Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Why Young Australians (Or Anyone) should consider studying Korean

It will probably surprise most that my journey with Korean actually started out when I was on exchange in China. My university major was Chinese and even my second elective language was not Korean (It was Indonesian). Heck even in high school I took Japanese as an elective course in year 8-9. During that whole period I barely had any knowledge of Korean culture, I had never met a Korean person and the only time I had heard the Korean language was by chance when I watched [My Sassy Girl] late night on SBS Australia.

While on a year exchange program in China I found that many of my Chinese language learning peers were Korean. My particular exchange city (Dalian) was practically full of Koreans - to the extent that at my particular Chinese language school the student body was 70% Korean. Many of my daily interactions, new friends, drinking partners and travel buddies were Korean and from these friendships grew my interest in the Korean language. After the exchange ended I returned to Australia to finish the final 6 months of my degree. 6 months after that I decided to travel to Korea for a gap year to see the friends who I had bonded with so closely in China. The only issue was that I had already invested 4 years and a university degree into learning Chinese with the idea I would be working in some capacity between Australia and China and I needed solid reasons to essential jump across the yellow sea and justify a gap year in Korea rather than returning to China. I did my research at the time and now still 5 years on many of those same reasons that vindicated my decision to visit Korea are applicable to other Australian (and non Australian) students studying Asian languages. 

Here are my reasons for pursuing Korean (Over Japanese and Chinese) which when combined helped me to make my decision. 

The economic opportunities

Australia and Korea - Why Studying Korean is a smart choice

I expect have already lost some of you on this first point because China and Japan are respectively the top two export markets and two way trading partners for Australia. 

But here are the facts for the Korean-Australian economic relationship.

  1. Korea is Australia’s third largest global export market, ahead of India and the US.
  1. South Korea is also Australia’s fourth largest two-way trading partner.(Behind China, Japan and the USA)

The above points were a major factor in my decision to study Korean. I obviously knew about the economic relationship of China and Japan which influenced my initial decision to study Chinese. What I didn't realize and was surprised to learn was of the economic significance of Korea to Australia. If we compare the GDP and population to Japan and China then it is even more significant that these two middle powers could have cultivated such a large economic relationship - and we will continue to do so in many years to come.

Korea will remain a significant market for Australian resources. From sending Iron Ore to Korean Steel Mills (POSCO) to maintain the Korean Shipbuilding Industry (Largest in the world), to the new opportunities in LNG (Korea are the second largest importer of LNG while Australia will become the largest producer come 2018), Australian agricultural produce can be found in a wide variety of Korean produced food products (Check the back of your Ramen packet for 호주산), Australian meat is on the menu of every barbecue restaurant in Seoul, while Wine and Beer exports will continue to grow.

There is also growing investments and joint ventures between the two nations providing exciting job opportunities for Australians. - Projects like Samsung C&T and their involvement in the Roy Hill project in WA. Samsung Heavy Industries building floating LNG facilities for Australian gas projects; Korean Gas Corp and their involvement in two Australian multi-billion dollar LNG projects. POSCO's branch for engineering and construction are also involved in some projects and on the lookout for even more prospective mining JV's. Then there is the lesser known CJ (Entertainment and Food) which is also involved in direct investment in the Australian Agricultural industry to secure produce for it's wide range of perishable products.

Then of course there are the Korean consumer products - Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics, Hyundai Motors, Kia Motors, Daewoo Motors, Sanggyong Motors, Nexen/Gumho/Hankook tyres - all massive multinational companies that have been doing business in Australia for years.

South Korea also remains Australia’s third largest source of student Enrollments – There are roughly around 30,000 students / working holiday makers arriving from Korea every year. Which means plenty of job opportunities in the education industry particularly in international marketing and student enrollments with Australian universities, tafe or language institutes.

All of this is then enhanced with the recent Australia-Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that will further strengthen the highly complementary trade and investment relationship.

Lack of competition (Language Students)

The above economic significance of Korea to Australia isn't as attractive without the fact there is a serious lack of competition for job opportunities in comparison to China and Japan. 

In 2009 before leaving for Korea I did some research into the Korea-Australia relationship. What I managed to find was a statistic that estimated the number of students enrolled in tertiary Korean courses at below 100 nationwide.... BELOW 100! Japanese is one of the most common languages taught at high school in Australia and Chinese courses are arguably the most popular of the Asian languages at University but Korean, however, at the time was really struggling to attract students. My university even shut down its Korean program after years of low enrollments such was the lack of interest.  

To sum it up - We have Australia's 4th Largest trading partner, 3rd largest export market and 3rd largest student enrollment market but only a paltry 100 odd Australian students investing time and money into learning the language and culture. This fact was the tipping point for me and it should be for so many others now enrolled in Asian studies.  The situation isn't unique to Australia either and a similar lack of Interest from American, Canadian, British and European students alike will play to the advantage of anyone deciding to study Korean.

I like to think that my decision to study Korean was the smartest bet in my life based on those above odds. Despite the rise in Korean culture awareness and rising popularity of Korean TV shows, music, food and electronics there still exists this very large gap in the market for Korean speaking, Korean culture understanding Australians. The Australian government has been aware of such shortcomings for some time now and the very generous Australia-Korea foundation (see below) is just one step they have taken to push more young Australians into learning Korean. 

Despite the popularity of Korean culture increasing there will always be the Chinese and Japanese markets attracting away the majority of the competition. I have been incredibly lucky since I started learning Korean but that luck was brought about by being opportunistic and I have no doubt that anyone deciding to study Korean will find bigger and better opportunities than their Japanese / Chinese language student counterparts.

Working Holiday Visa

Working holiday agreements for Australia exist with a few countries and while the agreement with Korea was developed to cash in on the booming Korean working holiday English market it still provides Australians with a unique visa opportunity with which to travel, study and work with relative freedom and minimal starting funds. In 2012 I was interviewed about my experience on the working holiday visa. At the time I was one of 23 Australians on the visa in Korea, while a staggering 15,000 Koreans were in Australia under the program. This figure probably best portrays to date the current imbalance in this significant relationship. The working holiday visa restrictions certainly have some issues Like banning formal English tutoring and the ridiculous Korean minimum wage but regardless; in a country where it is still hard to get working/long term visa's the H1 working holiday program is a unique opportunity. For more information on applying and attaining a H! visa to Korea please visit the Korean embassy website

The visa essentially provides Korean language learners with the opportunity to study Korean without the constraints of a student visa and allows them to learn Korean at non-university academies and or via tutoring which can prove cost effective for short term visitors  To date the visa program is still greatly under-utilized by Australians was another reason that led me to visit Korea on a gap year.

The Australia Korea Foundation

I love the AKF! ( basically because they gave me two, yes two! $5,000 scholarships to study Korean in Korea. I have no doubt I received these scholarships not because I was an outstanding candidate but because they had funds that they needed to expend combined with a lack of applicants. This was more true in 2009/10 but I have since recommended two friends to apply for a scholarship and both my friends were successful. Neither of them were outstanding students or candidates either but what's great about the AKF is they seem to genuinely recognize people who have the passion and desire to learn Korean and develop a unique Australia-Korea career. I applied the first time as an afterthought but without a doubt this scholarship and foundation gave me the opportunity that I don't think I would have been afforded in China or Japan (once again due to competition). If you are considering your future career and language options then a quick visit or even email to the AKF could help with your decision!


  1. Nice article. A lot of this applies to me as well, though I am from the U.S.; e.g. I was able to get POSCO scholarships twice through my university to take Sogang classes over summer vacation. In addition my wife is Korean; anyone even considering wanting a Korean girl/boyfriend would definitely benefit from learning Korean.

    My only qualm would be on the point of "competition." What about all the thousands of Koreans you mentioned who go to school in Australia and live in Australia? (In addition to many who moved there during high school or middle school.)

    1. Thanks for your comments Sean, very insightful and more importantly very useful to readers.

      While there is a significant Korean-Australian population that will to some extent become competition for those same job opportunities I have mentioned, the reality for most Koreans going to study in Australia is that they will simply return to Korea to work in regular positions or stay on in Australia for non-Korea related work.

      To some extent the same will be true for Korean-Australians. Without delving too much into the complex nature of Korean racism; ( Without a doubt to a Korean company operating anywhere in the world they will view a Korean with a different passport as a Korean and hence they don't really become exact competition for the positions applicable to a non-Korean worker. The Australian jobs with Australian companies operating in Korea however won't be as discriminatory and hence for those areas a Korean-Australian does become direct competition. But I would still argue that as a non-Korean that can speak Korean there could still be a bias / preference. I think this would be true for China/Japan as well.

  2. Hi there,
    Just wondering whether you were on the H-1 visa when you applied for the study grants? What did the grant cover in terms of costs (airfares, insurance, tuition etc.) or were you given a lump sum? And would you need to be enrolled in a full-time, part-time, or just any sort of language course at a hagwon perhaps, to be eligible?
    Thanks in advance!

    1. Hi Julia,

      Your visa status will not affect your ability to apply for grants. I had already arranged my H1 visa before I knew about the scholarship which I think is a wise choice in-case you plan to leave for Korea before the grant is paid into your account.

      The grant can cover anything related to your study overseas; they have a list on the website but they note airfares, housing costs, living expenses etc. At the end of the funding period you will be required to fill out a budget and attached receipts of how the money was spent and also provide a short report of your experience. The grant does not require you to be enrolled in any course per say, if you wanted to do a part time course for the year and stretch the money further than it's fine; they just pay you a lump sum $5,000. Just be aware that you must show how you spent the money with legitimate receipts otherwise you could be liable to refund the money.

  3. Great article. Two years ago I was enrolled in Korean classes before it was cancelled due to funding cut. Till now I couldn't find formal class that offered full term korean language course. I guess not many people wanted to learn the language in Adl, but I really hope that soon will change.
    Look up the AKF but i don't think I'm eligible for the grants :(

    1. The University of Adelaide has a fairly strong Korean student community and they also offer Korean classes -

      Take a look on facebook for a Korean student group in Adelaide.

    2. Thanks. Last year, UoA didn't have enough student for their korean language classes hence I couldn't enrol. There's one community in Norwood area which holds informal classes but the timing was not right for me. But will sure contact UoA again :)

  4. Thanks for all your hard work, I've seen your stuff posted on r/korean and now Huffington post I've been enjoying the posts so far.

    I noticed that the AKF grant rounds will open soon, do you have any advice for increasing my chances of being accepted? I've been studying Korean by myself for 14 months will this improve my chances or have no affect? Also did you need proof of your willingness to learn Korean when you applied? (since I've only ever studied by myself all my proof is an Anki deck and my own ability)