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I wonder whether it is feasible to tell one vowel from another with similar sound by just listening to it.

For example, can you tell them apart when you hear '을' and see whether it is 'ㅡ' or 'ㅜ'? Or how about the case of 'ㅓ' and 'ㅗ'?

If it is possible, are there any tips for a non-native learner to tell them apart (except for just practicing for a long period time)?

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  • What is your native language, if I may ask? – topo Reinstate Monica Sep 3 '16 at 14:49
  • @topomorto Japanese, which doesn't distinguish these words used in Korean. – Blaszard Sep 3 '16 at 16:09
  • Aha - as an English speaker I'm not in a good position to give advice - but I do recognise the problem, as English too has a lot of flexibility in vowel pronunciation. – topo Reinstate Monica Sep 3 '16 at 16:17
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Of course we can. All natives can tell Korean vowels apart, even when pronounced alone. Apart from some edge cases like:

  • ㅔ = ㅐ
  • ㅖ = ㅒ
  • ㅚ = ㅞ = ㅙ
  • ㅔ = ㅖ when 계, 례, 몌, 폐, 혜

But everyone can differentiate between ㅡ and ㅜ, ㅓ and ㅗ. Except for some parts of the North Korean dialect which doesn't differentiate between ㅡ and ㅜ. Also the southeastern dialect(경상) has some problem distinguishing between ㅡ and ㅓ among the old generation, but most of the population can in fact tell apart your examples.

The difference between ㅡ/ㅜ, ㅓ/ㅗ is roundedness. ㅡ and ㅓ are not rounded, and ㅜ and ㅗ is rounded. Rounded vowels are articulated by protruding your lips and, well, by rounding them.

I think the reason English speakers have trouble distinguishing these vowels is that English doesn't have corresponding vowels for ㅡ and ㅗ, or rather, English has a different way of distinguishing these vowels. For example, "boat" is spelled 보트 in Korean, but it's actually pronounced /boʊt/ for most speakers of English. And it sounds like 보우트 to Korean ears. If I pronounced "boat" like /bot/, it would probably sound like "butt" for English speakers. That's where the difference arises. English distinguishes between /ʌ/ and /oʊ/ mainly from the vowel length and whether it's a diphthong or not(that's why it's sometimes written /əʊ/) , whereas Korean distinguishes ㅓ/ʌ/ and ㅗ/o/ mainly from the roundedness.

In conclusion, what you should do is to stop thinking about Korean vowels in terms of English vowels, instead when you hear a Korean sound, try to hear it as a non-human machine-generated waveform, and try to pick up cues where you're not accustomed with. That's how I learned foreign sounds. Also, try to read up some wikipedia articles on phonology and IPA, it really helps. Good luck!

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  • I disagree on the ㅔ=ㅐ, ㅖ=ㅒ,ㅚ = ㅞ = ㅙ claim. I can tell the difference when pronounced clearly. It can be difficult in fast speech sometimes though. – Memming Sep 5 '16 at 19:56
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    "When pronounced clearly" is basically the same as "when the speaker makes a conscious effort to pronounce them differently," which is quite artificial and can be very different from how people actually speak. Can't tell for other region, but I believe the distinction was gone from Seoul area since before I was born (in 1970s). – jick Sep 6 '16 at 0:12
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I haven't tried teaching non-natives in terms of pronunciation, but I would like to tell how I differentiated the sounds in the first place.

  1. ㅓ is the middle sound of ㅏ and ㅗ. ㅓ tends to be more similar to the sound of ㅗ, yet when pronouncing ㅓ, your mouth is a bit more opened.

  2. ㅡ and ㅜ were with no problem to me at all as in my language, there are exactly the same 모음. If you tell me to differentiate it, I would say the difference is more or less the same as no. 1's, but the mouth is more opened.

Note that there are always non-natives who can't understand these differences. For these guys, there is no way to success except practice.

Hope my interpretation helps. Correct me if I am wrong.

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Adding to other answers, when learning other languages, you should not compare their pronunciation with your native languages. Each language has its own way of pronunciation and it can never be pronounced using an alphabet of other languages. For example, Seoul is written as 'ソウル' in Japanese and read as '소우루' which is quite different from '서울'. For Japanese and Spanish speakers, pronouncing '어' is quite difficult as they don't have this vowel (ㅓ).

English seems to have '어' sound of Korean, however, English speakers also find it difficult to pronounce 'Seoul' and they usually pronounce it as '쎄울' or '쏘울' even if it is written as 'Seoul'. That means 'Seoul' is romanization of Korean, but it does not necessarily lead other language speakers to pronouncing it as '서울'.

Is it possible to tell a vowel from another one just by listening?

Yes, but some vowel pronunciations do sound confusing to native speakers, too. For example, when they pronounce '얼핏 (in an instant, in a flash)', some (especially those who speak a dialect) pronounce it as '을핏' when they speak fast. But luckily, there are no words similar to '얼핏' in Korean and sometimes native speakers know it is '얼핏' by the sound of '핏'. It could be a guessing game and I believe all the languages that I speak and have been learning have this kind of problem, i.e., actual pronunciation doesn't necessarily represent what is written in any language.

Are there any tips for a non-native learner to tell them apart?

Yes. Try to pronounce each block as clearly as possible. Even if you are not good at pronouncing '얼', you would definitely be able to pronounce '핏' as clearly as native speakers do. Then, no matter how you pronounce '얼' in '얼핏'. native speakers would understand by your pronunciation of '핏'. In other words, you can pronounce '얼핏' as '올핏' as Japanese have 'ㅗ' sound and people would understand it as '얼핏', but you have to make sure you know what this word means and its usage.

There are many non-native speakers appearing on Korean TV shows and their pronunciation sometimes is not as clear as native speakers. However, the reason why they don't need an interpreter is they know the word and native speakers can understand what they say from hearing the next blocks or words (context).

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