Age is very important in Korea. How old you are in relation to the people around you, determines how you act and speak. As such, birthdays are also important in Korea. So important that Koreans celebrate them twice.
Once on the day, they were born and again at the end of the year with the whole nation. In this blog, we will learn about Korean birthday culture and how to say ‘Happy Birthday” in Korean.
How to say Happy Birthday in Korean
There are several ways to say ‘Happy Birthday’ in Korean. In this blog, you will learn all of them and in what situation to use them.
First, Let’s check out the list of all the words and expressions you will learn below.
- 생일 죽하해 – Happy Birthday (informal)
- 생일 죽하해요 – Happy Birthday (polite)
- 생신 축하드려요 – Happy Birthday (formal)
- 생일이 언제예요? – When is your birthday? (polite)
- 몇 살이야? – How old are you? (informal)
- 몇 살이세요? – How old are you? (polite)
- 연세가 어떻게 되세요? – How old are you? (formal)
- 저는 —살 이에요 – I am – years old. (polite)
- 제 생일은 –월 –일 이에요 – My birthday is –. (polite)
- 탄생일 – Birthday (formal)
- 생일날 – Birthday
- 탄신 – Birthday (formal)
- 생일 축하해요 – Happy Birthday (polite) (saeng-il chuk-ha-hae–yo)
This is the most common way to say ‘Happy Birthday.’ 생일 in this expression means birthday, and 축하하다 is the verb ‘to congratulate.’ So 생일 축하해요 literally means ‘Birthday Congratulations.’
Say this to people you are unfamiliar with but are around the same age as you. With your friends, use 생일 축하해, the informal version of this expression. With those much older than you, use 생신 축하드려요. 생신 is the formal word for ‘birthday.’
생일이 언제예요? – When is your birthday? (polite) (saeng-il-ee eon-je-yeh-yo)
Before telling someone ‘Happy Birthday,’ you might want to ask them, “When is your birthday?’ You would say 생일이 언제예요? This is the polite form of this question.
You can ask this to people you are unfamiliar with and are around the same age as you. To friends, you can use 생일이 언제야. To someone significantly older than you, you can ask 생신이 언제 입니까?
몇 살이세요? – How old are you? (polite) (myeot sal-ee-seh-yo)
If it is someone’s birthday, you might ask how old they are. This is not a rude question to ask in Korea, as it might be in the west. 몇 살이세요? is the most common way to ask this question.
When asking a friend, you might say 몇 살이야? 몇 means ‘how many’, and 살 means ‘age’. To someone older, you would ask 연세가 어떻게 되세요? 연세 is the formal word for 살.
저는 —살 이에요 – I am – years old. (polite) (jeoneun –sal ee-eh-yo)
If someone asks you how old you are, you can answer by saying 저는 (your age)살 이에요. Make sure to say it using native Korean numbers.
If a friend asks, you can change the expression to 나는 –살 이야 to match the level of speech appropriate for the situation.
A: 몇 살이세요? – How old are you?
B: 저는 23살 이에요 – I am 23 years old.
제 생일은 –월 –일 이에요 – My birthday is –. (polite) (je saeng-il-eun –wol –il ee-eh-yo)
You can tell someone when your birthday is by saying, 제 생일은 (month)월 (day)일 이에요. 월 means ‘month’, and 일 means ‘day’.
When plugging numbers into this expression, make sure to use Sino-Korean numbers. You can change this expression to be informal by saying 내 생일은 –월 –일 이야.
A: 생일이 언제야 – When is your birthday?
B: 내 생일은 6월 15일 이야. – My birthday is June 15th.
Other words for ‘Birthday’
You might hear or read the following words when birthdays are being discussed. 탄생일 (tan-saeng-il) is a formal word for birthday. You might read it in a book or hear it in a very formal situation. 생일날(saeng-il-nal) literally means ‘birthday day’.
You might see this when more emphasis is being put on the day of the birthday. 탄신(tan-shin) is another formal word for birthday. You might read it in text or hear it said in a formal situation.
Now that we have learned how to say “Happy Birthday’, how to ask someone their age, when their birthday is, and how to answer those questions yourself, let’s learn about the cultural background of age in Korea.
Korean Birthday and Age Culture
Korea has a unique way of viewing age and birthdays. This is primarily based on the importance Korea puts on age and respecting elders. Learn about Korea’s age culture below.
Korean Age system
One of the unique things about Korean culture is the way Koreans traditionally count their age. In Korea, there are two age systems. International age and Korean age. International age is the age you are in the rest of the world.
It is counted from the day you are born. Korean age is different in that babies are considered to be 1 year old as soon as they are born.
They then turn a year older with the rest of the people in the country on January 1st. A baby that was born on December 31st would be considered 2 years old on January 1st.
Your Korean age can be a year or two older than your actual age, depending on whether your actual birthday has passed or not. This can confuse people who are not Korean, so it is common for Koreans to ask what year they were born rather than their age.
Why Is Age So Important in Korea?
Korea is a hierarchical culture, ranked by age and status. This means that age and status in society play a big part in how people talk and act. If you are younger than those around you, then you will be expected to act and speak more respectfully than if you are older than those around you.
Similarly, if you are in a lower position at work or school than those around you, you will be expected to show more respect than if you were in a higher position.
The primary way that Koreans show respect to each other is through their speech. Koreans like to know the age of people around them, so they know who they should speak up to and who they can use more comfortable language with. Therefore, it is common for Koreans to ask, ‘How old are you?’ when they first meet someone.
If the person they ask is older, they will continue to use polite or formal speech if the person is the same age or younger than them, then they might ask to drop speech formalities and speak comfortably.
Another way Korean show respect is through actions. There are certain expectations for the youngest and oldest of a group in social situations.
For example, when eating together, the youngest of the group is expected to set the table and pour drinks for everyone in the group. The oldest or highest ranked in the group is then expected to pay for the meal.
In Korea, no matter where you are on the hierarchy, you have a role, and age is the main determiner of that role. This is why age and birthdays are so important in Korean culture. Let’s learn a little bit about how Korean celebrate their birthdays.
How Koreans Celebrate Birthdays
In Korea, you have 2 birthdays in a year. One on the day you were born. On that day, your international age goes up a year. The whole nation shares the second birthday. On January 1st, everyone in Korea turns a year older together.
On their international birthday, Koreans usually celebrate by spending time with friends and family eating good food, and enjoying each other’s company. Koreans also usually buy a cake and light candles that they blow out after singing “Happy Birthday”. It is also common to give presents to friends and family whose birthday it is.
Below is the song “Happy Birthday”, so you can memorize and sing along next time you go to a Korean birthday party.
(Sing to the tune of “Happy Birthday”)
- 생일 축하합니다 – Happy Birthday
- 생일 축하합니다 – Happy Birthday
- 사랑하는 (person’s name) – Beloved (person’s name)
- 생일 축하합니다 – Happy Birthday
It is also tradition to eat 미역국 (seaweed soup) sometime during the day on your birthday. 미역국 is a soup with seaweed and beef in it.
It is traditionally eaten to honor your mother for giving birth to you, as seaweed soup is connected to the goddess of motherhood and birth in Korean tradition. However, not many Koreans know the origin of the tradition nowadays and just eat 미역국 on their birthdays because it is tradition.
Koreans celebrate their national birthday by spending time with family and eating 떡국 (tteokgguk). 떡국 is an anchovy broth-based soup with rice cakes, egg, seaweed, and beef in it. It is a tradition to eat 떡국 in the new year. Koreans say you can’t age a year until you have eaten it.
And that concludes this blog lesson! I hope you learned something new and can now better participate in Korean culture. Make sure to practice everything you learned to retain it! Try out the new expressions that you learned by practicing them with Korean friends.
Try asking them questions about age in Korea and how it affects their daily lives. Thanks for sticking with this blog to the end, and I’ll see you on our other blogs!