Reflections on the Benefits of Learning Korean to One’s Career in Korea

** Visit the related discussion on Korea Business Central.

Learning Korean is tough; there are no two ways about it. When I first came to Korea, I planned to conquer Korean in two years and then do the same with Chinese and Japanese after that. I figured that would make me something special. However, it didn't take me long to realize that Korean was the only language of the three in which I'd manage to achieve proficiency, and that improving those skills would be a lifelong project. 

I've met other Westerners who have started along this journey but gotten discouraged. Here's a typical question and my answer to it.

Q: Will Korean skills boost my career opportunities in Korea?

A: I would like to say that the answer is a definite "yes"; however, as with many aspects of life in Korea, the answer is nuanced.

It can be a discouraging reality to accept, but your Korean abilities are not going to fast-track you in your career in Korea. In fact, though Korean skills may work in your favor if competing against someone for a job who doesn't know Korean, it is unlikely your Korean will be a crucial factor in the hiring process, no matter what job you apply for.

In general, if you're from an English-speaking country, you'll likely find your best job opportunities in positions that take advantage of your English abilities, and once that happens, your Korean is no longer an asset; in some cases, it's a disadvantage if your prospective employer is concerned you’ll be more focused on learning Korean than on helping your coworkers and/or students improve their English. Your employer is more likely to appreciate your Korean abilities if they didn't hire you for your English, but your Korean still won't be a key factor in the hiring process.

Way back when I taught English, I remember trying to inject Korean into my classes. Students (understandably) hated that. Later, when working in the LG Group as an editor/writer (and later, off-and-on translator), I was given strict instructions NOT to speak Korean in the office. I recall trying to refer an American friend to a position that had opened up in the company and when I mentioned to the director that my friend was fluent in Korean, he flat out told me nobody cared about that. Even now in my Ph.D. studies at Hanyang University, the semi-frequent job offers I get from the university to teach always involve helping the university fulfill the government-mandated requirement for classes taught in English and I often sense disappointment that I'm so focused on doing my coursework in Korean.

Having said that, I can think of some situations where your Korean skills could be helpful. The first would be where you have been hired for your English skills but where your Korean abilities let you understand and participate in office communications. This may make your more effective and fulfilled in your job. But as a foreigner, you won’t be on a career path to which you can apply this effectiveness and so the main benefit is likely to be found in helping you avoid some of the feelings of isolation that you'd encounter otherwise. But plenty of non-Koreans without Korean skills have managed their way through those situations, so it's not absolutely necessary.

You may also find that your Korean skills let you discover roles that wouldn't otherwise have existed. Your ability to leverage these roles would then be the determining factor in where you go from there. For example, being good at Korean can generate a lot of curiosity and if managed strategically may lead to hidden opportunities. I’ve encountered a few of those, such as being appointed Foreign-Investment Advisor to Gyeonggi Province when the Governor was impressed with my Korean. But networking opportunities are not the same as a career path. Besides, English skills are also a point of curiosity with Koreans and this can open doors, too. Thus, being stubborn in using Korean can close some of those English-oriented doors of opportunity, as well.

One more observation…. Even though speaking Korean is not going to make your career, the longer you spend in Korea without learning the language to a certain degree of proficiency, the more of a drag it may be on you, both personally and professionally. One reason is that Koreans may question your commitment to the country and your diligence if you never move beyond English interactions, and this can affect professional perceptions, too. Thus, speaking Korean may not help much, but not speaking Korean may also not be so great. Eventually, those who don’t learn Korean (and many who do!) end up “moving on” and not sticking around.

Speaking Korean often feels like a “brownie point” earner more than a killer resume skill. It’s a career asset if used strategically, but even that's not easy. And social pressure in Korea can provide a compelling excuse NOT to learn Korean.

I would say that if career opportunities are your primary motivation to learn Korean, then it’s not worth the trouble. The Korean learning process must have deeper value for you in personal ways — such as the satisfaction you get from communicating in a difficult language and cultural context — and that requires a special love for Korea.

When Koreans learn English, they can travel the world and meet people from many countries; when we learn Korean, we can… well, we can travel around Korea and meet Koreans. Ultimately, learning Korean is a niche endeavor that narrows (but deepens) your options. 

** Visit the related discussion on Korea Business Central.

5 Responses

  1. Nate says:

    Steve – I agree that the vast majority of the time, foreigners will not be hired for their proficiency in Korean, as there is enough of that in the country to go around. But as you note, being able to speak the language can really enhance your experience and make you feel included in the group. I had the privilege of working with a great group of Korean co-workers, and while many of them were fluent in English, others were not, and the nature of my work also required some command of Korean. It does really help with building relationships, and becomes invaluable if you need to participate in meetings or interact with clients or co-workers who don’t speak much English.
    As anyone who has made an attempt to learn Korean has discovered, it’s an undertaking that requires serious dedication. I think like many people, I didn’t begin studying Korean with the end goal of using it professionally – it was just something I wanted to do at the time since I was living in the country. And if someone studies with the sole goal of improving their career situation, I think there’s a good chance that they’ll end up frustrated. But if it’s done in conjunction with a genuine interest in the language and in enhancing their overall experience in Korea, I believe it should be a very rewarding and worthwhile endeavor.

  2. Thanks, Nate. I couldn’t agree more!

  3. Matt Perna says:

    Steve,
    Thank you for posting this article! As fate would have it, in about a month I’ll be returning to Korea. Rather than living in the cut (Andong) like last time, this time around I”ll be in the middle of all of it, in Seoul. Among other things, it is my hope to enroll into some type of language program (can you suggest any? Which, if any, did you use?) and swim as deep into the well of Korean fluency as I can. I can understand that a wei-guk’s competency with Korean in Korea isn’t as valuable as one might think, but Steve, how valuable do you believe the versatility with Korean to be in the USA? I’ve also be studying Mandarin Chinese using a program called FLUENZ with the thinking that even a spackling of Chinese listed alongside proficiency in Korean on my resume would turn some heads…. What are your (or anyone elses’) thoughts regarding this?
    Truly,
    Matt 🙂

  4. Matt – Glad to hear you’ll be back in Korea soon. Thanks also for the note. Regarding your questions: 1) I’m afraid I’m not a great reference for the best Korean study program since the only formal study I ever did was a semester of evening classes at Ehwa Womens University way back in 1997. It was fine, but I ultimately decided I could learn as well on my own and stopped. I would think you could learn as well in any program if the coursework is at the right level. Even if the teacher isn’t great, the bulk of your learning will ultimately depend on what you do outside of class anyway. 2) Why in the world would Korean fluency be useful in the USA? To talk to Koreans in Koreatown? You could become a translator or something but other than that, I’d say you’ll need initiative if you’ll find niche opportunities for that. 3) If fluency in Korea is only marginally valuable in a business setting, then mediocre ability will be next to useless. So, if you neglect your Korean study to spend time getting nowhere with Chinese, I doubt you’ll find that useful at all… 🙂

  5. Alex says:

    Hi Steven,
    I found your post interesting. I am an East Asian studies major /political science major. I speak and write fluent Japanese. I learned Japanese in college and study abroad.
    I began learning Korean a few day’s ago and I’ve decided to master the language within a year.
    With political issues between N. Korea and S.Korea, wouldn’t it be a plus to speak Korean if someone wanted a career in foreign relations?

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