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Korean Learners Learning English

21 Nov

There are approximately 80 million people worldwide who speak Korean.  The Korean alphabet is called Hangul and consists of 14 simple consonant sounds and 6 simple vowels.  Hangul can be written either vertically or horizontally and capitalization does not exist in Korean writing.

Differences between the Korean and English language make learning English a challenging task for many Korean EAL Learners.  This blog entry will highlight some of the most common challenges that Korean learners are likely to encounter when learning English.  I’m drawing from my own attempts to learn Korean, combined with conversations I’ve had with colleagues and Korean speakers who have embarked on the journey of learning English.

Stress and Intonation

English, unlike Korean, is a stress-based language where context dictates which word is emphasized in a sentence. Stress and intonation create and change the meaning of a word.  For example CON-test vs. con-TEST, or per-MIT vs. PER-mit. Korean, on the other hand, maintains the same stress on every word. This explains the monotonous-sounding English spoken by Korean English learners, particularly in extended pieces of oral language such as presentations.

Challenging Sounds

There are some sounds which are difficult for Korean learners to hear or repeat and are therefore substituted or omitted. Practice and special attention to these sounds would benefit Korean learners. These sounds include:

sink

Think or sink?

The ‘th’ Sound
/θ/ and /ð/ as in there and three do not exist in Korean. The sound /θ/ as in ‘three’ tends to be replaced with a sound closer to /s/ and the sound /ð/ as in ‘there’ is replaced with a sound closer to /d/ making words such as think sound like sink and those sounding like dose.

B vs. P Sound
The b sound is often replaced by a p sound resulting in words such as bees sounding like peas.

V vs. F Sound
Korean learners of English will often substitute the /v/ and /f/ sound with the /b/ and /p/. Berry and few sound like pew, and coffee sounds like copy.

Z, TS, and TZ Sounds
The letter Z will likely sound like a J or a CH sound. This also happens with the TS and TZ sounds, making words such as pizza sound like peaches.

la-la-landThe L Sound
In Korean, the L sound changes based on where it falls in a word. This is why Korean learners will sometimes pronounce the L sound as an R. It is therefore vital to make learners aware that in English, L is L no matter where it falls.

sheep-ship

Sheep on a ship

Vowel Sounds
The short /I/ sound as in the word SIT is often pronounced as the long vowel /iy/ sound as in TEEN changing words like grin to green, slip to sleep, and sit to seat.

The words ‘go’, ’no’ and ‘show’ all contain a double vowel sound /əʊ/ (a diphthong). Korean speakers often pronounce these words with a single vowel sound. Practicing these sounds would, therefore, be beneficial for Korean learners.

What is altogether omitted?
In Korean, words must end in vowels or certain consonants, but never with an /S/ sound. This often leads Korean students to add a vowel to English words such as Miss which becomes missy or nice-uh instead of nice, or simply not speak the sound. This is particularly an issue since Korean does not have a plural form for words but uses numbers to indicate plurality. A special attention, therefore, must be given to S in order to give Korean English learners the practice needed to remember to use the S, where needed, and sound the S, when speaking or reading.

Grammatical Differences
There exist three main grammatical differences between Korean and English:

Word Order in a sentence
Whereas in English we tend to have a subject+verb+object structure, as in the boy eats a banana, in Korean, the order is actually: subject+object+verb, or boy banana eat, with the verb placed at the end of the sentence.

Subject and Object Markers
Because Korean has what is referred to as subject and object markers to indicate which is the subject and which is the object in a sentence, the subject is often entirely left out from a sentence when Korean English learners write. Sentences such as banana eat may actually mean the boy eats a banana, the girl eats a banana, they eat bananas, or we eat a banana, etc.

Articles
Words such as a/an, and the are not used in the Korean Language and will therefore likely be omitted by Korean learners or placed in places where they are not needed such as “I went to the Seoul last month.”

As teachers of Korean English learners, we can:

  1. Encourage our students to listen and imitate spoken English. Practicing pronunciation, intonation, and voice stress while having the subtitles turned on will help learners in their speaking ability while also increasing their vocabulary and reading skills.
  2. Provide focused practice using minimal pairs as in light-right, file-pile, base-vase, zoo-Sue, czar-jar, pill-peer, bleed-breed, sheep-ship, pool-pull, not-nut, and knot. Saying these out loud and listening for differences would help learners identify and produce the two different sounds.
  3. Partner students with language buddies. This provides them with opportunities to practice out loud, thus giving their vocal chords opportunities to produce those sounds that are not in their native language.

Low-stress activities are a powerful resource when instructing English language learners of any language. Korean learners, like other English language learners, benefit the most when instructors provide ample opportunities to hear and use the target language.  Whether we are using karaoke singing, role playing, watching English shows and commercials, or acting out theatrical skits, learners increase their awareness of the differences between English and Korean sounds by paying close attention to those highlighted sounds in a low-stress environment. This allows for long-term retention and guides learners on their journey as they acquire English as an additional language.