Episode 20
Lesson Recap

How To Use Korean Particle 은/는 as Topic & Contrastive Particle in Sentences (Yes, we're now learning Korean particles!)

Key Points &
  • The 은/는 particle set 1) marks the noun phrase it follows is a topic of a sentence or discourse; and 2) marks the noun phrase it follows is being compared or contrasted with others.

  • 은 follows a noun which ends with a consonant  and 는 follows a noun which ends with a vowel.

  • 한국은 재미있어요 : As for Korea, it’s fun

  • 김치는 유명해요 : As for kimchi, it’s famous

  • 나는 한국말 배워요. 내 친구는 영어 배워요 : I learn Korean. My friend (on the other hand) learns English.

  • 나는 한국말 가르쳐요. 내 친구는 영어 가르쳐요. : I teach Korean. My friend (on the other hand) teaches English.

  • 나는 운전해요. 내 친구는 운전 안 해요. : I drive. My friend (on the other hand) doesn’t drive.

  • 저는 라디오는 안 들어요. 그런데 팟캐스트는 들어요. : I don’t listen to the radio. But I listen to podcasts (at least).


Directions: Assume the role in the situations and respond utilizing the 은/는 particle  learned in this episode.

1. You and your housemate have moonlight jobs: on Saturdays, you teach English and your housemate teaches Korean at a private institute. Knowing only that you and your housemate teach at a private institute on Saturdays, your colleague asks what you two teach.

2. Staying on the topic of you and your housemate, your colleague asks if you and your housemate have a similar taste in movies. (You like action movies but your housemate doesn’t. )

3. Still on the topic of you and your housemate, your colleague asks if both of you drive to work. (You drive, but your housemate doesn’t.)

4. Your colleague asks if you listen to the radio. (You don’t listen to the radio, but listen to podcasts.)

5. Your colleague asks if you drink coffee. (You drink tea, but don’t drink coffee.)

Episode 20

Hello. This is Kay from EssentialKorean.com.

안녕하세요. Essential Korean 케이샘입니다.

In this episode, you’ll be introduced to the Korean particle system. Learning the usage of different particles is a major step forward, so think of this as a milestone episode.

Let’s look at the two primary types of Korean particles:

The first type of particles simply mark the function of the word they follow, indicating if the word is the subject, object, or topic of the sentence. The 이/가, 을/를, and 은/는 particles that you may have heard of belong to this category of particles.

The second type of particles add an extra meaning to the word it follows. Some particles that belong to this category include 에, 에서, 부터, 까지, which mean in, on, at, from, to, and by.

We will tackle particles one at a time. For today, we will zero in on one particle set in depth, and that is the 은/는 particle.

Now before going any further, some of you may have noticed that I talk about particles in sets: why? Well, they both serve the same function: simply, one follows nouns ending with a consonant and the other follows nouns ending with a vowel.

Think of it like usage of a and an in English. They have the same meaning, but you use a with consonant sounding words (like, a pear) and an with vowel sounding words (say, an apple)

For the 은/는 set, 은 follows a noun which ends with a consonant and 는 follows a noun which ends with a vowel:

The word  커피 for example would be followed by 는 because it ends with a vowel, so it’ll be 커피는 ~ , meaning as for coffee, ;  컴퓨터, for computer, would also be followed by 는, so it’ll be 컴퓨터는 ~, meaning as for the computer.

On the other hand, a consonant-ending noun like the word 펜 would be followed by 은, so it’ll be 펜은 ~ , which means as for the pen; and another example of a consonant ending noun, 빌딩, for building, would be followed by 은 as well, so it’ll be 빌딩은 ~, meaning as for the building. 

(I used the loan words for convenience. The notion of ‘consonant-ending’ and ‘vowel-ending’ of course refers to how a word is spelled in Korean, not the English spelling! )

은/는 as Topic Particle & Contrastive Particle

Let’s get to what the particle 은/는 actually does. One, by following a noun or pronoun, the particle 은/는 marks it to be the topic of a conversation or a discourse. Two, it suggests that the noun or pronoun it follows is being compared or contrasted with something else.


NOW, Let’s look at different situations to see how the 은/는 particle is used as a topic particle. Imagine yourself in a gathering where people are taking turns introducing themselves. When making a self-introduction, one would add 는 after 저, the humble form of 나, as a more courteous and polite way to say as for I.

I’m imagining myself at a gathering of foreign language teachers, and we’re going around the room introducing ourselves. Using only the forms and expressions we’ve learned so far this would be my self introduction:

안녕하세요. 저는 케이쌤입니다. 저는 한국말 가르쳐요. 만나서 반갑습니다.

Hello. I am Kay쌤. (I) teach Korean. Nice to meet you.

I’ll repeat it. Here you go:

안녕하세요. 저는 케이쌤입니다. 저는 한국말 가르쳐요. 만나서 반갑습니다.

Now, how about you introducing yourself at the gathering with us? You can start with the greeting, 안녕하세요; and then introduce your name starting with 저는 (so-and-so)입니다. Choose to include or omit the second 저는 based on whether or not you want to emphasize yourself again, and say the language you teach, followed by the verb  가르쳐요 for teach. End your introduction with 만나서 반갑습니다 Nice to meet you. There you go! You have a short but great self-introduction right there.

If you were John Smith, an English teacher, the  introduction would go like this:

안녕하세요. 저는 존 스미스입니다. 저는 영어 가르쳐요. 만나서 반갑습니다.

Now, pause for a few seconds and try it yourself this time.

Moving on to the second situation. In the same gathering, let’s imagine that teachers from around the world start asking and talking about their countries. In the case of Korea, I would start talking about Korea with this phrase: 한국은 ~ . 한국 means Korea, which is followed by the particle 은, not 는, since the word 한국 ends with a consonant. Repeat after me: 한국은 ~  which can be roughly translated as As for Korea ~. Btw, did you notice that I didn’t say 한.국..은., but rather [한구근], without any pause in between 한국 and the particle 은? This is what I meant when I said a word and a particle combo will be pronounced like one word. So, I’ll start my introduction of Korea by saying Korea is interesting. Repeat after me:

한국은 재미있어요.   한국은 재미있어요.   한국은 재미있어요.

Let’s say the conversation took us to topics of cultural elements that countries are well known for, and someone asked me about 김치, the famous Korean fermented veggies. My answer would probably start with 김치는 ~ , the word 김치 followed by the particle 는 as 김치 ends with a vowel. I’ll give you a complete sentence which means Kimchee is famous: 김치는 유명해요. Please repeat after me: 김치는 유명해요. 김치는 유명해요. 김치는 유명해요.

Before moving on to the discussion of the second usage aspect of the 은/는 particle as compare and contrast particle, let’s take a break with some music! Today, I am introducing you to the legendary singer-songwriter, Song Chang-sik, who is now in his 70s.

The song I’m about to play for you was released in 1983, and is titled 우리는.

We learned the pronoun 우리 means we and it’s followed by the particle 는, creating the pronoun phrase  우리는.

I pondered over how I could best explain the difference between just 우리 and 우리는 which consists of the pronoun 우리, we, and the topic particle 는; this is what I’ve come up with: The particle 는 in the 우리는 phrase adds a signal to emphasize the we aspect. This is how the particle 은/는 carries out its role as a topic marker. As the 는 particle anchors the 우리 in front of the listener,  the listener in turn anticipates how the singer or the narrator is going to embody the we, 우리.

I won’t play the entire song, but if I did, you’ll hear the phrase 우리는 throughout the song.

The lyrics describe the we, 우리는, in such poetic, romantic, and endearing ways. If we could go over the lyrics line by line, you’d agree with me that it is the quintessential song about what it means for two people to be soulmates for each other. I’ll set that tone for you with a couple of phrases in the song: 우리는 빛이 없는 곳에서도 찾을 수 있는  We who can find each other even where there is no light; 우리는 소리없는 침묵으로도 말할 수 있는 We who can talk even with soundless silence… and there are more description of 우리는, the we, in the lyrics, but I’ll let you search up the song and will play a segment of the song for you now :

( “우리는” music plays  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YzcLM1f3_qU )

How was it?  This is a very different style of music from, say, ZionT’s music featured in a previous episode, but both are part of Korean culture and Korean sensibilities. One of my goals of this podcast is to show and share these with our listeners.

Let me play the song again. Listen for the pronoun phrase 우리는; and, this time,  enjoy the melody of endearment and wonderment:

( “우리는” music plays  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YzcLM1f3_qU )

Alright, so it’s time to get on with our next lesson point on the use of 은/는 particle as a contrastive particle. Let’s assume you want to say, I’m learning Korean; my friend is learning English. Here, what I learn is being compared to what my friend is learning. This is a perfect place to use the 은/는 particle: You’d add 는 after 나, meaning I, and add 는 after 내 친구, which means my friend. Here are the sentences:

나는 한국말 배워요. 내 친구는 영어 배워요. I’m learning Korean. My friend is learning English.

Shall we practice these sentences? This time, I’ll add one conjunctive word 그런데 at the beginning of the second sentence.  You can think of this conjunctive word 그런데 with a meaning somewhere between and and but. Repeat after me to say, I’m learning Korean. But My friend is learning English.

나는 한국말 배워요. 그런데 내 친구는 영어 배워요.
나는 한국말 배워요. 그런데 내 친구는 영어 배워요.
나는 한국말 배워요. 그런데 내 친구는 영어 배워요.

Some of you may wonder what the sentences would sound like without the 은/는 particle after 나 and 내 친구, like 나 한국말 배워요. 그런데 내 친구 영어 배워요. Well, the English translation will be exactly the same as the ones with the particle: I am learning Korean; but my friend is learning English. To native Koreans, the two sentences without the 은/는 particle after the subjects would just sound a bit incomplete, as if something that should be present is missing -- because the two sentences carry contrastive aspects. It is true some particles are omitted in colloquial speech, but when one compares or contrasts two or more things, they’d naturally add the 은/는 particle after the things that are being compared or contrasted.

How about I’m teaching Korean. And/but My friend is teaching English? Can you create the two sentences yourself, using the 은/는 particle?

Here’s how I would’ve said:

나는 한국말 가르쳐요. 그런데 내 친구는 영어 가르쳐요.   Repeat after me to say I’m teaching Korean. But my friend is teaching English. 

Remember active learning - Think of the meaning of the sentences you’re repeating and mean what you say:

나는 한국말 가르쳐요. 그런데 내 친구는 영어 가르쳐요.  
나는 한국말 가르쳐요. 그런데 내 친구는 영어 가르쳐요.  
나는 한국말 가르쳐요. 그런데 내 친구는 영어 가르쳐요.

Another situation: How about I drive; but my friend doesn't drive.

Yes, it’s 나는 운전해요. 그런데 내 친구는 운전 안 해요. Repeat after me while you think of the meaning, I drive, but my friend doesn’t drive. First, I’ll say slowly, phrase by phrase, and then at a natural speed:

나는 운전해요. 그런데 내 친구는 운전 안 해요.
나는 운전해요. 그런데 내 친구는 운전 안 해요.
나는 운전해요. 그런데 내 친구는 운전 안 해요.

Expansion: Adding the 은/는 particle to the object of a sentence

We can also add the 은/는 particle to the object of the sentence as well. I’ve seen some places where they label the 은/는 particle as Subject particle. I’d say it could a bit misleading because it can lead learners to  think that’s only what the 은/는 particle does, marking the subject of the sentence. The point is, the particle 은/는 can be added to the subject or object of a sentence, and even to a particle or to an adverb as well. So, I suggest you learn this particle 은/는 for what it does rather than taking an arbitrary label attached to the particle at its face value: Remember that the 은/는 particle marks  a topic of a conversation or discourse and it also marks items that are being compared or contrasted.

Let’s assume we’re talking about the kinds of drinks we drink. or don’t drink. If I drink tea but I don’t drink coffee, yes, you can say: 저 티 마셔요. 그런데 커피 안 마셔요. - without the 은/는 particle. 저 티 마셔요. 그런데 커피 안 마셔요.

But, if you utilize the 은/는 particle to compare the drink you intake and the drink you don’t intake by adding 은 or 는 after the items, your sentences will sound far more natural and more native-like. So, let’s practice the sentences with the particles: 저는 티는 마셔요. 그런데 커피는 안 마셔요. As for me, I drink tea; but don’t drink coffee.

First, I’ll say slowly, phrase by phrase, and then at a natural speed: 

저는 티는 마셔요. 그런데 커피는 안 마셔요.
저는 티는 마셔요. 그런데 커피는 안 마셔요.
저는 티는 마셔요. 그런데 커피는 안 마셔요.

How about if you want to say, I don’t listen to the radio but I listen to podcasts? Do you want to go for it and create the two sentences with 은 or 는?

Yes, it’d be: 저는 or 나는  라디오는 안 들어요 그런데 팟캐스트는 들어요.

Let’s practice speaking. First, I’ll say slowly, phrase by phrase, and then at a natural speed:

저는 라디오는 안 들어요. 그런데 팟캐스트는 들어요.
저는 라디오는 안 들어요. 그런데 팟캐스트는 들어요.
저는 라디오는 안 들어요 그런데 팟캐스트는 들어요.

Alright, on that note, I’ll end the lesson on the 은/는 particle here for today. If you didn’t quite get the usage of the particle yet, that’s okay. Please listen to the podcast again and, when the transcript is posted on our website, please use it for your study as well. I promise I’ll discuss more about this particle and others in future episodes with more examples and more situations.  Your job is to review whenever you can and start creating sentences with what you learn and have fun with it!

I’ll connect with you again soon with more lessons, and hopefully with more music, too. Btw, I hope you enjoy the music as much as I enjoy selecting and sharing them with you here.

Until next time, stay healthy, and happy learning!

고맙습니다! 안녕히 계세요!

*Featured Song >

Title: 우리는 (1983)

Artist: 송창식 Song, Chang-sik