Tuesday, February 08, 2011

AAK! Wiki: Is Fluency in Korean Useful?

Dear Korean,

I have spent the past three years studying Korean, one of them as an exchange student at SNU. Although I have done well so far, I am still unable to read a Korean newspaper without a great deal of preparation and looking up of words. I found out today that I was accepted into a U.S. government program to study Korean for two years at the University of Hawaii. I am now trying to decide if it is worthwhile to spend two years becoming fluent in Korean and what I could do with Korean fluency.


Dear Harald,

The Korean finds Korean fluency to be quite helpful. Korea is a rising economy with ever-increasing interactions with the world. More people around the world care about Korea because Korea is becoming more important. And there are not enough people who are fluent in both Korean and English to satisfy the demand. So the demand exists even for people who are somewhat comfortable in Korean but not completely fluent.

But the Korean figured he would open this question up for everyone. How good is your Korean? Do you find it useful? How useful is it to have Korean language skills, particularly if you are living outside of Korea?

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


  1. I'm not going to lie. I love knowing Korean because then I don't have to wait for other people to subtitle my favorite dramas.

    Is that shallow? Yes, yes it is. But then again, I didn't learn Korean for any "practical" reason, either.

  2. It's useful if you want to live in Korea. In the US I can't imagine any job that would require it. Maybe some sort of translation I guess.

  3. If you look like a foreigner in Korea, it can be hard to practice your Korean sometimes. In many stores I ask "how much is it?" (in Korean!) and they answer in English. If you're not 100% fluent, many Koreans won't be patient enough to wait for you to articulate a sentence and will try him/herself to practice their English. Although Korea is growing fast, many Koreans still don't see their own language as very relevant in the world.

  4. I think Korean fluency can be valuable, particularly if you can get your Korean up to a professional level. While there certainly are a large number of people who can speak both languages, particularly in the diaspora, the number who can do so at a professional level are much, much smaller. South Korea is a large and powerful economy, so there are certainly plenty of business opportunities there. North Korea is also a major source of headaches for the United States, so there are plenty of security and government oriented opportunities for those who can read, translate, and analyze primary sources.

    I suppose if you are asking "Is Korean a better value than learning Mandarin or Spanish" then yes, you may be better off learning those languages, but I think there are still a wealth of opportunities to be had if you can achieve fluency in Korean. For better or worse, both Koreas will continue to be major players and sources of opportunities for years to come.

  5. I love knowing Korean though I realize it's a lifelong endeavor. I'm not going to wake up one day (at least any time soon) and find that I'm fluent enough to meet my own standards for complete fluency. I've been studying for 5 years, more than two of them very intensively (in Korea).

    I think it can be useful to you outside of Korea, not just for translation (medical translation is always in demand, though!). You could go into government, education (lots of school districts in the US or elsewhere need bilingual people), or customer service/sales (though admittedly the last option doesn't sound like a lot of fun). Alternately, you could go the academic route (I'm doing my PhD in a social science, wherever that takes me). If I could go back in time I might well do Hawaii's Korean program- which is one year in Hawaii and one at Korea University. The people I know who have come out of that program are pretty much completely fluent, not just in daily life but in academic debate, government debriefings, you name it. Reading a newspaper won't be a problem for you after just a couple of months of that program! Especially if you have some funding for your studies, I would do it. I wish I could do it now- just a bit too far along in my life now, I feel.

  6. Learning any second language is useful and a worthwhile endeavor. Having said that, if I were to learn a brand new language from scratch it would probably be Mandarin. Outside of English it will be the most valuable language in the 21st century.

  7. Useful to get a job? If you are looking for a niche language, there are other less spoken languages to learn. If you are looking for a wide-spread language to be able to work here and there, you can learn, if English is not enough, Mandarin and Spanish, as others said. But if you really need or want to work in Korea, you definitely need to learn Korean to have a career here.

    Useful for the mind? Even though I struggle with Korean everyday I believe it is a fantastic language for a western mind. And a fantastic language if you like poetry...

    From my experience, Koreans answering in English are a minority. And in the end it can be a game to keep on replying in Korean while the other tries her English.

  8. Korean is a "Critical Needs Language" for the US Department of State, and other government agencies as well. If you have an interest in Foreign Affairs, your Korean will help you get an awesome job.

  9. My Korean is good enough to read children's books and the local entertainment rag without difficulty. I can read YA and chick-lit with some effort. But more importantly, I can deal with my mother-in-law.

    My mother-in-law doesn't speak English. My sister-in-law speaks less English than I do Korean. If I didn't speak the Korean I do, I don't think Mother and I would have the great relationship we have.

    (I also have the radically unpopular notion that if you marry into a family that speaks another language at home, it is your responsibility to learn that language. To me it is my duty to learn Korean.)

    Learning Korean has opened up a whole slew of books that wouldn't be available to me. It's also made the culture more accessible. (Expats in Korea often complain that Koreans won't let them into the culture--well, learning Korean is a great way to chip, chip, chip away at that wall.) My husband and I use it as a code, both spoken and written.

    So no matter if other people consider it "useful," it's useful to me.

    Having said that, if Harald has studied Korean for three years and isn't sure if he wants to study for two more (on the tax-payers' dime, it seems?), I don't think he should continue. Any language teacher knows that the self-motivated students are the ones who learn the most in the least time. The ones who are only learning the language because it's required are usually miserable and don't learn nearly as much in the same time. Who wants to be miserable for two years?

  10. To be honest its not that useful for me since I came here to the USA. Besides communicating with my relatives, I have little use for it socially and professionally.

    That being said, I wish I spent more time learning proper Korean when I was younger. There is no better way to fully appreciate the culture!

  11. I think a better way to approach this is by asking yourself what you plan to do with it. Do you plan on working in Korea? Working for a Korean owned company? Plan on working for a company that has offices in Korea? I'm sure if you plan to put it to use, you will ultimately find a profession where it will be ultimately necessary, then again, you could always learn it just because you WANT to. Otherwise, you shouldn't waste your time if it doesn't quite pique your interest.

  12. UnlIf you plan on living or working with Korea / Korean for the major part of your career, do it.

    For the other 99.99% of us, learn enough to get around, or more if you desire a non-teaching job in Korea.

  13. My apologies for being longwinded, and somewhat pretentious. Having worked myself into Korean proficiency, I have strong feelings about how it should be done.


    아만다 already said it, but I'm going to rephrase it.

    If you are successful, there are plenty of jobs, particularly in the west coast and in Korea. But you have to be motivated to be successful. If you were asking because you are worried that persuing your passion will lower your standard of living, skip the rest of this and go to Hawaii.

    If that's not what you were worried about, you need to consider the following question:

    Would I be/have I been learning Korean because it is my duty, or because it is my passion? Am I learning Korean because I "should", or because I really enjoy it?

    If you answered "duty", or "should", you should probably stop. You aren't really interested in Korean for its own sake, so unless you are really stubborn or really self-controlled, you would probably find too much of your time in Hawaii spent on the beach. (Nothing against the beach, but unless you are there with Korean friends, you won't be learning Korean.)

    If you're already decent in spoken Korean, you should consider that as you become proficient, you can have more fun in Korean. But for me, making a hobby full-time tends to result in me avoiding the hobby. Know thyself.


    Once you know Korean, marketplace ajummas will make smalltalk with you. But would you expect anyone to learn English from a cashier?

    You should try to make Korean friends who live/work in the same place you do (so you see them often), and who don't want to learn English (so you can talk .. or fumble for words .. in Korean). Gifts of food and shared meals usually solidify a friendship, and if you befriend someone over the age of thirty, their English probably won't be good enough to chat anyway.

    If you're not to the level of Korean where you can make friends, you need to study / listen more on your own. It's hard .. but there is only one person that can teach you a foreign language. I recommend TV, unsubtitled movies, books, a good dictionary, and a lot of repetition.

    (The first couple months of your first no-English friendship may require patience, mutual understanding, and witty verbal workarounds... but those are exactly the qualities you want to foster in a good friendship. My first no-english friendship was with a psychopath, so I may add that if something seems "not right", you should seek other friends.)

    Note that whatever your level of Korean ability, making a lot of English-speaking friends in Korea will hinder your progress.

    참, 이제 맘이 좀 풀렸다. 다시 한국말에 빠지겠습니다! 네이버 뉴스...

  14. I think learning a language can be a combination of a passion and a duty. Like I said, I consider it a duty to learn Korean because of my in-laws, but frankly, Mother is happy enough with my Korean that I could quit right now, maintain my current level, and be done with it. But it's just plain FUN to learn Korean, and I love learning it, so I keep it up. If someone offered me a two-year scholarship to Hawaii to study Korean, my husband and I would be on the plane tomorrow.

    There are also a bunch of jobs in the DC area that require Korean. I know because my husband grumbles each and every time he can't apply for them, because he's not yet a US citizen.

    Henrique, I think you should join a club or sport with only Koreans in it. If you're the only foreigner, you won't have problems finding Korean practice. The first month might be tough because some people will try to speak English to you, but eventually the group will return to their common language. You'll spend a lot of time listening, watching, and finally understanding, stuttering, speaking, and making friends.

    The best advice a former expat gave me before I went to Korea was "find an activity made up of only Koreans and join it." I've seen very few expats do the same, but when it's done, it really makes a difference.

  15. Wow, the comments here have already covered most of what I'd like to say about the benefits of learning Korean. However, approaching five years in Seoul as an English teacher, I'll try to share a few things that haven't been mentioned.

    Henrique made an important comment about Koreans responding only in English to Korean-language queries. This is a very common and sometimes unavoidable scenario. However, I've noticed that if you get beyond the basic level and move on into relative proficiency (not necessarily fluency, but you can carry on a conversation), that scenario becomes much less common.

    I've even developed relationships with some Koreans who speak English well enough, but will engage me in Korean because they support my goals. A couple of years ago I was talking with a student I had asked to help me with Korean. I kept addressing him in Korean and he kept responding to me in English. After a while I just started saying "뭐라고?" to him every time he spoke to me in English. He kept repeating his comment in English, wondering why I didn't seem to understand him. It took a few times for him to get it. Now I have the opposite problem; sometimes I can't get him to talk to me in English when I want him to.

    My Korean level is about intermediate. Don't consider myself fluent, but I can have conversations. My job doesn't officially require any kind of Korean proficiency, but I'd hate to have to navigate my daily administrative stuff without knowing the language. This also applies to my neighborhood, where there are not many English speakers.

    Not everyone will take your pursuit of Korean seriously, but there are several Koreans who will appreciate your effort. Several Koreans have complained to me about the number of foreigners who don't study the language. It does take an enormous amount of self-motivation because sometimes you won't get the support you want from people. But in the long run, they will respect you more and you will be less likely to be taken advantage of in certain situations. Actually this applies to life in any foreign country.

    Many Koreans tend to be irrationally afraid of outsiders. That's not a criticism as much as an observation which many Koreans themselves have admitted to me. If you live and work here, speaking the language goes a long way toward breaking down their standoffishness and negative stereotypes of foreigners. In some cases you'll probably become a listening ear for Koreans anxious to tell you all of the stuff they can't express in English.

    I agree with the other posters that outside of Korea your opportunities to use Korean are more limited, but they're not nonexistent. In this case Korean can be considered like a niche market.

    One more thought about newspapers: Personally magazines, books and Internet blogs are easier for me to read. I've mostly avoided newspaper articles until recently, because I know eventually I will have to read them more often. I like to combine a lot of easy content and a lot of difficult content...that keeps it from getting boring.

    The formal study opportunity is good, but it should be supplemented with real-life content that you enjoy. You probably know that already. :)

    It sounds to me like you've already made significant headway. From this point it can only get better. All the best as you decide what to do.

  16. The question queue is certainly huge! Harald has been studying in the program for a semester and a month now. I haven't talked to him for quite awhile so I don't know how he's doing.

    I'm in the BA version of the program, which is, to a certain extent, similar to the MA version he's in. Before I began my first semester in it I had been studying Korean for all of a year and a half. The more political content was a big challenge for me but I'm almost done with my 2nd year (the BA is 3 years). I've definitely noticed a huge difference in my ability in all areas, although if you want to learn Korean that's much more general and useful for common conversation, look elsewhere.

    If you live in Hawaii, and perhaps in the Korean neighborhoods in other states, knowing Korean can be useful since the job market is starting to open up. JTB hired at least one full-time Korean worker last year because they wanted to cater to the growing number of Korean tourists. I have a friend who has student groups and business people come on a regular basis and sometimes interpreters are needed. He also makes several business trips to Korea every year.

    In Korea I don't usually hear English from store workers even before I open my mouth to say something. On the rare occasion that somebody insists on using English even after it's established that it's not needed, I oblige them. But in my opinion one's experience in Korea can become exponentially better as you learn more and more of the language.

  17. Haha, this is quite mundane, but yesterday i felt good about helping a couple of people shopping for some Korean instant noodles. the prices are not like just listed below the noodles, but instead printed on one piece of paper with all the products' names (in romanized korean) and their corresponding prices so i helped some people match the instant noodle since i can read hangul with the price on the paper :-bd

  18. I thought of this blog today...I went with a friend of mine who is learning English to her school and found that they have an urgent need for Korean-speaking staff to communicate with Korean students and liase with business contacts in Korea.

    I live in ENGLAND by the way, and that's the second job posting requiring Korean language skills I've seen in as many weeks.

  19. Fluency in Korean can land you a job in a Korean factory in the US or some other country.

  20. I've wondered how fluent I need to be before it would be worthwhile to pursue a career in the language. In the past I wanted to teach English to Koreans or Korean to foreigners, but the pay wouldn’t be as high as I need to support my growing family of 10. I was 18 before I started learning it when I lived in Korea 97-01 and I studied diligently during that time. By two years I was learning around 30-40 words on most days. I even studied Han-cha for a bit and had memorized around 400, but have forgotten many since I don’t use them regularly. I scored a 2+ on listening and a 2 on reading in the late 90s. My studies have slowed as my family grew, attending school, and professional education for promotions, so I'm not as fluent as I may have been if I had remained as focused as I was; however, I do speak more Korean than any foreigner I've ever met and a much higher level and clarity of Korean than most Korean's living outside Korea speak English. I can listen and understand most personal conversations and a good amount of church sermons. I plan on translating Korean sermons to English at our church when I get more proficient in that vocabulary. I still get lost in areas I haven’t studied such as news and really technical areas like science. I can speak really well, but my listening fluency is much higher than spoken or written. I’d say I know around 20K words and still listen and look for new useful words and phrases. My ultimate goal is to attain the proficiency of a native Korean. Perhaps then I would feel confident working professionally in Korean.


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