Korean Pronunciation 101: Your One-stop Guide to Sounding More Native
The great philosopher Chris Tucker once said, “Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?”
Perhaps the most common fear among language learners is the possibility of humiliating oneself in front of a native speaker. Whether it be because of a limited vocabulary, incorrect grammar structure, a foreign accent or anything in between.
When learning a new language, pronunciation is a biggie.
In fact, it might just be the most important thing! Otherwise, nobody can understand the words that are coming out of your mouth!
So in this blog post, we’ll talk about everything to do with mastering Korean pronunciation.
How do you say words right? How do you gain the confidence of spot-on pronunciation?
We’ll look at loads of pronunciation tips so you can get that feel for Korean.
But the first tip is if you want to make the most out of this article, make sure you already know a little bit of Hangul and are familiar with the sounds of different consonants and vowels.
(If not, head here and quickly learn some!)
Now let’s dive in!
Tips for Mastering Korean Pronunciation
Treat Each Syllable Equally
Korean is a syllable-timed language. This means equal time is spent pronouncing every syllable.
Each syllable for the word 사랑해 (sa-rang-hae), for example, will get equal pronunciation time.
English speakers have a hard time with this because English is stress-timed—meaning some syllables are naturally longer and louder, while others are scarcely heard or pronounced.
Korean syllables come at regular intervals and are delivered evenly. And because Korean isn’t a stress-timed language, you usually don’t hear those sudden pitch changes that you hear in English.
However, the first syllables of Korean words are usually slightly stressed, so this is where you might find a mild rise in pitch. But again, this is just a slight rise in tone, nowhere near the pronounced jumps and dips of English sentences.
Beginners who apply the tonal patterns of their native tongues into Korean by using stress—such as in the middle or at the beginning of words—usually end up sounding unnatural to native Korean speakers.
Draw Out the Ends of Your Sentences
There’s another way English speakers can drastically improve how they sound in Korean—by lengthening or drawing out the ends of their sentences.
I know this goes against everything you’re used to because English sentences trail off at the end. They become very weak or are cut off abruptly.
But that memorable tonality that you hear in Korean takes place at the end of sentences. If you lengthen the last syllable and deliver it a little louder, you get this effect.
Practice by humming along to some dialogue in a Korean movie. You don’t need to say the actual words. Just hum along and focus on how those sentences terminate.
You’ll get the hang of it in no time!
Listen, Don’t Write
Sure, you’ll want to learn how to write Hangul, but this is a post on pronunciation. You want to make sure that you’re actually polishing the right skill.
Sometimes looking at the Hangul characters can be too intimidating. Even worse, you can lose your focus and instead busy yourself with memorizing how the lines and squares are assembled.
Why don’t you close your eyes instead?
This is how you train your ears to pick up on the nuances and appreciate the texture of Korean pronunciations.
Speak Korean Like a Baby
Your mouth and tongue are a system of muscles that need to work together and move in certain ways to produce specific sounds.
A language is a specific set of sounds produced by positioning the tongue in certain areas of the mouth. And, like a muscle, you need to get them used to hitting those vocal positions. This only comes with practice—actually enunciating.
This is on-the-job-training for your mouth.
It’s obvious that if you want to learn how to swim you need to get in the water. If you want to learn how to speak Korean, you need to speak Korean (perhaps terribly at first).
You can’t just spend hours listening and only opening your mouth when you’re sure you can perfectly say every line like a native speaker. It just doesn’t work that way.
Act Out When Speaking
Moving around enlivens your practice sessions.
Don’t just sit there and drone through your words and sentences.
Stand up and role play. Move around. Act out the lines. Imagine you’re actually talking to someone.
It gives context to your utterances.
Motion is memory-friendly. It not only provides context and authenticity to your pronunciations, but it also makes things stick in your brain.
So get moving!
What About Romanization?
As a beginner Korean learner, you’ve surely been introduced to romanized forms of Hangul.
But don’t be fooled—being able to read romanization doesn’t mean you’re able to read Korean, or even pronounce words correctly.
Many linguists agree that using romanizations can be detrimental to your progress and aren’t good for the long run.
- They don’t exist in the real world. When you get into authentic Korean situations—like interacting with native speakers, getting a text message from a Korean friend, watching the news or trying to find your way around Korean streets—there are no romanizations to come to your aid.
- They can be misleading or ambiguous. Romanizations simply aren’t Korean. Therefore, no matter how hard transcribers try to spell the words in English, the sounds won’t be an accurate representation of how native speakers pronounce them. There’s no direct one-on-one correspondence between English letters and the sounds in Korean. What would you write when the sound is supposed to be something that’s in between a “B” and a “P”? Or between a “D” and a “T”? You’d have to approximate—which is rarely accurate.
- They’re a wheelchair, not a crutch. Some may consider the romanized version a “crutch.” Well, not really. A crutch is supposed to help you walk while you get better. The assumption is that even though you’re limping, your body is healing, doing something positive and getting better over time. But romanizations don’t push your Korean skills to prove. Rather, they stay stagnant.
Plus, learning Hangul is way easier than you think. And once you do, Korean will be much easier and your skills will almost instantly improve.
Korean Pronunciation 101: Your One-stop Guide to Sounding More Native
How to Pronounce Aspirated Consonants
There are four main aspirated consonants: ㅋ,ㅌ,ㅍ and ㅊ.
They each have an equivalent unaspirated (or, plain) form: ㄱ,ㄷ,ㅂ and ㅈ.
If you carefully look at aspirated consonants like “ㅋ” and its unaspirated form “ㄱ,” or the aspirated “ㅌ” and its unaspirated form “ㄷ,” you’ll note that the aspirated ones have an extra stroke in them.
This represents the puff of air released from your mouth as you say it.
Hangul was made so easy and instinctive, even the characters tell you how to produce the sound!
The main difference is that aspirated consonants require a puff of air. For example, “ㅋ” and “ㄱ” both sound like the English “K,” with the only difference “ㅋ” having that puff of air.
Let’s take a look at how to master these.
Practice Unaspirated and Aspirated Consonants Together
When you practice these sounds, you need to practice them in pairs.
Pronounce the unaspirated one, followed by the aspirated version.
This will allow you to hear the difference between them. If you want, you can put a hand in front of your mouth so you get a feel. Even better, put a candle in front of your mouth and notice when the flame flickers.
Exaggerate the Puff of Air From Your Mouth
It’ll seem strange and awkward at first, but you need to exaggerate your pronunciation of the aspirated consonants. This will make the subtle ones more obvious and therefore allow you to hear the differences more clearly.
Give Aspirated Consonants Higher Pitches
Korean—unlike English, which suddenly and clearly goes up and down in tone—is usually very stable.
However, because of the air that goes out of your mouth, you might notice that aspirated consonants are ever so slightly higher in pitch compared to the unaspirated ones. The expelled air also makes them naturally sound louder.
Learn to Listen for the Sound by Producing It
“I can’t hear the difference between the two.”
That’s normal! You’re still honing your listening skills.
But as you continue to practice, and as you become more familiar with the flow of pronunciation and the predictable ways native speakers say things, you’ll begin to hear those nuances more clearly.
But the first step is to actually produce these sounds yourself.
Do a lot of repetitions and keep on practicing.
Record yourself going back and forth between unaspirated and aspirated consonants.
Enunciate and exaggerate.
Listen, and make some adjustments.
These things will lay the groundwork for your ears to detect the little things that layer the Korean language.
How to Pronounce Double Consonants
Practice Double Consonants with Unaspirated Consonants
There are five double consonants: ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ and ㅉ.
They already look very familiar to you because they’re “twice” the consonants ㄱ,ㄷ,ㅂ, ㅅ and ㅈ respectively.
As double consonants, these are pronounced with a little more stress compared to the plain unaspirated ones.
Just as you practiced unaspirated consonants with their aspirated siblings, you need to practice unaspirated consonants with their doubles.
This will ensure that you get to hear how one is slightly different from the other.
Give Double Consonants More Force and Higher Pitch
If aspirated consonants are a bit higher and louder than non-aspirated ones, the double consonants are a little higher and louder than both.
And because double consonants are said a little more emphatically, it changes the resulting sound a bit. They come off a little different than non-aspirated ones.
Let’s take a look:
“ㄱ” (which sounds like a “K”) now approximates the sound of “G” as “ㄲ”
“ㄷ” (which sounds like a “T”) now approximates the sound of “D” as “ㄸ”
“ㅂ” (which sounds like a “P”) now approximates the sound of “B” as “ㅃ”
“ㅅ” (which sounds like an “S”) now approximates the sound of the longer “SS” as “ㅆ”
“ㅈ” (which sounds like a “CH”) now approximates the sound of “J” as “ㅉ”
Don’t Just Hear It, Say It!
It can be tough differentiating the two sounds, especially for beginners. But again, in order for you to recognize them, you should be producing them yourself.
Let repetition be your mantra.
Go through these sequential drills:
- Non-aspirated, to aspirated, to double (ㄱ – ㅋ – ㄲ)
- Aspirated to double (ㅋ–ㄲ )
- Double to non-aspirated (ㄲ–ㄱ)
How to Pronounce the Batchim
Know How the Batchim Changes Consonants
Native speakers of all languages try to make their lives easier. They instinctively change the sound of syllables, depending on what rolls off their tongues more smoothly.
Korean native speakers are the same, and the “Batchim” (받침) position is often the site of these instinctive sound changes.
As a review, Korean syllables are usually composed of one consonant and a vowel. Sometimes though, there’s an additional consonant—the final consonant—that’s usually found at the bottom of a syllabic block.
This is called the Batchim position and it’s an interesting piece of real estate.
The tricky thing about it is, some consonants change their standard sound when they’re in this position.
For example, the consonant “ㄹ” (rieul) is usually heard as the Korean letter “R.” But when it precedes another consonant or is in the Batchim position—as in the word 한글 (“hangeul”)—it’s pronounced like the letter “L.”
Another example is the consonant “ㅇ” (ieung). It’s silent when found at the beginning of the word. But when it’s at the Batchim position, it’s pronounced as “ng” like in 사랑 (“sarang”).
The Unaspirated Sound Reigns in the Batchim Position
When it comes to the Batchim, the unaspirated sound is often the preferred pronunciation.
Meaning, even if a word is written with the aspirated consonant, it’ll sound unaspirated when spoken by native speakers.
In the end, at least in the Batchim position, “ㄱ,” “ㅋ” and “ㄲ” will all sound the same—like an unaspirated letter “K.”
Unaspirated and simple sounds are often preferred at the Batchim position because they connect well to the next incoming syllables or sounds. Perfectly pronouncing the aspirated forms don’t roll on the tongue as smoothly because you might have to wait for the puff of air to finish before moving on to the next syllable or sound. As we’ve said, Korean native speakers make things easier on themselves.
To learn more about this interesting position, check out this video explaining seven basic Batchim rules!
How to Pronounce Korean Vowels
3 Vowels Don’t Have English Counterparts
There are just 10 standard vowels in Korean, and they can either be horizontally or vertically oriented.
The three that typically cause the most trouble for English speakers though are “ㅡ” (eu), “ㅓ” (eo) and “ㅕ” (yeo) because they don’t have natural equivalent vowel sounds in English.
The best way to combat this is to simply do extra practice drills.
The key to their pronunciation is hitting the right tongue and mouth positions so you can produce the sounds efficiently.
Pair Vowels with Consonants
For example, for the vowel “ㅏ,” you sequence through a series like 가, 나, 다, 라, 마, 바 and so on.
Repeat each syllable several times so your mouth can get a feel for the context of the vowel.
Then, you can expand your “ㅏ” practice by drilling through more complex syllables like 각, 낙, 닥 and 락.
Well, you get the idea.
And that’s just for one vowel!
Doing this will get you hundreds of repetitions for the different combinations of sounds in Korean. Your muscle will definitely get a workout.
This is very important because when it comes to pronunciation, you really have to get in the trenches. To get the pronunciations right, you must get your feet wet and actually do it.
There are no shortcuts here, so log in the hours for these drills.
And yes, they’ll sound repetitive!
How to Pronounce Korean Diphthongs
There are 11 Korean Diphthongs (also known as vowel combinations).
The older generation of Koreans will say that they represent 11 different sounds. Younger generations, however, tend to consolidate these diphthongs, which is really good news for learners!
For example, young Koreans wouldn’t even hear a difference betweenㅐ and ㅔ (both pronounced “eh”) and between ㅒ and ㅖ (both pronounced “yeh”).
To make things even easier, “ㅚ,” “ㅙ” and “ㅞ” are all pronounced as “weh.”
So from 11 diphthongs, you now only have seven pronunciations to memorize.
When it comes to writing, don’t worry too much about differentiating between these. The context will be more than enough to elucidate their differences, even though they have the same sound. Not much is lost here.
Just as you understand the difference between “see” and “sea” in sentences like “I went to the sea” and “I went to see a movie,” you’ll also be able to understand what is meant according to context.
(That happens later in your Korean journey, though!)
So what are you waiting for?
Time to do those pronunciation drills that we talked about! They’ll be all for nothing if you don’t get to it. Like I said before, there are no shortcuts when it comes to pronunciation.
So get those lips moving!