I mentioned this in my last column post, but I’ll say it again: Hangul is an incredibly essential part of the Korean language. It was created by King Sejeong during the Joseon Dynasty as a way for all Koreans to be able to read and write, and it’s one of the reasons why he’s such a beloved and prominent historical figure in South Korea today. It’s so important there’s even an official federal holiday for Hangul Day every October. So if you want to learn Korean on any level, you absolutely have to study Hangul – making it the perfect place for us to start. There’s a lot to cover, so I’ve divided everything into two posts: I’ll be focusing on consonants this time, and then vowels the next. However, it’s still going to be a LOT of information to absorb in one or two sittings. You might feel overwhelmed by everything at first – I know I did when l started out – but don’t worry too much. It typically takes a few hours to get the basics of Hangul down, but I promise it’ll make everything miles easier going forward!
Some Disclaimers Before We Begin
Please keep in mind that these posts are supposed to be a VERY basic introduction to Korean language. My Korean level is probably somewhere around intermediate, and I’m nowhere near fluent. Korean is a wonderful and fascinating language, but it’s also very complicated with many nuances that I’m either not aware of or don’t fully understand yet. I’m doing my best to share all that I know and have learned, but I don’t personally feel qualified to be giving formal and/or official lessons. Plus I’m an American learning Korean, so I can only provide you with my own experience and perspective – I certainly don’t have the same insight and knowledge as an actual Korean person. So I’ll only be writing about beginner level elements I can confidently explain, but I’d be happy to point you to some of my learning resources if you want to know more or start seriously studying.
I know I said in my last post that you should minimize using Romanization as much as possible, but this is one of those times where you just can’t avoid it. Even my Korean teacher, who constantly steered me away from Romanization, showed me the corresponding Latin Script letters and spellings when I was first learning Hangul. Plus these are written posts, so I kind of have to rely on it. So, I’ll be using Romanization for my column – especially the posts where I talk about the alphabet and how to read Korean – but I really do recommend phasing it out once you’re more comfortable with Hangul.
Korean consonants can be divided into three kinds: basic, aspirated, and tense. They’re categorized by pronunciation, specifically by how much air you use when saying them. Since the differences between these types can be difficult for newcomers, let’s start with looking the letters and recognizing their corresponding sounds and spellings. Since many consonants sound similar to each other, I’ve made a table below that puts everything together to show the bigger picture. Then, I go through the three types and provide more detailed information about each consonant. Finally, I’ve embedded a video at the end that I feel is the simplest and clearest explanation of the pronunciation differences between the consonant types.
Because I think new K-pop fans might be more familiar with idol names (as opposed to whatever Korean word I can think of), I used the first Korean name that came to mind for most of my examples. However, there are certain times where I had to use words since I couldn’t come up with a corresponding name. Also, please note that I’m sticking as close to Revised Romanization as I can – but there are inevitably some exceptions since most Koreans don’t necessarily use those exact spellings.
(Basic consonants are also referred to as “plain” or “neutral” consonants.) Personally, I find the basic consonants the hardest to say properly since they’re not as strong or emphatic as the ones in English. Some of them have pronunciations that are actually halfway in between two English consonants, so being able to determine the exact way to say them takes some time. Also, the spelling or Romanization for these consonants can depending on whether they start or end the word/syllable. On top of that, I’ve found from experience that not every Korean says these consonants the exact same way. So, it can definitely be confusing when you’re first starting out.
For example, let’s look at the consonant “ㄱ.” Technically, its true pronunciation is somewhere between the English letters “g” and “k.” There’s an area of Seoul called Gangnam (강남) which has been made globally famous thanks to “Gangnam Style” by PSY. If you listen carefully to the song, it sounds like he pronounces “강남” with a “g” – just like in the title. But when I first went to Seoul, I asked someone how to get there and it sounded like that person said, “Oh, Kangnam!” So it’s very easy to hear “g,” “k,” or a sound in-between. As a beginner, it might take a while to produce that specific halfway sound when speaking. But don’t stress if you can’t get it at first, because Koreans will still generally understand you. Just keep practicing!
NOTE ON “ㄷ”: In this case, the “t” pronunciation is NOT like the English “t” we use at the beginning of words like “ten.” That sound corresponds to an aspirated consonant you’ll see later. This “t” is more like the one we use at the end of English words like “get” or “bat” – aka a more neutral sound.
NOTE ON “ㅅ”: In most circumstances, “ㅅ” is pronounced somewhat similarly to the English letter “s.” However, “ㅅ” takes on a “sh” sound if it’s put in front of the vowel “ㅣ” (which is spelled “i” but sounds like “ee”). For example, the name 시원 would be pronounced closer to “she won” than “see won.” This rule also applies to the basic vowels that start with a “y” : “ㅑ (ya),” “ㅕ(yeo),” “ㅛ(yo),” and “ㅠ (yu).” But in these cases, the “y” part of the word is often dropped. For example, the Hangul for K-pop group SHINee is “샤이니,” but the “샤” is pronounced “sha” and not “shya.”
NOTE ON “ㅇ”: The reason “ㅇ” is silent in front of vowels is because it’s mostly there for aesthetic reasons. Sometimes there are Korean words that are just vowels, but there’s also a rule that the vowel never goes first in writing Hangul. So in these cases, you put “ㅇ” as a sort of placeholder and don’t pronounce it.
NOTE ON “ㄹ”: While there are some Korean words that do use that hard “r” pronunciation like in English, words with “ㄹ” generally lean more towards an “l” sound or are just straight up “l.” (Learning an English “r” is one of the hardest things for my Korean elementary school students. )
The Alternate Pronunciation of “ㅅ,” “ㅈ,” and “ㅊ”
If you see the basic consonants “ㅅ” and “ㅈ” or the aspirated consonant “ㅊ” at the end of a word, then they are pronounced as “t” (like “get”) instead of their regular pronunciation. However, this mostly just applies if it’s at the end of the word or syllable, and/or the next syllable of the word starts with a consonant. If the next syllable of the word starts with a vowel, the ending consonant carries over and is pronounced like it’s the beginning of the following word. For example, “맞다” (“to be correct”) is pronounced as “matda.” But “맞아요” (“That’s correct”) would be pronounced as “majayo.” There are some exceptions, but this is the basic concept. If it doesn’t make too much sense to you right now, that’s okay – it will probably be clearer when we get to making words.
I think aspirated consonants are much easier compared to basic ones because they actually sound very close to their English counterparts. You might have noticed a lot of basic consonants have a softer pronunciation than native English speakers are used to, but there’s usually not much difference with the aspirated ones. For instance, I already talked about how the basic consonant “ㄱ” is somewhere between “g” and “k.” (Or depending on whom you talk to, sometimes “g” and sometimes “k.”) However, the aspirated consonant “ㅋ” always sounds like a “k.” So with these, you rarely have to worry about messing up.
NOTE ON “ㅊ”: This consonant generally often written as “ㅊ,” but you might also sometimes see it stylized like in the picture above. It’s just a font difference and doesn’t have any deep meaning. (These pictures are Powerpoint slides I made and took screenshots of – unfortunately, the default font uses the alternate styling and I can’t seem to change it.)
NOTES ON “ㅎ”: This consonant generally often written as “ㅎ,” but you might also sometimes see it stylized out like in the picture above. It’s just a font difference and doesn’t have any deep meaning. Also, “ㅎ” is somewhat unique among the aspirated consonants because it’s not necessarily pronounced with a strong “h” sound. It’s usually clearly pronounced if it’s at the start of a word or sentence, but it’s often much softer if it’s following another word or sandwiched between other syllables. And sometimes, it sounds practically non-existent.
FUN FACT ABOUT “ㅋ” : When Koreans write “ㅋㅋㅋ” like this, it means they’re laughing. It’s basically the Korean version of “LOL.”
In my opinion, the difficulty level of tense consonants (also known as double consonants) is somewhere between basic and aspirated. The easy part is they’re not too difficult to pronounce – you’re not using as much air as you do for the other consonants, so you don’t have to think about that when you’re speaking. The tricky part is that tense consonants sometime sounds like they have two distinct pronunciations. I’ll use “ㅃ” as an example. The Korean word for “bread” (빵) almost always sounds like “bbang” to me with a strong “b” sound, but there are also words with “ㅃ” that have more of a “p” sound. For instance, I’ve literally never heard “Dad” (아빠) pronounced as “abba,” only as “appa.”
Much like basic consonants, I *think* the pronunciation for tense consonants changes depending on where they are in the word. Tense consonants are meant to have a more emphatic and less breathy sound compared to the other ones, so they naturally sound stronger if they’re at the beginning of a word or sentence – like “gg,” “dd,” or “bb.” But if those tense consonants are put between other words and syllables, they soften just slightly and can sound a bit different – like “kk,” “tt,” or “pp.” Keep in mind this is more based on me listening to Korean people rather than anything mentioned in a textbook or a video, so take what I say with a grain of salt.
English Consonants That Don’t Exist in Korean
Once you’ve got a good grasp on Hangul, you’ll start to notice that there are many Korean words that are actually just English words in Hangul form. For example, “컴퓨터” is “keompyuteo” aka “computer.” However, there are three English consonants that have no Korean counterpart and are replaced by what Koreans consider the closest sounding consonant. That’s not to say that Koreans can’t pronounce these three letters – there are many who do, especially if they’ve been learning English. But since I’m an elementary school teacher and a major part of my job is phonics, I notice this pops up a lot with my Korean students. (There are literally lessons in the textbooks devoted to this.) So since we’re already talking about consonants, I just thought I’d point these out too.
- The English letter “f” is often replaced with “ㅍ” or “p.” For example, the word “coffee” is written as “커피” and pronounced like “keopi” in Korean.
- The English letter “z” is often replaced with “ㅈ” or “j.” For example, the word “pizza” is written as “피자” and pronounced like “pija” in Korean.
- The English letter “v” is often replaced with “ㅂ” or “b.” For example, the word “television” is written as “텔레비전” and pronounced like “tellebijeon” in Korean.
Differences in Pronunciation
Now that we’ve examined the three types of Korean consonants, let’s talk about all of them together. Basically, the difference between them boils down to the amount of air you’re using when you talk: basic consonants take a small bit of air, aspirated consonants need a lot of air, and tense consonants barely use any at all. Being able to hear and replicate the differences in pronunciation can be difficult for beginners – I still find it hard – so I’ve embedded a short video that really helped connect the dots for me. Again, don’t worry if you can’t get everything exactly right at first! It definitely takes a lot of time and practice, and Koreans will still be able to understand you even if you don’t nail all those little nuances.
More In-Depth Explanation Videos on Consonants
I decided to leave this part until the end because I’ve already said so much and I don’t want to go overboard. And since this is a written post, I figure some people might use it to learn how to read Hangul before they practice speaking it. But for those of you who are ready for more, there are plenty of videos on YouTube to watch. Many people who make Korean learning videos don’t just focus on Hangul or pronunciation – they also post videos on grammar points, vocabulary, culture, etc. So, I suggest choosing a channel that has topics you’re interested in and/or is done by a person who you feels explains things best or in a logical order. But if you just want to stick to what I’m covering for now, I’ve linked some videos below by YourKoreanSaem (formerly known as All Things Korean.) I like her explanation videos because her pronunciation is really clear, plus I find it helpful that she compares Korean sounds to English ones.
NOTE: The featured image is a custom design I requested from my friend specifically for this blog and this column. Please do not alter it, repost it, or re-upload it without my permission. If you want to see the artist’s work, you can go to to her Instagram account here and/or her website here. The other images in this post are ones I made myself, so please don’t reuse or repost them without my permission either.