modifiers and body parts that’ll give you another layer of understanding basic and intermediate techniques. As always, if you need help with any of these ideas, don’t hesitate to ask after class.
1 The other four: Mandarin and Catonese Chinese, Japanese, Arabic. All have different alphabets, difficult sounds, and extremely complex grammar rules that don’t have English equivalents.
2 The free Duolingo app for iOS and Android is generally terrible for actually learning Korean (LingoDeer is the industry standard). HOWEVER, Duolingo’s treatment of Hangeul is excellent, and there’s an enormous number of exercises to drill the basic vowel and consonant sounds, plus the complex dipthongs (combining multiple vowels to make new sounds, much like “i” in English is actually two sounds “a” and “e”). As a bonus, they show you how to write each character, which is important because the order you write the strokes is important.
3 See this previous post about Korean terminology flash card decks created especially for RVTKD students.
4 I haven’t provided romanization for these terms, because it’s extremely useful to learn the Hangeul alphabet to pronounce Korean correctly. Because there’s no romanization convention that’s both universally and correctly used, most serious Korean learners think trying to spell Korean words with Latin letters is not just a crutch, it’s actually misleading. Put in the time to learn the alphabet, it’s worth it!