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I think they have the same meaning as "I called my friend". A similar example is:

"선생님이 학생들에게 한국어를 가르치셨어요"

and

"선생님이 학생들에게 한국어를 가르쳐 주셨어요".

They all mean "the teacher teaches the students", right? If they all mean the same, how do I know when should I use 아/어 주다 (such as "저는 친구에게 전화해 줬어요" and "선생님이 학생들에게 한국어를 가르쳐 주셨어요"), and when shouldn't I use this structure?

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-해 주다 normally means you do something as a favor (it doesn't have to be grandiose - just any act that benefits someone else).

For example:

내일 수업 취소된 거 민주는 알아? Does Minjoo know that tomorrow's class is canceled?

응, 내가 방금 전화해 줬어. Yes, I just called her.

Here, you're calling her to let her know that the class is canceled - you're doing it for Minjoo's sake, so "전화해 줬어" is appropriate. (You can also say "전화했어" as well - it makes no assumptions about who benefits from what.)

On the other hand:

집에 도착했더니 택시비가 없어서, 할 수 없이 자는 누나에게 전화했다.

I arrived home and realized that I didn't have any money to pay the taxi driver, so I had to call my sleeping sister.

Here, you made the phone call for your own sake (you needed money) - so you can't use "전화해 줬다" here.

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  • Great answer. Thank you so much! – Thai Trinh Sep 30 '20 at 10:10
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"해 주다" is a composition of "하다" and "주다". Both of "하다" and "해 주다" have a similar meaning (so using it interchangeably will not cause confusion of meaning in usual). However, they have a different nuance.

According to the answer of the National Institute of Korean Language, "주다" in "해 주다" means

앞 동사의 행위가 다른 사람의 행위에 영향을 미침을 나타내는 말

(verb + 주다 means) the action by verb affects the other's act.

Hence "해 주다" means it affects the other one by doing something (implied by the verb "하다".)

Let me give you some examples. In the case of

  • 선생님이 학생들에게 한국어를 가르쳤어요

just means a teacher teaches the students Korean. However,

  • 선생님이 학생들에게 한국어를 가르쳐 줬어요

means not only the teacher teaches Korean, but also the students (possibly) know Korean as a result of teaching.

"해 주다" sometimes insinuates the speaker's seeming care. (More appropriate word for it would be 시혜성, but I do not know the exact counterpart of it in English.) For example.

  • 친구에게 전화했어요

means no more than "I called to my friend." However,

  • 친구에게 전화해 줬어요

means not only you called a friend, but you could also have a reason to call a friend (e.g., your friend is seriously injured, so you called a friend to check their status.)

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