Learning Korean

Korean Characters

In last week’s post, I wrote that I’ve started learning Basic Korean at the Korean Cultural Center of the Philippines and how it compares to my experiences in Ateneo Confucius institute. Today, I’ll discuss my thoughts on learning Korean with a specific emphasis on Korean phonology (sound system) and challenges of Filipinos and myself in learning it. 

As I wrote last week, a substitute teacher instructed our first session, so yesterday was our first proper lesson with our actual teacher. According to her, she’s been in the Philippines for 5 months and, to the surprise of the class, has only been seriously learning English for a year, having previously focused on Korean education for Koreans. English education in primary and secondary school in Korea “has problems,” she says, because it largely focuses on reading, writing, and grammar, so their speaking and listening skills are inadequate. Nevertheless, she’s able to give us basic instruction adequately in English, but it’s not surprising that she would have some difficulty.


Like in Japanese and Chinese, Korean surnames usually come before the given name, as opposed to western and Filipino names where surnames are displayed come after the given and middle name. The common format is a one syllable surname + a two syllable given name. During attendance, the teacher remarked about her difficulty in pronouncing our names because of their lengths.


We use the textboox Active Korean I, which comes with a workbook for exercises. Much like other language textbooks, there’s some pictures and dialog, some explanations, and some exercises. Pretty standard in that respect. What I like about it is the early introduction of simple listening exercises where you need to identify the sound that was spoken in the CD. There’s an even distribution between speaking, writing, listening, and reading, which I feel is lacking in some language instructional materials.

Writing System

Hangul, the Korean writing system, is necessary for learning Korean. Fortunately, it’s quite easy to learn. Unlike Chinese, which I’ve been learning for more than 3 years and still a far cry from writing and reading mastery, Hangul can be easily learned in a day. The alphabet is systematic because the consonants visually correlate with the shapes of the mouth and the vowels shapes are uniform.  For instance, the “g” is represented in Hangul by ᄀ, which looks like the position of the tongue when connected to the velum (see illustration below).


Phonology Notes

There are 14 consonants and 10 vowel sounds in Korean.  First thing I noticed is that the “f” sound (as in first) is not native to Korean, which is why Koreans say something more like “Hwaiting!” instead of “Fighting” when cheering or giving encouragement because the H sound (ㅎ) is similar. Interestingly though, in most cases the “f” sound is represented by the Korean “p” (ㅍ), like in the loan word for coffee (커피 – ko pi).

Tagalog has only one “o” sound whereas Korean has two: a more open ㅓ(romanised as “eo”)  and a more closed ㅗ (romanised as plan “o”). We also don’t have a native equivalent for ㅡ, which actually sounds like the exertion one makes during a bowel movement. Even so, I don’t think our class had problems with these vowels even if they’re not native to us.

What really confused the class were the plosives (p, t, and k). Fortunately for me, I previously read a 12 page paper by a Dutch lecturer with a technical analysis on Korean plosives that helped me understand the difference. I was able to confirm that my understanding was correct when, during a part where each student practiced these consonants out loud, the teacher shouted, almost with tears in her eyes, that my pronunciation was perfect.

Korean Characters

In Tagalog/Filipino, we only have a non-aspirated voiceless velar plosive (the k in kamote) and a voiced velar plosive (the g in ganyan). We do not natively have an aspirated voiceless velar plosive (kʰ) as in the English can or cotton. Except for those highly proficient in English, Filipinos typically say these words without the aspiration. In Korean, plosives are strange and scary beasts. There are 3 version of the velar plosive. There’s a normal one, a tensed one, and an aspirated one, ᄀ (k/g), ㄲ (kk), ᄏ (kʰ), respectively.

What confused the class was that the teacher, a native speaker, pronounces the ᄀ (g) as something more like k to the class’ ears at the start of words, and something more like g at the middle of words. She says it’s the same g sound but we hear differently. I also noticed that there’s a bit of aspiration to ᄀ when in an initial position (e.g. 가다 gada “to go”) so it’s not a pure unaspirated k but rather a slightly aspirated k compared to ᄏ which is a fully aspirated k.

Apart from the paper I mentioned above, there’s more information about Korean plosives and Voice Onset Time on this Ohio State University teacher’s site.


Korean is an interesting language with a fairly simple writing system but presents some challenges to non-native speakers even at the basic level because of it’s consonants. I will be writing more as I take more classes.