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This is a problem that's been plaguing me for years. I have been wanting to learn Korean, but I just can't get the past the first step: pronouncing it.

I can produce and hear aspirated consonants clearly. I still kinda struggle with the vowels, but that's more because I haven't put much effort into it. I just can't force myself to progress until I know how to pronounce those damned 'tense' consonants right. Problem is, nobody agrees on what they are. I've seen dozens of explanations online, ranging everwhere from them being faucalized, germinated, and even just differentiated by positional allophones.

What can I do? I don't see it as possible to learn this language. Not that its too hard (I have a natural knack for learning languages, I was once an upper intermediate in German, though I've grown rusty). Its that, how can you learn a language when its impossible for you to learn the first step. Nobody knows how to pronounce these right except native speakers! And they seem to think they're just germinated consonants, even though that's obviously not correct (well, aside for the fact that they do have a brief pause right before them, which makes me think of the germinated stops of Japanese). I can't learn something that nobody knows! What am I supposed to do?

Oh, and I've heard that the younger generations are collasping their consonants. I've noticed that they don't both to pronounce their lax or aspirated consonants right. Sometimes they're aspirated, sometimes not. Older people seem to be more consistent in this.

Yeah, I'm completely lost and have no idea what to do.

migrated from linguistics.stackexchange.com Sep 15 '17 at 14:34

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    My understanding is that the distinction between words starting with b, d, g and words starting with p, t, k is not collapsed in younger speakers; it is merely transphonologized, being manifest in the tone contour of the following vowel even if it is not noticeable in the level of aspiration of the consonant. – sumelic Sep 15 '17 at 17:50
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    Don't you have to speak to someone, thus match their pronunciation? There's strong variations in the accents. – dlamblin Sep 21 '17 at 4:14
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    Have you considered obtaining a grant to study the phonetics of various older first–language speakers? Maybe you could discover exactly what it is that they are pronouncing and improve the IPA understanding of the language. – can-ned_food May 7 '18 at 4:55
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I think you should consider some minimal pair training and then see whether the problem you describe still persists. Wikipedia defines minimal pairs as

pairs of words or phrases in a particular language that differ in only one phonological element, such as a phoneme, toneme or chroneme, and have distinct meanings.

There is probably no website for minimal pairs in arbitrary languages, but there are a few webpages about minimal pairs for Korean, for example:

Also potentially useful: the My Korean Ear Training Game by Motivate Korean.

So I am essentially recommending a practical approach instead of focusing on what to call certain sounds in Korean (germinated consonants etc.).

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Millions of people speak Korean and not everyone pronounces every sound the same way or knows the same vocabulary, yet they have no problem with communicating between each other. The same happens in all human languages, including English.

“Proper”, “correct” pronunciation is actually that of the prestige dialect, the one mandated by academic consensus, by the media, or a common ground mostly everyone agrees with. Human languages are a product of the society where they're used. Proper pronunciation is just an ideal; real people speak vernacular, use slang, idioms, etc.

There are many ways in which sounds may be described, but perhaps the best way to learn each sound is to listen to how native speakers produce them and what are the perceived differences between each sound. After all, for example, sounds are like colors: what I call “azul” or “celeste” are two shades of blue for English speakers; what I call “L”, “R” or “RR” are allophones of the same consonant for Japanese speakers.

Why learn Korean, anyway? Do you need to speak with Korean people? Do you want to access Korean media (films, music, games, etc.) in their native language? Give your language learning process a purpose.

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    I want to learn it mostly to gain a deeper understanding of agglutinating languages. And besides, I'm heavily into kpop, so I figured that may help me learn it, being exposed to it for hours every day. And I've been into kpop since I first saw Gangnam Style, so I'm certain its not just a passing phase for me. – user3892 Sep 15 '17 at 19:52
  • @lXBlackWolfXl have you considered a different agglutinating language such as Hungarian or Turkish? – Columbia says Reinstate Monica Sep 21 '17 at 0:25
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    I was originally considering Hungarian. But I figured Korean would be easier since I'm exposed to Korean all the time. I don't seem to be able to learn a language without constantly having to hear it. I studied around half a dozen languages when I was a teenager. The only one I managed to learn to any true extent was German, and that's because I was listening to German metal at the time. – user3892 Sep 21 '17 at 10:08
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    @IXBlackWolfXI I don't think it's possible to learn a language well without constantly having to hear it. Either you keep using it, or you'll soon forget what you have learned. – Locoluis Sep 21 '17 at 17:31
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I've faced the same difficulty with my Dutch. I was fortunate enough to come across Bruce Donaldson's Dutch: A Comprehensive Grammar. Despite its chapter on pronunciation being rather short, this book was exceptionally valuable for a number of reasons:

  • It contains a linguist's rather than prescriptive grammarian's point of view; therefore, it describes how Dutch is really pronounced rather than how such and such person thinks it should be.
  • It has information about dialectal and social variations in Dutch pronunciation.
  • Crucially, it shows which pronunciation features are considered plat (very low-prestige).

From this information, I was able to choose a variety of Dutch pronunciation that is useful and convenient to me as I'm learning the language.


As you can see, my solution was finding the correct resource. If you are like me and can't learn pronunciation from imitation alone, you could try to find a book or article that offers a linguistic description of Korean tense consonants.

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    That's the problem. No linguist agrees on what the tense consonants are. Its literally an unsolved issue. Nobody but native-speaking Koreans can pronounce them right. They seem to think they're just germinated consonants, even though they're obviously not. – user3892 Sep 20 '17 at 18:04
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    @lxblackwolfxl Oh, wow. That's disappointing. – J. Siebeneichler Sep 20 '17 at 18:14
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I honestly don't think I can teach my friends Korean if they are not determined to learn it. You can't learn it with books as there are few, if not many, unspoken rules that many books don't cover. There's this famous Australian guy in Korea who speaks Korean very fluently and his name is Sam Hammington. He said he learned Korean dating Korean girls. Put yourself around Korean people or make some Korean friends.

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