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The Korean Learner of English: English-Korean Cross-Linguistic Challenges

January 9, 2009

This section seeks to present some of the communication difficulties faced by Koreans learning English, through exploration of some of the differences between the Korean and English languages. This article is written for a beginning teacher with little knowledge of linguistics, but in some places IPA symbols are used to inform those that know them.

Phonological Differences

Phonology is the study of sound as the human vocal apparatus produces it. The sound system of English is so different from the sound system of Korean that native Koreans learning English encounter a multitude of phonological snares. English has a number of sounds that do not exist in Korean, including:


Common Substitution


Korean learners of English tend to start with a “p” and force air between their lips (as an interlabial fricative, for those of you who have studied phonology). If you close your eyes, and listen to the sound produced, it sounds almost identical to an “f.” However, problems arise when they pair the substitute sound with other consonants, as in “free,” which sounds markedly different when pronounced using the common “f” substitution discussed here. Other times they may pronounce an “f” as an unmodified “p,” so that the word “coffee” comes out as “coppee.”


Korean learners of English often substitute a “b” sound so that Vancouver comes out as “Bancouber.”


(th as in “third”)

“S” is often substituted so that “think” comes out as “sink.”


(th as in “the”)

“D” is often substituted so that “this” comes out as “dis.”


(zh as in vision)

and z

“Z” and “ʒ” are both often pronounced as a vague “j” (dʒ) sound, so that “zip” comes out sounding like “jip” and “pizza” like “pija.”

The branch of phonology that deals with the restrictions on possible phonetic combinations is called phonotactics. Korean phonotactical rules allow for words to end only in vowels or a select few consonants. As a result, when speaking English, Korean learners of English have a tendency to add a vowel to an English word that ends in a consonant that could not occur at the end of a Korean word; for example, the plural “s” occurs frequently in English. but no words end with the “s” sound in Korean. This is why you may hear Korean learners of English say “Englishee,” and “shirtsuh,” instead of “English” and “shirts.” According to Professor Park Myung-seok, Chair of the English Department at Dankook University, “Such superfluous vowels can be removed by practicing letting the final consonant just fade away, rather than making it end abruptly” (1997).

Many of these substitutions are reinforced by standard Korean pronunciation of foreign names; for example, the Korean spelling of Vancouver is 벤꾸버(Baenkkubeo). Also, Korean-English interlanguage, commonly called “Konglish,” routinely makes substitutions like the ones described in the above table. As a result, many of the substitutions have been deeply ingrained over time and must be “unlearned,” so that new pronunciation habits can be developed.

Homologous Pairs

Teaching students homologous pairs will greatly help their understanding of English pronunciation. Two sounds are said to be homologous when the mouth organs are moved exactly the same way to make both sounds, the only difference being that the voice is used for one, and the other is made without use of the voice. A voiced sound cannot be properly reproduced without using one’s voice, and an unvoiced sound cannot be properly reproduced if one’s voice is used. One pair that occurs in both English and Korean is p/b and /ㅂ; P is voiceless, while b is voiced.

Both English and Korean have a number of homologous pairs, so the concept can be taught first with native Korean sounds, before being applied to English sounds.

Homologous Pairs in English and Korean

















In the table to the left, you can see the homologous pairs identified in both Korean and English. You should observe that the first four pairs occur in both English and Korean, while the next pair occurs exclusively in English (f/v). The last two pairs are special: the unvoiced sounds occur in both Korean and English, but the voiced sounds occur exclusively in English. This means the students already know how to properly place their vocal organs to accurately reproduce the “z” and “zh” sounds; the teacher merely needs to train them to make an “s” or an “sh” sound while engaging their voice, and good “z” and “zh” sounds will emerge. Similarly, if a teacher can train students to make a proper “f” sound, teaching “v” is just “f while using one’s voice.”

After learning these concepts and proper pronunciation of these sounds, you may find your Korean students use the correct pair, but still the wrong sound. “In Korean, voiced consonants are only positional variants of corresponding voiceless ones: a consonant is voiced when it comes between other voiced sounds…a Korean speaker tends to use a voiced consonant instead of a correct voiceless one between between voiced ㄴounds; for example, ‘Pick up’ is often pronounced like ‘pig up,'” (Park, 1997, p. 4). The source of this error is the Korean habit of using voiced consonants in some positions and unvoiced ones in others (p. 5).

There are other consonant situations that learners of English often have trouble with, such as p, t, and k when they occur at the end of a word (referred to as unvoiced stops). The “p” in stop phonetically different from the “p” in “park,” for example. This is confusing to Korean learners of English. One of the most difficult is “t,” which sounds different in the words “ten” and “city.” If you listen to many American English speakers say “writing,” it sounds like “riding.” Thus, it is common to see Korean learners of English substituting a “d” for the “t” in words like “water.”

Consonant clusters (like glimpsed, as the “e” is silent, or three-twelfths) are also problematic, as Korean phonotactic rules don’t allow for sounds that begin to approach the pronunciation complexity of f followed by θ followed by s without intermediary vowels as occurs in the aforementioned twelfths. To mitigate consonant clusters, Korean learners of English are likely to insert superfluous vowels, for example pronouncing the “e” in “published” (Park, 1997). Professor Park notes that it is extremely difficult for Korean speakers to read the following stanza at normal speed:

Amidst the mists and coldest frosts
With stoutest wrists and loudest boasts
He thrusts his fists against the posts
And still insists he sees the ghosts.

English vowels also present difficulty to Korean learners of English. Koreans have trouble with English diphthongs. A diphthong (also known as a gliding vowel) is a vowel that experiences a change in quality during its pronunciation, such as the word eye. Eye begins with [a] (as in “father”) and ends with [ɪ] (as in “be”) with the tongue gliding smoothly from the [a] to the [ɪ]. These kind of sounds do not exist in Korean, so Korean learners of English commonly either leave out the glide or pronounce the diphthong as two distinct vowels. In fact, when a foreign word containing the [] diphthong is written in Hangul, it is written as 아이: two distinct vowels. Korean learners of English “cannot hear this glide and so cannot tell the difference between the vowel [i] as in sit and the diphthong [iy] as in “seat” and in reproducing both [i] and [iy] he tends to use the Korean [i] () which gives an in-between effect. A native speaker of English cannot tell whether the Korean speaker has said “it,” or “eat,” (p. 7). This is just one example of several difficulties Korean learners of English have with English vowels.

Communicative Differences: An Example

Korean students have a very different classroom culture than their Western counterparts. In Korean culture, when a teacher asks a student a question, the student is expected to give the answer, and if the student cannot give the answer, feels somewhat ashamed that they failed to live up to the teacher’s expectations. After all, the teacher chose them to relay a piece of information to the whole class. Other students who know the answer to the question may feel superior in that moment, and the student who can’t answer the question knows this, hence contributing to that feeling of shame. Therefore, when the teacher asks a question and the student doesn’t know the answer, the student will avoid eye contact and be silent. The teacher, recognizing that the student doesn’t know the answer, will ask another student, thereby taking the focus off of the first student.

However, in Western culture, not having the answer to a question doesn’t carry so much stigma. A student asked a question to which he or she doesn’t know the answer, will simply say “I don’t know” and the teacher will likely ask someone else. Problems can arise when you put a Western teacher in front of Korean students. The teacher will ask a student a question, such as “What is this?” The student, not knowing the answer, will study their book (or their desk) intently and not respond. The Western teacher initially is likely to think the student either didn’t hear or didn’t understand the question, and so they ask again “What is this?” The student again fails to respond, now highly embarrassed. The teacher may ask a third time, because in Western culture, the student may be perceived as ignoring the teacher, which is disrespectful. This teacher and student are locked into a vicious spiral, with the teacher demanding an answer so that he/she can be respected, and the student declining to answer so that he/she is not humiliated. The Korean student may be thinking “Everyone in the room knows I don’t know, so why force me to acknowledge my ignorance out loud?”

Differential Use of Vocabulary by Language

Does “see” mean the same thing in English as it does in Korean? You would think so, but the correct answer is “sometimes.” Used as “to view,” the meaning of the Korean word boda (보다) and its English equivalent “to see,” are the same. However, in Korean, one can not literally say “I’d like to see the manager,” as “see” in Korean only means “view.” In English, the context tells the listener that in fact you want to speak with the manager, but in Korean “see” is not used in this manner. You need to say “I want to talk to the manager.” These kinds of language-transfer issues work both ways, so be cautious when you speak.

In addition to using words in ways Koreans would not use them in their own language, native speakers of English use a ton of idioms and metaphors when they speak, often more than they realize. An idiom is any expression where two words, when used together, have a a different meaning than they have when used separately. For example, a Korean learner of English learns the word “up,” which is a direction toward an elevated position. But “shut up” doesn’t mean to close something above you; “beat up” doesn’t mean to hit something above you, and “mess up” doesn’t mean to make something untidy above you. These are just a few; we have break up, crack up, trip up, jack up, etc. Idioms are extremely confusing to someone trying to learn to speak English. If one understands Latin roots, prefixes and suffixes, and is faced with a word never before seen, one may be able to decipher the meaning. However, there is no intuitive mechanism to decipher the meaning of an idiom, no guide you can give your students which will be of general use when learning them; idioms must be memorized.

Native speakers of English, called upon to teach English as a Second or Foreign Language, must pay close attention to their choice of words, as idiomatic expressions occur so naturally and automatically in their speech that they may not realize their students have no idea what they are saying. For example, take this sentence:

Marcy had cold feet, so she called off the wedding.

Most native speakers would recognize right away that “cold feet” is an idiom. However, did you notice that “called off” is an idiom as well? When teaching beginning and intermediate students, take care to speak plainly, and use idioms deliberately, not unconsciously.

UPDATE: More on English-Korean cross-linguistic challenges here.


Park, M.S. (1997). Communication styles in two different cultures: Korean and American. Seoul: Han Shin Publishing.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 9, 2009 11:33 pm

    A very impressive site thus far. I look forward to reading and learning more.

  2. Maya Rasheed permalink
    January 14, 2009 7:03 am

    This is very good. I learn English at an online site and they tech me lots of things. You have made a a very impressive site so far. I look forward to reading and learning more.

  3. February 12, 2009 3:14 am

    Minor Nit: Transliteration of “Vancouver” results in 뱅쿠버, not 벤꾸버. Korean transliteration system has its own rules (many of which don’t make sense IMO), and one of them is: you can’t use the double consonants to transliterate. So even if something sounds closer to 삿뽀로, for example, the word has to be transliterated as 삿포로. Same rule applies here, plus the right vowel sound for “Van”

    • February 12, 2009 12:53 pm

      Oh! Thanks for the correction!

    • J-Pooh permalink
      December 5, 2010 5:34 pm

      You helped solve a mystery for this gyupo-do you have a site?

    • J-Pooh permalink
      December 5, 2010 5:36 pm

      My bad. Clicked your name and viola, got it!^^

  4. Rosalia permalink
    June 7, 2013 12:40 am

    im making the paper about phonological change in Korean English.. and it wonderful that I’ve found this resource,, tx so much

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