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In Korean the sound differences are very subtle and it is incredibly difficult to distinguish them unless your native language also includes them. For me, it is very difficult to distinguish 기, 키, and 끼, as all of them sound like "ki".

Other such differences are 벼, 뼈, and 펴 or 고, 꼬, and 코.

I read the IPA description but honestly I don't understand the difference between them even after having heard so many times. The aspirated one seems a bit different, but only a little bit different from the others and are still unbelievably difficult to distinguish, in my opinion.

So what is the difference between them in pronouncing, and how can I hear them apart better?

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I feel the same as you - I don't think the difference between these in real life is as dramatic as you might think from reading about them in a textbook.

The way I think of it is:

is halfway between 'ki' and 'gi' ( by which I mean harder 'g' - not a soft g like 'ji' in English)

, as you say, is more aspirated, so definitely a 'ki' / 'khi' sound.

isn't pronounced very differently to 기 in terms of the shape of the mouth. From what I've seen, the ㄲ is emphasised in the following ways:

  • At the start of words, it's pronounced with a higher pitch
  • In the middle of words, you leave a slight pause before it for emphasis.

...as all of them sound like "ki".

In a way, yes they do. I think the thing to do is... not to worry too much about it! In English, the difference between "Oh, cheese!" and "Aw, Jeez!" might be very subtle. And yet they are different words, with different spellings and pronunciations. We can work out the words from context, and as long as we know the spellings of the words, we don't need to identify every sound accurately.

However, thinking of them all as 'ki' (or the equivalent in your language) probably isn't helpful. Maybe try to 'think in Korean' as much as you can, bearing in mind the distinct consonants, rather than their approximations in other languages.

  • Thanks for the answer. But if you don’t hear them apart, you cannot know which word the speaker says, unless the context is sufficient. When I talked with a Korean she always said my pronunciation is not correct, but she didn’t understand how she can explain to a foreigner. But still, clearly different for native speakers. – Blaszard May 21 '19 at 0:06
  • "But if you don’t hear them apart, you cannot know which word the speaker says, unless the context is sufficient" - yes, that's true - you just have to deal with it, in much the same way that you would deal with homonyms in Korean (how can you tell if my 사과 is an apple or an apology? Context is all you have). As your Korean improves you will both get better at picking up the pronunciation differences, and also the other contextual clues. – topo Reinstate Monica May 21 '19 at 7:50
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Practicing "minimal pairs" will help you distinguish between similar sounds.

  1. Listen to random sound from 기, 키, and 끼.
  2. Guess which one it is.
  3. Compare correct answer to your guess.

The feedback step is very important. It might help if you use sample sounds where the differences are really exaggerated and clear at first, then slowly step up the difficulty.

Japanese adults (who have similar trouble distinguishing between English 'L' and 'R') went from 50% to 80% accuracy with an hour of practice.

In three 20-minute sessions of this type of practice, participants permanently acquired the ability to hear Rs and Ls, and they could do it in any context.

The Key to Learning Pronunciation has much more detail about this method, including the scientific research behind it. You can create your own minimal pair flashcards, or Fluent-Forever has pre-made flash cards:

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How about trying to sense the degrees of aspiration?

The consonants, ㄱ, ㄲ, and ㅋ, are voiceless, although ㄱ can be voiced between a voiced consonant and a vowel or between vowels. It would be good to remember that there are only four voiced consonants in Korean: ㄴ, ㄹ, ㅁ, and ㅇ (ㅇ at the end of a syllable).

The difference between the sounds of 기, 키, and 끼 emerges from the amount of exhaling to pronounce ㄱ, ㅋ, and ㄲ. We can readily observe it using Praat. The following figure illustrates how differently they are pronounced.

끼, 기, and 키

From the top, it shows the visualization of a female speaker's 끼, a male speaker's 끼, female 기, male 기, female 키, and male 키. This indicates that there is an obvious difference between them: ㅋ requires more time than ㄱ; ㄱ than ㄲ. No Koreans will deny that reading out 키 takes more air out at the beginning than pronouncing 끼 and 기. According to the standard Korean dictionary, ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ, and ㅉ are pronounced with almost no aspiration. Therefore, such a difference should relate to the aspiration.

Jesperdy's comment on a Reddit post agrees on this. Prof. 김선정 also mentioned the same here:

평음, 경음, 격음은 우리 몸에서 나가는 공기의 양에 따라 달라진다. 경음은 공기의 양이 가장 적은 소리이고, 격음은 공기의 양이 가장 많은 소리이다. 평음은 두 계열의 중간 정도의 소리이다.

평음 refers to ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ, ㅅ, and ㅈ; 경음 refers to ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ, and ㅉ; 격음 refers to ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, and ㅊ.

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I think this is not an answer what you expected, Native speakers can understand if foriegners mispronounced the words because they catch its meaning by overall context not a sound of every characeters. This is very unconscious.

Think about English, there're also fly(verb) and fly(bug) which are exactly same. But nobody confuse them.

So, The important part is, keep focusing on whole sentences, not a pronunciation of each characters.

  • And of course in Korean there's 파리(city) and 파리(bug)! – topo Reinstate Monica May 23 '19 at 17:48
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    I don't think this answer addresses the same problem as the question. An English speaker will likely be confused if I say "I'm frying to Germany tomorrow," which is the same kind of problem a Korean learner may encounter. – jick May 23 '19 at 20:14
  • I don't know whether to vote this up or down – OmarL May 24 '19 at 12:02

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