TEFL Problems for Students of English in Korea

Given the linguistic dissimilarities between the English and Korean languages, there are inevitably a multitude of pitfalls awaiting the Korean-speaker who seeks to learn English. With nearly eight years of experience teaching in South Korean language centers, locally known as hagwon, I have personally witnessed difficulties involved in nearly all aspects English education, ranging from faulty teaching methods to fundamental difficulties with grammar and phonology.

In order to evaluate these problems, some basic features should first be explained. Korean, like Japanese, is officially considered by most linguists to be a language of unknown origin. It does, however, share many common features with Ural-Altaic languages, such as Mongolian and Turkish. As such, there are no natural cognates that exist between the two languages, with the (likely coincidental) exception of ?many?, which in Korean is ?많이? (man-i).

Korean is a phonetic language, with specific pronunciation rules and nearly no exceptions to these rules.

Many, but not all sounds of English are contained in the Korean language. Sounds that are completely lacking in Korean include: f, v, ?, θ, z, and zh. Like many Asian languages, there is also no differentiation between the sounds ?r? and ?l?. While Korean is not a tonal language, it is also an unstressed language, with each syllable receiving equal stress. In words with a final ?j? ?sh? or ?ch? sound, there is a tendency for Koreans to add a final ?i?, so that the words ?bridge?, ?fish? and ?beach?, become ?bridgy?, ?fishy?, and ?beachy?. With these major differences in phonology, the Korean student faces serious challenges when he endeavors to learn English.

As if phonology were not enough of a problem for Korean students of English, there are also extensive dissimilarities between English and Korean grammar. In basic Korean sentences, the word order is Subject-Object-Verb. Subordinate clauses split the main clause, and subjects are often omitted if it is possible to determine the subject through prior information presented in the conversation. Tenses and moods are determined by adding various endings to the verb. Nouns and pronouns have postpositions added to them to change their context within a sentence, much like the case-endings found in Latin or Slavic languages. Korean lacks articles, but has a highly detailed set of counters that are specific to types of objects.

Some samples of how different Korean is to English are presented below:

I gave the book to John, becomes I John to book gave.

I cannot go to the party because I have to do my homework, becomes I my homework have to do because party-to go cannot.

In spoken English versus spoken Korean, there is yet another set of challenges awaiting the Korean student of English?stress. Korean, like Japanese, does not place stress upon syllables within words, but rather all syllables receive equal stress. When first introduced, the concept of stressed and unstressed syllables tends to be alien to the Korean learner. It requires a great deal of practice to achieve proper stress and rhythm. Acting out the stress with one?s hands, much as a conductor would direct an orchestra, has been shown to be an effective method of introducing proper stress into children?s classes.

With so few similarities between the languages, and so many differences, it is amazing that as many Koreans speak English as well as they do. A greater understanding of challenges unique to the Korean student, as well as knowledge of effective teaching methods are indispensable to those who wish to teach English within Korea. APPENDIX The Korean Alphabet

The Korean consonants Bilabial Alveolar Postalveolar Velar Glottal

Plosives and affricates plainㅂ pㄷ tㅈ ʨㄱ k tenseㅃ p͈ㄸ t͈ㅉ ʨ͈ㄲ k͈ aspirateㅍ pʰㅌ tʰㅊ ʨʰㅋ kʰ Fricatives plainㅅ sㅎ h tenseㅆ s͈ Nasal stops ㅁ mㄴ nㅇ ŋ Flap consonant ㄹ ɾ Vowels Positive/"light"/Yang Vowelsㅏ (a)ㅑ (ya)ㅗ (o)ㅛ (yo) ㅐ (ae)ㅘ (wa)ㅚ (oe)ㅙ (wae) Negative/"heavy"/Yin Vowelsㅓ (eo)ㅕ (yeo)ㅜ (u)ㅠ (yu) ㅔ (e)ㅝ (wo)ㅟ (wi)ㅞ (we) Neutral/Centre Vowelsㅡ (eu)ㅣ (i)ㅢ (ui)

Tables from

Author: Todd M. Curro

Date of post: 2007-04-18