In this lesson, you’ll learn all about Korean pronunciation starting with the sounds of the Korean language - from vowels to consonants and everything in between!
Are you ready to get started? Here we go then…
A Word About Korean Pronunciation
Before we get started, let's talk a bit about Korean pronunciation.
The first thing you need to know is that there are no tones in Korean as there are in Chinese and some other Asian languages. Along with that, there is no intonation as there is in most other languages. Every syllable is stressed the same way. At first it may seem monotone, but just keep in mind that all syllables have the same stress.
You will notice that letters come in groups that form a syllable. These groups (sometimes called "syllable blocks") always have at least two characters. There will never be letters alone by themselves.
The Korean writing system 한글 (Hangeul) is very systematic, which means it is very easy to learn! Make sure you check out the Writing lessons to get familiar with 한글 (Hangeul). There are also lessons on how to write them correctly in syllable blocks.
Vowel sounds are consistent. There are not vowels that change sounds depending on which consonants they are with. Vowels generally make the exact same sound no matter where they are in a word.
Korean writing resembles Chinese or Japanese at first glance, but unlike those languages, Korean doesn't use thousands of symbols to represent sounds and ideas. It actually uses an alphabet with a few symbols to represent its sounds - just like English.
Unlike English, these symbols are arranged in blocks instead of in straight lines, but there's nothing complicated about it. In fact, Korean writing was developed with the goal of increasing literacy, so it was very important for it to be easy to learn.
Officially, Korean has 21 vowel letters, but we can say it only has 8 basic vowels. The rest of the vowel letters are just modifications or combinations of these.
There are 8 basic vowels in Korean.
sounds like "a" as in "garden"
sounds similar to the "aw" of "paw"
sounds like the "o" in "nose"
sounds like "oo" in "toot"
sounds like "u" in "full"
sounds like "ee" in meet
sounds like "e" in "pet"
sounds like "a" in "pat"
Note that ㅐ (ae) used to be pronounced like the a in mat, but these days most Korean speakers will just pronounce it as ㅔ (e).
The "Y group" of vowel letters are actually two sounds in one. They are made by combining "y" with the basic vowels. They are written like normal vowels, except that they have an additional stroke.
There are 6 of these:
"ya" as in "yard"
sounds similar to the "yaw" in "yawn"
sounds like the English word "you"
sounds similar to the English greeting "yo!"
sounds like "ye" in "yes"
sounds like the "ye" in "yes"
The last of these is not a typo. Most Koreans pronounced ㅒ (yae) and ㅖ (ye) in the same way.
The W Vowels
"W vowel" letters don't have a different shape like the "Y vowels." They're made by combining ㅗ (o) or ㅜ (oo) with another vowel. There are 6 of these:
sounds like the "wa" in "warrior"
sounds like the "wa" of "wander"
sounds like "wee", or the English word "we"
sounds like the "we" in "wet"
sounds like the "we" in "wet"
sounds like the "we" in "wet"
Again, the last three aren't mistakes. Most Koreans pronounce these in the exactly same way, although they may have been pronounced differently in the past or even in certain dialects today.
There is one last vowel letter in Korean which doesn't fit into the other categories. It is ㅢ (ui), which is pronounced as the u of full and the ee in meet blended together.
sounds similar to the "u" of "full" and "ee" of "meet" blended together
Korean has 19 consonant letters, but as we will see, some of these are similar to others in appearance and sound, so we can actually split them up into three groups.
There are 10 basic consonant letters in Korean: ㅂ (b), ㄱ (g), ㄷ (d), ㅈ (j), ㅁ (m), ㄴ (n), ㅅ (s), ㅇ (silent/ng), ㄹ (r/l), ㅎ (h).
ㅂ (b) sounds like the "p" in "happy"
ㄱ (g) sounds like the "k" in "kindergarten"
ㄷ (d) Sounds like the "t" in "table"
ㅈ (j) sounds like the "ch" in "hatchet"
ㅁ (m) sounds like the "m" in "mama"
ㄴ (n) sounds like the "n" in "normal"
ㅅ (s) sounds like the "s" in "super"
ㅇ (ng) has no sound if at the beginning; at the end, sounds like the "ng" in "cunning"
ㄹ (r) usually sounds like the "L" in "list"; sometimes sounds like a rolled "r"
ㅎ (h) sounds like the "h" in "hot"
Aside from the basic consonant letters, there are also 5 "double" consonant letters. In writing, they are just some of the basic consonants written double. Their sound is also similar, except they are pronounced more tightly than the basic forms.
This may be a little confusing, so let's consider an example. In English, you might pronounce certain sounds differently when you want to stress a word. For example, suppose you asked your little brother to "bring me a bag of bread" but he mishears your sentence asks "you want a half a head?" Feeling annoyed, you might say, with emphasis "a BBag of BBread," which he would surely understand.
In English, the meaning of the word is not changed when you emphasize this sound. In Korean, though, putting tight emphasis on some consonants could make it a different word altogether, since these sounds are considered to be completely different consonants.
The five double consonant letters are: ㅃ (bb), ㄲ (kk), ㅉ (jj), ㄸ (dd), and ㅆ (ss).
ㅃ (bb) sounds like the "p" in "special", or a tensed and emphasized"b"
ㄲ (kk) sounds like the "k" in "skate," or a tensed and emphasized "g"
ㅉ (jj) sounds like the "tch" in "hatchet," or a tensed and emphasized "j"
ㄸ (tt) sounds like the "t" in "state," or similar to a tensed and emphasized "d"
ㅆ (ss) sounds like a tensed and emphasized "s" in English
The hard consonant letters (also called aspirated consonant letters) are, again, based on certain basic consonant letters, so they look similar. In this case, hard consonants are close in pronunciation to the basic versions except that they are said with a hard puff of air.
English speakers make similar sounds, but again, they do not give the word a different meaning when they are used. For example, if someone's extreme obsession with saving money made you frustrated, you might say
"He's so cheap!"
This sound is used for special emphasis in English and does not change the meaning of the word, but in Korean, it is actually considered to be fundamentally different from the "soft," or unaspirated version.
There are 4 hard consonant letters: ㅋ (k), ㅍ (p),ㅊ (ch), ㅌ (t).
ㅋ (k) sounds like a hard "k" in English with lots of air
ㅍ (p) sounds like a hard "p" in English with lots of air
ㅊ (ch) sounds like a hard "ch" in English with lots of air
ㅌ (t) sounds like a hard "t" in English with lots of air
Except for a few easily-learned rules, Korean words are usually pronounced as they are written. If you know how to read the letters, then you'll generally be able to pronounce the word correctly. To get a good handle on the few rules for reading, visit lesson 2.9.
Now that you know all the sounds of Korean, are you ready to try some basic combinations?
Here are some words combining the basic consonants and vowels you've learned today. Give it a go!
Practice Your Pronunciation With Rocket Record
Rocket Record lets you perfect your Korean pronunciation. Just listen to the native speaker audio and then use the microphone icon to record yourself. Once you’re done, you’ll get a score out of 100 on your pronunciation and can listen to your own audio playback. (Use a headset mic for best results.) Problems? Click here!
Culture: The story of Korean Writing, 한글 (Hangeul)
Lots of Korean learners breathe a sigh of relief when they discover that, unlike Japanese or Chinese, most Korean can be read by just learning a handful of letters. But it's not just foreigners learning the language who appreciate the simplicity and versatility of 한글 (hangeul). Linguists and other language experts call its invention amazing. But did you know that 한글 (hangeul) wasn't always so widely loved?
For hundreds of years, Koreans had been writing their language using the Chinese system. This meant that anyone who wanted to read or write had to learn thousands of different symbols. The people who had access to high levels of education didn't complain much, but this situation was not good for the literacy of the common people.
Not only that, but Chinese and Korean have different needs. In Chinese, meaning is made by stringing unchanging words together in a certain order. On the other hand, Korean has to add suffixes to verb stems. The Chinese system works pretty well for Chinese, but it wasn't as useful for a language like Korean.
While some details of the beginnings of 한글 (hangeul) are wrapped in a little bit of myth - we might never know for sure exactly who invented it - we know that it was spread throughout the kingdom by order of King Sejong around the turn of the 15th century.
King Sejong wanted it to be easy enough that all citizens could learn to read and flexible enough for any sound to be represented. He envisioned a widely literate country thankful to him, but he probably felt disappointed during his lifetime.
Unfortunately, many people who were using the Chinese-based system weren't thrilled with the idea of just anybody reading and writing. Chinese characters, they argued, were more refined and showed a higher level of education than 한글 (hangeul). For centuries, it was not very fashionable in educated circles to use much 한글 (hangeul) for formal writing.
With the new freedoms of the 20th century, more people started to see the value of a simpler and more efficient writing system. Today, only a few Chinese characters are commonly used in Korean writing. King Sejong's hope that his simple and uniquely Korean system would be appreciated had finally been achieved.
Make It Stick With Rocket Reinforcement
Reinforce your learning from this lesson with the Rocket Reinforcement activities!