ㅁ or ㅂ? Identifying confusing sounds in Korean
When I first began studying Korean, I had a hard time figuring out words by their sound alone.
"Did he say 뭐 or 붜? Was it 네 or 데? 김치 or 킴치?"
If you also experienced that, here are some tips to help you out:
1. Korean is not a very nasal language
Pinch your nose and try to say "mind your manners." It'll probably sound like "bide your badders." That's because M and N are nasal consonants, so when you say them, the air goes through your nose, not your mouth. In Korean, that ㅁ and ㄴ can be accompanied by a small burst that makes them sound like a B or a D, respectively. But that only happens in the initial position, because:
2. Sounds change at the beginning of a word
Actually, most consonants get softer in the middle of a word, but if you're an English speaker, you probably associate ㄱ with G, or ㅂ with B, so it's easier to think this way. At the beginning of a word, and especially at the beginning of a sentence, certain Korean consonants are more emphasized (there's more air coming out of your mouth when you pronounce them). So ㄱ sounds closer to a K, ㅂ to a P, ㄷ to a T, ㅈ to a Ch, and as you just learned, ㅁ sounds like a B and ㄴ like a D. That's why 물고기 sometimes sounds like "bulgogi", while 불고기 sounds like "pulgogi", or why 물 (water) and 불 (fire) sound so similar. It's confusing, I know.
But if ㄱ sounds like a K at the beginning of a word, what about ㅋ? Just slap an H on it. Basically, a ㅋ sounds like a K with even more air coming out of your mouth, and the same goes for the others. So from little air to lots of air, you have ㅁ > ㅂ > ㅍ (m > b > p), and ㄴ > ㄷ > ㅌ (n > d > t), and no air at all for the double consonants (ㅃ, ㄸ, etc). Pay close attention to that and you'll be able to hear the difference, and figure out which consonant is the right one.
3. The more you listen, the easier it gets
Don't get discouraged if you're having a tough time. Our ears need to be trained to identify these new sounds, and that takes time and practice, so don't worry too much if you're a beginner. Just keep listening.
So the next time that extremely dehydrated Korean man comes up to you and ask "물 주세요", don't light him on fire, just give him some water (sorry 아저씨!).