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:
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“.