Knowing the phonological difference between English and Korean can help you speak more naturally and clearly in Korean. This issue itself can be quite frustrating, being that the goal of most language learners is to speak naturally and comfortably in their target language. My students, especially those whose first language is English, have told me that the sound of Korean is very different from English and other European languages.
The reality is, there are several different factors that contribute to this discrepancy. While I would love to introduce them all, I'll only focus on one of the biggest phonological differences between English and Korean in this article.
The difference that I am referring to is that Korean is a syllable-timed language, while English is a stress-timed language. This means that Koreans perceive each syllable as one phonological unit, while English speakers perceive several syllables as one phonological unit. Let’s look at some examples in English:
- Birds / eat / worms
- The birds / eat / worms
- The birds / eat / the worms
- The birds / will eat / the worms
In English, a stress-timed language, the amount of time you take to read these sentences depends on the number of stressed syllables, not the total number of syllables. In the example sentences above, the words “birds,” “eat” and “worms” are the syllables that receive the stress. These words are pronounced longer and stronger than the unstressed words, such as “the” and “will.” Thus, these unstressed words sound weaker and shorter as compared to the content words. In natural speech, you can (almost) say these four sentences within the same amount of time, being that the unstressed words do not take very much time to say when speaking.
However, in Korean, each syllable receives approximately the same amount of stress. For instance, if you try to read the following Korean sentences in the same way that you read the English ones above, it sounds awkward:
- 새들은 벌레를 먹는다.
- 그 새들은 벌레들을 먹는다.
- 그 새들은 그 벌레들을 먹는다.
- 그 새들은 그 벌레들을 먹을 것이다.
Sometimes, Koreans do in fact completely omit the function words, especially in natural speech. However, as long as you are saying it, every syllable must be articulated with a similar length and intensity. That’s why Korean sounds so monotonous and full of consonants as compared to English and other stress-timed languages.
This also applies to the lexical level. If you have a three syllable word in English, such as “atrocious,” the stressed syllable /tro/ is pronounced longer than rest of the two unstressed syllables. The Korean equivalent of this three syllable word is 끔찍한. However, in this example, each syllable should be pronounced for almost the same amount of time.
The question then becomes: why does it matter? Well, one reason for this is the syntactic characteristics of Korean. Most of the “function words” in Korean carry important grammatical meanings. Let’s see how important a single function word is in Korean.
- 숙제 다 했습니다. I finished all my homework.
- 숙제 다 했습니까? Did you finish all your homework?
As you can see here, just one syllable at the end changed a declarative sentence into an interrogative one. Of course, we express questions with a rising intonation at the end. However, sometimes the intonation can be unclear or the other party fails to notice it. So, it’s safer to articulate each syllable clearly.
- 공부를 많이 했어요. I did lots of studying.
- 공부가 많이 힘들어요. Studying is difficult.
Here, the word 공부 is used as an object in sentence (A). However, the word 공부 is used as a subject in sentence (B). This is possible because of the objective marker 를 and subjective marker 가. In Korean, most nouns can be placed anywhere in the sentence as long as you include these markers, especially in colloquial language.
- 많이 공부를 했어요, 많이 했어요 공부를, 공부를 했어요 많이.
As seen here, the order of words is not something you can rely on when it comes to Korean.
In English, on the other hand, the grammatical changes in sentences (1), (2), (A) and (B) above are represented by major syntactic changes, such as inversions or changes in forms. Thus, you don't have to rely on function words too much. However, in Korean, you do have to pay close attention to each syllable being that it may carry important grammatical information. More importantly, when you are speaking, you have to articulate each syllable clearly in order to get your message across.
Personally, I think that the goal of teaching speaking skills should not be fluency, but intelligibility. As long as you can express your ideas and thoughts clearly, your accent does not matter that much. However, as mentioned above, one syllable can mean so much in Korean. Therefore, retaining your stress-timed language habits can keep you from being a better communicator in Korean.
Thus, don’t be biased towards words that seem more important to you. Instead, pay equal attention to each and every syllable when you are speaking Korean. Once you have gotten used to this, your Korean will be much better understood by Koreans everywhere.