Why Russian and Korean Are Very Phonetic but English and French Aren’t

All languages that people speak today import new words from other languages every day. Unless you are a linguist, you probably don’t realize that all languages have “rules” (even if they aren’t written) for how to import words from foreign languages.

In the American version of English, we first try to say the word the way it is said in the foreign language (even though we often get it wrong). Then, if the foreign word is from a language that uses the same alphabet as we have, we pull in the foreign spelling too.

The result is that spoken English has more exceptions to the rules (it becomes less phonetic) every year.

So what is an alphabet really? An alphabet is just a system for writing sounds on paper. Good alphabets have a fixed set of rules and very few exceptions.

When Koreans decide to import an English word, they try to say it the way it sounds to them, but then they spell it phonetically, using the Korean alphabet. So Korean stays phonetic because it doesn’t share an alphabet with other languages.

Russian stays fairly phonetic because it only shares an alphabet (sort of) with a few highly related languages.

English is still fairly phonetic, but French has imported so many foreign words that written French is only slightly related to spoken French.

When you learn Russian or Korean, you pretty much only have to learn the spoken language, and then the written version is the same thing. When you learn French, it’s pretty much like learning two different languages.

We have a related article on why the Cyrillic alphabet makes learning Russian easier.

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    i’ve seen your reviews of the different programs to learn foreign languages but sadly they don’t have the one i want to learn (Korean) or they are just too expensive so i’ve been learning Korean in a diffrent program, a free program actually, and i think it’s very good but i’d like if you made a review of them.

    Thank you beforehand

    Pd: They’re page is

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      Karla –

      Thanks for suggesting we work on Korean! It certainly is a popular language and one we have in the list of languages to consider developing next. I’ll also add to our list of reviews to make yet since it only appears to be connected with learning Korean only it will likely have to wait until we are finished reviewing more diverse language learning methods. If you want to learn spoken Korean Pimsleur makes a series of language lessons that will certainly be helpful for speaking with Koreans. talktomeinkorean seems like it might be more interactive so you will likely find it very helpful for learning to read Korean than Pimsleur. Since you are taking the course maybe you could offer some feedback on how well it is working for you to learn Korean. What do you think are their benefits and where do you think something better could be put into place for a more effective learning experience for you?


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    I hope that English linguist in a symposium of the UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE can suggest a simplification of the language make it Phonetic.
    It is embarrassing that in English Dictionary along with the word is always in parenthesis the way it should be pronounced.
    I do not know French but I believe that once you learn the rules and morphology of the language, you will be able to write it without difficulty.

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    Elizabeth Lilly

    Native Russian speakers like to claim that Russian is phonetic. In my opinion, they have probably forgotten their own experiences of learning to read and write, and haven’t taught Russian speaking children or foreigners how to read and write Russian. The language they know best seems easy to them, so they think it would be easy for anyone.

    Stress is unpredictable in Russian words. There doesn’t seem to be a set of rule that predicts which syllable will be stressed. You just have to memorize where the stress is word by word.

    If you don’t know the word, you can’t tell where the stress is from reading the word. In Russian, vowels only sound true when they are stressed. Unstressed vowels blur out, so all the Os sound like As. Similarly, Ыs Иs and Еs are indistinguishable in unstressed syllables. (Maybe they don’t sound identical to a native speaker of Russian, but as someone learning Russian I sure can’t tell the difference.) Net result: you don’t know what any of the vowels sound like unless you know where the stress lies. So you cannot pronounce a word correctly based on reading it.

    If you have only heard the word, and are trying to figure out how to write it, you have the same problem. Very similar sounds can be represented by different letters in Russian. The vowels I listed above, and some of the consonants too. For example, in the common words конечно and что, the letter ч (ch) sounds exactly like a ш (sh). Or how about мужчина? It seems to me it sounds more like мушина. That is leaving out language learner problems, like the difficulty in hearing a difference between ш and щ.

    If you can’t pronounce it right based on seeing it written down and you can’t spell it right based on hearing it said, it isn’t a phonetically consistent system. It is certainly possible that English is worse. But I am finding Russian spelling quite challenging.

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