As a Korean teacher and lifelong language learner, I can testify firsthand that the pronunciation is one of the hardest parts of learning Korean. The distinct sounds, the double consonants and the countless exceptions to the standard pronunciation rules are enough to make your head spin.
When learning the language the best way to get the pronunciation right is to expose yourself to the language as often as possible. The more you listen to native speakers, the more familiar you become with the Korean sounds and the more natural your own Korean will sound.
I recently tried to teach my students the difference between the sounds 자, 차 and 짜 and was taken back to when I was often misunderstood for pronouncing these wrongly or being teased for mispronouncing the black noodle dish 짜장면. I have since then tried to say it to my phone and have it transcribe it and I’ve now reached an all-time high success rate of 40%. The rest of the time it still hears (probably because I’m saying it wrong as) 자장면. Not. The. Same. Sound!
In my search for tips on how to nail these nasty double consonant sounds I consulted the almighty oracle – Google. It led me to a video by TTMIK’s Hyunwoo which opened my
eyes ears to the notion that it’s the pitch that truly determines if you’re pronouncing the double consonants correctly.
자 is the basic sound and has the lowest pitch. 차 is more aspirated with a slightly higher pitch and finally, 짜 is a much sharper sound with a significantly higher pitch. Hyunwoo suggested raising the pitch sound if you’re frequently failing to pronounce the sharper sounding doubles. I immediately tried it on my phone and I’m happy to report that it WORKS. Well, sort of. See for yourself below:
If you’re interested in checking out the video for yourself, I’ve included it here:
We Korean learners aren’t the only ones who suffer. This hilarious clip from the musical Airport Baby, shows the American Korean adoptee Josh Cohen arriving in Korea to teach English while searching for his birth mother. He also seems to struggle with the double Korean consonants. If you watch the clip through, you’ll also get to enjoy the heartwarming performance of actor Kang Yoon-seok as the drag queen Delia from Itaewon’s gay district. When Kang is not on stage you can usually find him in Myeongdong. He is the owner of the cute antique coffee shop Cafe Hanyakbang in which happens to be my favorite cafe in all of Seoul.
If you’re interested in seeing the musical Airport Baby, Arirang Korea recently aired a one-hour segment featuring hightlights from the 2020/2021 show with English subtitles. It’s sure to make you both laugh and cry.