Konglish for Beginners

It used to drive me NUTS when the kids finished a task and shouted, “PINISHEE!”

Okay, it still drives me nuts.

Completely bonkers, actually.

He must be an ESL teacher. Image Credit: Flickr, Zach Klein

I’m sort of pedantic. I don’t know if it’s the oldest-child syndrome, the writer in me, or just an annoying personality trait, but I tend to obsess over things like incorrect pronunciation. I think it frightens the students sometimes.

“Teacher, pinishee!”

“FINISHED, Jeong-woo. You’re FINISHED.”

Jeong-woo backs away, cowering slightly. “Yes, pinishee.”

“No,” I roar. “You. Are. Finished.”


“That’s better.”

Once I got a better handle on the Korean language, I understood where the confusion was coming from. It explained not only the kids’ confusing pronunciation, but the reason I couldn’t (and still can’t) get a handle on speaking Korean.

The Korean alphabet, Hangul, is nothing short of miraculous. I love it because it’s logical, but I hate it because so many of the sounds are exactly the same to me.

Kind of how English must sound to Koreans. There are letters and sound combinations in the English language that simply do not exist in Korean.


Take ‘F,’ for example. It doesn’t exist in Korean. No such thing. The closest thing are the letters ㅍ and ㅂ, which are commonly identified with ‘P’ and ‘B.’ The whole teeth-on-lips motion required to make an ‘F’ sound is wholly unnatural in Korean, which is why it’s usually swapped out for ‘P.’


Whenever we’re playing Hangman, the kids still stump me when they guess ‘V.’

One, because I very rarely choose words that have a ‘V’ in them.

Two, because they say it like this: ‘Bwee.’

So when they say ‘bwee,’ they are rewarded with a completely blank stare from their English teacher, who is trying to figure out when a 27th letter got added to the alphabet. It goes back to the teeth/lips problem. That vibrating ‘V’ sound is just not natural.


Making fun of Asians who say ‘L’ instead of ‘R’ is pretty lame. Especially because in Korean, the ‘L’ and ‘R’ sounds happen to exist in the same letter (ㄹ). And please. I’d like to see you master Mandarin.


Is it a G? Is it a K? No, it’s a kiok (ㄱ). This only really causes problems when people with the last name ‘Kim’ want to spell their names in English. I stand by ‘Kim,’ but technically I guess ‘Gim’ is right, too.


What’s a Z? It’s actually a ‘J’ in disguise. Which can be kind of awkward when a kid’s telling you that he doesn’t like zoos, and you think he’s talking about Jews.

S+I = SH

Remember that episode of South Park when Cartman calls ‘City Wok’, a Chinese takeaway? The joke is that with the owner’s accent, it became ‘Shitty Wok.’

Totally not his fault.

I’ve come to realize that it is virtually impossible for my students pair an ‘S’ with an ‘I.’ In Korean, the letters ‘SI’ together always carry a ‘SH’ sound. Always.

To further confuse things, when Korean words are written in English, the ‘H’ isn’t inserted. For example, the word ‘Sincheon,’ a neighborhood in Seoul, is actually pronounced ‘Shincheon.’

That’s right. Meet the invisible ‘H.’ Make it your friend. It’s not going anywhere.

‘TH’ is nonexistent.

Speaking of things that don’t exist, get used to hearing an ‘S’ instead of a ‘TH.’ There is no word in the Korean language that includes ‘TH’.

Okay, I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure it’s true.

The ‘TH’ is substituted with an ‘S.’ This can be very frustrating when you’re trying to teach ordinal numbers, and it sounds like this:

‘sird, forse, fifse, sixse…’ You get the idea.

To me, it’s simple. You stick your tongue out, press down with your teeth, and voila! ‘TH.’ Just look at how many words in the last few sentences alone involve this letter pairing – things, there, the, that, with, this. In English, we use it a lot. We’ve had plenty of practice. But in Korean, it’s not a normal way of moving your mouth.


To the English speaking world, the President of South Korea is Lee Myeong-Bak.

In Korean, his name is actually ‘Ee’ Myeong-Bak.

We just throw an ‘L’ on there for fun. Weird, right?

For what I assume is ease of pronunciation for English-speakers, anyone with the family name of 이 (Ee) becomes Lee. The same goes for 우 (oo) – it becomes Woo. So my student, Jeong-woo? His name is actually Jeong-oo.

It doesn’t stop there – soccer player Park Ji-Seong is Bak Ji-Seong. Or Pak Ji-Seong. Depends on your preferred romanization. This all makes it very confusing when the kids ask how they should spell their names in English.

Words do not end with certain consonants

Korean Sprite
Seuh-peuh-ra-ee-teuh is how it's pronounced. Image Credit: Flickr, kalleboo

Actually, only a handful of them ask how to spell it in English. The majority want to know how to spell in ‘English-ee.’

That’s got to be some form of irony, that the word ‘English’ itself gets botched.

Korean words and syllables can only end with certain consonants. Otherwise, a vowel is added. It’s just one of those weird rules.

(And we English speakers should know all about weird rules.)

So when Korean speakers switch to English, it’s hard to break the habit of adding that vowel sound.

English = English-ee

Nice = nice-uh

Sandwich = sandwich-ee

Jared = Jared-uh

Finish = Pinish-ee


This is where understanding Konglish comes in. English words are frequently mutated and adopted into the Korean language, and to do this, certain changes have to be made.

Take my last name, Fitzpatrick.

It starts with a non-existent ‘F’ and each syllable-ending consonant requires an added vowel sound.

In Korean, my name becomes ‘Pitseuhpahterickeuh.’

No wonder the kids are so confused when I write it on the board.

Truth: It really gets under my skin when I hear my own name mispronounced so drastically, but I do understand why it happens. And understanding the differences between our languages – even if it’s only a tip-of-the-iceberg kind of understanding – goes a long way in helping me to be a patient (and hopefully more effective) teacher.

What it doesn’t do is clarify things when it comes to my Korean pronunciation. By the time I leave Korea in August, I have faith that my students will be saying ‘finished.’ Unfortunately, I’ll still be saying ‘ddong-ssa‘ (explosive shit) instead of ‘dong-sa’ (verb).

Some things you just come to accept over time.

Sometimes, there's no clear explanation for Konglish. Image Credit: Flickr, knittymarie

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  1. Talking about zoos in class definitely shocked me at first. I didn’t see it coming… And I’m pretty much always “Lachel teacher” (never “Racher”, though). Fortunately they can handle my last name, Patterson, though they say Pat-uh-sun, which is really an acceptable pronunciation depending on your accent. It’s really no wonder that most of my students don’t know how to write their names in English letters (though we’re working on that now).

    1. I totally get the ‘Lachel’ – I’m usually ‘Roren,’ but rarely ‘Rolen.’ I find myself saying, “Just write your name in Korean.” We tried to do it in class and it resulted in a lot of confusion, especially because there are so many options for some of the letters.

  2. Great post! I ended up shortening my name when I taught in Korea as Geraldine was just too difficult. It became Geri, which inevitably ended up being Jelli-teacha! No escaping that L/R dilemma.

    1. Thank you!
      And doesn’t it blow the kids away when they learn how your name is actually spelled? They can’t believe that all those ‘L’s are ‘R’s and vice versa. Fortunately, the teacher before me was called ‘Cressentia,’ so that kind of set everyone up for difficult-to-pronounce names by the time I came along!

  3. When I introduce myself at the beginning of each semester I’ve started having the students practice putting their teeth on their lips and blowing out. A lot of my student can actually pronounce Jeff now!

    1. ‘Jeh-puh,’ right? Good that you can use your name as a teaching tool! I’m doing a pronunciation boot camp with my free talking class. I figure that if I can get 10 of the kids sorted, I won’t feel so bad about failing with the other 165.

  4. Good post. Seems researched to me, as I know nothing of Korean. But in Indian Languages also these sort of pronunciation differences do exist. Like Tamil has a word “ZHa”. It is “Vayaipayam” meaning Banana fruit. But we do not have “yai”. SO we write :vazhaipazham. Another confusion with languages is, same word in different languages mean differently. This also creates its own problems. English “calm” is Hindi “Kaam” meaning Work etc. I liked your article. Well written.

    1. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. I know embarrassingly little about Korean for having been here for nearly 2 years, but I can see why it’s so difficult for Korean speakers to learn English. That’s really interesting about Indian languages. I imagine that it can lead to a lot of confusion!

  5. Watch-ee and Paintbrush-ee have been popping up repeatedly in my classes this week… I have been trying to stop it, but not having much luck! Least this chapter is nearly finish-ee!

    1. This makes me really glad I don’t teach the 5th grade. It would drive me NUTS but you aren’t helping! I’ve heard you say ‘nice-uh’ to the kids. Thwarting everything I work so hard for!

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