5 Reasons Learning Asian Languages is a Waste of Time
Many dream of international careers and being able to escape the 9 to 5 grind in their home countries - or at the very least, having exciting adventures overseas working in Asia. And certainly, the region is more important than ever, both in terms of economics and soft power.
But for those with an interest in East Asia, will learning the languages open up doors for you that would be closed otherwise? It isn't impossible, but for a number of reasons you might find it more difficult than expected.
Disclosure - this author is most familiar with working in South Korea and Japan, where I spent several years in both ESL and non-teaching jobs. I am not quite as familiar with China, and I welcome any comments, corrections, or discussion regarding finding non-teaching and career jobs in Asia.
I also realize that bilingual skills in Asia will definitely open some doors for you, and that finding a job isn't impossible. However, in this article I'd like to present some counter-arguments for learning Asian languages.
1. Jobs in Asia Don't Pay Very Well
Some expats start off with teaching English in Asia, with hopes of moving on to non-teaching jobs eventually. Those that do may be shocked to find that they could be taking a massive pay cut depending on the job. Again, it depends on your skill set; those with exceptional resumes or in-demand skills have more opportunities available.
The best example of this is the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme, or JET for short. JET participants teach English and work in government offices depending on their position, and get generous salary and benefits, including free airfare and subsidized housing.
Many participants stay in Japan, hoping to continue teaching ESL or find a non-teaching job only to find out that life after JET will be more financially difficult for them, being forced to take paycuts of at least several hundred USD if not more. I've even seen job positions listed online that pay only two thousand dollars a month without benefits.
A similar story can be seen in South Korea; ESL teachers there as a general rule get benefits like housing and airfare, neither of which will be provided in other jobs. An acquaintance of mine took a significant paycut to work with a major Korean company because they didn't provide housing. My understanding is that jobs in China pay well in local terms, but because the exchange rate is so low, those with financial obligations in their home countries have a difficult time meeting them.
2. Job Opportunities in Asia are Few, and aren't Secure
Career jobs in Asia, at least for those having bilingual skills and little else, are few and far between. It is the case for minorities anywhere that discrimination exists in the job hunt, and foreigners in Asia have to have really impressive resumes to even be considered. Even then, many will be limited to temporary or contract positions with no opportunities for career growth.
Working in Japan is an excellent example of this; most non-Japanese are in fields such as education, headhunting, and translation, and very few have jobs with career tracks. It's also common for contracts to have limits of 5 years. This is due to Japanese law; any temporary worker who has been employed for more than five years has to become a permanent employee, or seishain. Either because of discrimination or to save money by bringing in less experienced workers, many positions in Japan have such limitations.
English teaching is the most common way for people to work in the country; many dream of entering an Eikaiwa (English Conversation) teaching position for a few years, work on their language skills, and moving on to something different. However many do not get the chance, either because of lack of opportunities or lack of skills other than the local language.
My experience with expats working in South Korea was even worse; few were in fields outside of teaching English. Many people I knew in non-teaching jobs either had extremely specialized skills, or were transfers from their companies overseas. Any job requiring bilingual English and Korean skills is likely to go to an overseas Korean instead of a non-Korean fluent in the language. The opportunities that exist even in Japan for jobs in translation and headhunting are very rare in Korea.
3. Even Overseas Companies in Asia Want Native Speakers
Another knock against learning languages for working in Asia is that even overseas companies will prefer native speakers. Popular online Japanese job boards for expats and bilinguals will overwhelmingly have job postings for native Japanese speakers only. You also have to fill in your exact Japanese level, and if you don't have the level a company wants you can't even apply.
Applying for jobs through other sites without such systems will often lead to similar results. I once found a position on a Japanese job board for an overseas company that sounded really good, but listed "native Japanese" as one of its requirements. I looked up the position on the company's site, applied for it through there, and was sent a polite declination a few weeks later.
The bias for native speakers of Asian languages is largely because of how different the cultures are from Western countries, and the perception that only natives can truly understand them, regardless of how long a foreigner has lived in his host Asian country. This perception serves to limit non-native speakers to certain fields such as translation, where navigating cultural differences in an office setting may not be as important.
4. It is a Massive Time Investment
Learning Asian languages to a professional level will take you many years and hundreds of hours of study. Japanese and Chinese are particular are notorious for their complex writing systems; several thousand characters each with distinct readings and meanings. The Korean language, which is much easier to read and write thanks to hangeul, its alphabet, is still complex grammatically and a challenge for non-native Korean speakers to pronounce.
And that is fine when you are doing it for personal interest, but even those dreaming of overseas careers would be better to use that time to learn other skills. You simply are not getting a huge return on investment, professionally, by learning East Asian languages, as truly high paying and secure work will still require other skills as well.
5. Working Conditions Aren't Always Great
Each culture is different, but in general East Asian workplaces are infamous for their long hours, less than stellar pay, and frequent social obligations outside of the office. Japan and South Korea in particular are notorious for this, the former with salarymen almost literally worked to death, and the latter with its high rates of alcohol abuse and after-office parties.
And again, as a foreigner you will likely be in a temporary or contracted position that doesn't have the same benefits as your coworkers. Many Japanese workplaces offer bonuses to their lifetime employees, for example, that temporary workers don't enjoy the benefit of.
On the other hand, the perception of foreigners as temporary guests or hired hands also means that they are not always held to the same strict standards as their Asian counterparts. A good example would be the expectation of high hours of unpaid overtime (called service overtime in Japanese). Of course some companies do hold foreigners to the same standards.
You Should Still Learn Asian Languages - for Personal Satisfaction
Learning foreign languages is never truly a waste of time. Regardless of your reasons, speaking another language is an excellent skill that will broaden your horizons and make you more empathetic of people from other cultures. It makes traveling easier and also gives you access to a wealth of literature, entertainment, and pop culture from around the world.
As someone who has lived in Asia for several years, I can also understand the appeal of the region. Living in both South Korea and Japan has been an excellent and enriching experience despite all the difficulties, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.
Still, those who are seeking higher paychecks or increased job opportunities would do well to study something else - as discrimination and lack of long-term careers put a limit on the jobs in Asia for foreigners.