The official IELTS by IDP app is here! Download it today.


Estimates say there are 1.3 billion English speakers around the world. Interestingly, the majority of these English speakers are not native speakers. In other words, there are a lot more English as a second language (ESL) speakers than English as a first language. Seen as a global language for business, travel, and education, we find English in every corner of the world. A major hotbed for learning English as a second language is Korea. This East Asian country has millions who are learning English. Visit Korea and you’ll see English being taught in kindergartens, public schools, cram schools, cafes, and language centres. English is so common in Korea that there is even a national language mixing Korean and English. It’s called Konglish. Many Koreans not only study English for school, work, or fun but they study it for IELTS. In my many years teaching Koreans and reading about language teaching, I have seen the challenges Koreans face. As with every nationality, there are common problems most share when studying English. If you’re Korean and preparing for the IELTS, it’s helpful to identify these common problems to target a preparation plan. Here are a few key ideas you might start with!

1. Do you practice communication?

Many English language programs in Korea are teacher-focused and spend a lot of time on grammar, vocabulary, reading, and writing. Speaking is practiced but only by repeating the teacher or memorizing scripts. If you haven’t learned or practiced communication, you should. To do well on the speaking test, you need to speak fluently and communicate well. The best way to do this is to practice communicating. So, put your phone and test-book down, and go find someone to chat with!

2. Pronunciation challenges

No two languages have exactly the same sounds. This includes Korean and English. When studying English, you probably find some words hard to say or hear, and other words easy. For Koreans, some of the more common English sound pairs that are confusing are /r/ & /l/, /f/ & /v/, /p/ and /b/, and /ch/ & /z/. Some Koreans might have a strange experience due to this. For example, someone says “I live in a big house.” but because /b/ and /p/ are hard to separate, they might hear “I live in a pig house.”

These pairs of sounds are called minimal pairs. If you do an online search for “minimal pairs practice” you can find the specific sounds and practice them until clear.

3. Sentence stress

Another common problem Korean ESL learners face is stressing the correct word in a sentence. In English, the meaning of a sentence can change if you say one of the words louder. To communicate well, you have to learn how to use sentence stress correctly. Not only is this critical for the speaking test, but it’s a major skill tested in the listening test. The louder words are more important and often give you clues to the correct answer! Let’s look at a few examples to prove the point. Same sentence, different meanings:

Sentence and Stressed Word

Sentence Meaning

I LOVE eating hotdogs at the football game.

The speaker wants to show she really loves hotdogs. Her feeling is the focus.

I love EATING hotdogs at the football game.

The speaker wants to show she prefers to eat - not to sell, not to buy, or not to cook hotdogs.

I love eating hotdogs at the FOOTBALL game.

The speaker likes hotdogs when at the football game – not the baseball game, not the hockey game, and not the volleyball game.

4. Commonly confused words

Many words in Korea, when translated to English, might be the wrong meaning when used in English. For example, if you say “My friend borrows money a lot. He is a wealthy guy.” You might be in trouble. Why? This is because Korean speakers commonly confuse the words “borrow” and “lend”. So, the meaning the speaker wants to say is that the friend gives people money, because he is very rich. However, when people hear this, they think he takes money, and that is why he is rich. These are very different meanings!

Some other common pairs that are confused due to translation, sound, or spelling are lose & loose; principal & principle; aisle & isle; watch & see; and come & go. These are just a few to mention. Do you know how to correctly use them? Could you explain the difference to a friend?

We checked out the need to practice communicating, commonly confused sounds, the importance of sentence stress, and word pairs that are tricky. These are just a few of the challenges many of us face when trying to get a high IELTS rating. The important point to remember is to identify your weaknesses and improve them. Whether you have common issues that most Koreans have or not, correcting your mistakes will lead to better results on test day.