뉴비즈: Korean Pronunciation of English

This post is aimed at anyone teaching in Korea, but particularly those who will be stepping into a public school classroom for the first time.

I’m going to begin this post with a challenge. Listen to the sound file below, and see if you can figure out the mispronounced English word. The answer is at the bottom of this post.

If you’ve figured it out, good job. If you haven’t, then you’re in exactly the same position as I was when a student said it to me. One study showed that mispronunciation was the most common cause of misunderstanding in English (Jenkins, 2000), so getting it right is important for the student. However, Jenkins goes on to suggest that effort should not just be made on behalf of non-native learners, but by native listeners as well. With this in mind, the following section gives some of the most common, and important variations in pronunciation that  you can expect to hear, and hopefully recognize in Korea.

Differences in Korean and English Pronunciation

A quick glance at the stats shows that English and Korean actually have a similar number of sounds, 44 to 40 respectively. However, they differ in distributions slightly:

Consonants Vowels Dipthongs Total
English 24 12 8 44
Korean 19 8 13 40

Figures taken from Rogerson-Revell (2011) and Kim-Renaud (2009).

References

While the numbers may seem very similar, there are features of the Korean palette of sounds which make it rather lacking when it comes to pronouncing English. 4 of the basic consonants have two further variants of the same sound: tensed and aspirated. For example, Korean has a sound very similar to the English /b/*, and this sound has an aspirated cousin much like the English /p/. There is a further sound made with slightly tensed vocal cords, which does not exist in English, but is romanized to /bb/. The upshot of all of this is that a lot of Korean consonant sounds are clustered around the same points of articulation in the mouth, meaning that English has a much more varied range of sounds, produced in ways alien to Korean learners.

This of course is not always easy to do, and often leads to mispronunciations. For example, if you sit down to dinner with a Korean and they seem to be offering you a game of “poker”, they may really just be concerned about your ability to use chopsticks and offering you something that you’re a little more used to. This is because there is no equivalent to /f/ in Korean, and it is assimilated to a Korean /p/ sound. (The same goes for the voiced equivalent /v/, assimilated to /b/). In this example, there is a further problem caused by the fact that in Korean, final consonants are unexploded (sounds dangerous, but just means there’s no little “pop” of air as there is when “up” is pronounced on its own in English). Therefore, Korean adds a small “uh” sound to imitate this. This is called paragoge, and is very common in Korean speech, and means that, if you hadn’t figured it out, your host is offering you a fork, not a game of cards.

Other consonants that don’t exist in Korean are /th/ (both as in “this” and “thin”) which becomes /d/, and /z/ which becomes /j/ (if your students tell you that they want to go to the “jew”, don’t look confusedly around for a rabbi). In addition, many sounds that are found at the start of syllables in Korean and English – /ch/, /s/, /z/, /sh/ – are not found at the end in Korean, so learners may have trouble with these, often again adding an extra vowel sound to make “churchee”, “missuh”, “whijuh” and “fishee” (Swan & Smith, 2001). Finally, there is the famous /r/ and /l/ problem. In Korean, these are approximations of /r/ and /l/ in English, but the /r/ ish sound only occurs in syllable initial position, whereas the sound more like /l/ is syllable final only. This means that while “real” will sound roughly the same, “really” may sound more like “rearee”.

Vowels-wise Korean has less pure vowels, and more dipthongs. This is because what would be a semi-vowel in English (ie. /w/, /y/), is a dipthong in Korean, made by combining two vowels. This makes the glides a little less pronounced in Korean (think the middle of “Guam”), and also means that students may create dipthongs out of vowel combinations, especially “oa” and “uo”, so “oats” may be pronounced “wats”.  Korean also does not distinguish between long and short vowels in the way that English does, for example in “sit” and “seat”.  This means that your students are likely to pronounce them exactly the same, leaving you to sort out the difference. A word to the wise as well, if you’re teaching “can” and “can’t”, stick to the US pronunciation, as the long “a” in the UK version doesn’t exist in Korean, and ends up closer to a /u/ sound, with predictable consequences.

Not wishing to bore the reader senseless means that this is just an introduction to the kinds of things you may hear in your learners speech. If it seems intimidating, it shouldn’t be. You will very quickly acquire specialized listening skills for the Korean classroom, but these notes may help you to be aware of some pronunciation issues. It was noticeable to me that, after six months of teaching here, I could understand my learners fine in English, but a native-speaking visitor I brought into the classroom often couldn’t make out what they were trying to say.

That example does of course point to a certain danger with language teachers, that our specialized, acquired knowledge of learner pronunciation makes us very bad judges of how good our learners actually are at pronunciation (Kenworthy, 1987). For most learners, pronunciation should be integrated into the course, with plenty of opportunity to hear native pronunciation and compare their own. In addition, individuals may need to work on certain problems, which can be set in consultation with the teacher. Some of those highlighted above may be good starting points.

Finally then, what do you do when it does go wrong, and you simply can’t understand what a student is trying to say? There are still plenty of options, ask the student to mime or draw what they are trying to say; ask if they know another word with the same or similar meaning, or, what may really benefit them and you, is to ask them to put it in a sentence. When I did that for the example at the start, the student responded with this:

Now do you get it? (Answer at the bottom if you didn’t).

If you’re aware of other common Korean mispronunciations, or you have any funny stories to share, please tweet me or leave a comment below. Cheers,

Alex

* This blog post does not use IPA symbols, the symbols betwenn the / /  are simply letters of the English alphabet.

References

  • Jenkins, J. (2000) The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Kenworthy, J. (1987) Teaching English Pronunciation. Harlow: Longman Harlow.
  • Kim-Renaud, Y.K. (2009) Korean: An Essential Grammar. New York: Routledge.
  • Rogerson-Revell, P. (2011) English Phonology and Pronunciation Teaching. London: Continuum.
  • Swan, M. & Smith, B. (2001) Learner English: A Teacher’s Guide to Interference and Other  Problems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Answer: If you didn’t get it from the sentence above, the answer is “Oasis“.

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9 responses to “뉴비즈: Korean Pronunciation of English

  1. Excellent, thanks. A tremendous help — I am struggling to tutor a Korean grad student who is scared silly about his upcoming dissertation defense.

  2. My pleasure. I’d strongly recommend you try to find a copy of Learner English – it has a much more comprehensive view of Korean pronunciation of English than I had space to give here.

  3. I’m an English-speaking American just starting out teaching myself the Korean alphabet & the pronunciation of the letters. It seems that there are no Korean equivalents to the long /i/ (hi) or the short /i/ (is). Have I missed something?
    I found your post very helpful even though I’m in the reverse position.

    • Hi Betsy,

      Thanks very much for your comment.

      In answer to your questions, you’re right to say there’s no equivalent to the sound in ‘hi’ in Korean. It’s usually achieved by combining the sounds 아 and 이, so ‘hi’ is usually transcribed as ‘하이’. Phonetically speaking though, this is almost the same as English, because the vowel sound in ‘hi’ is a dipthong – a vowel made of two other sounds, in this case the /ɑ/ in ‘father’ and the ɪ in ‘sit’. So even in English ‘hi’ is phonetically transcribed as /hɑɪ/.

      As for the short I sound in ‘is’, I would say that it’s close to the Korean 이 in terms of length, but the Korean sound is pronounced with your tongue slightly further forward and slightly higher in your mouth.

      Hope this helps, and best of luck with your Korean studies!

      Cheers,

      Alex

  4. Oddly, I’ve had more luck teaching the UK pronunciation of ‘can’t’ to my Korean students, because I’ve rarely heard them say it with a ‘u’ instead. I’ve had more problems with them dropping the ‘t’ at the end. Using the American vowel, this means that they say ‘can’ for both.

    • Hi Adam,

      Cheers for the comment. Are you teaching in Korea or the UK. I see the dilemma with British and American pronunciations, and mine sometimes drop the t too. However they really struggle with vowel length, and every time they say can’t with a short vowel it sounds pretty awful to me. I guess from and an ELF point of view it might not be so bad, and there’s little chance of it being misunderstood on context. On the other hand I find it incredibly distracting.

      Good to think about these things though.

      Alex

  5. This was a very interesting article. It confirmed for me most of the observations that I’ve made over the years of observing ESL students in Korea regarding what English language consonants are missing from Hangul.

    I’m less certain regarding one of the vowel sounds and whether it is missing from Hangul. That vowel is the short / a / found in words like cat, hat, mat. I never been certain of how the Korean vowel, / 애 / is pronounced and was wondering if it might be the same sound as the short / a /. Perhaps you can answer this question for me.

    By the way, thanks for mentioning that book, Learner English, I will get a copy of it right away.

  6. Hi Alex,
    This was a very interesting article. It confirmed for me most of the observations that I’ve made over the years of observing ESL students in Korea regarding what English language consonants are missing from Hangul.

    I’m less certain regarding one of the vowel sounds and whether it is missing from Hangul. That vowel is the short / a / found in words like cat, hat, mat. I never been certain of how the Korean vowel, / 애 / is pronounced and was wondering if it might be the same sound as the short / a /. Perhaps you can answer this question for me.

    By the way, thanks for mentioning that book, Learner English, I will get a copy of it right away.

    Roger

    • Hi Roger,

      Thanks very much for your comment and for digging up a very old post.

      In answer to your question, “애” is pronounced in a reasonably similar way to to the American short “a”, but different to the British short “a”, which is pronounced with a much more open mouth. When aiming for something more like American English, problems come when students need to distinguish short “a from short “e” (eg. bad from bed): “e” gets romanized to “에” and is pretty much indistinguishable from “애” for most non-Korean speakers (and according to my students, a good many Koreans too). If you’re taking the ELF approach to pronunciation as mentioned above, it’s generally accepted that vowel quality (ie the sound) is not particularly important as long as it is both consistent and the vowels are clearly distinguishable. Therefore I’d suggest that teaching students to be a little more open-jawed on short “a” will lead to the greatest intelligibility.

      I hope that’s helpful.

      Alex

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