When making simple negating sentences in Korean, usually either 못 or 안 is used. They roughly mean can’t and won’t, respectively. In English, these two words are not as strongly differentiated as they are in Korean. When, for instance, you want to say in English that you can’t go somewhere because you’re busy, you can choose between “I can’t go” or “I won’t be going” without any major change in meaning. However, this does not hold for Korean. There is a strong difference between 못 가요 and 안 가요. When you use 안 there is a stronger focus on will (much more like “want to”), and you may end up sounding straight out impolite if you use it in a wrong way.
I’ve fallen into this trap many times, most recently a few days ago in conversation with my language partner, who was busy cramming for tests at the library. I commented on him pulling all-night study sessions and said: “이번 주말엔 집에 안 가요?” “So, you won’t be going home this weekend?” only to be interrupted with a “아뇨, 못 가요” (No, I can’t go). The way he interpreted my Korean sentence was that he did not want to go home, which was far from true, so he corrected the word 안 to 못 indicating that he certainly had the will or desire to go home but not the ability. Being able to make this distinction definitely falls under the category “basic Korean skills” but apparently I keep messing it up, so I thought it was worthy of a short blog post in case there are others out there making the same mistakes. In the meantime I’ll keep practicing and reminding myself that all these subtle nuances are in fact what makes learning Korean such an awesome experience.