Tips for Successful Korean Localization Projects
The Korean languages are spoken by around 80 million people around the world. It has two variants: North and South Korean with some significant differences in spelling, pronunciation, and vocabulary. As the majority of our Korean localization projects are into the South Korean variant, GTE Localize will focus on giving our insights into the notable features of languages and the market of South Korea.
Table of Contents
1. Diverse Speech Levels
Honorifics are an important part of the Korean language and are used by Korean people in everyday situations. Whether talking to their parents, bosses, or even strangers on the streets, Korean people use levels of speech to show their respect towards listeners or to reflex the formality or informality of the situation.
There are seven levels of speech formality in Korean:
Levels of Speech
When to use
(Very formally polite)
|To address a king, queen, or high official.
Used in historical dramas and religious text.
Among colleagues in more formal settings.
|Between strangers at the same age.
By younger speakers.
(Formally neither polite nor impolite)
|Among the older generation.
By civil servants, police officers, middle management, etc.
(Neither formal nor casual, neither polite nor impolite)
|Some older people when addressing younger people or especially in-laws in a friendly manner.|
|Close friends or relatives of similar age.
By adults to children.
|Close friends and relatives.
When talking to children.
Based on the use of each level, you can figure out which one should you use to fit your buyer personas. If you are providing healthcare products for the elderly, the use of higher levels is a must. However, if your company targets young audiences, using lower levels, not too informal while creating a friendly and closer relationship is a great choice. In other complicated cases when you target various demographics, you should consult localization professionals for better insights and choices.
2. Borrowed Words
The Korean language consists of three components: pure Korean words, Sino-Korean words, and loan words. Sino-Korean words (or Hanja) are Korean words that have a Chinese origin. They are either borrowed directly or created from Chinese characters and pronounced in a distinctly Korean way.
Back in the day, most loanwords were borrowed from the Chinese language. However, nowadays, Korean people incorporate a great number of loan words from other languages, especially from English in daily conversation.
In Korean localization, many English terms in the fields of fashion, IT, sports, medicine, and engineering are commonly accepted and used by Korean people and do not need translating into Korean. In fact, translators sometimes receive complaints from clients if they translate certain English terms into Korean, causing confusion for readers or losing the authenticity of words.
3. Text expansion
Korean is a double-byte language. Besides commonly-used phonetic characters, Korean has a set of adopted Chinese characters (Hanja) which are used as shortcuts for loan words and present in legacy documents and terms. According to the Standard Korean Language Dictionary, it is estimated that 290,000 words (57%) out of the approximately 510,000 words in the Korean Language were Hanja.
The fact that the Korean language has multi-byte characters means that you need to spare some space for text expansion when handling Korean localization projects. For example, in English to Korean translations, Korean characters can take up nearly double space as the original English words do.
4. Search Engine
While Google holds a monopoly in most search markets around the world, Korea is one of a few exceptions. Based on different sources of data, the search engine market share of Google in this market is about 75% to 80% while Naver holds between 15% and 30% of the South Korean search market. It is followed by Bing and Daum (another Korean search engine).
Image source: statcounter
In a survey published in July 2020 on Statista on which search engines Korean people used in the past 4 weeks, Naver ranked the top, with 92% of respondents used it within a month. Google was in second place with 69%.
The reason why Naver is becoming more and more preferred in Korea is that Naver’s search algorithm is built around the Korean language and culture, giving Korean people more desirable search results in their native language than Google. In fact, many people only use Google when needing to search for information in foreign languages such as English, Spanish, etc.
Due to the search behaviour of Korean internet users, it is a must that your company take the search engine factor into consideration to gain better rankings and online presence.
5. Other Korean Localization Details and Locale Specifics
Below is the checklist of Korean localization details you should consider:
- Texts in Korean are usually 15-20% shorter than in English.
- Colours have clear meanings in Korea. For example, white signifies purity and temperance, black is associated with negative meanings such as night, death, darkness, etc., and yellow is a symbol of wealth, holiness, and fertility.
- Red, purple, and black have become representative of Korean luxury and quality. Businesses use these colours in their marketing materials as they are supposed to boost sales and profits.
- Korean people use the metric system of measurement. They sometimes use the traditional Korean unit – pyeong (평, 坪) (equivalent to about 3.31 square metres or 35.58 square feet.)
- You should use Korean won (₩) for products and services instead of KRW, $, or £. Besides, try to make the price look uncluttered by avoiding using decimal points unnecessary. For example, use ₩1000 instead of ₩1000.00.
- The date format is year-month-day.
- Both 24-hour and 12-hour clock notation is widely used. 24-hour notation is more commonly used in texts while the 12-hour notation is predominantly used in informal daily life.
- The full name format is family name followed by the given name.
- Addresses are written starting with the specific information (name, followed by house number and street) and moving on to more general information (town, city and province).
We hope the Korean localization insights in this article will help you find great success in the South Korean market. If you are planning on localizing your content into other Asian languages, download our free whitepaper for more localization tips into 10 major languages in Asia.