Korean pronuciation of English part 1

(mostly geeky, occasionally technical, uses IPA symbols)

When I first started teaching ESL in South Korea, I began to notice certain pronunciation patterns in my students’ speech. I won’t call them errors, because the more I learned about Korean, the more I became convinced that they were directly and systematically related to the sounds which exist, or don’t, in Korean. Broadly speaking, and allowing for individual differences in ability, it is possible to distinguish three groups of sounds:
those which are identical or nearly so in Korean and English, which generally cause no problems;
those which are partly similar and partly different, which generally don’t cause problems in some contexts but do in others; and
those which are very different, which generally cause problems in all contexts.

This is supported by evidence including: academic literature on ‘interference’ and ‘learner English’,  my personal observations teaching ESL in South Korea, living with Koreans in Australia and socialising with them here and there, a systematic comparison of the sounds systems of Korean and 
English, and consideration of the way English words are written in hangeul.

One writer says “Interference is the ‘effect of one language on another, producing “instances of deviation from the norms of either language”’’, another “A learner’s English is … likely to carry the signature of his/her mother tongue, by virtue both of what goes wrong and of what does not”.
identical or nearly so:
m = ㅁ — tomato = 토마토    n = ㄴ — banana = 바나나 [ edited from 마나나 thanks, Sandy Showalter]    /ŋ/ = ㅇ— shopping = 쇼핑
h = ㅎ — ho-tel = 호텔
w ~ ㅘ, ㅝ ,ㅟ, ㅞ, ㅙ  — 와인 ~ oa-in, wine, 위스키 ~ ui-seu-ki, whisk(e)y, 웨딩 홀 ~ ue-ding hol, wedding hall (Many Koreans’ difficulty with work and walk is due to the vowels, not the w.
/j/ ~ ㅑ, ㅕ, ㅠ, ㅛ, ㅖ, ㅒ — 유럽 ~ yu-reob, Europe

partly similar and partly different
p ~ ㅍ — pizza = 피자        b ~ ㅂ — banana = 마나나
t ~ㅌ — television = 텔레비전        d ~ ㄷ — drama = 드라마
/tʃ/ ~ ㅊ — cheese = 치즈        /dʒ/ ~ ㅈ — juice = 주스
k ~ ㅋ — computer ~ 컴퓨터        ɡ ~ ㄱ — game = 게임

English has unvoiced, non-aspirated consonants (p, t, /tʃ/, k) and voiced, non-aspirated consonants (b, d, /dʒ/ and g). The unvoiced, non-aspirated consonants become aspirated in some contexts, but aspiration is not a distinctive feature in English; English speakers generally don’t notice it, and generally can’t control it.

Korean has unvoiced, aspirated consonants (ㅍ, ㅌ, ㅊ, ㅋ) and unvoiced, non-aspirated consonants (ㅂ, ㄷ, ㅈ, ㄱ).  The unvoiced, non-aspirated consonants become voiced in some contexts, but voicing is not a distinctive feature in Korean; Korean speakers generally don’t notice it, and generally can’t control it.

As a result, some Koreans might pronounce banana, drama, juice and game closer to panana, trama, chuice and kame. (Compare the old spellings of Pusan, Taejeon, Cheju and Kwangju.)

s ~ ㅅ — 사 서 수 소        /ʃ/ ~ ㅅ — 시 샤 셔 슈 쇼
In English, s and /ʃ/ are separate phonemes. In Korean, they are allophones of ㅅ. English speakers can combine both s and /ʃ/ with any vowel (and some consonants). Korean speakers more easily combine s and /ʃ/ with some vowels, and less easily with others (especially ‘she’ more easily and ‘see’ less easily).

very different
f = ? — coffee > 커피 (keo-pi)       v = ? — video > 비디오 (bi-di-o)
/θ/ = ? — marathon > 마라톤 (ma-ra-ton)       /ð/ = ? — rhythm > 리듬 (ri-deum)
z = ? — pizza >  피자 (pi-ja)
/ʒ/ = ? — television > 텔레비전 (tel-le-bi-jeon)

(Note that these spellings and pronunciations are perfect Korean.)

The general pattern here is that fricatives are replaced with the nearest available stop or affricate. Note that the same spelling and pronunciation are used for /z/ in pizza and /ʒ/ in television. Possibly, Korean speakers of English could take advantage of the Korean unvoiced fricatives available: 피사 (pi-sa) and 텔레비션 (tel-le-bi-sheon), but they seem to want affricates.

A special – and notorious – case is the Korean letter ㄹ, which is pronounced closer to /r/ at the start of a syllable: 라디오 (ra-di-o) and closer to /l/ at the end of a syllable: 골 (gol – goal) or when doubled: 콜라 (kol-la – cola).

The consonants can be summarised as follows:
high correspondence – no or little difficulty
m, n,  /ŋ/,  h, /j/, w
moderate correspondence – some difficulty
p, b, t, d, /tʃ/, /dʒ/, k, ɡ, s, /ʃ/
little or no correspondence – great difficulty
f, v, /θ/, /ð/, z, /ʒ/, r, l

identical or nearly so
/i/ = ㅣ pizza = 피자
/u/ = ㅜ juice = 주스
/a/ = ㅏbanana = 마나나
/ɛ/ ~ ㅔ (approximately) hotel ~ 호텔
/æ/ ~ㅐ (very approximately) ‘handphone’ (mobile phone) ~ 핸드폰
/ɒ/ ~ㅓ (approximately) coffee ~ 커피

partly similar and partly different
/eɪ/ ~ ㅔ + ㅣ(approximately) David ~ 데이비드 (de-i-bi-deu) (several other transliterations are also used)
/aɪ/ ~ ㅏ +  ㅣ(approximately) ice cream ~ 아이스크림 (a-i-seu-keu-rim)
/ɔɪ/ ~ ㅗ + ㅣ(approximately) Android (the mobile phone operating system) ~ 안드로이드 (an-deu-ro-i-deu)
/aʊ/ ~ ㅏ + ㅜ (approximately) wow! > 와우! which is used alongside the more traditional 와!
/oʊ/ ~ ㅗ (approximately) hotel > 호텔 (note that the English sound is a diphthong and the Korean a pure vowel)

very different
/ɜ/ > /ɒ/: 월드컵 (weol-deu keop – world cup)
/ɔ/ also > /ɒ/, so that walk and work are often indistinguishable
/ɪ/  > /i/: 피시 (pi-shi – fish) (the same spelling and pronunciation is used for PC (personal computer)
/ʊ/ > /u/: 굿모닝어학원 (gud-mo-ning eo-hag-won – Good Morning Language Institute)
/ə/ > ㅡ or ㅓ
/ʌ/ > /ɒ/: 월드컵 (weol-deu keop – world cup) (note that the same Korean vowel is used for three different English vowels)
/ɪə/ > 비어 (bi-eo – beer)
/ɛə/ > 헤어 (he-eo – hair)
/ʊə/ > 투어 (tu-eo – tour)

high correspondence – no or little difficulty
/i/, /u/, /a/, /ɛ/, /æ/, /ɒ/
moderate correspondence – some difficulty
/eɪ/, /aɪ/, /ɔɪ/, /aʊ/, /oʊ/
little or no correspondence – great difficulty
/ɜ/, /ɔ/, /ɪ/, /ʊ/, /ə/, /ʌ/, /ɪə/, /ɛə/, /ʊə/


3 thoughts on “Korean pronuciation of English part 1

  1. Hi David, my first time on here and I read very little but…

    Under identical or nearly so:
    Since I can read Hangeul I noticed you wrote manana and not banana. Was this intentional or possibly a typo?

    Pardon the grammar-nazi tendencies but editing is my forte’ and I’m really interested.

    Thanks, Sandy


  2. Typo. My excuse is that ㅂ and ㅁ look kind of the same, and next to each other on the keyboard. That typo has existed for a long time – that post was based on a paper I presented at the conference of the Korean Studies Association of Australasia in 2011.
    In elements like 습니다, ㅂ is pronounced /m/.


  3. You’ve still got “manana” a little further down, dealing with the p/b difference.

    One that I’ve definitely noticed from Koreans (and Japanese) is that the sounds at either end of my name are very difficult and sometimes swapped. I do know that my name has the same letter at either end in hangul (ㄹ), though.

    I find it interesting to not that “she” works a lot more easily than “see” for Koreans – it’s the same in Gaelic, where a “slender” vowel like E renders S automatically as /ʃ/. It’s particularly noticeable in the word for “tea”, which can be rendered into Gaelic either as “ti” (/t͡ʃi:/) or “taidh” (/tɤɪ/), depending on the dialect and the personal preference of whoever first introduced tea to that village!

    The /θ/ sound is also difficult in Gaelic – although most Gaelic-speakers are bilingual now and don’t have a problem with it, the initial difficulty has lingered on in Ireland, where it’s almost always rendered as /t/. Some older Gaelic-speakers even in Australia still pronounce /θ/ as /s/, as in “sick and sin” (“thick and thin”).


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