There are some useful Korean proverbs that you can use in everyday life. These proverbs are high frequency proverbs, so you’ll probably hear them a lot if you haven’t heard them already.
Korean proverbs often use very vivid and extreme situations to prove a point. This proverb below is one fine example:
하늘의 별 따기(Haneulwi byeol ddagi)
(하늘 = sky. 의 = possessive particle. 별 = star. 따기 = to pluck)
This proverb means, “To pluck a star in the sky.” It’s used to describe an impossible situation or obstacle. The sky is a metaphor for something that is hard to obtain. Since it’s not possible to pluck a star from the sky, it is also used to describe that something is not plausible or realistic.
Korea used to be primarily an agricultural society. As a result, there are a lot of proverbs using food as a means to make a point.
콩 심은데 콩나고, 팥 심은데 팥난다 (Kong simeundae kongnago, pat simeundae pat nanda)
(콩 = soybean. 심다 = to plant. 팥 = red bean. 나다 = to become/to grow)
This proverb literally means “soybeans grow from where soybeans are planted; red beans grow from where red beans are planted.” This proverb is used in situations where someone is surprised that something happened when it’s obvious as to why it happened. For example, if you paid for something for little cost, it unreasonable to expect that this item is of better quality or that it will last longer than a more expensive item.
Before Korea became a modernized country, much of the land that was not arable was uncultivated and often the habitat of wild animals. As a result, certain animals like wolves, tigers and even bears lived in close contact with the people of the village. Lots of Korean proverbs feature animals as a metaphor for making a point about something important.
This is a proverb that talks about monkeys. In Korean folklore monkeys are clever creatures that get into trouble for their cunning ways. The monkey is often portrayed as being overconfident and pays for this overconfidence by falling into a trap.
원숭이도 나무에서 떨어진다 (Weonsungido namueseo ddeoleojinda)
(원숭이 = monkey. 도 = even/and. 나무 = tree. 에서 = from. 떨어지다 = to fall)
This proverb literally means “Even monkeys fall from trees.” Since monkeys are considered very adept at climbing and swinging from tree to tree, it’s not very often that monkeys fall from a tree. Therefore this proverb is saying that even experts (monkeys) can make mistakes (fall from a tree). This proverb is used when someone acts arrogant or overconfident. In a way, this proverb is used to tell someone “even you’re not immune to mistakes,” or “you’re not always going to be perfect.” It’s not really a nice thing to say about someone, but if someone told me this proverb I would consider it a complement, because that would mean that I was viewed as some kind of an expert!
As you can see, proverbs are a good way of learning about Korean culture. Moreover, Korea is not as agricultural or rural as it used to be, but these proverbs are still widely used in daily situations.