Saturday, August 22, 2009

Why is the "Korean Lab" Web site so great?

I have written about the "Korean Lab" Web site before, but I was reminded of it again today, so I thought I would write about it, again.

Korean Lab is a Web site that has Korean language textbooks from grades one through twelve. These are the same kinds of textbooks that Korean children, themselves, learn from, so if you start with grade one and work your way through the books, you will be exposed to the same vocabulary and cultural associations that almost every Korean knows. If you go through these books, you can be assured that the words and cultural associations are known and used. The books for grades one and two even have audio, so you can work on building your listening skills and practicing your pronunciation.

I think children's books are a great way to build vocabulary and word association because they use pictures and stess word associations. Associations are important because they help us remember. If you read a picture book, the pictures will help you remember the words on the page. If you learn a song, the music will help you remember the lyrics. If you watch a scene from a tv soap opera, the image left in your mind will help you remember the lines that were spoken. If you touch or smell something, that will also help you remember the thing you touched or smelled.

Here is a sample lesson from the Grade One book, except that I have added the English translations and notes:

"눈에 눈이 들어가면"
눈에 이 들어가면 눈물일까요, 물일까요?
If snow gets in your eye, will it be tears or snow water?
Note: One of the interesting things about the Korean language is that its distinugishes many words by the length of the vowel sound. For example, "eye" and "snow" are both written as 눈, but the 눈 for snow is pronounced with a longer vowel sound to distinguish it from eye. If you ask a Korean which word has the longer vowel sound, he or she will probably not be able to tell you or will have to think about it, but when speaking, he or she will probably say it correctly, just out of habit.

One of the reasons that foreigners may not be easily understood when they speak Korean, is that they may have failed to lengthen their vowel sounds, so it is good to learn which words are pronounced with long vowel sounds and which are not. If a Korean friend tells you that you do not need to learn it, ignore him because you will never sound like a Korean until you learn them. A good Korean-Korean dictionary (국어사전) will show you which words are pronounced with a long vowel sound by putting ":" after the syllable (ex. 눈: = snow).

The syllables shown in blue are the ones with the long vowel sounds.

을 잘하는 사람이 있습니다.
There are people who speak well.

말을 잘 타는 사람도 있습니다.
There are also people who ride horses well.

Note: The Korean words for "speech" and "horse" are both written as 말, but the word for speech is pronounced with the long vowel sound.
낮에도 나무.................... 밤에도 나무
in day a chestnut night a chestnut tree

Note: The Korean words for "chestnut" and "night" are both 밤, but the one for "chestnut" is pronounced with the long vowel sound.
길을 습니다....................소매를 걷습니다.
Walk on the road................Roll up one's sleeve.

Note: The verbs "to walk" and "to roll up (one's sleeves or skirt)" are both written as 걷다, but the 걷 for walk is pronounced with the long vowel sound.

길을 다.
Ask directions.

땅 속에 묻다.
Bury in the ground




bird house

new house

a child

an adult
a small amount
to write down
island..... a straw bag (of rice)
.As you can see from the above examples, long vowel sounds are used throughout the Korean language even if the average Korean does not realize it.
When I was working at Asiana Airlines, I worked with a man from Kwangju (광주) who had a heavy accent. When I asked where he was from, it sounded like he say, 강주 instead of 광주. The reason his 광 sounded like 강 was that he was pronouncing it with a very short vowel sound.
In Korea, there are two Kwangju's. One is in Jolla Province, and the other is in Gyeonggi Province. The Chinese characters for the Kwangju in Jolla Province are 光州 (광주). 光 (광) is the Chinese character meaning "light" and is pronounced with a short vowel sound. However, the Kwangju in Gyeonggi Province is written with the Chinese character 廣 (광), which means "wide" and is pronounced with a long vowel sound. So if someone tells you he is from Kwangju, be sure to ask him if he is from Kwangju (광주) or from Kwaaaangju (광:주).
Don't forget to check out Korea Lab.


  1. Distinguishing the `long' and `short' vowels is certainly a point every native Korean tutor of English should stress - though the only linguist I ever heard do it was Chung In-sop (not the way he spelled it) in the late '50s at Chungang University!!! Thanks for the neat post.

  2. You are welcome, Frederic.

    I am reading a book right now in which the Korean author complains that Korean education is not doing enough to teach the long and short vowels and that the Korean masses are not showing enough interest. He claims that the lack of interest is causing confusion, especially when it comes to pronouncing Sino-Korean words. Here are just some of the examples he gave:

    * 고가도:로 (高架道路) means "overpass," but it is often mispronounced as 고:까도로. 고(高) should be a short vowel because if you say it with a long vowel it might be confused with 고(古), which means "old."

    * 경기(景氣), with a short vowel, means "business conditions, but 경:기(競技), with a long vowel, means "a game" or "a match."

    * 선:전(善戰), with a long vowel, means "fight well," but 선전(宣傳), with a short vowel, means "propaganda." The author says that sports announcers frequently say "우리 선수를 선전하고 있습니다" with a short vowel sound on 선, which means the sentence could be mistaken for "Our athletes are propagandizing."

    Anyway, there are some Koreans who do recognize the importance of long and short vowels, but it seems most do not.

  3. Gerry, on a less serious note, it looks like a running joke or a play on words ... that site would actually make me crazy. Sorry ㅠㅠ

  4. Joseph,

    The lesson on long and short vowels is only one lesson. If they make you crazy,there are many other kinds of lessons besides that. However, long and short vowels are not as difficult as they may sound, especially if you learn them gradually.

    If you start with the first grade lessons and work your way up, you will gradually learn the correct pronunciations. For example, if you look at THIS PAGE, you will notice that it shows you which numbers are pronounced with the long vowels by using ":" after the syllables that have long vowels:

    한 일
    두: 이:
    석:/셋: 삼
    다섯 오:
    여섯 륙
    일곱 칠
    여덟 팔
    아홉 구
    열: 십

    As I have said, I think the Korea Lab Web site is one of the best ways to learn Korean vocabulary and the cultural and word associations. For example, on the page I linked to, it said the following:

    가을에는 주렁주렁 보기 좋은 열매들.
    In the fall, clusters of delicious looking fruit.

    겨울에는 펄펄 하얀 눈이 내리지요.
    In the winter, great flakes of white snow falls.

    The above teaches Korean children to associate 주렁주렁 with the fruit of fall and 펄펄 with the snow of winter. One of the reasons that foreign learners have so much trouble with such Korean adverbs is that they did not grow up reading Korean children's books, so they did not learn the associations.

  5. Thanks for reminding us about this valuable web site.

    I'm going to take on the role of descriptive linguist again for a moment. I believe there is a valid place for prescriptivism in language education, especially when it comes to establishing rules for the standard written language. However ...

    In my opinion it is a mistake to try to teach young children to make a distinction that has been lost among most native speakers. The reason it is a mistake is because it is doomed to failure. It is therefore a waste of time and effort.

    Imagine if schools in the United States insisted that children pronounce "whine" and "wine", "which" and "witch", "whiled" and "wild", etc. distinctly. This difference existed in the speech of most Americans not too many decades ago. It is still alive and well in the speech of some Midwesterners, including one of my close friends. But most Americans no longer make the distinction, even though it is preserved in our conservative spelling. The loss of the distinction may be decried by some, but it has had no serious practical effect on our ability to communicate. Trying to make all American children pronounce these differently would be a pointless educational exercise.

    I myself do not have this distinction. But my native dialect does carefully distinguish "Mary", "marry", and "merry" (three different vowels for me), as well as "cot" vs. "caught", "tot" vs. "taught", etc. Most Americans do not have these vowel distinctions. From my perspective, their speech may seem defective. From their perspective, it would be ridiculous (and annoying!) if I were try to force them to make such distinctions.

    (All of these English distinctions, by the way, are faithfully recorded in dictionaries.)

    Korean vowel length distinctions are an interesting historical phenomenon, and they are still found in some peripheral dialects. But most Seoul speakers do not make or perceive these distinctions. And it doesn't matter. People continue to talk and communicate without difficulty.

    It is always during the time of transition, when a particular linguistic feature is being lost, that some people try hard to preserve it. It's a natural instinct. But a generation or two later, nobody tries to restore lost archaic features. We know that Middle Korean had tonal distinctions, but nobody to my knowledge has suggested that we try to turn standard Korean back into a tonal language! Similarly, I know of nobody arguing that we should restore the pronunciation of "b" in such English words as comb, lamb, bomb, etc., even though they were historically present.

  6. Lance,

    I think most Koreans instinctively lengthen the vowels on many words even if they do not know they are doing it. They may not do it for all the long-vowel words, but they do it for many of them.

    As a foreign learner of Korean, you can ensure better understanding by learning which words have long vowels and which do not.

    If you ever say a word to a Korean that he or she does not easily understand, even though you think you said it correctly, check the dictionary because it might be a word with a long vowel sound.

    By the way, as a Texan, I say "flower" and "flour" with the same pronunciation, but my son, who is being educated in the Philippines, pronounces them differently.

  7. First great blog! A lot of interesting stuff.

    One thing I wanted to say was 광주, the pronunciation is related to dialect not vowel length. It's the dialect of 전라도. If you ask that same person to pronounce the other 광주, they will pronounce it the same. They also don't pronounce 의, instead they say 으,for example 의사 becomes 으사.

    경상도 dialect also tends to ignore vowels like ㅘ, ㅚ, etc

  8. Thanks, Chris.

    You are probably right about the Jolla dialect, but 광(光) is still pronounced with a short vowel while 광(廣) is pronounced with a long one.

    I lived in Jinju for a couple of years and was amazed at how much they reduced the language. For example, 선생님 was frequently reduced to "샘." For example, in our office there was a man who kept referring to one woman as 이곙샘. When I asked him why he called her 이곙샘, he told me it was her name. It turned out that 이곙샘 was a reduction of 이경희선생님.

    I have more examples of the Gyeongsang dialect that I may post when I get home tonight.

  9. Gerry,

    I am not aware of any American dialect in which "flower" and "flour" are pronounced differently. (This doesn't mean there aren't any, of course!) It is very interesting that your son has learned distinct pronunciations. Can you describe the different pronunciations?

  10. Lance,

    My son essentially pronounces "flour" with one syllable and "flower" with two. Korean students also seem to do the same thing.

  11. Overall, I found your post interesting. I hope to read more of your blog, and to check out the site you recommended.

    Have you read "Variations in Vowel Length in Korea" by Jeong-Woon Park (pp. 175-187, Theoretical Issues in Korean Linguistics, edited by Young-Key Kim-Renaud)? Park argues "younger speakers, at least, have lost the contrastive vowel length distinction in most cases in so far as can be determined by their conscious decisions on vowel length." The aricle claims that Park and many native speakers "express the perception that pairs such as nwun 'eye'/'son' are absolutely homophonous" (p. 176). I have also heard native speakers express this perception. I have heard native speakers from Gyeonggi-do say that the difference was only something they learned in school. Park points to disagreement among dictionaries about the vowel length of given words (p. 176).

    I found the mention of Gyeongsang (경상) interesting, because the two speakers in the study who were under 35 from Gyeongsang Province ("Kyengsang province") were "comparatively closer in their judgements to the prescriptively correct vowel length than subjects [under 35 who had lived mainly in Seoul]" (p. 180). The article also says "the speakers [in Gyeongsang Province] preserve the tone system that existed in Middle Korean" (p. 180).

    According to the article, vowel length distinctions only occur in the first syllable in recently published dictionaries (p. 184). This seems to conform to what I have observed in Gugeosajeon (국어사전), i.e. Korean language dictionaries, however my exposure has been limited. What book is Bevers reading? He says the book cites "고가도:로 (高架道路)", but the NAVER Geugosajeon has "고가도로."

    The case of the two Gwangjus seems to me to argue against most Koreans being able to distinguish between long and short vowels. When Koreans specify which one they seem to always say Jeonnam Gwangju (전남광주) or Gwangju-gwangyeoksi (광주광역시) for the one in Jeonnam and Gyeonggi Gwangju (경기광주) for the one in Gyeonggi-do. I asked a co-worker, a Korean high-school teacher, and he was not aware of any difference in pronunciation.

    Concerning the "flour" and "flower," Merriam-Webster gives identical pronunciations for both. The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, which is designed for non-native speakers, does as well. Are there any dictionaries that prescribe different pronunciations for these two words?

  12. Wang Sejong,

    No, I have not read that article, but thanks for the link.

    I do not mean to suggest that most Koreans can consciously tell you which syllable has a long or short vowel sound, but I suspect that most unconsciously use the correct vowel lengths the majority of the time.

    In the case of 광주, I suspect that most of the people in 전남광주 will pronounce their city's name with the correct short vowel sound while the long-time residents of 경기광주 will pronounce their city's name with the correct long vowel sound. They may mispronounce the other person's city name, but, at least, they will be pronouncing their own city's name correctly. I have not yet read the article, but I wonder if the researcher took that into account?

    The online dictionaries may not be distinguishing between long and short vowel sounds, but my dictionary, published in 1988, distinguishes between them. For example, it also gives the pronunciation of 고가도로 (高架道路) as /고가도:로/.

    I suspect the distinction between short and long vowel sounds will eventually disappear, but I still think foreign learners can make themselves more easily understood by learning the more common ones.

    The "Microsoft Bookshelf" dictionary on my computer distinguishes between the pronunciation of "flower" and "flour."

  13. The NAVER Gugeosajeon, but not the Yeongeosajeon (영어사전), gives the part of speech, the Chinese characters or original Roman letters, and the pronunciation of words (if there is a long vowel or a pronunciation change), e.g. 눈, 명사 for "eye"; 눈, 명사, 발음〔눈ː〕for "snow"; and 국민학교, 國民學校, 명사, 발음〔궁--꾜〕 .

    I checked the other words in the comment and the NAVER dictionary clearly agrees with you on them. Although an omission of a pronunciation is possible in the case of gogadoro (고가도로), I do not think this is the case. NAVER appears to indicate that the word should be written together, and -- if I am not mistaken -- Park's article says that Gugeosajeon since the mid-60's have only allowed long vowels on the first syllable of a compound.

    Another online dictionary, the Daum Gugeosajeon, has 고가⌒도로 in the entry for "gogadoro." I believe a coworker says this means the two parts should be written separately. If this is the case, then I believe the pronunciation would agree with the one you cite based on the pronunciation of each part.

    고:까도로 would be wrong in any case.

    My Tips for Fellow Students of Korean:

    The online dictionaries can often identify the dictionary forms of words for the user. Korean-English/English-Korean dictionaries are often designed for Koreans and not English speakers. They often lack not just pronunciation but part of speech information, original-language Roman spellings, and non-standard forms of words. Even student with limited Korean can consult an online Gugeosajeon when difficulties arise over pronunciation, part-of-speech identification, uncertainty over the foreign word represented, and non-standard forms.

    I think the NAVER Gugeosajeon is better than the Daum one for studying pronunciation, because it highlights the syllables that have undergone change (example: 국민학교, NAVER: 궁--꾜 but Daum: 궁민학꾜).

  14. Once, while we were on our way to somewhere on a car,a korean lady pointed out birds that were too many in numbers and said me "새봐" or "세봐". I asked her whether she was asking me just to look the birds(새봐) or count the birds(세봐).She said she was telling me to look the birds and if she would be telling me to count the birds the pronunciation would be different. I asked her to pronunce both but I couldn't distinguish the difference. Later I asked my roommate who is chinese but an ethnic korean to help me distinguish the pronunciation. He said I have to lengthen a bit for "새" but again I asked a korean friend and he said in that case if that lady had meant to say to count the bird she could say "세봐봐" and there's no difference in pronunciation among those two.

  15. Hi,

    The Korea Lab link is dead. I hope they haven't shut the site down.
    Could you let me know if you find out where it is? My email is



  16. The vowel length distinction is definitely going the way of the ㅔ/ㅐ distinction (which has also collapsed), at least in Seoul. They are not only perceived, but, from what I can tell, articulated homophonously. Given the wide range of other things learners need to worry about, I doubt it's worth bothering with a phonetic feature that looks set to be dying out (at least in prestige dialect). The prescriptivist perception of what the language "should" sound inevitably continues after the feature has become extinct, and that's not something a learner should worry about.


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