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+39 347 378 8169

Korean vs English


Top Gear Korea & the Original TG

Korean is spoken as a first language by over 70 million people. This article looks at the kind of issues Korean native speakers have when they learn English.


Korean is the official language of North Korea‏‎ and South Korea as well as the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in China. It is the first language of approximately 72 million people.

English education is big business in South Korea and many students attend extra lessons after their regular school day. Also, more and more universities are making it possible for students to be accepted into tertiary programs by using English even if they will not be studying English in their degrees.

In entertainment, movies are shown in English with subtitles and there are numerous English-only television channels. Street signs are also usually written in both English and Korean. There’s also a trend to use random English words in pop songs, adverts and products!

The Alphabet

The first noticeable difference between English and Korean is that the Korean alphabet (Hangeul) looks and sounds completely different to the English alphabet‏‎. This means that students need lots of practice in writing and saying these sounds.

Pronunciation Issues

Another major problem is that certain English sounds do not exist in Korean. These sounds are substituted with similar sounds (see the table), which affects how clearly Koreans speak.


Common Substitution


Korean learners of English tend to start with a /p/ and force air between their lips. The result sounds almost identical to an /f/. However, problems arise when they pair the substitute sound with other consonants‏‎. For example, in “free,” it sounds markedly different when pronounced using this common /f/ substitution. At other times, they may pronounce an /f/ as an unmodified /p/ so that a word like “coffee” is pronounced as “coppee.”


Korean learners of English often substitute a /b/ sound so that places like Vancouver are pronounced as “Bancouber.”



/s/ is often substituted for “th” (Θ) so “think” sounds like “sink.”

 th (the)

/d/ is often substituted for “th” (ð), which makes “this” sound like “dis.”

zh as in vision

and z

/z/ and /ʒ/ are both often pronounced as a vague /j/ (dʒ) sound, so words like “zip” are pronounced “jip” and “pizza” becomes “pija.”


Diphthongs (two vowel sounds that glide to form one sound) are very difficult for students because they don’t exist in Korean.

For example, the word “eye” begins with [a] (as in “father”) and ends with [ɪ] (as in “be”) with the tongue gliding smoothly from the [a] to the [ɪ].

These sounds do not exist in Korean so students either leave out the glide or pronounce the diphthong as two distinct vowels. When written in Hangeul, most diphthongs are written as two distinct vowels. For example, [aɪ] (as in “main”) is written as 아이 when transliterated into Hangeul. Many Korean students never master diphthongs.

Stress and Intonation

Unlike Korean, in English, we use stress and intonation‏‎ to create and/or change the meaning of a word (e.g. mobile vs mobile). This leads to a situation where Koreans speaking English can sound somewhat monotonous.

End Sounds

In Korean, words can only end in vowels or certain consonants, so students often add a vowel to English words that end in certain consonants.

For example, the plural /s/ occurs frequently in English but Korean words cannot end with /s/ so Koreans say “missee” or “nice-uh” instead of “miss” or “nice.” This is a habit that needs to be corrected consistently.

Number of Syllables

Korean words never have more than two consonants pronounced in one syllable. English words that are pronounced as one syllable, such as “disk,” would consist of three syllables in Korean (디스크 – di-suh-keu). This takes a lot of practice for students to correct, but a gentle reminder is usually enough to fix problems.

Grammar Issues in Korean vs English

The following section outlines the major differences in grammar between English & Korean.

Sentence Structure

English has a strict Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) order that needs a lot of practice to perfect. The speaker addresses what a subject is going to do to an object. For example, I play the piano. {I (S) play (v) the piano. (O)}

Korean uses a Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) order in which the speaker address the subject then the object and then what is going to be done to the object. For example, I piano play. {I (S) piano (O) play. (V)} Also, the subject can sometimes be left out of a sentence in Korean, which students often do in English, too.

Parts of Speech

In Korean, adjectives (describing words) do the same job as verbs by indicating the tense. This is something that many Korean speakers transfer into their English sentences.
They also use nouns as adjectives. For example: My daughter is illness.

Also, definite and indefinite articles (the, a, an) don’t exist in Korean and many students never manage to master this part of English grammar. It is common for them to say things like, “I played guitar song in school festival.” At a beginner level, this sentence would probably sound like this: “Guitar song school festival played.”

Subject-verb Agreement

Korean does not make use of concord (subject-verb agreement) so most Koreans struggle with this in English. It is common for them to mix tenses and lack concord like this sentence: My sister like[s] [to] play [the] piano.

Preposition vs. Postposition

Prepositions are also difficult for Korean students because Korean makes use of postpositions instead. Postpositions are suffixes or short words that immediately follow a noun or pronoun in Korean grammar. They fulfill a number of functions and are more commonly referred to as subject and object participle markers. For example:

  1. 30분동안 잤어요. – 30 minutes for slept. (I slept for 30 minutes.)
  2. 이것은 연필이다. – This pencil is. (This is a pencil.)


Korean does not have articles‏‎ as they are found in English and there is no distinction between definite and indefinite article‏‎s. Thus learners will often confuse the usage of a, an and the. This can lead to students saying things like:

* I bought new car this week.

* an asterisk denotes an ungrammatical sentence


There is often confusion between countable and non-countable nouns‏‎.


In verb forms‏‎, Korean speakers often confuse the present with the future due to mt influence‏‎. There is also confusion with the past simple‏‎ and present perfect simple‏‎. All this means that the use of verbs needs to be carefully explained and covered.

There are also often issues with subject-verb agreement‏‎.

Also Korean tends to prefer transitive to intransitive verbs‏‎. Thus you will often hear utterances where an English intransitive verb is made transitive:

* I told to him


Korean students are excellent linguistic chameleons! They are very good at mimicking accents and words immediately after hearing them, but this does not mean that they have achieved or mastered the aspect of language being taught. It is common to have students who appear to have mastered skills in one lesson and seem never to have heard of them in the next lesson. It usually takes a lot more repetition than initially anticipated for students to demonstrate genuine progress and knowledge so teachers should not be scared to spend more than one week on new language concepts.

Here’s a table to compare and summarize the main differences between English and Korean:

English (Western)


Capitalization is important to clarify meaning and structure.

No capitalization. It must be taught.

Certain phonetic sounds do not exist in Korean.

Substitutes non-existent sounds, which can create confusion.

Diphthongs (glides) need to be clearly pronounced to avoid ambiguity.

English diphthongs are difficult for students to identify and pronounce clearly.

Makes use of consonant clusters.

Does not use more than two (2) consonants in a syllable.

Relies on stress and intonation of words and how they relate to one another.

Stress and intonation do not change the meaning of words.

Strict Subject-Verb-Object order

Subject-Object-Verb word order but sentences can contain only a verb.

Clear parts of speech with clear functions

Several parts of speech are interchangeable in function.

Definite and indefinite articles help to provide clarity in sentences.

Articles do not exist

Auxiliary verbs help to convey meaning while other verbs indicate tense and must agree with the subject.

Auxiliary verbs do not exist and verb tenses do not need to agree with the subject. Information is added to the end of verbs to indicate mood, tense and status.

Uses prepositions after a variety of parts of speech.

Uses postpositions immediately after a noun or pronoun.

Has plural forms of words

Uses numbers to indicate plurality

Gender has little influence on language use

Gender greatly influences language use and tone.

Extensive use of idiomatic language

Minimal use of idiomatic language.

Useful Links

Teaching English in South Korea – about teaching in one of the most popular destinations for TEFL teachers.

Teaching English in North Korea – and about teaching in the somewhat less popular destination further north!

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