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I have a hard time distinguishing between plain consonants (ㄱㄷㅂㅈ) and aspirated ones (ㅋㅌㅍㅊ).

My understanding is that ㄱㄷㅂㅈ are voiceless unaspirated and ㅋㅌㅍㅊ are voiceless aspirated. So, for example, ㄱ should be like the c in "scar" whereas ㅋ should be like the c in "car." But to me, ㄱ sometimes sounds aspirated, especially in the beginning of a word.

What's the proper way to distinguish between plain and aspirated consonants?

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  • 3
    If you're a beginner, forget about apirated, unaspirated, and all that technical terms and just remember this: ㄱㄷㅂㅈ = (hard G, D, B, J) ㅋㅌㅍㅊ = (K, T, P, CH) Jun 22 '16 at 15:01
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Korean consonants are not always voiceless. You may be hearing the difference in the voicing of ㄱ as an aspiration? (Also, apparently the first syllable of Korean words have slightly higher pitch.)

From The Sounds of Korean by Miho Cho and William O'Grady, pg 38:

The lax consonant ㄱ is normally voiceless, but when it occurs between voiced sounds (vowels or the consonants ㅁ, ㄴ, ㅇ, ㄹ), it is fully voiced and ends up with a 'g'-like pronunciation.

Besides distinguishing between aspirated and unaspirated, you may have to have to also distinguish between voiced and voiceless. Here are some ways to test:

  • Aspirated: a piece of paper placed in front of your mouth will bend from air being blown out.
  • Unaspirated: a piece of paper placed in front of your mouth will not bend because air is not being pushed out your mouth.
  • Voiced: The area above your voice box will be active and vibrate.
  • Voiceless: The area above your voice box will be inactive and not vibrate.

Finally here are some resources for listening to native Korean speakers pronounce words with these different sounds:

  • Differences between normal, aspirated, and tensed versions of consonants are all covered in KoreanClass101.com Pronunciation Lesson #2 (A free signup is required, but this is one of the best resources I have found on Korean pronunciation.)
  • Download the mp3 practice files from The Sounds of Korean: A Pronunciation Guide. The listen and repeat exercises for each consonant are located in these files:

  • ㅂ: C-01ex01.mp3

  • ㅍ: C-02ex01.mp3
  • ㅃ: C-03ex01.mp3
  • ㄷ: C-05ex01.mp3
  • ㅌ: C-06ex01.mp3
  • ㄸ: C-07ex01.mp3
  • ㄱ: C-09ex01.mp3
  • ㅋ: C-10ex01.mp3
  • ㄲ: C-11ex01.mp3
  • ㅈ: C-13ex01.mp3
  • ㅊ: C-14ex01.mp3
  • ㅉ: C-15ex01.mp3
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This is one of those things that a lot of learners have trouble with. The usual advice is, "keep listening and after a while it will 'click'."

There is not really any English-language equivalent to 가 at the beginning of a word (or at least, not one that we are able to use as a point of comparison here), so the lack of an analog makes it hard to describe the difference, but basically ㅋ and ㄱ are distinct, different sounds, even at the beginning of a word. That is to say, 가 and 카 are indeed pronounced differently - 카 is much "harder".

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It is actually fairly simple (look at Korean101 for the specifics here) but keep this in mind: there are absolutely no aspirated/voiceless combinations. They are either aspirated or voiced, NEVER both as it is impossible to do. That said, ㄱㄷㅂㅈ are aspirated (aka voiceless as in k, t, p, and ch (each with hard or medium air release)) OR unaspirated (aka voiced as in g, d, b, and j) depending on where they occur in a word or if they are between a consonant and a vowel or two consonants. Suffice it to say, that the beginning of a word they are aspirated while the middle tend to be voiced, but not always. Take the pure Korean counting: han, too, se, net, tahsot, yahsot, ilgop, yadol, ahop, yul (the first four numbers never pronounce the last letter without a counter). Notice 2 and 8; 2 is with a T (aspirated) and 8 is with a voiced D sound. Also, see the map or Korea: Busan is pronounced Pusan but is now spelled grammatically correct. The others with the lines added are, as said, aspirated, but very, very, little (close the throat and swallow the sound as you try and say the sound) versions of the ones I talked about.

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  • This is tangential, but voiced + aspirated consonants are possible, and some languages have them. For example, in Hindi the consonants notated as घ, झ, ढ, ध, and भ; they are sometimes referred to as "murmured plosives". These are voiced in that the vocal chords vibrate, but also aspirated in that there is increased airflow.
    – cazort
    Feb 7 at 17:20

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