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Learning Korean As An ESL Teacher In Korea. Why Bother?

Updated on June 16, 2015

Should I Learn the Language?

Having lived in Korea for the last few years now this seems to be a topic discussed by the expatriate community throughout Korea. Is it worth learning the language? Should I even bother if I'm not planning to stay? And for those who haven't made the plunge to work or visit Korea, do I need it?

It's Situational

To advise everyone not to learn the language is a huge mistake that anyone can make before traveling to another country for many reasons. For those looking to work in Korea, English can really get you far in major cities, to the point where I can go days without speaking a lick of Korean.

For example, the five biggest cities in South Korea, Seoul, Busan, Incheon, Daegu, and Daejeon have a wealth of English everywhere. Public transportation signs are written in English with English announcements.Korail, the major train service connecting the vast majority of Korea also provides multilingual service.

Most chain restaurants will also provide English menus, and even some smaller restaurants have poorly translated English menus, but still easily understood, or at the very least pictures in menus make it easy to simply point and order.

Hospitals and dental work in these major cities are a breeze as English speaking care providers will openly advertise their ability to communicate and draw in more business.

As for finances, I haven't been to a bank yet in Korea that didn't have at least one staff member that spoke English. Korea Exchange Bank (KEB) is foreigner friendly and many employees there speak English making wiring money home, setting up bank accounts and to a lesser extent credit cards easy as well.

So as an English speaker in one of these cities you could very easily get by without knowing any Korean.

For those who live in smaller cities the need for Korean or at least a translator maybe more of a necessity as the more qualified and to some extent educated people move to major cities for better job perspectives. In smaller cities, transportation is typically only in Korean as well as most of what I previously mentioned. Taking intercity buses are also not very English friendly so some basic knowledge of Korean will be useful.

Well, Should I Learn It?

I do not think one person would argue against learning a language. There are so many benefits to language learning, but it ultimately boils down to the time spent/invested and if you're enjoying the language. Of course, many will say learning the language will bring you closer to the culture, make daily life easier and more enjoyable, to which I say if learning brings you happiness then more power to you.

At the jobs that I have held so far while in Korea, every employer only wanted me to speak English to my learners and left any Korean communication to my co-teacher or office staff. That's not to say that I didn't understand what they were saying, I just chose not to respond in Korean. When I worked with adults, they appreciated the fact that I knew some Korean but of course were there to learn English not converse in Korean therefore only English was spoken unless something wasn't clearly understood. Therefore if you plan to be an ESL Teacher in Korea it isn't going to help you with your job if you learn the language, but in fact maybe condoned to use it while in the classroom.

Ok, I Want to Learn Korean Still, How Should I Approach Learning It?

There are so many tools out there now to learn the language, some more beneficial to one set of learners over the other, and also targeting a specific type of the language you want to learn.

First and foremost, before you learn anything, learn written Korean, Hangul. Seriously, it is so easy to learn how to read it you can do it on the 10 hour plane ride to Korea.

One of my favorite resources that laid it out nicely and playfully is a comic strip by Ryan Estrada: Learn to Read Korean in 15 Minutes.

After you have learned how to read Korean, you will begin to understand so much more due to the "loan words" from English. Things like, chicken, pizza, cookie, hamburger, are adapted to Korean and are nearly identical. Bonus points to those who know Japanese or Chinese as words are borrowed from these languages too!

Learn to Read Korean in 15 Minutes


Ok, I've Learned How to Read it, Now What?

Now that you have learned how to read Korean, the next step is communicating in Korean. One of my favorite sites to use is: Free to use these lessons are well laid out in audio podcasts with supplemental material to go along with it. Going from super basic Korean up to Advanced they will keep you busy for a longtime and well worth the investment if you want to learn spoken Korean. They also have Smartphone apps and books to go along with their lessons. I highly recommend trying it out.

Talk To Me In Korean


So Now What?

Beyond this point, you should have a clear goal to your language learning or ambitions to continue learning Korean or not and whether to visit, live, or go elsewhere. Beyond Korea, knowing Korean will not be terribly useful unfortunately outside of the major populations of Koreans living abroad in China, Japan, the U.S. and Canada. Yes, some major Korean corporations are global powerhouses, think Samsung, LG, Hyundai and KIA, but Korean just isn't as widely spoken as other languages. So it once again boils down to:

Should I learn the language?

How Is Your Korean?

Do you, or have you studied Korean?

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