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Teaching English to native Korean speakers

Common Problems for Korean native speakers when learning English

Some Korean academics believe that the reason why some Koreans cannot pronounce English is because of physical differences. “Those who have a short frenulum (a strap of tissue linking the tongue to the floor of the mouth) can face problems pronouncing some characters due to a disturbance in lateral movements of the tongue,” said Bae Jung-ho, an oral surgeon at Seoul’s Yonsei Severance Hospital.

 Such drastic measures are often taken in an ever increasing level of competitiveness in the Korean society, where the need for speaking English is higher than ever.

The operations are mostly performed on young children and cost about 150,000 won. But do they really help? The answer is that there is no decisive evidence, as many months of speech therapy is need after the operation, and the level of success largely depends on the child’s mind & the ability to acquire new language.

 Many speech problems can be improved by constant practice of phonics and speech therapy.

Here are the reasons why Korean native speakers have difficulty speaking English:

1.       Some English sounds do not exist in Korean, which include friction sounds such as /f/, /v/, /z/, th )

2.       Syllables: Korean words never have more than 2 consonants pronounced in one syllable (eg. ‘Disks’ has 3 consonants in a row, ‘sks’). In English, the word ‘disk’ is just one syllable, while in Korean it would have three.

3.       Final Sounds: In Korean, consonants are not released unless they are followed by a vowel in the same syllable (eg 맛이 - mashi ), and word final consonants are never released (eg - mat). This results in Koreans adding an extra ‘u’, or ‘i’ vowel to the end of each English word that ends with a consonant. Eg ‘dark’ becomes /darku/

4.        Overall pronunciation of sentences: The semantics in the English language depend on the stress and intonation of words, and how they relate to each other. This allows the English language to include weak forms that may sound completely unfamiliar to Korean English learners, such as: "What'a'ye'gonnaDO?", or “Wach’ya’NAME?”


5.        Pollution from Koreanized English words (Konglish). See below for more.


A table of 15 Common Pronunciation Problems








Tongue touches hard palate.


"light" (clear)




Contact. Brief "schwa" after release.


"tall" (dark l)




Back of tongue to back roof. Nasal.

/ŋ/ + /k/


/ŋ/ + /g/

"thin" + k or g


Voiced stop: back of tongue to back roof.

/ŋ/ + /g/


/ŋ/ + /k/



Voiced: tip of tongue behind top teeth. Friction.






Voiceless. Friction. Tongue between teeth.






Voiced. Friction with top teeth & bottom lip.






Voiced. Friction with top teeth & bottom lip.






Tongue central. Then tightly round lips.






Tongue central. Then tightly round lips.






Weak endings: e.g. "London" "England"


"the" (schwa)




Fix tongue in central position. Long.






Tongue low, back & fixed. Jaws together.






Tongue low & back. Jaws together. Long.






Keep mouth round and tongue back.








Konglish words are Korean words borrowed from other languages such as English. There are five types of Konglish:

      1.       Verbicide’: Words whose meaning has been killed eg. ‘한들’ (Handle) in English is ‘Steering Wheel”

2.       Fabricated Phrases: Words that have been made up from an original word or words to mean something different. Eye Shopping (Konglish) = Window Shopping(English)

3.       Phonetically Different Words. Words where pronunciation has changed. Eg. Pizza (English), in Pija (Korean).

4.       OK Konglish: Where meaning and pronunciation are roughly the same. (eg. Bye Bye)

5.       Abbreviated Words, where the original English word has been shortened. Eg Air Con


When teaching English to Koreans, be on the lookout for any Konglish words they throw in, and correct straight away. Sometimes however, Konglish can be useful in teaching English vocabulary - because those are the words that they feel like they can master very easy.


A shortcut to better English, MSNBC,
Korean speaking problems
Korean English Taxonomy: