Korean pronunciation issues

Pishee for Lunchee? – Teaching English in Korea


When you first start teaching English in Korea, you will undoubtedly come across a broad range of students with different pronunciation issues, resulting in English mistakes. And in some cases, you will swear and consider yourself to have a keen enough sense to write someone off as simply having a speech impediment.

Try as you might, you pull your hair out over a student who can’t aspirate an F properly or can’t seem to give up that habit of saying ‘chee’ after they pronounce any word ending in ‘ch’. You look into their eyes as you repeat over and over and see the struggle within.

Truth be told, they don’t have a speech impediment. Even if the student next to them or behind them seems to be able to utter words like ‘fish’ or ‘teach’ without any issues.

This goes back to how they first learned English pronunciation. You see, when Koreans are first introduced to English pronunciation, they are doing so from the phonetic expression in their own language. In the same way as we would romanize Korean until we learn how to read Korean and nail down the finer pronunciation edge when surrounded by Koreans whose pronunciation patterns can be more easily emulated. (I guarantee that the way you say ‘Hello’ in Korean (안녕하세요, Annyeonghaseyo) will roll off your tongue more fluently by your second month or even second week, once you have immersed yourself into the sounds of Korea and also once you learn to pronounce the Korean alphabet. Koreans learning English in Korea don’t have that immersion benefit as you do).

Teaching English in Korea through Korean Alphabet

For instance, English textbooks written in Korean plus Korean teachers of English will teach English phonetics through Korean phonetics. And as you can imagine, they don’t always match up very well. That’s why when you hear someone say ‘Pish’ when they mean to say ‘Fish’, mentally, they are trying to pronounce with their muscle memory learned long ago, which would have been ‘피쉬’ (pee-shee), which is the closest way to contort the Korean alphabet to something that will sound similar. Or in case of ‘Lunch’, it would come out as ‘Lunchee’, which would be derived from ‘런치’. Broken down into romanization: 런=Lun and 치=Chee.

Some students learned this way and have somehow found a way to kick that habit. Perhaps from traveling abroad, having an English tutor or from binge-watching Friends on Netflix. But that shouldn’t cause you to frown upon the one’s who are still struggling with it.

Instead, it might be good to meet them halfway by accepting that they are thinking in Korean while trying to speak English, and go up to your whiteboard and literally write the Korean phonetics that are stuck in their heads, such as 피쉬 and 런치, and modify the pattern by omitting theㅣvowel at the ends of the words. It won’t take effect right away but will eventually help deconstruct the phonetic pattern until new muscle memory is formed.

Try it out and let us know how long it took for your student to kick the habit!

Common English Mistakes in Korea - Crazy!

Common English Mistakes in Korea – Crazy!

Teaching in Korea can be insane. In either a good or bad way. Whether it is all the common English mistakes in Korea or cultural nuances and bizarre customs. It’s really what you make of it and the mindset you adopt. We are all faced with the same dynamic situations but because of our respective upbringing and life experiences, we all observe and process things differently. A very common way we like to look at living in Korea is that if 10 teachers were faced with the same situation, you’d have 10 different opinions. Context, culture and nuance matter more than you may think!

But the craziness can get you into trouble if not properly checked. What the heck am I going on about?

The word ‘Crazy’, itself, is sure to drive you crazy in Korea.

Common English Mistakes in Korea – Apt to Drive You Crazy!

You see, the Korean adjective equivalent of ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’ is 미친 (mee-cheen). Which, in Korean, is a borderline or full-blown swearword. Think of someone saying to you with a straightface that you are a psycho and need to literally be institutionalized. Heavy stuff. If you ever hear two Koreans get in a screaming match, you’ll be surprised how much the Korean word for ‘crazy’ gets spat out.

So you can imagine when an English teacher comes to Korea and laughs it up with kids in class and says ‘ha, ha, you are so crazy!’, you might see the class exhibit a mixture of gasps, awkward silences and a few rebellious types laugh out loud.

Common English Mistakes in Korea - Crazy! A few days later, you might then be confused when pulled aside by your school director or head teacher and asked to not use the word ‘crazy’ in any context, even though you may talk till you are red in the face that you are a native speaker and insist that the use of the word in the context you used was intended to be in jest.

Aren’t I the native speaker here?

You are not debating on the use of the word in English and how it is used in Western countries. You are in the middle of a debate on how the word is transliterated into Korean and usually by Korean parents who don’t speak much English but know enough to show some concern when their kid comes home and says the word ‘crazy’.

If found in this situation, don’t make the use of the word ‘crazy’ your personal hill worth dying on. There are a lot of common English mistakes in Korea that are so widespread, they will burn you out if you take it upon yourself to battle all of them. Just focus on making a difference in your own students and correcting the bad habits bestowed on them by other English teachers who came there before you.

Better yet, be mindful of this in class and even counsel the kids against using it while in Korea in case you hear them say ‘crazy’ to each other and have obviously picked it up from the last teacher who wasn’t as culturally savvy as you are shaping up to be.

And certainly don’t revel at the fact that they are breaking out in laughter upon hearing you say ‘crazy’ just as a cat would go nuts when smelling catnip. And ESPECIALLY if you say something like ‘crazy boy’ or ‘crazy girl’, the Korean equivalents of which are right up there with Korean swearwords. They aren’t laughing because you are funny. They are laughing because you’re openly being naughty in their eyes. And this WILL get back to parents at some point and cause your director to have to do some delicate explaining to prevent those parents from dropping the kids out or at least switching to a different class. And you might not ever hear about any of this at all and be left wondering why the head teacher or director doesn’t greet you with the same enthusiasm as they did before.

Adopting this kind of mindset will also impress your director and they’ll be more inclined to cut you a lot of slack or go to extra lengths to be more accommodating to you while you are employed with them.

Ever experience students or co-workers reacting to your use of the word ‘crazy’ in class? Let us know how you perceived it and how they responded by cautioning them against the use of that word while in Korea.

Looking for more insights into correcting common English mistakes in Korea? Check out our other linked articles!

Common English Mistakes in Korea - Hi/Hello

Common English Mistakes in Korea – Hi/Hello

When teaching English in Korea, you can often come across common English mistakes in Korea ranging from the bonafide wacky stuff like someone saying ‘I’m so hard’ in the wrong context to even the slight and subtle ones such as simple greetings.

Wait, how can someone screw up saying ‘Hi’?

Well, it is not a screw-up per se, but there is the Korean mindset and usage behind it. As most Koreans think in Korean as they are speaking English, you should notCommon English Mistakes in Korea - Hi/Hello just listen to what they are saying but also what they appear to be thinking.

Korean language uses honorifics in their words and sentences that vary depending on the relationship the speaker has with the listener. For instance, a grandchild would not say the Korean word for ‘Hello’ in the same way as the grandparent would say it back to the grandchild. Same with the student and teacher relationship. Even if the teacher is younger than the student. Role matters more than age. Case in point, my Korean brother-in-law is younger than me but as soon as he married my sister-in-law (who is older than me), I had to modify my communication to where I had to speak honorifically to him from that point on. Because his role changed to where he was in the more senior role due to his marriage to my sister-in-law. Confusing, right? Don’t worry, we can get your head around honorifics in a different article.

Common English Mistakes in Korea. Crossing the big divide between ‘Hi’ and ‘Hello’

Point being, in the vast majority of cases, any time a kid sees you and greets you with a ‘Hi’, it’s no big deal. But there are some parents who are sticklers when it comes to honorifics to the point where they sometimes transliterate the honorific into what they assume to be the English equivalent despite English not really having honorifics aside from tone or in a few cases like ‘Can I go to the bathroom’ vs ‘May I go to the bathroom, please?’ These parents can sometimes lecture kids into extending Korean honorifics over to English equivalents.

For example, ‘Hi’ in Korean is normally associated with ‘Annyeong’ (안녕), a greeting almost exclusively used between kids, close adult friends, an adult addressing a child or when a teacher is addressing a student (particularly kids), etc. Whereas, the more honorific ‘Annyeong-haseyo’ (안녕하세요) is sometimes associated with ‘Hello’, and thus may inadvertently carry the cultural implications over to the English greeting.

Although maybe not a glaringly common English mistake in Korea, next time you hear a child saying ‘Hi’ to you vs another one saying ‘Hello’ to you, you shouldn’t be bothered by it too much but instead, be mindful that in the Korean mindset, they have stepped out of the teacher-student relationship and could therefore be somewhat disrespectful. But it could be one overlooked clue in diagnosing if the student is actually disrespectful in general so you can modify your teaching approach with him/her. On the other hand, if a student consistently opts to greet you with a ‘hello’ and the Korean bow when they enter or leave the classroom, you could read more into that where the parents may likely be overextending Korean honorifics into English and English situations, which could complicate their learning and understanding of the language and situations. Being polite is fine, but as Korea has a labyrinth of Confucian references in its language and culture, that should be avoided completely when learning a new language and the culture behind it. Otherwise, loads of miscommunication are bound to surface in a wide range of situations later in life when communicating in English.

So in those cases, you could take the initiative to inquire with the student as to why they prefer to interact with you in the way they do and if they are indeed appearing to wrap English in a Confucianist blanket, in which case, you might want to consult with a Korean co-teacher on how to adjust that perspective the student may have.

Have you ever received any odd questions from a Korean before that made you wonder what they may have been thinking in Korean before the English came out of their mouth? Let us know in the comments and we can help wrap your head around it!

Common English Mistakes in Korea

Common English Mistakes in Korea – Expect

A common English mistake in Korea can cause heightened anxiety on unsuspecting foreigners, especially those of you teaching English in Korea who are trying to get a read on what might be an overly demanding school director or head teacher. This involves the use of the word ‘expect’.

This gets tricky because the Korean word ‘기다리다’ (kee-dah-lee-da) is often used interchangeably for ‘expect’ as in ‘wait’, as in waiting for someone to do something, and ‘expect’ as in ‘looking forward to’ but in a non-demanding tone. Tone and situational context mean so much in Korea and this is one such example.

Going further, if Koreans are very enthused about doing something with you, they might even place more emphasis when pronouncing the word ‘expect’.

If that’s still fuzzy, then this example will help.

Years ago, we held a language exchange event involving teachers and Koreans. Wine was involved and everyone’s spirits were up. The stage was set for a load of common English mistakes in Korea. Especially one particular Korean who wanted to express how enthused they are for coming to the next event. He indicated ‘I had so much fun. I EXPECT your next event like this!’. As he was a doctor at a local hospital, we first took him to mean that he was almost demanding that we do another event like this in an almost boss-like way and made a few of us a little flustered and thinking we need to please him by planning another event as soon as possible. But upon getting different reads from others about his English level and how he was likely thinking in Korean when stating his enthusiasm, we concluded that he was just basically saying ‘I really look forward to your next event’ which carries a lot less urgency in the tone.

Common English Mistakes in Korea – Not what you might ‘expect’!

Likewise, at school, you might hear a Korean co-worker or director say ‘I expect you at school tomorrow’. This doesn’t necessarily mean your likely first take should be ‘I expect you to be at school at 1:45pm sharp and not a minute less!’. Context and tone can signal that this would have been better worded as ‘Looking forward to
seeing you at school tomorrow’. Big difference and these tonal differences all add up sometimes and you’ll see English teachers in Korea commenting online about horror stories involving a school and saying that they are a good judge of character and swear that the director is strict as hell. Well, that may be partly true as some directors are known to be legitimately strict. But such misreads are made by English teachers in Korea who are coming fresh from a country where they know every (or most) nuance and innuendo being spoken to them and can often sum up the situation pretty well, and they assume that they can rely on those same assumptive skills around people who don’t speak English well and certainly not well enough to let advanced forms of English like phrasal verbs, sarcasm and tone to roll off their tongue with ease. Trust us when we say, check those first reads for a moment sometimes and give a little benefit of the doubt until you get a better feel for the real English level of the other individual and preferably until you’ve got a better feel for the Korean going on in their heads before they are saying these things in English.

Have any similar moments involving common English mistakes in Korea when a Korean said something to you that you feel you might have misread and leapt to the wrong conclusion? Let us know in the comments!

Common English mistakes in Korea

Common English Mistakes in Korea – I’m So Hard!

Among common English mistakes in Korea, there is one particular hiccup that is most likely to cause you to pull a muscle when you raise an eyebrow, such as when you hear a co-worker or student tell you that they are ‘so hard’.

Common English mistakes in Korea

You’re….so hard???

You may consider yourself to be physically appealing, but trust us, the LAST thing you want to assume is that everyone in Korea wants to sleep with you just because they might say this around you. 

Unless you are in a dark nightclub listening to pickup lines, expect when your co-worker or student is uttering this common English mistake, they are actually ‘very frustrated’, ‘under a lot of pressure’ or ‘experiencing difficulty.’ And that’s a perfectly understandable feeling for them to have in a workplace or ESL environment!

Understanding Common English Mistakes in Korea. Not ‘so hard’!

As the vast majority of Koreans you will encounter in Korea will be thinking in Korean before uttering English, this obviously will begin brewing your own personal volcano of common English mistakes in Korea that are sure to cause you to erupt at some point. So it is important for you to give them the benefit of the doubt, knowing that what they are really saying is something involving ‘매우 힘들다’ (mae-oo heem-deul-da’) or simply ‘힘들다’ (heem-deul-da) which Koreans are often taught to mean ‘so hard’ or ‘hard’, respectively.

So you can imagine a Korean learner of English who hasn’t broken through the glass ceiling yet of where they possess more diverse and contextually-accurate adjectives to choose from might trip up and say ‘I’m so hard’ when they really mean to say ‘I’m so frustrated’ or similar.

Ever experience this in your workplace or classroom? How did you handle it? Let us know in the comments! Or better yet, what are some better and more accurate expressions you can explain to your co-worker or student? Adopting this kind of mindset will power you through those delicate first few months of misunderstandings in Korea.