Pronunciation Camp Review 2: Segmental Consonants

This is the second part of my review of a five week pronunciation course I taught as part of the university’s summer intensive program. You can read the first part here, and a preview here.

A student’s eye view of my classroom

Segmental Consonants

Having looked at the teaching of segmental vowels in my last post, I now want to turn my attention to the teaching of consonants. Again, students of all levels here seem to have problems with this, and often because of attempts to make the sounds of English through the Korean sound system. Some of these problems, such as /r/ and /l/ sounds, are very obvious, but others are more subtle. I’ll come to these later on.

I had actually hoped not to have to focus too much on consonants, figuring that students would mostly be well informed in this area. As the course developed however, it became increasingly clear that they weren’t, and thus I decided to cover almost all of the consonants to some extent, but try to get individual students to work on sounds that were particular problems for them.

As the course was intended to be a basis, we started focusing on consonants with a bit of an information dump. I gave each student a copy of two traditional pronunciation teaching aids – a diagram of the mouth, and a table of consonants with descriptions of the points of articulation, voicing and nature of the sounds (there are plenty of these floating around on the net if you Google them, example table here and diagram here).

Mouth diagram and consonant sounds table

I also wanted the students to master the phonetic alphabet*, so I used that as a starting point.  I used the worksheet below, and asked students first to examine a piece of text containing all of the sounds of English (I took mine from this document (page 4), seemingly available free, which is great as it’s full of useful stuff) and write down further examples of each sound. Following this I then had the students write down the Korean equivalent, but only if they though it was an acceptable substitute. This then formed the basis for discussion and practise for the remainder of the lesson.

Worksheet download: IPA Consonants Worksheet

The discussion was an interesting one. We started by checking the student examples, and having the class pronounce the sound together. Where there were difficulties, we went back to the points of articulation and the table. A key concept here is that of voice. If Korean has voicing on consonants, it’s not used to distinguish them, and so this can be a new concept for students. Often they will try to work around the voicing aspect by articulating it in a different place, such as with /s/ and /z/, the latter of which ends up being pronounced more like a /j/. A good way to practice voice is to ask students to breathe out almost silently, and then making a droning noise using their vocal cords. This should demonstrate the difference between voiced and unvoiced. With this concept and the diagram I was able to communicate the idea quite clearly to the students.

The discussion about whether the Korean equivalents were a good approximation was a lively and interesting one. It was surprising how many students wrote down /ㄹ/ for /r/ and /l/, when it is nothing like /r/ at any point, and only similar to /l/ in a final position. This was one of may common mistakes, which I don;t have time to detail here. With each class, I found it useful to use a kind of bilingual minimal pairs, with a word transliterated into Korean, and myself and a student pronouncing our native halves, and also showing where on the digram they were produced. This allowed students to hear and see the difference, and also led to at least one useful discovery, that the Korean /ㅅ/ and /ㅆ/ are produced with the tongue low in the mouth and the sound made by the air passing underneath the front teeth. This compares to the English /s/ where the sound is made by air being forced through the gap between the tip of the tongue and the alveolar ridge or the back of the front teeth. This was new to me as I’d always assumed that the sounds were more or less the same between the languages, but actually getting this one right becomes crucial for pronouncing /z/ correctly, and I suspect it also has implications for /th/ as well, as it stops the confusion between the two sounds. Overall, this was a really worthwhile exercise. It demonstrates even the subtle differences between the two sound systems, and allows students to choose for themselves exactly what they think is important and within the reach of their capabilities.

During the discussion and practise, I was asking students to note down any sounds that they did not produce correctly. Over the following days the students paired up with those with similar problem consonants and worked on pronouncing them correctly, and finding words in the 1,000 words list where the sound appeared as an initial, intervocalic and final phoneme. They then tried to build these words into sentences and presented all of their findings to the group. If I did this again, I would probably ask the students to add their old , incorrect pronunciation to the presentation, as it may give the other students more of a chance to recognize their own mistakes.

As these presentations went on, I found mistakes occurring more in final consonants. I’d expected this before the camp, and so dedicated a lesson to dealing with them. Anyone who has heard a fair amount of Korean will be familiar with the tendency of learners here to add vowel sounds to final consonants, so that you end up eating a “salad-uh” for “lunch-ee”. The easiest way to help students to understand this was to visualize the sounds as a two stage process. Most plosives and fricatives have a build up stage where the airway is closed or obstructed, followed by a release. The easiest way to correct learners’ production seemed to be to finish the sound at the build up stage. This led to some useful improvements in the short term. For other sounds such as /ch/, I explained that no or very little air passed, and the sounds were made simply by the clicking noise of parts of the mouth. The most effective way to do this seemed just to practise making these clicks, before incorporating them into words and sentences.

This more or less brings me to the end of this post. I felt a lot more satisfied teaching consonants than vowels, and I think the students felt that they learnt more. I think naturally having something fairly concrete to hang on to here helps a lot. Having studied pronunciation I find it quite easy to visualize where vowels are made in the mouth, but I suspect it’s very much more difficult for the students. Again, I would have liked more time here, but it feel that this was one of the more successful parts of the camp.

I hope you enjoyed this post, and found it in some way useful. I’m going to try to cover evaluation, supra-segmental features, wider applications and fluency in future posts, so stay tuned if that sounds like fun. In the meantime, if you have any words of wisdom, do leave them below 🙂



* To prove the usefulness of the phonetic alphabet, take an unknown word like ‘facetious’ and have students try to pronounce it. When they inevitably get it wrong, ask them to look it up in their dictionaries and use the IPA symbols to figure out the correct pronunciation. You could even expand this concept into a worksheet for more practise.


6 responses to “Pronunciation Camp Review 2: Segmental Consonants

  1. Hey Alex,

    I REALLY enjoy these posts. I am learning Korean at the moment and also teach Koreans. As you said, anyone who has been here a short while will recognize these pronunciation problems. I am not as knowledgable about this subject as I would like and have found your last two posts supremely helpful and though provoking.

    There are at least a few tricks I will try and take back to my middle schoolers to help them when they are talking about eating their lunch-ee. 😀

  2. Hey John,

    As usual, thanks for reading and commenting. I’m thrilled that you’re finding it useful. If you ever need any help with teaching it to your middle schoolers, let me know and I’ll do my best to help.



  3. Another great post Alex. Although I’ve never taught Korean speakers I can definitely see comparisons with other students I’ve taught. I think the main reasons teachers avoid IPA are that their accents are different from RP and not knowing IPA symbols well enough (I’d certainly say the latter is the reason I don’t use it as much as I should)

    I really like the idea of getting students to compare letters (or sounds) in their language with English as it could be useful even for languages that are very similar to draw attention to differences that are bigger than students are aware of.

  4. Hi Chris,

    Thanks so much for reading and commenting. You raise a good point about teachers not using IPA because they can’t reproduce the sounds exactly. I’d argue that this wasn’t exactly my intention in teaching the symbols. I don’t know if you read my first post, but getting students to imitate my vowel sounds proved near impossible. My aim was to give them a resource to look up the pronunciation of words to help them as they proceed in their studies.

    The comparison and discussion activity was great for both me and the students. As a Korean learner I found a whole lot about how to produce Korean sounds that I didn’t know before.


  5. Pingback: Pronunciation Camp 3: Intonational Chunks and Fluency | The Breathy Vowel

  6. Pingback: Pronunciation Camp 4 – Habits: Revealing, Correcting, Practising and Linking | The Breathy Vowel

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