Fluent Tongue: The ESL App for Korean English Speakers

  • International Phonetic Alphabet chart
  • Written and conceptualized as a research assignment for the course MODL 3060H - Second Language Acquisition at Trent University.


    Native Korean speakers learning English as a second language can have difficulty pronouncing English vowels and consonants. This paper intends to examine second language acquisition of English for Korean L1 speakers, with a specific focus on mispronunciation of specific lexical items. I examine past Korean-to-English phonetic studies to outline key differences in the languages. I interviewed beginner, intermediate, and advanced English speakers from Korean ethnicities, to highlight common issues in phonetics of the target group. The data collected from this research will create an app called Fluent Tongue, which will be available through app stores online for anyone to download.

    The goal of this research is to understand how English lexical items are pronounced through the oral instruments of Korean L1 speakers. Recognizing the common mispronunciations made by a specific language group allows learners to become self-aware of the errors most prominent in their speech. The data collected from this research can also aid teachers to create new correction methods, and pay particular attention to certain lexical sounds by language group.
    The motivation to develop the app Fluent Tongue came from wanting to create learning tool for anyone to practice their speaking skills outside the classroom. The app will be available for anyone who wish to practice their pronunciation skills. It will hopefully be useful for students from Korean backgrounds learning English, or anyone trying to improve their SLA on the English language. The smartphone application is intended to help improve the oral skills in pronouncing specific English lexical sounds.


    Pronunciation is described to be: “a sequence of constituent units such as phones” (2009:4445). In a study observing an artificial voice recognizer and its ability to understand verbal commands by L2 English speakers, Vinyals et al. (2009) illustrated that being able to produce a specific sequence of sounds through accurate pronunciation can improve communication and confidence (2009:4446). Proper and specific pronunciation in a dialect is important for SLA, because it improves communication through understandability, which in turn can increase the confidence of students.

    There are many notable researches showing the phonetic differences between Korean and English. Lee and Iverson’s (2012) study outlined Korean and English consonants and vowels, and the phonetic/phonological dissimilarities evident in the two languages (2012:244-245).

    Yang (1996) conducted a cross-linguistic study of American English vowels and Korean vowels, and found that the Korean language possess vowels that English do not speakers use, and that there are English vowels that do not exist in Korean (1996:252).

    Flege and his colleagues are notable researchers in the study of pronunciation systems used by bilinguals. They demonstrated that achieving highly accurate English pronunciation is proven to be difficult for Korean native speakers. Flege, Bohn, and Jang (1997) speculated that Koreans have the most difficult time differentiating and producing English vowels among German, Spanish, Mandarin, and Korean groups (1997:444). Flege (1999) later conducted another study on 240 native Koreans and found that the strength of their foreign accent increased with their increase in age of arrival (1999:98).

    Kang and Guion (2006), another notable researchers in this topic, found that Koreans tended to categorize three acoustic groups of stops: English voiceless and Korean aspirated stops as one group, English voiced stops and Korean fortis as another group, and the Korean lenis stops as a group by themselves (2006:1673). They concluded that Korean-English bilinguals merged the phonetic system of both languages. It is important to note that grouping lexical sounds that are meant to be different results in certain mispronunciations.

    Finally, in an interesting study looking at English stop voicing stops produced by Koreans singers, Choi, Jiyoun et al. (2016) found that L1 Korean directly transfers into the phonetic-prosody of English, with preferred emphasis by Korean listeners who rely on prosodic structure of certain voicing stops (2016:80). This study represents a growing number of studies conducted on non-Indo-European languages. Studies that look at vastly different language pairings need to be further expanded to help Korean and other language groups in their SLA.


    The three beginner, intermediate, advanced bilinguals in Korean and English I interviewed are Mina (age 20), Cory (age 26), and Narae (age 31). I correlated the individual’s AOA (Age of Arrival) to their varying level of proficiencies. Mina had stayed in Canada for 2 years, Cory had stayed in Canada for 9 years, and Narae had stayed in Canada for 16 years at the start of the interview.

    The entire interview was conducted in English. The three questions I asked were:

    “What do you find most difficult about the English language?”
    “What specific words do you have trouble pronouncing correctly?”
    “How do you think you can improve your English pronunciation skills?”

    Mina expressed a difficulty when speaking about Canadian culture. Despite being in an English environment for only 2 years, she was extremely proficient in English, where native English speakers had no trouble understanding her. Although she was outgoing, verbally proficient, she lacked knowledge about events, news, and cultural topics of Canada. She had difficulties pronouncing /r/ and /l/’s, /b/, /p/, /v/, and expressed frustration at syllabic differences (In Korean, consonants separates the word syllabically. Example: “Vest” in English has one syllable, but in Korean has three). She hoped to make more friends to improve her English.

    Cory was a shy individual, who only wanted to hang out with other Koreans in order to avoid embarrassment, or be “exposed” for his English speaking skills. He expressed frustration at not being able to make jokes or comments, because in Korean he can be a very funny individual. He expressed difficulties with /r/’s, and his accent (He had difficulties not releasing consonants, such as “hot” being pronounced as /hoʊt'/). He hoped to interact more with English speakers.

    Narae was an accomplished account manager for RBC, and currently studying to become an Investment Retirement Planner. Her extraverted personality allowed her to excel in business settings, and only had trouble with grammar and English articles. She found difficulty pronouncing tense/lax voiced stops, and English vowels was a persistent issue where she could not pronounce them like a “native”. She had difficulties with distinguishing /r/ and /l/ sounds, and rolling her tongue. She hoped to read more books to work on her grammar, and exercise producing words with English vowels.


    Both the interviews and the literature reviews on Korean and English bilinguals show that Korean natives have a difficult time producing English vowels, liquid consonants, and manipulating stops to sound more “natural”. The examples of common mistakes made by those interviewed, and illustrations from Korean-English studies are outlined below:

    English vs. Korean Vowels

    American English Vowels Seoul Korean Vowels
    æ a ɔ e ɛ i ɚ ɪ ɑ o ʊ ʌ u a ɔ e ɛ i o ∅ u y ʌ ɨ

    Figure.1 (Yang 1996: 254)

    As illustrated in Figure 1, the English vowels /æ/, /ɚ/, /ɪ/, /ɑ/, /ʊ/ do not exist in the Korean language.

    Liquid Consonants

    English Korean
    /l/ /r/ /ㄹ/
    “word” “word”
    [wɜrd] [wɜrd]
    “world” “world”
    [wɜrld] [wɜrd]

    Figure 2

    Figure 2 illustrate the difficulty Korean L1 speakers face when using liquid consonants, where in the Korean language only one liquid consonant exist, which is what Korean speakers use to pronounce English liquid consonants.

    English Stops vs. Korean Stops

    English Stops Korean Stops
    Voiceless Stops / Voiced stops Aspirated / Lax / Tense
    /th/ /t/ /th/ /t/ /t*/
    tot [thɑt] dot [dɑt] tal [thal] dal [tal] ttok [ttok]
    탈 “mask” 달 “moon” 떡 “rice cake”

    Figure 3.

    Figure 3 shows completely different system of grouping of stops in English language vs/ Korean language. Double consonants are illustrated under tense stops in Korean, a sound which does not exist in English.


    The investigation into the different pronunciation systems in the Korean and English language illustrate the difficulties Korean natives’ face, when asked to verbally produce English lexical sounds that simply do not exist in Korean (see Figure 1, 2, 3)

    The interviews conducted further provide evidence that Koreans face similar issues with English pronunciations. All three expressed concern over /r/ and /l/ sounds, and both Mina and Cory stated they simply felt they cannot produce the sounds. Both Cory and Narae was aware of their mispronunciation of certain stops. As speculated, they were grouping different groups of acoustic stops (Kang and Guion 2006:1673).

    Accents were also another major theme in all three subjects. They expressed major concerns over their accents, describing it as a source of discomfort and reason for their lack of confidence. Korean native speakers tend to have specific difficulties with English vowels, and the strength of the “Korean accent” have a tendency to be stronger in students who are older when they arrive in the English speaking environment (Flege 1999:98).

    It is clear that there are specific lexical differences between the Korean and English language, with many English consonants and vowels that simply do not have a Korean equivalent in the Korean phonetic vocabulary. This means native Korean students must acquire the new phonetic knowledge of new sounds, in order to speak highly accurate English lexical pronunciation.

    It is important to note, however, that pronunciation of a particular language includes many dialects. Therefore, it is important to remember that there are no “correct” version of any pronunciation, because of the characteristic of dialects to change depending on the location.

    Other notes from the interview research worth discussing when looking at the data is the differences in their subjects’ age, and age of arrival (AOA). Although the three subjects had relatively similar AOA (Mina was 18, Cory was 17, Narae was 16 when they first arrived in Canada). In the future, a more controlled research with a specific limitations on the subjects’ age, AOA, and their prior exposure to English lexical sounds will produce more reliable results.


    Being able to speak a second language like a native speaker is considered to be socially desirable by many language communities. Although a perfect pronunciation is not always necessary to communicate effectively in a different language, it is nonetheless an important issue for many second language learners.

    Students in SLA classrooms, with a L1 in an non-Indo-European language, such as native Koreans, have heightened difficulties with lexical sounds in the English language. Most common issues are Korean vowels that is difficult to transfer over to English vowels, as well as lack of English vowels in the Korean language. Also, the liquid consonants in English is a persistent issue for Korean speakers who simply do not have the lexical sound in their lexical vocabulary. Finally, Korean natives tend to group voiced and voiceless sounds based on their L1 language, where rules of acoustic sounds in Korean contradicts with the systems used in English.

    Making second language acquisition more accessible through technology can be beneficial. A smartphone app have the potential to make the learning process more personal, dynamic and fun. I hope to make the Fluent Tongue: The ESL App for Koreans English Speakers, based on the data gathered from this research. An educational app that can cater to the individual through visual mediums, videos that show how to produce certain words, with highlighted differences in the Korean language vs. English language, can allow the learner to become more educated in the causes of their SLA difficulties. It can also allow them to learn at their own pace without the pressures of a classroom.

    It is my hopes that the information from this research can help develop further research into Korean lexical systems and how they are used, and how that might affect second language acquisition of the English language, and other languages applicable in the future. Finally, I hope to develop a smartphone app that provides interactive-visual techniques for native Korean speakers to engage in self-directed learning, and improve their English pronunciation skills.