May 2019 Buckeye East Asian Linguistics © The Authors
Correspondence between the Korean and Mandarin Chinese pronunciations
of Chinese characters: A comparison at the sub-syllabic level
Xiao Luo, Yike Yang, Jing Sun and Nuo Chen
School of Education, University of Cincinnati 
Department of Chinese and Bilingual Studies, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University 
South China Agricultural University 
This study explores the corresponding relationship of Chinese characters’ pronunciations between
modern Mandarin Chinese and modern Korean at the subsyllabic level and investigates the
applicability of such correspondence in learning and reading Korean as a second language (L2) by
native (L1) Mandarin Chinese speakers. Correspondence between Korean and Mandarin Chinese
initial consonants and that between Korean -V(C) structures and Chinese finals were calculated
based on the 1,800 Chinese characters for educational purposes in South Korea. Our results
demonstrated that Korean initial consonants had either consistent or inconsistent correspondence
with their Mandarin Chinese counterparts. In addition, this study proved that pure comparisons of
vowels between the two languages are not reliable. Instead, the comparison between Korean -V(C)
structures and Chines finals could be more practical. Ninety percent of the high frequency Chinese
characters in Korean can be inferred to corresponding Chinese pronunciations based on the data
provided in this study.
Chinese characters, Correspondence, Chinese, Korean, Korean as L2
Due to historical cross-cultural communication between China and the Korean peninsula
(Ebrey 1996), modern Korean language contains a large number of Chinese character-driven
loanwords (Wang, Yeon, Zhou, Shu, & Yan 2016). These loanwords are called Sino-Korean words
pronounced in Korean phonology and (typically) written in alphabetic Korean Hangeul (Wang et
al. 2016). Sino-Korean words have the following distinctions from words in Mandarin Chinese.
First, Sino-Korean words are not orthographically similar to Chinese characters. The Sino-Korean
words are represented in a typical grapheme-phoneme correspondence in orthography (Pae, Kim,
and Luo 2018), whereas Chinese orthography is comparatively deep in that the meaning or sound of each
Chinese character may not be activated directly from visual input (Tan and Perfetti, 1999; Perfetti et al.,
2013). Second, the mutually shared Sino-Korean words in Mandarin Chinese and Korean are not
phonologically identical, although they have regular phonological corresponding relationship (see
According to the Bilingual Interactive Activation plus (BIA+) model (Dijkstra and Van
Heuven 2002), when a bilingual individual or a second language learner visually processes printed
words in the first language (L1) or the second language (L2), nonselective or parallel access to
the target word will take place and cross-language neighboring words (i.e., loanwords) are
activated (Dijkstra and Van Heuven 2002).The parallel access between L1 and L2 in the mental
lexicon facilitates lexical processing and recognition and thus, loanwords serve as an important
source for the investigation of bilingual reading.
In light of the above-mentioned features of Sino-Korean words, it is necessary to construct the
phonologically corresponding relationship of Sino-Korean words between Mandarin Chinese and
Korean because a phonological bridge that connects the two languages’ shared words can
compensate the lack of orthographic correspondence between the two languages and consequently
facilitate the learning and teaching of Korean as an L2 for L1 Chinese speakers. In this sense, the
present study aimed to investigate the corresponding relationship of Chinese characters’
pronunciations between modern Mandarin Chinese and Korean and to discuss the practical use of
such correspondence in teaching and reading Korean as an L2.
2. Literature review
Although it has been pointed out that certain Chinese initial consonants or vowels consistently
correspond to their Korean counterparts when it comes to modern pronunciation of Chinese
characters (Li 2003), such correspondence has yet to be fully quantified. Moon (2005) is one of
the studies that attempted to quantify such corresponding relation. Based on 2,500 frequently used
Chinese characters in mainland China, Moon (2005) compared and calculated the frequencies of
Chinese initial consonants that correspond to Korean initial consonants in Chinese characters
pronunciations. Some Korean initial consonants had comparatively straightforward corresponding
relationship with their Chinese counterparts. For example, the Korean initial consonant ㄴ /n/ had
a 100% correspondence rate with its Chinese counterpart /n/; ㄹ /r/ had a 99.3% correspondence
rate with the Chinese consonant /l/. Other Korean initial consonants, on the other hand, had more
complicated correspondence with Chinese consonants. For example, the Korean initial consonants
ㄱ /g/ had 12 Chinese counterparts, among which /j/ and /g/ had the highest correspondence rates
(38.7% and 26.7% respectively). Moon (2005) proposed that such quantified correspondence
between the two languages’ initial consonants can help L1 Korean learners correct their Chinese
pronunciation when they learn Chinese as an L2 and reduce negative transfer from their L1.
Im and Lee (2008) conducted a more comprehensive comparative study on Chinese character
pronunciations in the two languages based on selected 824 Chinese characters used in Korean
education as an L2. They investigated three types of correspondence: (1) Korean and Mandarin
Chinese initial consonants, (2) Korean and Mandarin Chinese vowels, and (3) Korean rhymes in
closed syllables and Chinese finals. Similar to Moon (2004)’s results, some Korean consonants
had a more consistent corresponding relationship with their Chinese counterparts than others. In
addition, Im and Lee (2008) revealed such correspondence in vowels. A small proportion of
Korean vowels corresponded to their Chinese counterparts consistently. For example, ㅛ /yo/
consistently corresponded to Chinese /iao/ (100%). Other Korean vowels had less consistent
correspondence with their Chinese counterparts. For example, ㅐ /ae/ had five Chinese
counterparts: /ai/ (51.24%), /ei/ (12.94%), /a/ (12.44%), /ui/ (9.95%), and /ie/ (8.46%). The authors
claimed that the results were able to facilitate word learning and understanding for L1 Chinese
learners who learn Korean as an L2.
A recent study by Luo, Yang, and Sun (2018) further explored the corresponding relation
between the two languages’ Chinese characters pronunciations at the syllabic level. Based on the
1,800 frequently used Chinese characters in South Korea, Luo et al. (2018) found that a total of
409 Korean syllables were used to represent Chinese characters pronunciations in Korean. They
formed what Luo et al. (2018) refer to as ‘Chinese character families’ based on these Korean
syllables, each of which represented a family of Chinese characters that were pronounced
identically in Korean. Within each family, the authors further clustered family members into
subgroups based on their Mandarin Chinese pronunciations without considering tones. For
example, the 신 /sin/ family contained ten members: (身, 神, 申, 伸, 愼), (新, 信, 辛), (臣, 晨) and
they were pronounced identically as 신 /sin/ in Korean. They were clustered into three subgroups
(marked by different parentheses) based on their Mandarin pronunciations: /shen/, /xin/, and /chen/.
Subsequently, Luo et al. (2018) calculated Korea-Chinese syllable correspondence rate (K-C
rate). K-C rate was defined as the ratio between the number of family members in each subgroup
and the total number of members in a Chinese character family. For example, in the 신 /sin/ family,
the 신 /sin/-/shen/ pair had a K-C rate of 0.5 (= 5/10); 0.3 for the 신 /sin/-/xin/ pair and 0.2 for
the 신 /shin/-/chen/ pair. Luo et al. (2018) suggested that attention should be paid to K-C pairs with
K-C rates lower than 0.5 when teaching Sino-Korean words to native Chinese speakers.
3. Research gap and research questions
Since Im and Lee (2008)’s study only focused on Sino-Korean words in Korean education as an
L2, the selected 824 Chinese characters might not suffice to equip L1 Chinese learners of Korean
with enough Chinese characters’ corresponding knowledge. On the other hand, while we agree
with the choice of 1,800 Chinese characters used by L1 Korean users in Luo et al. (2018), their
study did not justify the difference between the comparison at the syllabic and subsyllabic levels,
and which level of comparison is more suitable for L1 Chinese learners of Korean in order to infer
unlearned Sino-Korean words’ pronunciations in Mandarin Chinese.
The present study attempted to investigate the corresponding relation between the Korean and
Mandarin Chinese pronunciations of Chinese characters at the subsyllabic level with a more
complete set of the 1,800 Chinese characters used in Luo et al. (2018) which were optimized to
evaluate the predicting effectiveness of the corresponding relation at the subsyllabic level.
It is worth noting that in this study, the concept of “comparison at the subsyllabic level” was
further divided into two categories: initial consonant correspondence and “Korean -V(C) and
Chinese final” correspondence. We did not compare Korean vowel and Chinese vowel
correspondence directly because Korean and Chinese adopt different syllabic structures. Korean
adopts a “consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC)” structure (Pae 2018:343), while the syllable
structure of Chinese is traditionally identified as an “initial-final” structure (Třísková 2011:99).
The initial, known as shēngmǔ (声母), is a consonant in the initial position while the final is named
as yùnmǔ (韵母), which refers to the remaining part of a syllable besides the initial (Třísková 2011).
The subsyllabic unit open for direct comparison between Korean and Mandarin Chinese is the
initial consonant. For the rest, direct vowel to vowel and final consonant to final consonant
comparisons are difficult. A major reason is that some Korean final consonants (e.g., ㄱ /k/, ㄹ /l/,
ㅁ /m/, ㅂ /p/) in closed syllables do not exist in Mandarin Chinese. As a result, Im and Lee (2008)
proposed to compare Korean rhyme or “-VC” structure (the rest parts in a syllable besides the
initial consonant) and Mandarin Chinese finals instead.
This study is a replication of Im and Lee (2008)’s study with different research materials. The
following research questions guided this study:
(1) What is the correspondence rate between the Korean and Chinese initial consonants with
regards to the modern pronunciations of Chinese characters in the two languages?
(2) What is the correspondence rate between the Korean -V(C) structures and Chinese finals
with regards to the modern pronunciations of Chinese characters in the two languages?
(3) To what extent can the data in this study help L1 Chinese learners of Korean infer Korean
syllable’s corresponding Mandarin Chinese pronunciations in Sino-Korean words?
4. Research methods
4.1 Research material
Same as Luo et al. (2018), 1,800 Chinese characters from the list of Basic Hanja for Educational
Use (교육용기초한자(敎育用基礎漢字)) issued by the Ministry of Education and Human
Resources Development in South Korea were used for analysis.
4.2 Research method
The present study replicated Im and Lee (2008)’s research method. First, all 1,800 Chinese
characters were categorized according to the initial consonant when rendered in Korean. Second,
within each group, we further identified these Chinese characters’ initial consonants in Mandarin
Chinese. Third, we counted the frequency of different Mandarin Chinese initial consonants (F(M))
that correspond to a given Korean initial consonant and the total frequency of such Korean initial
consonant (F(K)). Fourth, we calculated the Korean-Chinese initial consonant correspondence rate
((F(M)/(F(K)). The calculation was repeated for calculating the Korean -V(C) structure-Chinese
final correspondence rate.
5.1 Korean-Chinese initial consonant correspondence rates
The correspondence rates between Korean and Mandarin Chinese initial consonants in Chinese
character pronunciation are demonstrated below in Table 1. In the first and fifth column, each
Korean initial consonant is listed in Hangeul followed by a Romanized version of that phoneme.
The romanization system used is based on the Revised Romanization of Korean issued in South
Korea. Following each Korean consonant are their corresponding Mandarin Chinese initial
consonants and respective correspondence rates. In this study, all Chinese phonemes are presented
in Hanyu Pinyin Romanization as used in People’s Republic of China. We only demonstrated the
top four Mandarin Chinese initial consonants with the highest correspondence rates because low
correspondence rate is unlikely to help with Korean leaners’ word reading and learning.
Table 1. Korean-Chinese initial consonant correspondence rates
Chinese consonants and
correspondence rates (%)
Chinese consonants and
correspondence rates (%)
5.2 Korean -V(C) structure-Chinese final correspondence rates.
The correspondence rates between the Korean -V(C) structures and Mandarin Chinese finals are
illustrated in Table 2. In the first and fifth column, each Korean -V(C) structure is listed in Hangeul
followed by a Romanized version of the included phonemes. Following each Korean -V(C)
structure, the corresponding Chinese finals and respective correspondence rates are listed. Again,
we only included the top four Chinese finals with the highest correspondence rates here.
Table 2. Korean -V(C) structure-Chinese final correspondence rates
Chinese finals and
correspondence rates (%)
Chinese finals and
correspondence rates (%)
5.3 Predicting effectiveness of the correspondence rates
In order to answer the question of to what extent the data provided above can help L1 Chinese
learners of Korean predict or infer the pronunciation of Sino-Korean words, we selected 10
Chinese characters with the highest frequencies that appeared in the Standard Korean Language
Dictionary (Nam 1999) and tested the accuracy and predictability of the preliminary data.
The 10 Chinese characters with the highest frequencies were 法 (법), 學 (학), 性 (성), 大 (대),
子 (자), 物 (물), 地 (지), 人 (인), 動 (동), 生 (생) (Nam 1999). Based on the pronunciations of these
characters in Korean, we listed all the possible Mandarin Chinese pronunciations that may
correspond to a certain target Korean syllable by combining that syllable’s corresponding initial
Chinese consonants and finals. Then, we calculated each Chinese pronunciation’s corresponding
likelihood by multiplying the initial consonant’s correspondence rate by the final’s correspondence
rate. For example, the pronunciation of the Chinese character 物 in Korean is 물 /mul/, which
consists of the Korean consonant ㅁ /m/ and the Korean -VC structure 울 -/ul/. As shown in Table
1 above, ㅁ /m/ corresponds to Chinese /m/ (76.3%) and /w/ (23.7%), while Table 2 illustrates that
울 (-ul) corresponds to Chinese /u/ (70%), /ü/ (20%), and /o/ (10%). The possible Chinese
pronunciations corresponding to 물 /mul/ and their chances of correspondence were thus “mu”
(53.4%), “wu” (16.6%), and “mo” (7.6%). The results of the predicting effectiveness testing are
listed in Table 3.
Table 3. A test of predicting effectiveness of the correspondence rates
Predicted Mandarin Chinese Pronunciation Likelihood (%)
法 법 /beop/
學 학 /hak/
性 성 /seong/
大 대 /dae/
子 자 /ja/
物 물 /mul/
地 지 /ji/
人 인 /in/
/nin/, /nen/ (0.55)
動 동 /dong/
生 생 /saeng/
In Table 3, Chinese pronunciations and percentages in bold indicate the correct Mandarin
Chinese pronunciation with regard to a given Korean syllable. These results demonstrate that the
data in section 5.1 and 5.2 were useful for predicting the corresponding Chinese pronunciations of
the 10 Chinese characters. However, only two out of 10 (20%) Chinese character’s Chinese
pronunciation could be inferred as the primary inferences. Five out of 10 (50%) were secondary
inferences. One (10%) was tertiary inference and another one (10%) was quaternary inference.
One out of 10 (10%) could not be inferred based on the data in Sections 5.1 and 5.2. (대 /dae/).
The purpose of this study is to quantify the corresponding relation between the Korean and
Mandarin Chinese pronunciations of Chinese characters at the subsyllabic level. Correspondence
between initial consonants and that between Korean -V(C) structures and Chinese finals were
conducted. The results provided useful information for learning and understanding Sino-Korean
words by Chinese-speaking Korean learners.
The corresponding relation between the Korean and Mandarin Chinese initial consonants
demonstrated the following features. Different Korean initial consonants have varying numbers of
Mandarin Chinese consonants to correspond to, ranging from 1 to 11. We refer to the Mandarin
Chinese initial consonants with the highest correspondence rate as “primary consonants.” Nine out
of the 14 Korean initial consonants had primary Mandarin Chinese counterparts that had a
correspondence rate higher than 50%, indicating a comparatively consistent correspondence
relationship. Five Korean initial consonants had primary Mandarin Chinese counterparts whose
correspondence rates were lower than 50%, indicating comparatively inconsistent
correspondences between these Korean and Mandarin Chinese initial consonants.
The results are consistent with Im & Lee (2008)’s conclusion that the Korean initial consonants
did not necessarily have high correspondence rates with their phonologically similar counterparts
in Mandarin Chinese. For example, ㄱ /g/ had a higher correspondence rate with Chinese /j/ instead
of Chinese /g/; ㅂ /b/ had more chance to correspond to Chinese /f/ rather than Chinese /b/; ㅅ /s/
had a much higher correspondence rate with Chinese /sh/ than /s/. This conclusion is in accordance
with Im and Lee (2008)’s results and indicates that similarity is not as reliable as correspondence
relationship. L1 Chinese learners of Korean who rely on similarity in Chinese characters’
pronunciations between the two languages are perhaps likely to experience negative transfer from
Our data was in congruence with Im & Lee (2008) that it is reasonable to compare Korean -
V(C) structures and Chinese finals instead of purely comparing Korean and Chinese vowels. For
example, the Korean vowel 아 /-a/ mostly corresponded to Chinese /-i/. When it was followed by
a final consonant (e.g., 악 /-ak/), it no longer corresponded to /-i/. Another example is 요 /-yo/,
which mainly corresponded to Chinese /-iao/. However, when 요 /-yo/ was followed by the final
consonant ㄱ /-k/ and became 욕 /-yok/, it corresponded to /-ü/ and /-u/ only.
Different from Im & Lee (2018), we provided a broader and more complete picture of initial
consonant correspondence and Korean -V(C)-Chinese final correspondence. Moreover, we tested
the correspondent rates’ effectiveness regarding inferring Chinese characters’ pronunciations in
Mandarin Chinese based on their pronunciations in Korean. Even though the token size is small,
the selected 10 Chinese characters have the highest frequencies in Korean dictionary. The data in
this study provided a phonological bridge that connects the shared words in Mandarin Chinese and
Korean and compensated for the disadvantage of lacking orthographic similarity between the two
languages. Thus, it sheds light on L2 Korean pedagogy and reading strategies. For example, when
Chinese learners of Korean first see the Sino-Korean words 동물 (動物, dong-mul, ‘animal’), they
can rely on data like that in this study to infer that this word’s corresponding Mandarin Chinese
pronunciation might be dong-mu, dong-wu, dong-mo, tong-mu, and so on, among which dong-wu
makes the most sense and means ‘animal’ in Mandarin Chinese. This example explained that this
study can be used as a handy reference by Chinese learners to learn and infer Sino-Korean words’
When comparing this study to that of Luo et al. (2018), it is possible to see that correspondence
at both the syllabic and subsyllabic levels has their own advantages and disadvantages. In the
current study, one of the advantages was that the correspondence at the subsyllabic level is
convenient and efficient for learners to master and use. If learners know a Korean consonant’s
corresponding Chinese consonants, they can infer the corresponding Chinese pronunciations of
any Sino-Korean words that start with this Korean consonant. However, correspondence at the
subsyllabic level may skew Korean-Chinese syllable correspondence rate. For example, in this
study, the 법 /beob/-/fa/ correspondence had a correspondence rate of 6.8% only but actually the
법 /beob/ has a 100% correspondence rate with the Chinese /fa/. By contrast, the correspondence
at the syllable level has an accurate correspondence rate between the Korean and Chinese syllables,
but there is too much information, making it difficult to master. Hence, we suggest that a
combination of both syllabic and subsyllabic correspondence between Korean and Mandarin
Chinese could be more helpful for L1 Chinese learners of Korean.
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