The Korean Accent Guide: Learning the Rhythm and Rhyme
Feeling stuck in your efforts to speak Korean?
Despite having already garnered a good chunk of Korean vocabulary in your studies?
There are few things quite as awkward as knowing exactly what to say in a foreign language, only to still be misunderstood by a fluent speaker once you speak.
Even the thought can make you shudder.
And if it happens to you, you may wonder, “What in the world caused this misunderstanding?”
Surely you got the words right, so what’s the deal?
It often comes down to how you’re speaking.
It’s common in foreign language learning, especially when self-learning, to dedicate a lot of time to learning words and grammar, but not as much to gaining a good accent.
However, a good accent should be one of the first things to focus on when you’re starting to learn a foreign language because a foreign accent can prove to be incredibly pesky when you want to chat.
And when it comes to a special language like Korean, which is generally considered a language isolate, it’s quite crucial.
Any native speaker can tell you that speaking in a proper Korean accent is not only a very possible yet impressive feat, but can also be your saving grace in real-life conversation.
Not only will a good accent guarantee better understanding, but it can also help put native speakers at ease when they respond to you.
So how exactly can you learn and improve a Korean accent?
Korean Accent Woes? Learning the Sticky Bits of Korean Speech
Important Features of the Korean Language
In order to perfect your accent, you should first know a couple key quirks of the Korean language.
Tense and aspirated consonants
The bulk of what makes any good accent comes from proper pronunciation of phonemes, or distinct sound units. Making the correct sounds is made possible by having your speaking parts (mouth, tongue, throat) positioned in the correct way.
Of special importance in the Korean language are tense and aspirated consonants. When you’re studying the Korean alphabet, or 한글 (han-gul), you’ll notice that the consonants can be split into three categories: basic, aspirated and tense. These categories are based on how the consonants are sounded out. The aspirated consonants are spoken with a burst of air (think of how you pronounce the “p” in the word “pat”). The tense consonants literally require you to tense up parts of your mouth and throat to produce a much stiffer sound.
Non-native speakers often don’t give consonants the proper stress, so the authenticity of the accent and even the meaning of what’s being spoken can be lost.
Standard Korean is also a syllable-timed language. This means that each syllable is spoken with the same amount of stress and there are no strong shifts in tone or pitch. So, for any normally spoken Korean sentence, there’s no syllable that’s pronounced for a longer or shorter amount of time. This is different from standard English, which is a stress-timed language and has stress applied differently to certain syllables. For example, if a native English speaker is saying “I’m going to the mall,” you may notice that they say “to the” more quickly than the other words, while giving more stress to “I’m” and “mall.” The level of stress indicates to a listener which words are most important, and which words are just functional.
If you listen to Korean, you’ll notice that the underlying “rhythm” sounds different from English, perhaps feeling quicker or flatter. A good reason for this is that there isn’t a need to change the level of emphasis in each syllable. Being aware of this is vital to making your accent sound natural—try to speak a Korean phrase as you would in a stress-timed language, and the result would sound strange and jumpy.
Do note, however, that regional Korean dialects, which are called 사투리 (sa-too-ri), differ from the standard in that they sometimes do have tonal shifts. But you don’t have to be concerned about that right now.
Now that you know all of this, you can start utilizing some practical strategies to make your accent flawless!
5 Easy Tips for Learning to Speak Korean with a Good Accent
1. Listen and listen well
For anyone aspiring to improve their foreign language accent, one of the greatest gifts they can have is a good ear.
Becoming acquainted with how Korean sounds will be your ongoing goal in your studies. Some sounds will seem familiar, especially vowels, while others will seem completely foreign. The latter is what may go straight over a non-native’s head and be labeled as “gibberish”—but this is something you’ll avoid doing, because it’s with these sounds in particular that you’ll want your ears to be particularly active.
Consuming Korean media is an excellent way to make your listening practice invigorating and effective. You’ll have no trouble finding some great and interesting resources, from TV dramas to movies to music videos, to make your studies entertaining. You can also practice listening with sources specifically meant to teach you Korean.
If you’re watching something with flashy visuals, try not to get too distracted by the sights. You might want to start with media that’s purely audio, such as podcasts.
By keeping an eye on the Korean captions as you listen, you can learn to associate certain sounds with their corresponding written syllables and be exposed to new vocabulary at the same time.
The nice thing about this activity is that it can be done anywhere—just pop in your earphones when you’re out and about, pull up an audio or video file, and let your ears soak up all that Korean.
2. Imitate native speakers
The famous writer George Bernard Shaw once said, “Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery—it’s the sincerest form of learning.” This applies wonderfully to foreign language learning—if you want to improve your Korean accent, become the perfect parrot: listen to native speakers and copy what they say and how they say it.
This time, instead of just audio resources, it would also be good to use visual ones depicting the speakers. The best ones for this purpose are videos dedicated to teaching Korean, such as those from KoreanClass101. This is a convenient option for learning-focused content because you can sign up right on the website and get access to a ton of video lessons along with PDF notes.
Watch the speaker’s mouth and try to imitate its movements, along with the words they’re speaking. For this particular exercise you shouldn’t depend too much on “stylized” media, like certain K-pop, that has the speaker exaggerate the way they talk.
One other interesting thing you can do is check out how Korean natives speak English. Just as you may have specific struggles in speaking Korean, so do Korean speakers with English pronunciation. There are plenty of video sources showcasing this, with some being instructional while others more amusing but no less telling. Seeing how natives deal with the language barrier can give you insight to what phonemes the Korean language does and doesn’t account for. Furthermore, it can acquaint you with the natural characteristics of a genuine Korean accent, thereby helping you more easily transition into speaking in it.
3. Record yourself
Yes, we all hate the sounds of our own voices, but if you want to improve your accent, you have to first recognize how you’re speaking Korean. With enough listening, you can easily tell when you yourself would sound very foreign to a native speaker.
Record yourself speaking a Korean word or phrase and play it back to see how you sound. First focus on how you’re articulating syllables—are you pronouncing things correctly and with the right inflection?
When you’re first starting out, you’ll always want to use a point of reference (preferably from a native speaker) to compare with. In the beginning, it may be a bit hard to pinpoint any inaccuracies, but over time you’ll easily pick up what you got right or wrong. Later on, you’ll also want to see if the “rhythm” of your speaking is appropriate and not clunky or overly flat.
This activity will be a progressive one, so do it often to track your improvement over time. Don’t be afraid to use less instructional references here—you can totally record yourself busting out a K-pop song or acting out a scene from a K-drama, just as long as you’re working your vocal cords!
4. Loosen up and speak smoothly
One of the main giveaways of a non-native speaker is their manner of speaking. New speakers tend to speak very slowly and stress every syllable. But this isn’t a trait that just affects novices—even those quite experienced with the language may still speak in this way.
To sound more natural when speaking Korean, you’ll want to loosen up and speak smoothly. This advice can apply to any foreign language; if you sound less confident and pause often in your speech, it sounds strange to anyone. Also, as stated earlier, Korean isn’t a stress-timed language, so you shouldn’t be putting so much stress on any syllable in the first place.
Start slowly when you’re first learning a word or phrase and get used to how it should sound, but once you’re familiar with how to articulate it, practice saying it a bit quicker and looser.
Speaking to a rhythm is a great practice method that might help you gain the confidence to speak in a more easygoing manner. Studies have shown that rhythm-based practice can be beneficial for language skills.
One way to do this is by having something in the background that establishes a rhythm, whether you’re tapping your fingers or using a metronome, and speaking word for word to that beat. Start on a slower tempo, but gradually go at a faster one as you get more used to speaking the words. Eventually, you’ll gain a nice and smooth cadence in your speaking.
5. Practice with real people
Oral practice is almost universally dreaded by language learners, but it’s absolutely crucial. Nothing makes for great foreign language practice more than actually speaking the language with people. Find conversation partners that can respond to you when you’re practicing your Korean. Of course, you’ll ideally speak with fluent speakers, but you may not have any near you.
Luckily, the internet comes to the rescue! You can actually chat online with Korean speakers, even those currently living in the country.
Several websites host language exchange opportunities that will let you speak and practice your Korean with fluent speakers, such as WeSpeke, Conversation Exchange and My Language Exchange. Of course, many of your language exchange partners will be wanting to practice their language skills too, so you can bring something to the table as well!
It’s natural to be shy about speaking, but don’t let your fear stop you from what’s probably the best method of improving your Korean knowledge and accent. Not only will you be genuinely testing your skills, you’ll also be getting valuable feedback from your conversation partner.
If you can afford to spend a little on language lessons, it might be even better to get feedback from a dedicated language teacher. Verbling is a great place to quickly and conveniently find an online language tutor. Just click on “Find a Teacher,” click on the “Teaches” option and scroll down to “Korean.” You can book and take your lessons right on the site!
A good accent can open many doors in your studies and interactions with other Korean speakers. Yes, the language can be tough and speaking can be nerve-wracking, but be brave and do your best.
Keep all of this in mind and practice every day, and soon your accent will be indistinguishable from a native’s!