Gyopo: The Highs and Lows of Korean-English Bilingualism

We are back after some life-induced stop-and-go, including 2/3 of our household getting COVID among several other stressful life things – thank you for your patience (and thanks especially to our guest for his patience!).

Guest: Dr. Andrew Cheng


Andrew had a Fulbright teaching position in South Korea for two years after college as a native English teacher.

He then went to grad school at Berkeley, studying under Dr. Keith Johnson, and got interested in sociophonetics. He wrote a dissertation on Korean Americans and bilingualism.

After a postdoc at UC Irvine, he is now at Simon Fraser University. He has branched out from Korean and also studies other areas.

Research: Fundamental frequency and bilingualism

How do languages fundamentally differ? There’s been a lot of research on this. To some extent, it’s easy to see – e.g., Korean and English have different sounds. But what about fundamental frequency (vocal fold vibration rate – commonly thought of as pitch). How do languages differ along this axis? The study by linguist Andrew Cheng that we’re talking about today looked at this aspect.

Most studies compare two separate groups of people who speak each language, but what about if you look at the same people speaking two different languages – i.e., the same exact bodies (same vocal apparatus)?

Pitch is the perception of the fundamental frequency.

Andrew worked with 2nd- and 1.5-generation Korean Americans who learned both Korean and English simultaneously or nearly so. Korean Americans and other overseas Koreans are commonly known in Korean as gyopo.

Today’s word: Gyopo 교포

People of Korean ethnicity who live in other countries – Jaymin has always conceptualized it in opposition to yuhaksaeng 유학생, study abroad students.

There are stereotypes about how gyopos speak Korean (accent) in Korea, but Andrew emphasizes that the Korean they speak is totally valid and is definitely real Korean.


Andrew’s paper: He interviewed the same people in both English and Korean, with an activity that served as a buffer between the two parts – just basic conversation, really.

Then, he used a specific software to analyze the recordings and find which was higher/lower in fundamental frequency.

There were theoretical reasons why he wanted to recruit from both 2nd and 1.5-generation Koreans, but in the end, there was no significant difference in pitch between the two groups as adults.

But for all, the fundamental frequency was higher when they spoke Korean than when they spoke English.

Analyzing Jaymin’s Korean and English.

Andrew analyzed Jaymin speaking in Korean and in English. They found that, contrary to Sara’s personal perceptions, he followed the pattern of Korean being higher in pitch than English. (Jaymin didn’t have exactly the same language learning profile as the participants in Andrew’s research, having learned English mostly in his late teens, but it was interesting to see the pattern continue in this casual analysis.)

Raising bilingual kids

Jaymin and Sara discuss their experience trying (failing?) to raise a bilingual Korean-English kid, and Andrew discusses his newer work on French/English bilingualism, bilingualism and pragmatic cues, etc.

Find Andrew Cheng online:



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Theme music: The Boating Trip by LATG Music.

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