A Catalogue of Errors Made by Korean Learners of English
Abstract: When teaching Korean learners of English, the educator must remember that in addition to the typical problems that students from many backgrounds have with English (e.g. the third person singular construction), there are also problems that often are uniquely Korean. An awareness on the part of the language educator of these typical problems can go a long way to improving student L2 production, and to minimizing time spent deciphering classroom student utterances and written productions. While the errors collected in this study are representative of what might be termed Intermediate learners, many of the production mistakes are often still in full force in advanced learners of English who could pick out such mistakes on a paper-based test. Errors collected in this study include pronunciation, grammatical, and syntactic errors resulting from L1 interference, as well as other errors of written and spoken production. This presentation aims to benefit English instructors, both native English speakers and Korean non-native speakers of either children or university students. It should also be of interest to program administrators of schools and “hagwons,” because the more serious kinds of pervasive errors described also prompt questions as to how Korean students are being, in some respects, failed by both the public and the private education systems in the country.
Nathan R. Bauman received his M.A. in Semitic Linguistics from the University of Toronto’s Department of Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations in 2002. His interests range from ancient Near Eastern and classical Greek literature to modern Korean culture. He teaches in the General English Program of Sookmyung Women’s University, where he also rates the Multi-media Assisted Test of English. He has been in South Korea since August 2004, and is a new husband and father.
This short catalogue of errors commonly made by Korean learners of English is based on my observation of language in the classroom and outside of it; given this personal interaction with the material, I hope that the use of the first person singular pronoun may be tolerated. Since September of 2004, I have observed nearly every age group and level of English speaking ability in this country, from elementary children to adults in their early sixties. Most of the adults I have taught have been either students or elementary schoolteachers.
I did not set out to create a catalogue of errors intentionally when I came here. Rather, I noticed recurring patterns of mistakes made by both my children and my adult students when I taught at the Language Teaching Research Institute in the Gwangwhamun area of Seoul. In the main, I have continued to see these errors prevalent amongst the student body at my present university employer, with a reduction of many of the errors among many students due to the large number of young people who have lived in English-speaking countries. These students often have few or none of the problems described here, while those who have not been abroad often exhibit the full range of errors.
In collecting these errors, my intention is not to dwell on the negative, or to minimize the linguistic abilities of Korean learners of English, almost all of whom have a far greater mastery of English than I have of Korean. Rather, this paper aims to serve as a resource to educators in this country who seek to avoid mass-producing the kinds of errors described below. The prevalence of the errors across so wide a segment of the population seems to indicate that there is substantial room for pedagogical improvement. The treatment of these problems becomes critical when the Korean learner of English intends to go abroad, where those using English as either a primary or secondary language are not used to the unique types of errors present in South Korea. Indeed, speaking from personal experience—which will vary from person to person—when I grew up in Canada’s multi-lingual Vancouver, I had more difficulties understanding Korean speakers than any other linguistic group. Had I known the patterns of errors made by so many Korean speakers of English, understanding them would have been much easier.
The actual catalogue of errors that so urgently need to be addressed is, for various reasons, much smaller than it might be; perhaps someone will build on the material presented here at a future date. I have divided the catalogue that follows below into three areas: pronunciation, grammar and word choice, and writing, the last section being a mere stub due to other concerns pressing in on my preparation time.
Unlike in the other categories of this paper, I have deliberately chosen examples of pronunciation problems from humorous and extreme examples to illustrate my points. There are two main areas of pronunciation errors, segmentals and suprasegmentals. I have further divided the section on segmentals into two parts comprising major and minor errors. Some educators might find the distinction useful, even if they might not agree with the specific category to which a given error might belong. Many of the segmental errors can be thought of in terms of the binary opposition of similar letters.
A. Segmentals (“Individual Sound Errors”)
Some of these worst errors result from the influence of English loan words in Korean on the target language (L2) learning process.
1. Major Errors
a. B vs. P
This is a very important distinction in English. While native speakers are used to hearing many accents, the interchange of these letters by Korean speakers is very confusing. For example, if a Korean student says “I’m allergic to peas,” her Canadian friend might take her on a mountain trail near some bee hives, not realizing that she had really meant “I’m allergic to bees.” Perhaps she will get stung and die, all because she didn’t rattle her voicebox!
b. F vs. P
This is another crucial distinction in English. There are many English words where the only difference is the initial sound, for example, “for” & “pour,” “feel,” and “peel” etc.
c. B vs. V
As above. I could have put this into the lesser mistakes category, but it does inhibit understanding.
d. J or Ch vs. Z and Z Sounds
This problem occurs when Korean speakers pronounce the letter “z” like a “j” or “ch.” The same problem applies to “tz” and “ts” sounds. A word like “pizza” ends up pronounced as “peach-eu,” for example. Again, if one has an allergy to peaches, he will be in serious trouble! Another example: “result” often gets pronounced as “rezhert” [where "zh" indicates a voiced "sh" sound] by Koreans learning English. In this case, the word sounds more like “dessert” than anything else. The u vowel’s metamorphosis into a short e can often be a problem for English learners; here I suspect it has to do with the following letter l, which is often confused by Koreans with the letter r.
e. The Letter “S”
Many Koreans have a tendency to simply skip this letter. This is unfortunate, as “s” carries a lot of meaning in English. While one can probably get away with saying “He eat broccoli, not ham,” the speaker will confuse people if she is talking about nouns. For example, “peas” are vegetables, while “pee” is urine!
Another example is the “s” that separates “he” from “she.” An acquaintance of mine, who is a nurse in Vancouver, says that many Asian immigrant nurses (Koreans aren’t the only ones) regularly confuse the gender of the third person singular pronoun. One can imagine how this could lead to some very dramatic problems!
The problem of mispronouncing “s” as “sh” is also widespread. Usually this happens with an i-class vowel following the s. An innocent Korean learner of English will often make mistakes like this: “He shit on the bed.” The act of sitting, unfortunately, has suddenly morphed into that of defecating, and to make things worse, a word associated with profanity was used to describe the act!
f. Extra “eu” and “ee” Sounds
Now that I’ve lived in this country for over a year, I’ve become used to hearing this extra syllable added to English words. However, while in Canada, I found I had more trouble understanding Koreans than any other linguistic group, largely because of very strange errors like this one. Particularly with the “ee” sound, an English speaker might think the Korean learner of English is trying to make an adjective, and consequently will still be listening for some other information that is not coming. For example, the native speaker hears “church,” mispronounced as “churchy,” and thinks the noun is an adjective.
g. L vs. R
“I want lice, please.” Our hypothetical student has just asked for a notorious blood-sucking little animal that lives in the skin at the top of one’s head, when all he wanted was a simple dish of rice. The letter “R” in English can be quite difficult to say, but students should be encouraged to try anyway. Also, students should remember to pronounce “L” always as the “L” in “La-la.” The position of “L” in a word doesn’t usually affect its pronunciation. Of course, if there are two “L”‘s side by side, one may need to pronounce it twice. Examples: “feel” (one sound) “holler” (the sound is repeated).
h. Long “O” vs. Short “O”
I’ve noticed that Korean learners of English often have difficulty with vowel length and quality, and the two sounds associated with the single letter “o” are no exception. For example, my former adult students, who were mostly elementary teachers, often talked about “novels,” but they pronounce the short “o” as a long one, and then they turn the “v” into a “b.” The result was a completely different English word: nobles. This and other problems in this section are still in evidence among many of my university students.
i. Short “A” vs. Short “E”
An excellent example is the English word “fax,” which commonly gets pronounced by Korean learners as “pekseu.” In this case, only one sound in the original English word is left, the “ks” or “x” sound. Not only has the “f” been turned into a “p,” but the short “a” vowel has been turned into a short “e” vowel. One should expect that English speakers will fail to understand this short word when only one sound remains correct.
2. Minor Errors
a. Th (unvoiced) vs. S
English speakers are used to hearing this mistake, and can usually understand what is being said. However, when combined with all the other pronunciation errors common to the Korean community, this error can contribute to making understanding difficult. To make this sound, stick your tongue between your teeth, and breath out quickly. When one is unwell, she wants to say “I’m sick,” not “I’m thick” (which could mean either fat or stupid!).
b. Th (voiced) vs. S or Z
As above. There is a voiced “th” in the word “this.”
c. Short “I” vs. Long “E”
This error on its own is usually not a serious one. The problem occurs when this error is combined with others, as it frequently is by Korean learners of English. A word like “city” can be quite problematic for Korean learners of English. First, they turn the soft “s” sound of the “c” into “sh.” Then, they sometimes turn the short “i” vowel into the long “e” vowel. The result is a “word” sounding like “Sheedy.” English speakers are left wondering whether that means “CD,” “shitty” (a rude adjective pertaining to fecal material), or “shady.” None of these is right, but educators can hopefully see the problem that English speakers have when listening to people who have most of the class of errors described here.
B. Suprasegmentals (Rhythm and stress)
Rhythm and stress are more important in English than in many languages. Unlike in Korean, English tends not to give vowels equal length or stress. Also, voice inflection in English, like body language, carries a great deal of meaning. Look at the following examples:
I am eating rice.
I am eating rice.
I am eating rice.
I am eating rice.
These all answer different questions or exclamations:
Who is eating rice?
You’re not eating rice!
Are you cooking rice?
What are you eating?
For some reason, many Korean learners of English (and, for that matter, many learners from Cantonese and Mandarin linguistic backgrounds) are reluctant to speak normally in English. They prefer a monotone, and a quiet one, at that. I think that many boys think they will sound effeminate if the make the right intonation. Unfortunately, they are actually hurting their ability to communicate. First, monotones are boring. Second, as we just saw above, intonation carries a good deal of meaning in English. Educators of boys should encourage them, “Why be boring and difficult to understand? Please, just try it!”
Intonation, rhythm, and stress are best taught and learned orally. Listening carefully to one’s English teacher, language partner, friend, or recording, is crucial to learning to imitate these suprasegmental features of speech.
II. Grammar & Word Choice
The errors in this section have been drawn from actual speech utterances or writing productions made by Korean learners of English. The actual errors are italicized. I often use quotation marks to enclose one correct way of expressing the original thought.
A. “The Impossible Tenses”
She’s eat broccoli.
I’m expect a good time.
She did hike of a mountain.
I skating. and Skating. (In response to the question, “What did you do yesterday?”)
The third example would be grammatically ok if the preposition had been correct, but the tense error occurred, as those of this type tend to, in a situation where the student intended the simple past tense unmarked for emphasis. The four errors are quite common with very low-level students, even at the university level. I suspect that the use of the gerund relates to a superficial study of textbooks that use pictures to illustrate gerunds. Perhaps this relates to pedagogical failure.
B. Misuse of Tenses
This is mostly a matter of lack of mastery of verb tenses. Typical mistakes might involve, for example, writing the present perfect where the simple past was required. Many students also misuse imperatival forms when a past, present, or future tense is required. This may be due to language books that begin with “Classroom language” where only imperatival verbs are presented.
C. The Definite and Indefinite Articles
Errors involving the definite and indefinite articles are prevalent, but often not particularly important. One pattern of error that should be easy to eliminate is the definite article coupled with the name of a location: I went to the Seoul last Saturday.
Another common error involves speaking in general terms: You should read the English book. (a student’s advice on learning English), rather than the more customary “You should read English books.” There are also three irregular situations (“I go to school/church on Fridays.” “I go home after church.”) that give rise to errors like these:
I go to the school on Fridays.
I go to the church on Sundays.
I go to the house after church.
Each of these errors was taken from university student assignments.
D. Lack of Prepositions & Pronouns
She lives husband. “She lives with her husband.”
E. Impossible Possessive Pronouns
She lives with she’s father.
F. Extraneous Prepositions
When I was in high school student…
This error would seem to be a conflation of two structures: “When I was in high school…” and “When I was a high school student…”; the interesting thing is just how many times I hear and read this on a regular basis—it is not an isolated mistake by one student. This may also be a function of an imperfectly memorized formula, as quite a few of my students have actually said or written When I was a high school…!
G. Problems with Singulars and Plurals
1. Extra “s” on irregular plurals: childrens, mens, womens, people
2. Use of the singular to speak about a general situation: Gun and knife are dangerous. and I like comedy movie.
H. Use of “very” with Strong Adjectives
I felt very fantastic. rather than “I felt really fantastic.”
I. Use of Awkward Circumlocutions to Describe People and their Conditions
Type 1. His height is tall. and My condition is not good. for, respectively, “He’s tall.” and “I’m not feeling well.” I believe that these awkward constructions are due to L1 interference.
Type 2. He is the runner who can run fast. for “He’s a fast runner.” The juxtaposition of the article and the “one who does X” construction” creates the error.
J. Use of Awkward “To Me” Constructions”
This pizza’s taste is good to me. for “This pizza is good.” (Also see (I) above.) This error is quite ubiquitous. Other examples: When I broke my arm, it was painful to me. for “It hurt.” and The movie was so exciting to her. Sometimes, it is appropriate to use the verb “to find” in such situations: “She found it interesting.”
K. Incorrect Idiom: “She lost her weight.”
Possibly this is a conflation of “She lost weight.” and “She lost her eraser.”
L. Incorrect Use of “Play” without an Object by an Adult Speaker
Adult speaking: I played with my friends. for “I hung out with my friends.” I suspect this relates to the fact that Koreans are often given English education as children, where “play” is an appropriate part of the vocabulary, and are not taught that, in English, only children “play.” (Of course, adults “play sports” or “play instruments” or “play games.” This is an important mistake not only because potential listeners would be led to (incorrectly) question the maturity of the speaker, but also because of the potential sexual connotations sometimes inherent in “play” (without an object) when used by adults.
M. Incorrect Use of Adverbs
I slept lately today. for “I slept in.” or “I slept late.”
N. Incorrect Use of Prepositions
She did hike of a mountain. This sentence was also used previously as an example, and illustrates the fact that multiple errors are often found in the same sentence.
O. Incorrect Use of “My”
I met my friend for lunch.–when “my” incorrectly limits the number of friends a speaker has to one–rather than “I met a friend for lunch.”
P. Incorrect Introduction of the Members of a Group
My family is three: my father, mother, and me. and The group members are four.
Q. Specific Vocabulary Problems
1. “Funny” vs. “Fun” or “Interesting.”
I saw a comedy movie last night with my friend. It was very funny time. for “A friend and I saw a movie; it was a fun time.” Similarly, often, the speaker means to say “The movie was interesting.”
2. “Power” vs. “Energy”
This food gives me power. when “This food gives me energy.” would be preferable.
She makes me bright. for “She gives me energy.”
4. “Grade” vs. “Year”
I’m in third grade. when the speaker is a university student who means “third year.”
5. General Confusion between Verbs of Speaking: “Tell” “Say” “Talk” and “Speak”
6. General Confusion between Verbs of Desire and Anticipation: “Want,” “Hope,” “Expect”
I want that they are great movie actor forever. for “I hope that they will be great movie actors for a long time.”
I’m expect good time with my mom. for “I’m looking forward to a good time with my mom.” “Expect” could be used in this construction, but I often find that “expect” is used by students when they really mean “anticipate” or “look forward to.”
7. General Confusion between Verbs of Seeing “Look” “See” and “Watch”
8. Incorrect Use of “Comfortable.”
Fisrt, You must reservation your ticket to Busan. You can reservate
on internet.I think that it is comfortable for you.
This sentence, taken from a response to a proficiency exam, illustrates a number of errors, including the substitution of “comfortable” for “convenient.”
9. Incorrect use of “Sorry to”
I was very sorry to her. for “I felt terrible, and apologized to her.”
10. Confusion of “loan” and “borrow”
He loaned it from her. when the context makes clear that “borrowed” was intended.
11. Incorrect Use of the Expression “Do you know X”
When most Korean learners of English use the expression Do you know X? “Have you heard of X” or “Do you know what X is?” is really what is required, “Do you know X?” usually being reserved for a personal acquaintance with someone.
R. Confusion of Words with –ing and –ed Endings
I think that she was boring with the movie. for “…bored with the movie.”
S. Overuse of Acronyms and Abbreviations
Quite often, these come out as industry-specific acronyms that are used without clarification in general conversation or writing.
T. Incorrect Use of Borrowed English Expressions.
In the example in section Q subsection 8, above, the following sentence was Then you can ride a train at Seoul Sation on d-day. “D-Day” is incorrectly used here, as this expression in English is not identical to its Korean counterpart, where the expression occurs as a loan-word.
U. Use of Expressions without regard for the Socio-Pragmatic Requirements of a Situation
One common error here is “I got your email and have understood it well.” In certain situations, this can sound arrogant, overly familiar, or just strange. Another situation concerns the communication of a Korea-centric view of the world when this is inappropriate, as when the word “foreigners” is used in conversation with a non-Korean to describe other people in their native countries. I think this is a simple L1 leftover.
General problems include starting sentences with prepositions, use of sentence fragments (often involving words like “because,” unbalanced by an apodosis clause), lack of proper capitalization, spelling, paragraph structure, improper use of contracted forms from speech (e.g. wanna), etc. One interesting error is the overly chatty tone that is often wrongfully employed in academic essays. Other typical problems exist also. In giving little space to this area, it is not my intention to minimize its importance: for many Korean learners of English, written interaction with others in English occurs more frequently in writing than in spoken communication.
This catalogue presents most of the most frequently occurring errors made by Korean learners of English that I have observed over the past two years. The pervasiveness of these errors is cause for genuine concern; their presentation and description here, I hope, will stimulate educators to new insights and ways of teaching the English language in order to overcome these problems.