There’s no expectation in our Taekwondo school that students will become proficient in the Korean language beyond recognizing the martial arts terminology we use in class. That said, knowing a few things about 한국어 is sure to enhance your appreciation of Korean culture and your practice of Taekwondo.
Unfortunately, Korean is one of the most challenging languages for English speakers to master, so learning anything past the advanced beginner level requires a substantial commitment. That said, we expect our students to learn a few basics. This helps them become confident on the training floor and authoritative when talking about Taekwondo, whether inside or outside the dojang.
I’ve noticed many of our students (and even instructors) struggling with a few terms that we use so frequently that it’s impossible not to notice. Here are the three most common errors that make me cringe every time:
- mispronouncing Taekwondo
- misspelling Jidokwan
- mispronouncing dojang
If you train in our school, you’re probably the kind of person who likes to get things right. This post will help you be confident with the three terms above.
Almost everyone in the US says the name of the Korean national martial art like this: “Tie Kwon Do.” Each syllable gets heavy emphasis: Tie. Kwon. Do. Here are three tips to sound more like a native Korean speaker when saying the name of the martial art you study. Tips are ranked from most important to least, and even if you just master the first one, it’ll be a big improvement:
- Say the first syllable more like “tay” than “tie.” The Hangeul character 태 has two parts: ㅌ is the “T” sound in English, andㅐsounds like the “ay” in say, day, or pay. When romanized (approximated with Latin letters), the sound is usually spelled “ae” as a cue that you should pronounce it just like that. Think of the words alumnae, antennae, or ice cream sundae.
- Instead of stridently accenting each syllable “tae. kwon. do.” let them flow smoothly. Spoken Korean doesn’t have the concept of accented syllables, and it’s hard for most Americans to suppress the urge to weight, for example, the first and third syllables of Taekwondo, so it has the same rhythm as “calendar” or “basketball.” Instead of accenting every syllable, try not to accent any. To help make this easier, try speaking a little faster than you would normally and in a monotone. I’ll admit that this is one of the hardest things for me to do when speaking Korean aloud. It requires us to unlearn deeply ingrained language habits. Even if you can speak another western language, most of them use accented syllables too, so the concept is completely unfamiliar.
- If you thought #2 was tricky, buckle up, because this one’s pretty subtle. Instead of pronouncing “kwon” with a hard “K” sound at the beginning, try to shape your mouth halfway between “K” and “G” instead. Korean has two characters that don’t exactly map to the K/G sounds in English, so they are often mispronounced, and there’s often confusion about how to romanize them.As an example, you may know that the first Kukkiwon black belt form is called “Koryo,” after the name of the first Korean dynasty. This is written as 고려 and, these days it’s becoming more common to write “Goryeo” to more accurately reflect the way the word sounds in spoken Korean. The “Koryo” spelling comes from an earlier romanization method that was intended to make the words look more like English—sort of like Eastern European family names were often changed when immigrants passed through Ellis Island.Whichever romanization convention you follow, the pronunciation should be “Goryeo” and, similarly, “Taegwondo” is actually closer to how a native Korean speaker would pronounce the name of our martial art. This is because “gwon” actually starts with the same sound as Goryeo: the ㄱ character. If it were actually “Kwon” the character 권 would start with ㅋ instead. Here’s how to tell the difference between the two: hold the open palm of your hand about an inch in front of your mouth and say the letter G a few times, then do the same with K. When you say G, you won’t feel anything on the palm of your hand, but when you say K, you’ll feel a burst of air expelled from your mouth. In other words, “Kwon” would signify a hard, expulsive K sound instead of the softer, rounder G sound of “Gwon” that’s the correct version.
Whew, that was a mouthful! Please don’t hesitate to ask if you’d like to hear the correct pronunciation in person so you can practice. Don’t feel too self conscious about this: remember that even just saying “tay” instead of “tie” is the most noticeable improvement, and the other two points are just the cherry on top.
Just as with Taekwondo, almost everyone in the US pronounces “dojang” the same way. Because so many people pronounce it this way, it sounds right—even though it’s wrong. Lots of people say the word for a Taekwondo training hall (and the institution of the school itself), as if it rhymes with “sang” or “hang” when it should actually be pronounced closer to “song” or “long.” Korean doesn’t have the “a” vowel sound that when combined with “ng” gives us the sound a bell makes: “clang.” The Korean vowelㅏ is romanized as “a” but it’s a different “a” sound from those words above, and it’s not even the “long” a we hear when we say “day” or “hay.”
The good news is that if you make “dojang” rhyme with “so long” you’re in the right ballpark. If you don’t put in the careful listening and speaking practice to further perfect the sound, it won’t be the end of the world. The bad news is that it’s even a little trickier than fixing the “a” sound to get it exactly right. Remember the “Kwon” vs “Gwon” distinction from “Taekwondo” above? There’s a similar thing going on with the T and D sounds. The sound represented by ㄷ that starts dojang (도장) is somewhere in between the way the letters T and D sound in English. If you do palm-of-the-hand test again, paying careful attention to how your tongue, teeth, and lips move when you say T and D, you’ll notice that you feel that burst of air when you say T but don’t feel anything when you say D. To say dojang the right way, you should make it sound like D because it uses the ㄷ instead of the ㅌ (we saw this character in Taekwondo, above, remember!) but even then, the sound just isn’t exactly the same as it is in English. If you add maybe 15% of the sound we know as “T” to your “D,” you’ll be pretty close.
Knowing how to spell the name of our style is just as important as knowing how to say the name of our martial art. People usually know how to spell “Taekwondo,” and because “Kwan” and “Kwon” sound so similar, people often don’t notice the difference and write “Jidokwon.” Close but not right.
Jidokwan is romanized with the “wa” spelling instead of “wo” and, as you might guess after reading about the nuances of “Taekwondo,” it reflects a difference in the way the word is written in Hangeul. The “Kwon” (or as above, “Gwon”) sound in Taekwondo is written with the ㄱ character: 권 but the “Kwan” (or, you guessed it, “Gwan”) sound is written 관 instead.
In this character, the beginning and end of the sound are the same, it’s the middle part that’s different. Korean characters are written from the top down, so when I refer to the start of the sound, I mean the top-left symbol ㄱ, and when I refer to the end of the sound, I mean the bottom ㄴ. If you look in the middle, you’ll see that Kwon uses ㅘ and Kwan uses ㅝ. The tricky thing for us is that those sound as similar in Korean as they are when we read the Latin letters aloud. They’re hard to tell apart when you hear them, but when spelled out, the words mean different things. You might think of it as the difference in “K” sounds between the ck in “back” and the qu in “quiet.” They sound almost the same, but no English speaker would even think of writing “my lower baqu” hurts or “please be ckuiet, I need to concentrate.”
All language is best experienced in person, and I’d be amazed if anyone is actually able to nail these Korean words just by reading a blog post. RVTKD students should feel free to ask me how these sound whenever we’re in the same place. I’m always happy to get a little practice myself while supporting your interest in 한국어 basics. All of our students and instructors should try to get these three fundamental terms right because we use them so often.
The low hanging fruit here is spelling Taekwondo and Jidokwan correctly. You don’t have to learn tricky new sounds—just be mindful of the difference between “kwon” and “kwan” and do it!
One last helpful hint, and one that isn’t just useful for Korean words—it’s helpful whenever you’re talking to anyone. Imagine you’re in a conversation, and as you’re just about to say a word, you have that sinking feeling like “Uh oh, I’ve only ever seen this word in print, and I’m not really sure how to pronounce it out loud!” But you’re in too deep, it’s too late to go back, and you give saying “naïve” (or whatever) your best shot. If you’re talking to a jerk, they’ll say “it’s not ‘nave’ dummy, it’s ‘nie-eve’ ha ha haaaaa.” But if you’re talking to someone who’s tactful and kind, they’ll probably repeat some variation of what you said, but they’ll pronounce the word correctly. This is a gentle way to help someone along without making them feel foolish.
When I hear people mispronounce Taekwondo or dojang, I usually do this exact thing: I repeat it right away, pronouncing it the right way. This lets the person I’m talking to hear it the right way, and hopefully they’ll make a mental note to fix it next time. I die a little inside when most people don’t notice, and keep right on saying it the wrong way, often a second or two later in the same conversation.
The moral of this story: if you say a foreign or unfamiliar word, and the person says it right back at you, but it sounds different—especially if it seems kind of like they were going out of their way to work the word into a sentence—it’s smart to pay attention to what they said. They just might have been trying to help you be more confident and correct next time that word comes up in conversation.