Crazy English Pronunciation

TOEFL SpeakingThere are a catalogue of pronunciation problems facing English learners. Many of these problems have to do with the peculiarities of the speaker’s first language. Here’s one for the pronunciation doctor.


Peter, 42 y.o. Korean often transposes /p/ and /f/ sounds.


It is not surprising that most Korean English learners have trouble with the voiceless labiodental fricative—the sound is not found in Korean phonology. Native English speakers contrast /p/ and /f/ whereas Korean has only /p/. English teachers of Korean students will attest that L1 /p/ to /f/ transfer is an omnipresent production feature, particularly among new speakers or those who’ve spent a lot of time with non-native English teachers with unresolved pronunciation issues or uninformed teaching techniques. Regardless, the /f/ slash /p/ issue is an important one because each carries a pretty high functional load.

In Korean EFL classrooms it is common, for example, to hear the number /fɔr/ spoken as /pɔr/. There are dozens of other examples of routine transfer that also occur in the medial position (/ˈsʌpər/ instead of /ˈsʌfər/), and in the final position (/læp/ instead of /læf/). What is curious about the /f/ slash /p/ phonemic problem confronting some Korean students is how often those sounds are transposed. The confusion is not only one-way transfer among minimal pairs (for example, the obvious ‘My amusing teacher makes me lap’) but it happens in the other direction (‘I’m going to suffer’ heading out the door for an evening meal or ‘My teacher is four’, referring not to the precocious but to the penniless pedagogue). What never fails to surprise English-speaking newcomers to Korea is how often the transposition of the phonemes renders words almost unintelligible: /ˈkʌmfəni/ instead of /ˈkʌmpəni/ for instance (not so great for those job seekers answering the cardinal question in an interview). It’s almost as if the Korean learner is treating the /f/ as an allophone of /p/.


A Korean man told me many years ago that some people (note /ˈpipəl/ is pronounced by Peter as /ˈfifəl/) intentionally try to emulate what they perceive to be colloquial speech patterns of Americans, and the /p/-for-/f/ exchange is seen as a pretty cool trick to appear laid-back and ‘Americanized’. Fluency in English is a status symbol of immeasurable worth among Korean academics. This broad sociolinguistic explanation tempts, but it seems unlikely. The behavior and motives of individuals are difficult to ascertain, and it is singularly difficult to understand the extent of one person’s face-saving tactics in any given encounter. Also, it’s hard to imagine how so many listeners could misconstrue the English /p/, especially by native speakers of Korean, which has the identical phoneme.

Alternatively, there is the mechanical problem of the Korean mouth simply being unused to making the /f/ sound. It is possible that Peter’s pronunciation difficulties are more histrionic than most because of his personality, his effort to be precise, or maybe he has some other limitations that affect his Korean speech too—maybe major dental work.

Conduct short bursts of awareness raising exercises. Brevity prevents boredom and minimizes the negative impact on learner effect. Getting the learner to notice his pronunciation errors in a memorable way will help him improve his /p/ and /f/ fluency. Below are five steps to a more fluent Peter. Work with him 1:1 for a five minutes before each class.

1. Start at the phoneme level. Use mirrors and audio/video recordings to draw Peter’s attention to what is going on with his mouth as each phoneme is produced. Model the correct production for him. Explain how to create the /f/ sound and demonstrate: take a deep breath; fill the lungs with air; expel the air slowly with the bottom lip gently touching the upper teeth until the lungs are empty. Contrast /f/ with /p/. Place a piece of paper in front of the mouth and watch the effect of the plosive. Remind Peter that /p/ exists in Korean. Use a video to record his successes—you may want to show it to him again.

2. Move to the morpheme level. Combine /f/ with each of the 20 vowel sounds. Then do the same with /p/ and each of the 20 vowel sounds. Don’t worry about any problems that are not /f/ or /p/. If Peter asks about /f/’s voiced brother /v/, tell him it’s a separate lesson. Add hand gestures (an open-handed flick for /f/ and a closed-fisted punch for /p/).

3. Move to the word level. Do minimal pair work for /f/ and /p/ in the initial, medial, and final positions. Monitor his production; encourage him, but correct his errors immediately. Do Peter a favor and if possible avoid other problematic phonemes in the target words—hope for some synergy, but don’t digress from the lesson.

Example: Initial: face/pace; fill/pill; fan/pan. Medial: suffer/supper; differ/dipper; coffer/copper; Final: chief/cheap; beef/beep; laugh/lap.

4. Take Peter to the sentence level. Use input flooding—select or create a text that contains a ridiculous number of /p/ and /f/ examples; make sure the text makes some kind of sense—this will be memorable for Peter. Have him underline the target phonemes and read aloud. He should also do this in the privacy of his home and record and listen to himself, so assign some homework. Supply him with a recording of a native speaker (you). Peter should also write his own crazy ‘headline’ and share it with the class; tongue twisters welcome.

Example: TOEFL English production on campus fell flat today as a fearful population of protesting people coughed at cops and leapt over piles of ripflaming beef.

5. Wise men say…Play ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’. It’s great for the soul and loaded with /f/ (14 instances). Tell Peter to flick his hand every time he hears the /f/ sound. Do it with him, sing along, have fun.

Cycle through these activities over time. Proper surveillance of his /p/ and /f/ pronunciation will inform you about his intake, and time will tell if the changes become permanent. Use video evidence of his prior successes to convince Peter that change is possible and to keep practicing.


It is possible that Peter’s language skills have fossilized. Whether or not it is a real thing, fossilization would explain why Peter appears to be permanently camped out on a plateau of his learning curve. While it is true that the advanced conversation classes Peter has been taking focus on ‘using’ English more than ‘learning’ it—thus exposing him to little explicit error correction—his pronunciation has not improved at all in the two years since I’ve known him (I taught him for four months). He is quite content talking away in his rather imperfect English, and his teachers are quite happy to let him. His /p/ slash /f/ issue has become a do-I-look-fat-in-these-jeans problem—nobody wants to sideline him for a moment of truth.

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6 Replies to “Crazy English Pronunciation”

  1. It sounds very interesting I’d like to search further information about this phenomenon. and then we can talk about this topic more specifically

  2. This is really a sociolinguistic issue. The desire for a person to shed an accented version of English has more to do with his sense of how others perceive him than it does with his need to be completely understood. Only rarely would this subject’s /p/ slash /f/ problem interfere with his ability to make himself clear. The problem becomes critical if his speech is broadcasting to the world that he lacks formal education, or, more specifically, if he cares that it is doing so. The matter here is more interesting than practically significant.

  3. At first, the title ‘what the puck’ arouses my interest. In articles, it says wrong punctuation of korean students and solution for correcting wrong punctuation. I read this article very interestingly, because I have a wrong punctuation as other korean students. As I read article, I try to pronounce examples which are in the article ,such as face/pace suffer/supper, but I rarely pronounce exactly. I feel I need a improvement of my punctuation. So I decide to practice peter’s five steps regularly to improve my punctuation.

    1. I think you mean ‘pronunciation’ and not ‘punctuation’ and although both are important, only one really matters when speaking, and one when writing!

  4. I agree with this contents that many koreans get confused about how to distinguish the pronunciation of /p/ and /f/. This is one of my big problems for improving English pronunciation. It is really useful that this article tells the treatment to fix this problem. Also, examples helps me to make clear for diagnosing how hard to classify /p/and /f/ to me.

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