Korean Consonant : How to distinguish Plain, Strong, and Tense Consonant

안녕하세요~ 토미입니다!

Today, I am going to teach you how to distinguish and pronounce plain, strong and tense consonants properly.

A lot of Korean learners may suffer some setbacks in the early or later stage of learning Korean pronunciation.

One of the biggest reasons would be the similar sounding consonants in Korean, which are called plain, aspirated, and tense sounds.

Each of these are called 평음, 격음, 경음 or 된소리 in Korean.

These consonants sound quite similar for foreign people who have just started to learn Korean.

Therefore, they often struggle in recognizing the differences.

So, I am going to give you a tip to differentiate and pronounce them correctly.

In this video, I will show you plain, aspirated and tense consonants respectively and compare each other.

그럼 시작할게요!

Plain Consonants (평음)

First of all, let me explain the definition of plain, aspirated, and tense sound quickly.

Plain consonants (평음) are the standard sound like 가나다라마바사아자.

They sound very soft compared to aspirated or tense sounds.

Aspirated Consonants (격음)

Aspirated consonants (격음) are pronounced with a lot of air.

For example, [ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, ㅊ] are apparently the derived form of the plain consonants [ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ, ㅈ] respectively where one small stroke is added.

These sounds are pronounced with more air than plain sounds.

You can use a tissue to check how much air popped out from your mouth.

Put a tissue in front of your mouth and see how it moves when you pronounce an aspirated sound.

If it moves a lot, then it means that you pronounced it properly.

First, plain sounds.

Can you see the tissue move just a little bit?

Did you see the tissue swings a lot?
It is like you are punching tissue with your air from your mouth.

Another important point is the pitch.

Aspirated sounds are pronounced with a little bit higher pitch than plain sounds.

가 카
다 타
바 파
자 차

As you can see, it is very natural to raise the pitch a little bit when you pronounce aspirated sounds.

Tense consonants (경음/된소리)

Tense consonants [ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ, ㅉ] are derived form the plain consonants [ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ, ㅅ, ㅈ] by doubling the letter.

These tense consonants (경음 or 된소리) require the stronger use of muscle, but barely produce the air.

It is like you hold your breath or block the air in your throat.

If you pronounce it correctly, the tissue in front of your mouth would not move at all.

가 카 까
다 타 따
바 파 빠
사 싸
자 차 짜

Also, their pitch is the highest among plain and aspirated consonants.
So in this time, you can pay attention to the pitch.

가 카 까
다 타 따
바 파 빠
사 싸
자 차 짜

Can you see tense consonants have one level higher pitch compared to plain and strong consonants?
The difference in pitch is very obvious.

As you can see, It is important to understand not only the amount of air you let out from your mouth, but also the different level of pitch.

It is easily overlooked and even not written in some reference books, nor even native speakers teach you because they lower or higher the pitch unconsciously.

Therefore, you can pay more attention to the pitch and then probably you could make yourself understood more easily.

Some of you may be even thinking that because you are a foreigner you don’t have to feel any pressure on the right pronunciation.

However, if you pronounce words wrong, the meaning of the words change a lot and you could make Korean people confused.

So here are some examples of sets of similar sounding words which have completely different meanings.

기 키 끼
기 키 끼
기 키 끼

기 means energy, 키 means height, 끼 means talent.

달 [dal] vs. 탈 딸 [ddal] 달 [dal] vs. 탈 딸 [ddal] 달 [dal] vs. 탈 딸 [ddal]

Here, 달 [dal] means “moon”, 탈 means a “mask”,딸 [ddal] means a “daughter”.

비 [bi] 피 [pi] 삐
비 [bi] 피 [pi] 삐
비 [bi] 피 [pi] 삐

비 [bi] means “rain”
피 [pi] means “blood.”
삐 is not a word, but Korean people often use it for the sound effect like 삐이익, 삐이익.

덕 턱 [teok] vs. 떡 [tteok/ddeok]

덕 턱 떡
덕 턱 떡
덕 턱 떡

덕 means “virtue”, 턱 [teok] means “chin”, 떡 [tteok/ddeok] means “rice cake”.

살 쌀
살 쌀
살 쌀

살 means “flesh”, 쌀 means “rice”.

자다 차다 짜다
자다 차다 짜다
자다 차다 짜다

자다 means “to sleep”, 차다 means “to be cold”, 짜다 means “to be salty”.


To summarize, when you pronounce plain consonants, the tissue doesn’t swing so much, but for the strong consonants, tissue swings a lot.

For tense consonants, it is like you hold your breath in your throat to pronounce, so the tissue does not move so much.

When it comes to the pitch, plain consonants are neutral, strong consonants are a little bit higher than plain consonants and the tense consonants have the highest pitch among all.

It could be just a slight pronunciation difference.

But Korean people differentiate each pronunciation.

So, if you mix them up, it is a little bit hard for Korean people to understand what you are saying.

I think the more you practice these three pronunciations, the more you can understand the difference.

So let’s keep up your good work!
Have fun learning Korean!

그럼 오늘도 행복 가득, 웃음 가득한 하루 되세요! 한국어 화이팅, 화이팅, 화이팅!!