Korean vase

Some Basic Korean Pronunciation Errors

© Nathan R. Bauman, 2006


The following page was the basis for my 2006 KOTESOL paper on these and other errors. For this paper, please click here.


  1. Introduction
  2. Segmentals (Individual Sound Errors)
    1. The Worst Errors
      1. B vs P
      2. F vs P
      3. B vs V
      4. J, Ch vs Z and Z Sounds
      5. The Letter S
      6. Extra "ee" and "eu" Sounds
      7. L vs R
      8. Long O vs Short O
      9. Short A vs Short E
    2. Minor Errors
      1. Th (unvoiced) vs S
      2. Th (voiced) vs S or Z
      3. Short I vs Long E
  3. Suprasegmentals (Rhythm and Stress)

I. Introduction

Update, Feb 18th, 2006. Please note: this article remains under construction. I hope to improve it in a few places, and to have the thing translated into Korean. Later, I will add pages to the additional materials section on other common problems or mistakes made by Korean learners of English. In the mean time, I hope this is helpful to you. I have attempted to use a bit of humor to help make things memorable.

These errors have been consisently common among every level of English that I have taught to both adults and children over the last year and a half here. Please note that despite my frequent use of "Korean learners of English," I do not mean to put down an entire class of learners, but rather to help them with some real problems that commonly inhibit communication with native speakers. I suspect much the same sort of thing could be written about English speakers who are learning Korean, but that is obviously not a task for me!

II. Segmentals ("Individual Sound Errors")

Some of these worst errors result from English loan words in Korean. Remember that English loan words in Korean are not real English. Sometimes inattention to this can get you into trouble. Keep reading for more!

A. The Worst Errors

1. B "versus" (vs) P

This is a very important distinction in English. While native speakers are used to hearing many accents, the interchange of these letters by Korean speakers is very confusing. It's important to get it right. For example, if you say "I'm allergic to peas," your Canadian friend might take you on a mountain trail near some bee hives, not realizing that you really meant "I'm allergic to bees." Perhaps you will get stung and die, all because you didn't rattle your voicebox!

2. F vs P

This is another crucial distinction in English. There are many English words where the only difference is the initial sound, for example, "for" & "pour," "feel," and "peel" etc. Pronouncing "F" as "P" and vice versa is extremely confusing to English speakers! Please, get it right!

3. B vs V

As above. I could have put this into the lesser mistakes category, but it does inhibit understanding.

4. J or Ch vs Z and Z Sounds

Perhaps I should have labeled this one "Z vs J": the problem occurs when Korean speakers pronounce the letter "z" like a "j." The same problem applies to "tz" and "ts" sounds. A word like "pizza" ends up pronounced as "peach-eu," for example. Again, if you've got an allergy to peaches, you'll be in serious trouble! Another example: "result" often gets pronounced as "rezhert" [where "zh" indicates a voiced "sh" sound] by Koreans learning English. In this case, the word sounds more like "dessert" than anything else. The u vowel's metamorphisis into a short e is not usually a problem for English learners; here I suspect it has to do with the following letter l, which is often confused by Koreans with the letter r.

5. The Letter "S"

Many Koreans have a tendency to simply skip this letter. "S" carries a lot of meaning in English. While you can probably get away with saying "He eat brocoli, not ham," you will confuse people if you are talking about nouns. For example, "peas" are vegetables, while "pee" is urine!

Another example is the "s" that separates "he" from "she." A friend of mine, who is a nurse in Vancouver, says that many Asians (Koreans aren't the only ones) regularly confuse the gender of the third person singular pronoun. You can see how this could lead to some very dramatic problems!

The problem of mispronouncing "s" as "sh" is also widespread. Usually this happens with an i class vowel following the s. An innocent Korean learner of English will often make mistakes like this: "He shit on the bed." The act of sitting, unfortunately, has suddenly morphed into that of defecating, and a word associated with profanity was used to describe the act! To add insult to injury, the profane word doesn't even agree with the subject in number!

6. Extra "eu" and "ee" Sounds

Now that I've lived in this wonderful country for over a year, I've gotten used to hearing this extra syllable added to English words. However, while in Canada, I found I had more trouble understanding Koreans than any other linguistic group, largely because of very strange errors like this one. Particularly with the "ee" sound, an English speaker might think you are trying to make an adjective, and will still be listening for some other information that is not coming. Please, don't call "church" "church-ee." "Churchy" is an adjective, often one with negative connotations.

7. L vs R

"I want lice, please." You just asked for a notorious blood-sucking little animal that lives in the skin at the top of your head, when all you wanted was a simple dish of rice! Oops! The letter "R" in English can be quite difficult to say, but try anyway. Also, remember to pronounce "L" always as the "L" in "La-la." The position of "L" in a word doesn't affect its pronunciation. "L" is always "L." Of course, if there are two "L"'s side by side, you may need to pronounce it twice. Examples: "feel" (one sound) "hollar."

8. Long "O" vs Short "O"

I've noticed that Korean learners of English often have difficulty with vowel length and quality, and the two sounds associated with the single letter "o" are no exception. For example, my adult students often talk about "novels," but they pronounce the short "o" as a long one, and then they turn the "v" into a "b." The result? A completely different English word: nobles.

9. Short "A" vs Short "E"

An excellent example is the English word "fax," which commonly gets pronounced by Korean learners as "pekseu." In this case, only one sound in the original English word is left, the "ks" or "x" sound. Not only has the "f" been turned into a "p," but the short "a" vowel has been turned into a short "e" vowel. One can't blame the English speaker for failing to understand this short word when only one sound remains correct.

B. Minor Errors

1. Th (unvoiced) vs S

English speakers are used to hearing this mistake, and can usually understand what is being said. However, when combined with all the other pronunciation errors common to the Korean community, this can make understanding difficult. To make this sound, stick your tongue between your teeth, and breath out quickly. When you are unwell, you want to say "I'm sick," not "I'm thick" (which could mean either fat or stupid!).

2. Th (voiced) vs S or Z

As above. There is a voiced "th" in the word "this."

3. Short "I" vs Long "E"

This error on its own is usually not a serious one. The problem occurs when this error is combined with others, as it frequently is by Korean learners of English. A word like "city" can be quite problematic for Korean learners of English. First, they turn the soft "s" sound of the "c" into "sh." Then, they often turn the short "i" vowel into the long "e" vowel. The result? "Sheedy." Native speakers are left wondering whether that means "CD," "shitty" (a pejorative and rude adjective pertaining to fecal material!), or "shady," a perfectly innocent word. None of these is right, but you can hopefully see the problem that English speakers have when listening to people who have most of the class of errors described here.

III. Suprasegmentals (Rhythm and stress)

Rhythm and stress are more important in English than in many languages. Unlike in Korean, English tends not to give vowels equal length or stress. Also, voice inflection in English, like body language, carries a great deal of meaning. Look at the following examples:

I am eating rice.
I am eating rice.
I am eating rice.
I am eating rice.

These all answer different questions or exclamations:

Who is eating rice?
You're not eating rice!
Are you cooking rice?
What are you eating?

For some reason, many Koreans (and, for that matter, Cantonese and Mandarin speakers) are reluctant to speak normally in English. They prefer a monotone, and a quiet one, at that. I think some men and boys think they will sound effeminate if the make the right intonation. However, they are actually hurting their ability to communicate. First, monotones are boring. Second, as we just saw, intonation carries a good deal of meaning in English. Why be boring and difficult to understand? Please, just try it!

Intonation, rhythm, and stress are best taught and learned orally. Listen carefully to your English teacher, language partner, friend, or recording, and try very hard to imitate these suprasegmental features of speech.

Note: for more information, please download the MS-Word file linked at the top of the page.


© Nathan R. Bauman, 2006