Pronunciation Problems

As difficult as it is when you and another person are speaking to each other in two different languages, it’s much more difficult when you are speaking the same language but cannot understand each other due to pronunciation and regional accents. While I run into the former problem in my everyday struggles with speaking Korean, the latter problem is most common when I am helping my students with their English writing.

Today my students were writing a few sentences about their future plans. As I was walking around the classroom to help them, one of the girls called me over.

“Spelling…’liber’?” she asked.

“Liber?” I repeated, glancing at her paper for a clue as to what she meant. “What is ‘liber’?”

“Liber!” she kept repeating, struggling to make the sounds. She shook her head vigorously as I wrote L-I-B-E-R on her paper.

“What’s an example?” I asked.

“Liber–number one and number two.” She gestured as if two people were moving up and down in rank.

“Rank? Place?”

“No – LIBER!” She pressed two fists together as if in a fight. “Yu Na Kim and number two, libers!”

Yu Na Kim, the figure skater? Number one, number two, rank, fighting…?

“Oh, RIVAL!” I said at last, much to my student’s delight.

“Yes, liber! Spelling?”

As frustrating as it is for me not to understand, it is even more frustrating for my students to not be understood. I am slowly growing accustomed to the Busan-Gimhae satoori, or “dialect,” when I hear Korean. My students are slowly growing accustomed to my New York accent when I speak English. But replicating each other’s speech takes a lot more work. After four weeks, I am much better at deciphering words like “liber,” but I still have improvements to make.

The same is true when I speak Korean. My co-teacher said I have good Korean pronunciation (thanks to Ye Bin’s constant corrections), but my New York accent means it is hard for native Korean speakers to understand my speech. For example, when I left school that day, Ye Bin met me at the school gate so we could take a taxi home. As I climbed into the taxi, I confidently said our apartment address in Korean. The driver looked at me askance, and Ye Bin repeated our address. This time, the driver nodded and pressed the meter. Ye Bin looked at me, smirked, and said, “More practice.”

Indeed, Ye Bin. Indeed.

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