Tag Archives: Korean

TBVGBTS: Listening in a second language class

This is another post in a series of posts stemming from my experience taking a Korean class at a university in Seoul. Other posts about the class, which might help with the background, are linked at the bottom of this post. This time I want to share some of my experiences with listening to recorded materials (ie. coursebook listening materials, not teacher talk or other students) as part of a wider discussion of the role of listening materials in the classroom.

The first thing to say is that listening to recorded materials requires an awful lot of attention, especially if the book that they are drawn from is pitched at a higher level than the students can comfortably handle, as ours was. As a teacher and a student, I believe that listening is by the far most difficult skill involved in language learning, but I think that impression may well partly come from the way we deal with listening in the classroom. Note that I’m deliberately avoiding saying “teaching” here, because this course went a long way to confirming what I’ve suspected for a while: that “teaching” listening is more or less impossible, and my experience of listening to recorded materials on this course might have helped me to understand a bit better why this is so.

The problem is that, if Skehan’s limited attention hypothesis is to be believed, we have a limited amount of brain power to devote to whatever we are doing.  If this happens to be listening to L2 speech above a level that we can comfortably understand, more or less all of our attention is going to be directed at trying to make sense of it. By way of illustration, at times during listening activities I found it helpful to close my eyes and listen; blocking out visual signals seemingly freed up a bit more processing power for decoding audial ones.

So how do we help students to process difficult listenings? The textbook way seems to be to use “listening strategies” (take a look on this page and see if you can find out what even one of the oft referred to “listening strategies” is), or “metacognitive strategies”. The problem for me is that even metacognitive strategies demand cognitive resources, and these, as we’ve seen above, aren’t readily available during difficult listenings. “Then the listening’s clearly too difficult,” I hear you chirp. Well, yes, but if it was easier then we wouldn’t need all these strategies in the first place – we’d just understand it.

I’d also suggest that pre- and post-listening tasks surely are a function more of the contextless nature of listening on English courses rather than anything you’d actually need to do in the real world. “Ah! Here is a picture of a goat in my textbook. I hence predict that I may hear information pertaining to horn configuration, or an anecdote about one of the greedy buggers eating the sleeve of a favourite jumper.” (Goodness, I should write a listening textbook – it’d be amazing!). In the non-textbook world this kind of schema activation is pretty much unnecessary because all of the context is already provided: if you’re listening to something in the real world, you most likely know what it is and what you expect to hear anyway. It’s only when you completely decontextualise a listening, as well as removing all of the visual support that the real world would offer, that you have to spend minutes of valuable class time getting students to reconstruct it before they listen (for a textbook writer’s point of view on this, see @pterolaur’s post here).

All of this ridiculousness might stem from two sources. Firstly, the need for coursebooks to provide listenings as part of a “four skills approach” or a “balanced curriculum”, or whatever.  Fair enough, I suppose, though I’d suggest that in a decently communicative class students will get a lot more useful audial input from fellow students and the teacher, especially with activities like live listenings, which might also be more efficient due to less contextualization, as well as not being contrived to sledgehammer home some arbitrary language point. Secondly, I think teachers feel a certain pressure to “teach”. You have to be seen to be doing something more than just pressing play and saying “listen to this and see if you understand it”. This leads to the kind of teaching that I experienced on the Korean course: teachers getting us to listen for how many points are made in a listening, when it’s pretty obvious even from prosodic cues like pausing and intonation where one point stops and another begins. This is not what I need to know from a listening; I need to know what the content of those points is, and that is a far more difficult proposition. I think it’s also worth saying that listening pieces vary so much in their structures (compared to writing) that, outside of very specific examples, it’s not really worth teaching structure either.

So what do I need from teachers as a second language listener? I see a lot of advice about getting listeners to accept less than 100% understanding. This seems fine, but teachers have to accept that below a certain percentage of words understood (and this will be high number, I’d say at least 80 and more likely above 90), all but the most rudimentary of listening for gist or very specific information activities will be extremely difficult. Furthermore, understanding below this level would more or less rule out any of the input becoming uptake, not that I think that listenings really provide much in this area anyway due to real-time processing making it near impossible to focus much on form.

What might be useful is if teachers could train students to listen in a different way to the L2 than they do in an L1. I’m in the realm of hypothesizing here, but listening to recorded materials reminded me of a really  interesting listening activity from my MA studies. It featured a man talking about a journey (in English), but only at the end did it become clear that he was recounting a time that he was ripped off by a taxi driver. The purpose of the activity was to show how when we listen we automatically construct and update mental representations and hypotheses based on what we are hearing as well as past experience. However, when listening in an L2, this process is fragile and subject to breaking down because there’s not enough understandable input, or because the listener suddenly encounters a word or run of words that are not understood, and so the updating becomes impossible, and the mental representation stalls or breaks down. The disorientation caused by a run of unknown sounds should not be underestimated, and so helping students to reorient themselves after losing the thread of understanding could be an important strategy for learners. It doesn’t, however, seem eminently teachable.

More sensible teaching approaches link clearly to features of pronunciation (Rachael Roberts has a great example in the video in this post) and I could possibly see a role for the learning of common lexical chunks or discourse markers in this vein too. One time I remember my understanding in Korean breaking down was when someone talked about an “angular chin”, a phrase I’d just been taught but hadn’t really internalized the pronunciation of yet, and I discovered this in a second playing of listening at slower speed.

The teachers’ approach to listening on my course seemed to be to play the listening at full speed once, look at our puzzled expressions, and then play it again at reduced speed, sometimes while translating it into more simple Korean for us. My jury is still out on the effectiveness of this because even though I understand much more when the listening is slowed down, I feel like it’s still too ephemeral for any kind of concious learning, though I do wonder if it might be used to develop a kind of listening fluency. What I would have liked, but never got time for, was some time after the listening to read a tapescript, look at the parts that I didn’t understand, and try to figure out why I didn’t understand them. This would have at least led to greater satisfaction, but perhaps few generalizable gains.

It’s difficult for me to see past massive amounts of audial input as the principal development driver for listening skills, and therefore this has been a bit of a depressing post to write, because I want to actively help my students to listen better. There are some interesting suggestions in John Field’s presentation here, though as outlined above I’m not totally sold on the idea that basing teaching on L1 listening strategies is entirely helpful. One example might be listening for the stressed words in an utterance (nuclear stress). It strikes me that there’s a lot of information contained in weak forms: I clearly remember a listening from the course that featured a man and a woman discussing their personality traits. I got all of the traits, but missed most of the pronouns, so had no idea who had which trait. This was all in Korean, which I don’t believe has such clearly marked nuclear stress (though I may be wrong), but it struck me that a lot of the information that I needed would possibly hidden in unstressed syllables and weak forms in native English. One real positive of Field’s presentation however is the recognition that any listening strategies or processes that we teach need to be repeated to the point where they become automatic, for reasons of limited cognitive resources given above.

Listening to Korean during the course has changed the way I think about listening in my classes as a teacher. I didn’t use textbook listenings that much before, but I might well think about banishing them entirely from the room and relying on my own voice, the students’ voices and anyone else that I can rope in to provide input. I’m hoping it might be sufficiently contextualized by what we are doing in class to to skip pre-listening tasks. Post-listening tasks might involve summarizing or analyzing a tapescript, but really, would it be so wrong just to sit students down and ask them to listen?

Links to to other posts about this Korean course


TBVGBTS: Presentations for learning

I recently took a three week intensive Korean course at a university in Seoul. As part of the class, I had to make two presentations in Korean: a five minute presentation in which I introduced and described a Korean person I had met, and a fifteen minute presentation on some aspect of Korea that I had researched. Both presentations counted towards my overall speaking grade on the course. The English course that I teach each semester also asks students to make two assessed presentations of 3 and 5 minutes, so in this post I want to explore my own foreign language presenting experience and the insights into teaching that I gained from it.

What use are presentations?

The impression that I get from my students is that while they don’t look forward to or enjoy presentations, they do see them as a useful and valid task for assessing and improving their English. My view as a teacher is that presentation skills (in any language) are generally pretty important in life, but that as a language learning tool they may be of less use to my students, who I see as needing much more practice in the extemporaneous speaking department. As a student, I was less than thrilled to see them on the syllabus because a) I was terrified and b) presentations seem to require an inordinate amount of work on a course where the workload was already fairly high. However, I certainly gained several things from my presenting experience.

Firstly, one of the things that I don’t pay a great deal of attention to when teaching presentations is the need to use an appropriate register. Teaching time is short; English register is relatively elusive. In Korean, things are a little clearer: presentations are given using the highest deferential verb endings, and so it is much easier to move your your speech to a very formal register.  This was the one piece of advice we were given pre-presentation, and the presentation was the first time I have ever needed to use that register in a serious way, which was excellent practice.

For the longer presentation, I actually tried to give a proper research presentation, so I created a quick survey comparing Korean and non-Korean beliefs about non-Koreans’ lives in Korea and tried to analyse the results. This was a really useful experience because I could foresee a point in the future where I might have to do this for real. This might be something to think about for my own teaching, where the presentation tasks are much less “real-life” – although how I could make them more so remains a bit of a mystery at present. One reason for making things as realistic as possible is that I felt like I retained phrases like “qualitative analysis”, “objective viewpoint” and “on the other hand” fairly well without having to work very hard on memorizing them specifically.

Planning and preparing

It seems fairly well documented in research into TBLT that pre-task planning time often leads to gains in accuracy, complexity and fluency during the task. This is something that I generally try to leverage during classroom activities, though usually in the form of thinking rather than planning time. Both presentations during the course required me to write and submit a script for correction (no mean feat for a fifteen minute presentation!), and it struck me that this is essentially planning time for an oral task taken to the extreme.

Planning in this way has both advantages and disadvantages. Writing a script definitely increases the complexity of my sentences as well as giving me the chance to think about what “feels” more Korean, rather than just saying the first thing that comes to mind to get my point across. It also gave a useful space for experimenting with and incorporating some of the structures that we had come across that were more suitable for formal contexts. All good so far then, but all of the above then introduce the very real possibility of planning a speech that is much more complex than you’re really capable of memorising or delivering with any fluency. The other surprising aspect that struck me was that having written a script, there suddenly occurred a very pressing need to stick to the bloody thing! This generally doesn’t happen to me when presenting in English, where I’m quite happy to dive away from what I had prepared, but in Korean led to the creation of note cards so detailed that they may as well have been a script. I’m honestly not sure how this affected my overall presentation, but it leaves me pondering things for my own teaching.

I tend to go back and forward between recommending scripting and not scripting for my students. Half of me thinks that creating a presentation from speaking with just notes to guide to gives you a better chance of natural delivery and remembering what to say. On the other hand, I feel like writing a script might benefit clarity and complexity. In the future I’m tempted to outline both approaches and let students decide as to a large extent I think it’s going to depend on what makes you feel more confident as a presenter and what you want out of the presentation.

Affective factors

I referred to confidence (or lack of it) above, and this is just one of a whole range of affective factors involved in presenting. Of my first language presenting experiences, I’d say, to paraphrase a quote of dubious origin, that I prefer having presented to presenting, but in a second language the face-threatening pitfalls are more numerous: memory blanks, worrying about extemporizing and the lack of strategies to talk your way out of problems being the worst of these. Interestingly, the prospect of making grammatical mistakes is among the least of my worries. In other words, it’s the lack of control of potentially embarrassing situations that bothers me, rather than any linguistic deficiency.

Another interesting affective factor was the strange sense of security that using a more formal register of Korean gave me. I have two theories as to why this might be so. Firstly, it may be seeking the approval of the audience (well, the teacher at least): I know I am getting roughly the right register if I am adding the right verb endings, and at the very least I am seen to be making an effort to respect the sociocultural values of the classroom and the target language. Again, I have some control over how I present myself, which makes me feel better. The second theory is that formality breeds distance; we are more polite with strangers than we are with friends, and I wonder if it is the distancing aspect of using a formal register that helps me to feel kind of detached and professional. I certainly find myself channelling every suited and booted, clicker wielding speaker I’ve ever seen give a straight-laced and uptight speech in Korean when giving my presentation.

Again, it might be helpful at this point to try to bring this back to my classroom, and how I can help students feel more confident. Clearly, if I feel the pressure of register given my limited contact with Korean, my L1 Korean students are likely to feel it all the more. Incidentally, I have had students ask me on more than one occasion how to use the equivalent of Korean high speech in English. I tend to fudge an answer, but the simple thing to do here when teaching presentation skills might be to point out that English has no solidly defined higher register, and that presentations are often given in a much more colloquial style anyway. It could be worth looking at general tendencies such as pronouncing every word (“going to”, not “gonna”), and also key phrases with politeness embedded (“Please take a look at…”).

Nonetheless, from my presenting experience, the best way to tackle teaching register might simply be through a process of trial and error. My second presentation went way over time, and I had to run through the final few slides completely off script. This required the use of quite a few communication strategies to buy some thinking time and signal that I was summarizing, one of which was (over)using the Korean word 그냥 (Geunyang, “Just”). The feedback afterwards was that this was where I’d departed from the formal register. The lesson here perhaps is it’s very difficult to predict what elements of a complex performance might come off as in the wrong register until you see an actual performance. The key thing here is to make sure that the feedback comes as part of the process, not at the end. It really annoyed me that I used a lot of lower register connectors ((이)랑, Korean fans) rather than higher (와,과). I had no idea, and to my further frustration a classmate confessed that she had incorporated that feedback into her presentation directly after mine (“That’s my feedback! You can’t use it!”).


All in all my presenting experience was considerably less terrifying than I thought it would be. It helped that I was familiar with the audience and the surroundings, and that I got to present twice (the second time was much better). In terms of what I learned in terms of teaching, I would aim for more options of how to prepare (though reading should still be heavily penalized), as well as a good practice stage with useful feedback. I should also try to ease student concerns about register as well as teaching a few more stock phrases, and perhaps some strategies for what to do if it all goes wrong. Presenting in a second language is rarely going to be easy, but this way it could be a bit less stressful for everyone.

TBV goes back to school: Selected diary extracts


This post is intended both as a preview of some upcoming posts for the 2.4 people who are waiting for news of my recently finished Korean language class, and also a way of reviewing my notes from the whole experience in preparation for writing more detailed posts. During the course I was reasonably diligent about writing for 30 minutes a day about things that I noticed in class and how I thought I was progressing. The extracts below are from those writings, and might give you an idea of some of my raw reactions to the course. Apologies for any unpolished language, shouting and insensitivity that may occur.

Day one:

“It strikes me on the way in that language classes are MENTAL! You can forget as a teacher that gathering in a place to speak in another language is a fairly extraordinary thing to do, and learners often don’t have a clue how they are supposed to behave in this context. When I get to my classroom, there are two girls sat in the dark. I smile and issue a greeting in two languages, which gets little response. Silence and awkwardness descends, probably because nobody knows what language to speak. We are well outside our comfort zones before the teacher even enters the room.”

“One thing I note is that there is no effort at all to create a sense of a group, and no talking to each other initiated by the teacher, though thankfully at least four of us manage to get some chatting done in Korean and get to know each other a little. This to me is a big negative and maybe something that Korean teachers don’t consider so much in class?”
“Oh yeah. Paying 26,000 won more for a textbook when I’ve already paid 700,000 won for the course? Piss off.”
Day two:
“I feel like someone has tried to make Foie Gras by stuffing my brain so full of stuff that it explodes.”
“We quickly got sidetracked onto a discussion about whether nose shape was as important to Japanese people as Koreans (it isn’t). There wasn’t any feedback or sense that the teacher was listening. In fact, she went out of the room for a time.”
Day three:
“I’m feeling quite humble today. One thing you are maybe not aware of in class is quite the level of confusion amongst your students. Perhaps it doesn’t happen to you, but if it does are you wont to blame the students for not doing paying enough attention or not checking with you? I have been guilty of this in the past, but no more! This morning everyone turned up with different versions of what we were supposed to have done and we had to check with the teacher exactly what we were supposed to have done. We were almost all wrong too!”
“I’m finding myself becoming more and more of a fan of ICQs, just because they’d give us a chance to go over what was said one more time. Even asking “Do you understand?” would be a nice chance to say ‘no’.”
Day six:
“The teacher explains all of the vocabulary first, and then asks us to read aloud, filling in the blanks on the hoof. This is near impossible and really annoying, especially as I’m discovering that reading aloud focuses all of my energy on making the sounds rather than understanding the words and therefore is not helpful at all. I wonder if reading a phonetic and non- phonetic language aloud is a different cognitive process?”
“The whole segment is basically a disaster for me. The teacher assumes I will know words like 특징 (point of difference), which I don’t, and I spend the whole time struggling to stay afloat. I imagine the same is true for others, but the teacher never stops to find out. Once we’re through the reading, there are some comprehension questions that he asks and then answers straight away. At very few points are we left alone to read or think in peace.”
“Then again, I’m yet to experience a lesson structured around a clear target, at least one based on spoken output.”
Day seven:
“One thing that’s bothering me today is the sheer burden of the vocab learning on this course. Every day we are given 30 to 40 vocabulary words to learn, most of which are new (to me at least), and every day we are tested on them. The effort to get all of those into my memory is severely affecting the amount of work that I can put into other areas of language learning such as re-reading or pronuciation and it feels limiting. It’s bad enough having to get up at 6 am without having to study all of the way to school too.”
Day eight:
“We do some listening, and she breaks us into groups to discuss the answers. This is difficult because the people I worked with didn’t really say much. We fudge with the tapescript until the teacher tells us the answers. We then listen one more time with the teacher repeating. This is helpful in terms of making sense, but I would surely like to work a bit harder on the things that I didn’t know or didn’t hear.”
“There’s a horrible moment where as a personalization thing I have to create an example of the difference between Korean and English girls. I struggle for something inoffensive, fail and settle for a fat/ thin distinction. The girl opposite me sighs.”
Day nine:
“I would say that the big improvement has been in using Korean for the purposes of being a member of my class. I’m feeling noticeably more confident about speaking in public and using the respectful style and honorifics to other class members, even if I’m the oldest and these could generally be skipped. The confidence though could easily be ascribed to a getting used to new environs as to any meaningful language development.”
Day ten:
“I’ve found that I’m not very good at remembering to use stuff in general in class, unlike another girl who seems to be able to remember to jam things we’ve learned into conversations in class. Part of the reason is that a lot of the grammar we do is pointed out as more written and formal register, but this shouldn’t be an excuse. Still, some planning time would be great and I feel like I’m being denied the chance to create anything with language. I feel like a lot of the speaking that I do in class is not oriented towards language development, but more towards sharing ideas.”
 “I’m beginning to think of fossilization not so much in terms of errors, but in terms of ways of getting things done in the language, and I think that written input might be the best way to destabilize it.”
Day eleven:
“I think if I hear another unrelated anecdote I am likely to sink deep into a pit of incomprehensible despair. But at least I’m understanding, right?”
“In fact, I had got a bit lost towards the end of the first point, and it was the pause, not any structural knowledge that alerted me to the fact that something new was coming. And here’s the thing: do we really, really need to teach people to listen for pauses? Am I just such a go-getting, switched on language learner that I don’t have to be taught this stuff?”
“A final question is how much teachers of English and other relative majority languages should hold teachers of relatively minor languages to the same professional standards. I have almost effortless access to a raft of literature, blogs, conferences and colleagues from which and whom to learn.”
Reading those quotes back they actually paint a fairly accurate picture of my experience: really fascinating, yet not always for the right reasons. However, it did yield a fair amount of learning and confidence in my second language, and provided some really interesting insights into teaching and learning too. Writing this post has helped me develop a long list of things to blog about in longer form over the next few weeks, so stay tuned if you’re interested.

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.

Motivating Students to Remember


Is she driving my accuracy in Korean? (Photo by bradburyjason on Flickr)

I’m often surprised by how little my students remember, or at least remember to apply, especially when it comes to grammar morphology, such as the third person singular -s. I’m going to avoid debating its communicative importance here, suffice to say that while its easy to get by without it, my students’ sporadic use of it suggests that they are aware of it, want to use it and are simply forgetting more often than not, rather than taking a conscious decision not to use it. It’s led me to wonder quite why they do it.

Errors tend to occur in many different contexts, both written and spoken, and in controlled and freer speaking activities. This means that it can’t always be put down to a heavy cognitive load, or a reduced ability to check one’s own output (especially where writing is concerned). I suspect that a major influence is its lack of communicative importance; it really little more than a showy accoutrement to a verb, but nevertheless it’s part of the language and one that my students use to some degree.

At the moment I’m making some progress with trying to learn Korean. I’m around an intermediate level, and I’m able to say a lot of what I want to these days. I’m always acutely aware that lurking at the end of the sentence is the verb, and a whole lot of morphological gymnastics. Korean is an agglutinating language, which essentially means that whenever you get to a verb there’s a glut of possible suffixes to add for tense, aspect, politeness or deference to the interlocutor, honor to the referent (even if not present), negation, voice, exclamation, conjunction and a million other things. On the whole I think I do ok at handling most of this, and I mostly remember to include everything, and without wishing to be immodest tend to do it better than most of my students, again, I wonder why.

The big difference between my students and I is one of situation. They are learning English as a foreign language, whereas I guess I’m learning Korean as a second language. Mine is hardly an immersion setting though, my work, studies and a fair chunk of my social life is still conducted in English. I’d say I don’t spend much, if any, more time studying and practicing Korean than my students do English, yet I seem to get better results, particularly in terms of accuracy.

There are clearly a number of reasons for this, not least that as a language teacher I have a greater fondness for accuracy than most. I think that the biggest reason that I retain things is that when I come across something new in Korean, particularly where grammar is concerned, a thought crosses my mind that goes something like “Oh bloody hell, I’m actually going to have to use that next time I speak to someone. Come on brain!” This actually seems to work quite well for me, and I think that it’s not so much the communicative importance that drives it so much as simply the possibility. It’s clear though that my setting helps a great deal; this possibility could occur next time I go to the shops, take a taxi, next time my phone rings, or next time I’m introduced to someone. For me, thinking about this its an easy task. In fact, I barely think about it at all, it’s just a part of my life.

The real question then is can I get my EFL students into the same mindset, and how? Having spent several hundred words setting this up, I now don’t really have space to expound any of my ideas about this, and I’d also be interested to hear your thoughts or strategies for achieving it. If you’d like to contribute something, leave it as a comment or tweet it to me, and I’ll put everything together into a lovely big part two blog post and give you full credit.

I’m looking forward to hearing your opinions. Until then…



Asking students to assess your L2 output

This is my first week as a university “professor” in Korea. I’m entirely uncomfortable with the title, and have made my students promise to call me Alex instead, at least until I get my PhD in ten years or so. Anyway, the chance to work with some slightly higher level, and perhaps slightly more motivated students is an inviting one. The course is “conversation based”, so that means lots of student talking too, which is great because then I don’t have to do any.

One of the things that I want to push my students towards this semester is becoming evaluators of each other’s language. This has several benefits for the students and for the class. The first is a practical one – in a class of 16-20, I can’t listen to everyone at the same time – I can wander and monitor, but I won’t catch every individual mistake. With student evaluators, I hope that more mistakes will get caught. Another reason is that it should make the students more linguistically aware, and bring to their attention aspects of performance such as pronunciation, word choice and form that will positively affect their own, and perhaps highlight mistakes that they were previously unaware of.

Judging another person’s language is not always easy, even for an English teacher, and giving constructive criticism is difficult, especially for my freshmen students who hardly know each other, and in whose culture opinions are not always given as directly as in the West. I came up with an activity to help introduce the concept of language evaluation, based on the old teaching maxim “You should never ask your students to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself”. I gave each student the opportunity to ask me a question about myself in Korean, and I would (try) to respond in Korean. Given that we had just done interviews to determine levels, I felt that this was a good way to let them have a little revenge too.

Before the activity, you need to either give or elicit some useful sentences for giving advice to language learners, and also some things to listen for. These are some examples:

Giving Advice

” I would say X like this: Y”, “I didn’t understand  when you said X”, “X was the wrong pronunciation/grammar/word choice”, “I think you need to improve your X”.


1. Grammar, 2. Word choice, 3. Word order, 4. Pronunciation (sounds), 5. Intonation.

Then, simply give your students the chance to ask you one question each, listen to your L2 output, and then write and read out some sentences giving you advice on how to improve.

I tried this activity with three classes, one at level 1 (elementary) and two at level 2 (pre-intermediate). The first class was not really a success, for a number of reasons. Firstly, I tried to elicit some sentences from them, which was a struggle, but we did get things like “X was perfect” – this turned out to be a poor option to give them, as many of the students took it as a way out of having to say/do anything. I also didn’t ask for specifics, so I got a lot of answers like “I think you need to improve your pronunciation.” (“I know that – but HOW?”). I think that also, many students waited until the end of the activity to do their thinking, which meant that they couldn’t remember examples (this has happened to me as a teacher in the past too, even with notes!). What I ended up with was a lot of compliments about my Korean, and not a lot of awareness raised, or experience of giving constructive criticism.

The second class I worked on ironing out the problems from the first. This class seemed a bit more into it anyway. I decided that I would give them example sentences aimed at helping me to improve only, but gave them the option of creating their own.  I also demanded that any statements be backed up with examples, and that they take notes as soon as they heard anything wrong. The response was definitely better – we picked up a misused verb, some pronunciation problems and the fact that in Korean, time adverbials always come before adverbs of manner – at least two things that will help me. However, there were still a lot of blank faces and papers come the end of the class. What I think this shows is that as teachers we need to be aware of how little our learners know about the way language functions, and the possibilities for problems and successes to come about. I like the idea (put forward by Aaron Myers on The Everyday Language Learner, see point 3) that classes should often be language learning theory rather than language itself, especially in the internet age, and I think that increasingly that is where the role of the language teacher lies. It’s certainly a direction that I’m trying to push my classes in.

In the third class I had my first real breakthrough moment (I’d hoped for a lot more). One of the class pointed out that my intonation was wrong on a word. I asked him for an example and he gave me a rendering of the word as I had said it with an English stress pattern forced overtop, and then as it should be said with Korean stress on every syllable. He went on to say that he always heard foreigners talk like this, and he didn’t know why. This lead to a great teachable moment where we discussed the difference (briefly) between English and Korean stres patterns, and the fact that Korean learners have the opposite problem of stressing every syllable in English. At this point I had the attention of the whole class, and hopefully opened their eyes a little to the differing ways in which we speak. There were also some other great pieces of advice, like not taking too much care over my pronunciation of certain words, and just saying them.

Overall, I think I can count this lesson a moderate success, and I think it would work well with the right group. It does, however, require a monolingual and inquisitive group. Also, it requires a rather brave teacher – I am hideously shy about speaking Korean, and have only just stopped blushing now, about 3 hours after class.



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).


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,


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


  • 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“.