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120 Days to TOPIK #7 – Increase Listening Comprehension by Training your Brain with Minimal Pairs


Korean has three consonants that could be mistaken for a t: ㅌ as in tan, ㄸ as in Stan, and ㄷ, which sounds something like a cross between a t and a d.Fluent Forever

Over the next few days, we’ll look at the following methods to dramatically increase your language learning ability:

  1. Ear training (minimal pairs)
  2. Mouth training (accent training)
  3. Eye training (get the spelling right)

Today we’ll look at Ear Training with Minimal Pairs.

What are “Minimal Pairs”?

Minimal Pairs are pairs of words which differ in only one sound, and which often cause trouble for foreign learners.

Examples of this are:

  1. Work & Walk (for my Korean students)
  2. War & Wall or Rock & Lock (for my Japanese friends)
  3. 내 (I) & 네 (you) or ㅅ & ㅆ (for me and other Korean learners)

In all the world’s languages, there are approximately 800 sounds (phonemes) – 600 are consonants and 200 are vowels. Most languages (including English) choose only around 40 of these to form words (English has around 42). So you can see that this can prove to be a MAJOR difficulty for a foreign learner whose native tongue doesn’t even include some sounds.


Research has been done comparing adult Japanese subjects’ brains and American adults’ brains. Both are played a monotonous recording of “rock … rock … rock … lock … rock …” Upon hearing the word “lock”, American brains show a spike in activity, but Japanese brain activity remains constant throughout the entire exercise.

This shows how Japanese adults are initially INCAPABLE of distinguishing the two sounds because l/r sounds blend together in native Japanese pronunciation. It requires ear and brain training for Japanese learners to begin to pick up on the differences.

But there is good news. The research has also shown that Japanese learners can improve their ability to distinguish between the two sounds after only 3 20-minute sessions of ear training with immediate feedback (i.e. click a button “rock” or “lock” when you hear the word and receive either a green checkmark or a red X).

What does this mean for you?

Simply put, you must recognize that there are certain Korean sounds that have NO absolute English equivalent (there are CLOSE similarities, but they are not the same sounds – remember ㅅ/ㅆ or ㅌ/ㄷ/ㄸ from earlier).

If you start from there, then you’re more able to listen closely to try to pick up on the subtle distinctions between sounds. Additionally, when you listen to minimal pairs for just a few hours at the beginning of your language learning experience, you’ll pick up the language much faster in the long run. This is true for two reasons:

  1. You’ll be better able to HEAR all the sounds and sound rules
  2. You’ll be better able to hear when the sound rules are BROKEN

Ultimately, this ear training will help in MULTIPLE ways including:

  1. Better listening comprehension
  2. Improved spelling
  3. Reduced spoken accent
  4. Quicker mastery of new vocabulary and grammar

So, if you notice in yourself and your own studies that you still have slight trouble distinguishing between certain sounds in Korean, it might be time to consider going deeper with your ear training using Minimal Pairs.


(and Resources)

I’ve found a handful of resources to help with your ear training. The list is not comprehensive and I hope to be able to (eventually) provide many more resources as well as a FULL list of Minimal Pairs in Korean. But, for now, this will give you a good start.


1. My Korean Ear – an online application which pairs

  1. ㄱ/ㄲ/ㅋ
  2. ㄷ/ㄸ/ㅌ
  3. ㅂ/ㅃ/ㅍ
  4. ㅅ/ㅆ
  5. ㅈ/ㅉ/ㅊ

2. The Sounds of Korean – from Cambridge University Press

3. 표준어 규정 – a comprehensive list of standardized Pronunciation Rules (as put together by the Korean government) – we’ll see if I can’t make a simplified/easy-reader version of this later

Over to you

So, how would you rate your listening skills? Do you need more ear training? I could sure use a bit more with the ㅅ/ㅆ category. Let me know in the Comments below or using the hashtag #120TOPIK on social media.

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