Korean Sign Language

Updated on March 2, 2018

Korean Sign Language (KSL) is one of two sign languages used in South Korea. The other is Korean Standard Sign Language (KSDSL). The difference between the two is that KSDSL is a manually-coded form of Korean, while KSL is a natural sign language with its own vocabulary and grammar distinct from spoken Korean.

History of Korean Sign Language

Because of Korea’s colonial history, KSL is similar to Japanese Sign Language (JSL) and Taiwan Sign Language (TSL). Japan occupied Taiwan from 1895-1945 and Korea from 1910-1945, and teachers from Japan established deaf schools in Taiwan and Korea during those occupations. The result was a significant influence of JSL on KSL and TSL, with users of the three signed languages today having up to 60-70 percent understandability with one another. This is in stark contrast to the spoken languages of the three countries, which are almost completely incomprehensible from one another.

"Hangul", the Korean writing system
"Hangul", the Korean writing system | Source

Korean Sign Language and Deaf Education

Oralism (learning to speak and lip-read Korean) has been the dominant mode of education in schools for the deaf in South Korea. In the 1980s, KSDSL began to be used along with oralism because of the belief that using a manually-coded form of spoken Korean would improve literacy among deaf Korean students. Recent studies, however, have demonstrated that the ability to use KSL is a stronger predictor of deaf students’ literacy than use of KSDSL. This is consistent with similar studies of American Sign Language (ASL) and language acquisition in the United States, which show that fluency in ASL facilitates acquisition of English as a second language. This is because fluency in a natural signed language, like ASL or KSL, provides the proper language foundation for learning a second language, while use of manually coded signs, which are artificial for deaf people, hinder language acquisition.

The 2Bi Approach

Recently, some educators of the deaf in South Korea have advocated for a bilingual-bicultural approach to deaf education, which they call “2Bi." This approach emphasizes KSL as the natural language of deaf people in South Korea and has shown some promise: at least one school for the deaf has limited its oral approach and instead incorporates KSL—they even teach KSL to the parents of their deaf students starting in kindergarten. The school has seen higher academic achievement among their students than at schools using oral and KSDSL approaches.

The 2Bi model still faces barriers when it comes to full implementation. Many teachers in Korea think that using KSL is the wrong approach because it is a different language from Korean. As more teacher preparation programs train future educators on the 2Bi approach and the importance of KSL in proper language acquisition, more schools may adopt teaching methods that better serve deaf students.

Learn Some Basic KSL Signs

This program is called “Love’s Sign Language Classroom." The hand sign in the background is the same as the ASL sign for “I love you.”

Below I will breakdown the video by run time. Pause at each of the intervals to read my description of the sign being shown.

Video Breakdown

0:30 – Here, they are showing the sign for 인사, which means “greeting.” The standard sign has the forward movement, but one of the hosts shows that you can also turn your hands inward to show two people greeting each other.

1:20 – KSL uses the same sign for 안녕하세요? (How are you?), 안녕히가세요 (Goodbye – said to the person leaving), and 안녕히계세요 (Goodbye - said to the person staying behind). The host explains that the KSL sign is a combination of “well” (palm sliding across arm) plus one of the verbs for “to be” (double fist motion). (Notice how natural it is to sign "be well" for these greetings, and how awkward it would be to manually code the verbatim Korean expressions.)

2:30 – 만나다, “to meet” – notice that this sign is the same in ASL. When the host shows a few variations, he is explaining what not to do. Make sure your hands face each other and your knuckles meet. You don’t want your index fingers to touch or meet.

2:50 – The opposite of “to meet” is 헤어지다, which means something like “part” or “say goodbye.”

3:10 - 만나서반갑습니다 means “nice to meet you.” The signed structure is meet + nice.

3:40 – 기쁘다 means “happy.”

3:45 – 즐겁다 means something like “pleasant” or “pleased.”

4:20 – 고맙습니다 means “thank you.” Be sure to bow slightly as they do in the video.

5:10 – 미안합니다 means “I’m sorry.” This sign looks like the ASL letter “f” touching the forehead, brought down to a chopping motion over the back of the opposite hand.

5:30 – 괜찮습니다– means “It’s ok.” This is the sign when the host touches his pinky finger to his chin.

6:05 – 수고 means “effort” or “trouble.” This sign also means 수고하다, to make an effort.

6:20 – 부탁 means “request.” The sign also means 부탁하다, to make a request. The neutral form is angled to the speaker’s left, but you should point forward when making a request to someone. You can see the hosts do this at around 7:00 when they request the audience to study hard.


  • Se-Eun Jhang, "Notes on Korean Sign Language," in The Handbook of East Asian Psycholinguistics, Volume 3, Cambridge University Press (2009), pages 361-375.
  • Susan Fischer and Qunhu Gong, "Variation in East Asian sign language structures," in Sign Languages, edited by Diane Brentari, Cambridge University Press (2010), pages 499-518.
  • Sung-Kyu Choi, "Deaf Education in South Korea," in Deaf People Around the World: Educational and Social Perspectives, edited by Donald F. Moores and Margery S. Miller, Gallaudet University Press (2009), pages 88-97.

© 2013 MoonByTheSea


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