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This answer mentions that some dialects have tones even in modern Korean, but I've always assumed that standard Korean is essentially a non-tonal language. However, I've read in this source that this may not be entirely true:

the "long syllable rule" is still taught in school in a standard curriculum...
There are many more examples of Korean language's tonal vestiges

What aspects of tonality might a foreign learner be able to spot, or even use to their advantage in speaking?

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According to The Korean Language by Iksop Lee and S. Robert Ramsey, modern Korean dialects have either tones or vowel lengths or neither, but never both (see map below). The authors do recognize that the importance of vowel length is fading especially with the younger generation, so these vestiges of Middle Korean will only be manifest in regional dialects as tones and standard Korean will have neither tones nor lengths (if that is not true already). The book goes into more detail on the subject if you want to learn more.

The distribution of tone and length in Korean dialects

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    I can give you (the only?) one exceptional case that tone makes difference in Korean, exclusively! among the people (like me) from the southern east part of the Korea (marked with circles in the figure). Most Korean pronounce the number 2 and alphabet 'e' (yes, not even/neither Korean nor a word) identically, and they can't tell which is which without context. But people from that region give different tone (higher, stronger sound for 'e') and can tell the difference. This, being the only example some natives aware of, may be telling you that there's very little sign of being a tonal language. – Hoseung Choi Jan 22 '17 at 7:28
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    According to Phonetics and Phonology of South Kyungsang Korean Tones, the two 눈s are distinguished by tone (H-class [high falling, rising with a particle suffix] for "eye", R-class [rising-falling] for "snow"); the two 말s are too (M-class [high falling, falling with a particle suffix] for "horse", R-class for "speech"). I believe the data all come from Busan for this. – Michaelyus Jan 23 '17 at 12:52
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(Disclaimer: Everything below applies to Korean spoken around Seoul area. I don't know the state of vowel length distinction in other areas.)

Well, the sentence you partially quoted already answers the question:

Although the "long syllable rule" is still taught in school in a standard curriculum for Korean language, vast majority of Koreans quickly forget the rule as soon as the final exam is over. So if you are a Korean language learner, there is no need to bother learning this rule.

I would paraphrase it as: Although the "long syllable rule" is still taught in school, the rule no longer holds, so most Koreans have to "learn" the rule by memorizing the list of long/short words, which they quickly forget once they're past the exam.

Contrast that with an actual sound distinction that native speakers still make. Can you imagine an English-speaking kid "forgetting" that "that" and "thin" has different "th" sound, once the exam is over? Of course not! There is an actual difference, and every native speaker makes the distinction, so you can't forget that any more than you can forget "did" is the past of "do".

In contrast, vowel length distinction is an obsolete rule in Seoul area; tones died even earlier. I think most people claiming to "subconsciously" making the distinction are just good at fooling themselves.

In conclusion: I don't think a language can be "a little bit" tonal. Either it is a tonal language, where speakers can distinguish two otherwise identical words based on tone alone, or it is not a tonal language, where speakers cannot make such a distinction. Modern Standard Korean clearly falls in the second basket.

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  • "I don't think a language can be "a little bit" tonal" that is not true. There are things called pitch accents which can be considered partially tonal. Of course, that's not your point, but still. – MujjinGun Jan 22 '17 at 8:37
  • Well, I see what you mean, but in pitch accent languages, you still have two words with identical sound except for different pitch patterns (say, HL vs LH). So in a sense they are "less tonal", but when the tone does apply they distinguish two words unambiguously. I was referring to the myths like "Well if you listen really carefully, 눈(snow) feels more natural when it is longer," which I heard from time to time growing up in Seoul. – jick Jan 22 '17 at 21:21
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My parents were born and lived in the Gyeongsang region for over 30 years; and I was raised near Seoul. And sometimes, when I say something, they laugh and say "that's not how you say that word," and they repeat the word "correctly", exactly the same way I said it but with a different inotation. That's happened countless times, and that, I think, is some pretty strong evidence for tones (or pitch accents) in dialects.

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  • Any examples, or have you erased them all as painful memories? BTW, this question was inspired by your 'Online Old Hangul Keyboard'... – topo Reinstate Monica Jan 22 '17 at 12:02
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    @topomorto Well, I don't remember a lot because I always ignored those comments... An example that comes to mind is 김구, a Korean activist's name. That I remember because it bewildered me how there are tones for people's names. – MujjinGun Jan 22 '17 at 12:09
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    @topomorto Oh, I remember another, it's 불쾌하다. I always got pointed out when using that word so I stopped using it in front of my parents. – MujjinGun Jan 22 '17 at 12:12
  • An anecdote from a friend of mine who went to the same University as me: he (let's say K) once had a roommate from Gyeongsang-do (Busan, I think). One day, his roommate and several of the roommate's friends were chatting in the room, in a thick Gyeongsang accent (as far as K could tell). Then suddenly all of them starts punching one of the guys, saying "Stop talking in Seoul-mal, that sounds ridiculous!" Of course none of them sounded remotely Seoul-like to my friend K... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I'm sure the reverse also happens. – jick Jan 24 '17 at 0:28

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