Are you a native Korean speaker who:
- struggles with pronouncing the ends of English words correctly?
- has difficulty speaking American English with appropriate fluency, connections, and flow?
- is confused about when to pronounce an English word with an R sound versus an L sound, like in the words light and right?
American English Pronunciation for Korean Speakers: Top 5 Pronunciation Challenges
If you are a native speaker of Korean and you struggle with American English pronunciation, then this resource is for you. Here you’ll learn 5 of the most common pronunciation challenges that native speakers of Korean experience when speaking English, and you’ll learn how to improve your pronunciation of American English.
Read about the top 5 pronunciation areas below, and then watch the free English pronunciation video lessons to learn how to pronounce each sound. Don’t forget to click here to download your free Guidebook to the Sounds of American English, too!
Korean Challenge #1: The L /l/ and R /ɹ/ Consonants
Native speakers of Korean tend to confuse the L /l/ and R /ɹ/ consonants when they occur at the beginning of English words, such as light and right, or when L /l/ and R /ɹ/ occur in a consonant cluster, such as glass and grass. Native Korean speakers may also pronounce the L or the R as a flap /ɾ/, which sounds like a quick D /d/ consonant in American English.
This means that native speakers of Korean might pronounce right and light as “raitu” and “daitu”, and glass and grass as “gurasu” or “gudasu”.
When the R /ɹ/ sound occurs at the end of a word, like in the words car, better, and tutor, native speakers of Korean may sometimes drop the R completely, which results in these words sounding like “ka”, “beduh”, and “tuduh”.
This type of pronunciation pattern can cause a lot of confusion for native speakers of American English because the pronunciation of “gudasu” for grass may be perceived as an unintelligible word.
How to Pronounce the American English
L /l/ and R /ɹ/ Consonants
The key to pronouncing these consonants is in the tongue shape and placement. For the L consonant, the tongue is narrow, the back of the tongue is low in the mouth, and the tip of the tongue may come up to the roof of the mouth. For the R consonant, the tongue is wide, the back of the tongue is high and pulls back, and the tongue tip is neutral (the tongue tip doesn’t touch anything inside the mouth!).
To learn how to pronounce the L and R consonants in American English, watch the pronunciation videos below. Or you can read about their pronunciations by clicking here: How to Pronounce the L /l/ Consonant; How to Pronounce the R /ɹ/ Consonant; Your #1 Go-to Guide to the Dark L.
Korean Challenge #2: Adding Vowels Between and After Consonants
Native Korean speakers tend to add a vowel to syllables and words that end with the final consonants B, V, K, G, and D, and especially when a long vowel comes before that consonant. For example, words like babe and wave might be pronounced as “beibu” and “weibu”, and words like make, pig, and made might be pronounced as “meiku”, “pigu”, and “meidu”, respectively.
In addition, native speakers of Korean may also insert a vowel after the SH /ʃ/, CH /ʧ/, and J /ʤ/ consonants, so words like wash, church, and bridge might be pronounced as “washy”, “churchy”, and “bridgy”. These speakers may also add a vowel into a consonant cluster, so a word like bread might be pronounced as “bu-readu”.
Adding vowels into consonant clusters and after final consonants can cause a lot of confusion for native speakers of American English because the pronunciation of “bu-readu” for bread may be perceived as an unintelligible word.
How to Pronounce Final Consonants in American English
The best way to practice the pronunciation of final consonants in American English is to practice linking syllables and words together. This will help you to improve the smoothness of your speech while eliminating that extra vowel at the same time.
To get started with linking final consonants in English, watch the videos below. Or you can read about how to link with final consonants by clicking here: Linking with the B /b/ Consonant; Linking with the G /g/ Consonant; Linking with the Unreleased D Consonant.
Korean Challenge #3: Syllable Stress
It can be challenging for native speakers of Korean to place the correct type of stress on the right syllable when pronouncing American English words and sentences. While this can be challenging for many non-native speakers, it’s especially challenging for native Korean speakers due to the influence of the rules of Korean intonation.
In Korean, the intonation is often more flat than American English, and stress is placed more evenly on every syllable. However, in American English, the rules of stress and intonation are much different.
Placing the stress on the wrong syllable can lead to confusion for a speaker of American English because it might result in a completely different word than what was intended. For example, there are many words in English that have the same spelling but different meanings, and the main way to differentiate between them is with the stress pattern that is used in their pronunciation.
An example of this can be found with the word object. Object can be both a noun and a verb, depending on how it is used in a sentence. When it’s a noun, as in the sentence, I see an object on the table, the primary stress is placed on the first syllable, “OB-ject”. When it’s a verb, as in the sentence, I object to that rule, the primary stress shifts to the second syllable, “ob-JECT”.
Korean speakers may also struggle with placing the correct stress on the right word in a sentence. For example, consider the following sentences:
They’ll sell fish.
Both sentences are very similar in terms of vowels and consonants, and thus can sound nearly the same when pronounced. In order to make them sound different, native speakers of American English would pronounce the stress like this:
They’ll sell FISH.
However, native speakers of Korean may place the stress on the wrong syllable, so the words sell fish may sound like selfish to the ears of a native speaker of American English. This can definitely create confusion for the listener.
How to Pronounce American English Syllable Stress
Stress can be signaled in spoken English by changing the pitch, volume, and/or duration of a syllable. Stressed syllables are often higher in pitch, longer in duration, and slightly louder in volume than unstressed syllables. Unstressed syllables can also be reduced, and if that happens, the vowel in the unstressed syllable typically changes to the schwa /ə/ vowel or the IH /ɪ/ vowel.
To begin learning the rules of American English stress patterns, watch the videos below. Or you can read about American English stress by clicking here: The Three Types of Syllable Stress; Pronounce BIG Words in American English; Unstressed Syllables and Word Reductions.
Korean Challenge #4: Intonation
As I mentioned above, Korean intonation is typically more narrow and flat compared to American English intonation, which typically has several focused “peaks” throughout a message with lower “valleys” on the other syllables.
Korean intonation also differs based on the region and dialect of Korean. For example, standard Korean intonation goes up for both yes/no questions (questions that can be answered with either “yes” or “no”) and wh-questions (open-ended questions that begin with the “wh” words, such as who, what, where, and when).
In other dialects of Korean, such as the Kyungsang dialect, the intonation pattern is the opposite; downward for both types of questions. And in yet another dialect of Korean, such as the Julia dialect, and goes down and up for both types of questions. In American English, the intonation typically goes up for yes/no questions and down for wh-questions.
Using the incorrect intonation pattern can lead to confusion for a native speaker of American English, as simply changing the inflection (or intonation) of the voice slightly can convey completely different meanings. A slight rise in intonation changes a statement to a question. Make the voice rise even more, and this can convey surprise, doubt, or even annoyance.
How to Pronounce American English Intonation
To learn more about American English intonation patterns, watch the videos below. Or you can read about American English intonation by clicking here: American English Intonation of Statements and Questions; Sound Natural and Native with Intonation Templates; 3 Powerful Techniques to Boost your Intonation.
Korean Challenge #5: The F /f/ and P /p/ Consonants
The American English F /f/ consonant does not exist in Korean phonology, so many native speakers of Korean struggle to pronounce this sound correctly in English words. It’s common for Korean speakers to substitute the P /p/ consonant instead, so words like coffee, cough, and laugh sound like copy, cop, and lap. This type of substitution can lead to confusion for a native speaker of American English because it creates many real-word pairs (both coffee and copy are real words in English), so the listener may hear a completely different word than what was intended by the speaker.
This type of substitution can also occur in words that aren’t true minimal pairs but sound very similar: difficult may sound like typical, enough may sound like and up, and informant may sound like important. Any of these pronunciation substitutions could lead to confusion and/or misunderstandings.
How to Pronounce the F /f/ and P /p/ Consonants in American English
Since the F /f/ consonant doesn’t exist in Korean, it’s probably the best use of your time to focus here. The F /f/ consonant is made with the upper teeth and lower lip as the teeth come down to make light contact with the inside of the lower lip. The upper lip moves up to reveal the upper teeth; it does not participate in the F /f/ consonant! If you feel your lips touching when pronouncing the F /f/ consonant, then you’ve just pronounced a P /p/ instead. Use a mirror to make sure you can see your upper teeth as you pronounce the F /f/ consonant (move the upper lip up and out of the way).
To learn how to pronounce the F /f/ and P /p/ consonants, watch the videos below. Or you can read about their pronunciations here: How to Pronounce the F /f/ and V /v/ Consonants; How to Pronounce the P /p/ and B /b/ Consonants; Place, Manner, and Voicing of American English Consonants.