Pronunciation Problems for KoreanIn the past few months, I have been researching the Korean language in preparation for my eventual stay in that country, South Korea. There are many scholars who list it as a language isolate, and the language itself has resisted too much influence from China and Japan for about three thousand years. It is Altaic, so it has a few Siberian languages which share commonalities. But for the most part, it differs highly from chinese
, which is tonal, and from japanese
, which is far more monosyllabic in its sounds. The alphabet, han’gul, relies on blocks of sound variations that combine to form syllables. Whereas in the Roman alphabet, each letter appears one after another, han’gul relies on this alternate and quite efficient method. Say you were to write the word “sedentary” in this form. “sed”, “en”, “ter”, and “ee” would all get their own blocks, one letter on top of the other for each syllable. So the first barrier to pronunciation for a speaker of Korean is differentiating this and getting past the expectation that comes with this form.
Now, on to the harder and more involved subject of vowels. In english
, five vowels exist that are often combined to form other sounds. For instance, “air” is a combination of two vowels but serves to form an “ay” sound. Korean has a much broader range of vowels covering dipthongs and combinations of vowels with “w” and “y”. There are 21 of these in total. So to condense those is going to take a considerably vast palette of specific sound and require intense scrutiny to consider pronunciation. Vowels must be considered quite often as well because when you consider how Korean words often sound out, there are often softly spoken vowels at the ends of most words. Korean tends to resist pronouncing consonants at the ends of words, except for the “gang of seven”: l, m, n, ng, p, t, and k. But even still, you are not supposed to release them unless you have to. This is a drastic contrast to english
, where words commonly end on any number of consonant sounds, not just the ones that Koreans are accustomed to. Additionally, there is the problem of getting around the separation of certain consonant properties. The letters “g” and “k” for instance, are often not noted as being separate sounds, and often intermingle. There are some words where a slight “g” sound is detected more over the “k” variant, but this is not the more common situation. The same goes for “ch”, and “j”, which often combine to form a single consonant, “t” and “d” experience the same sound plosive, as well as the letters “p” and “b”. Though the “j” , “d”, and “b” sounds sometimes get more attention, most of the time they cannot be distinguished.
This means a special challenge while teaching english
. Special attention must be paid to getting students to realize the “b” sound should take slightly longer to enunciate than its “p” counterpart. The same goes for the rest. “Ch” should take slightly longer than “j”. And as for “g” and “k”, in english
they can double for “j” and “ch”! So this will be extra confusing for the Korean speaker used to han’gul. Even though beginners learn about the soft and hard versions of our consonant system, the fact that our alphabet combines sounds so differently from theirs is bound to result in accidental and often understandable association problems with sounds. Special attention should always be paid to watch out for these confusions, and to help students avoid them whenever possible.
To make matters even more complicated, Korean has aspirated and doubled up consonant varieties. There are three different letters for “k”, “ch”, and “t” So you have something like: k, kk, k’h, ch, chch, ch’h, t, tt, t’h. The aspirated sounds are far more pronounced and we have very little to compare them to in our own language in terms of indicators. The same goes for the doubled up sound varieties. english
does not depend on the same indicator factors. But neither are tonal languages, so that commonality should help somewhat in that students will not expect to be told how to pronounce each word through marks. That expectation in itself is enough of a contrast. Regarding the matter of the distinctions made between words that a more subdued “ch” sound and words that contain the doubled up sound. In english
this can often take the form of syllable endings, such as in “match”. The more complicated matter is words where the “ch” sound actually uses a more slightly extended phonetic, such as in “change”. There really is no indication that “change” is any different than the shorter “ch” sound in “chin”. The trick will be to show students the interaction between these consonants and different verbs and get them thinking about how that changes their sound, but not the look of the consonant pairing.
For all of these problems, pronunciation drills where the instructor indicates a very clear and repeated, often slowed down version of words, is not only recommended but quite necessary due to the linguistic differences indicated. I would also most likely encourage each student to own a dictionary with the universal alphabet included, due to the reasons listed above. Dictionaries that contain phonetic versions of a word to sound it out are great, but often would not be able to cover the difference between aspirated and non aspirated consonants. I would encourage students of the Korean language making the transition to english
to know the difference.
Two other consonants in the Korean language double, even though they are entirely dissimilar in our own tongue. “l” and “r” share a letter. This distinction is clear, but Korean grammar dictates what the pronunciation will be given the exact placement of the letter at any given point within a word. This is never true in english
and we always make the distinction between the two. This phonetic difference is a key factor in why those sounds are often confused for one another. So making the difference well known in teaching and encouraging students to separate the two is going to be very important. The same goes for “h” and “ng”, though this will be a far easier thing to discourage as “ng” usually comes at the ends of words, unless they are followed by a suffix. It is far harder in english
to confuse these two sound variations. But I would say definitely make the distinction between the two and watch out for any possible confusing the two for each other as much as possible!
Finally, in Korean there is the matter of “s”. In Korean, “s” takes the form of itself, which is far more subdued, and the double “ss”, which has a far more pronounced form. As a fricative, both of these sounds are often converted to an “sh” sound if used before the vowel “ee” or the vowel “wi” (which sounds like the french
“oui”). Distinguishing “s” from “sh” will be an important step for pronouncing english
and it should always be emphasized that “sh” is going to exist with far more vowel sound variations after it in our language.
To make things even yet more confusing, when nasal sounds are considered, “p” can become an “m”, “t” can turn into “n”, and an unreleased end “k” can turn into “ng”. The same letter for “s” can be pronounced as a “t” in certain circumstances. All of these things should be noted when discussing things that can go wrong for native Korean speakers trying to separate themselves from the grammatical and phonetic rules they are accustomed to.
As far as long and short vowels, both languages have in common a tendency to simply memorize which words have either or, so again I would say dictionaries with symbol reminders are key, as well as consistent usage in class. It is just one of those things that will come into focus with practice.
Overall, Korean emphasizes many sound variations that english
does not. On the other end of the spectrum, we have sound variations which simply do not exist in Korean whatsoever. “z”, “f”, and “v” have no common denominator in the Korean language. One of the biggest things I noticed in a list of Koreanized english
words was the tendency to make these letters something like their closest Korean counterpart, such as a “t” for “z”, or “p” for “f”. It is understandable to substitute if you are bringing in a word from a foreign language to serve if you do not have an equal word for it. This is a common linguistic phenomenon. However, students always risk doing the same thing with english
words where those sounds must be pronounced if they are to be understood correctly. This will be one of the greatest phonetic challenges and emphasizing them with no context in Korean will be all the more important because of their absence.
Korean has many linguistic traits that share commonalities in english
but the alphabetical differentiations are apparent and often contrast with our own. This, in combination with the linguistic tendency of english
to produce its own different vowel combinations for different diphthongs and consonant combinations will all be of importance to note and valuable assistance in helping students to discover proper pronunciation of the english