The native language in Korea is Korean.
I know that is pretty obvious to most, but I think it cannot be emphasized enough.
According to worlduniversitynews.com about 20 to 40 percent of courses at all Korean universities are taught in English. I take course in this context to mean class not major subject, but I could be wrong. That means the rest are taught in a language other than English (probably primarily Korean, with some language and area studies courses taught in another foreign language).
This article does not give a breakdown for undergraduate versus graduate level courses. I would guess that the percentage of English classes in undergraduate programs is slightly lower and the percentage in graduate programs slightly higher (for any given university).
So what does this mean for you as a potential scholar in Korea?
First, it means that you have a decent chance of selecting a course that is either entirely or partially in Korean.
Next, this article, indirectly, brings up an interesting issue. While some of the programs taught exclusively in English are taught by Korean professors educated abroad, or foreign professors proficient in English, there are also some programs (or courses) taught by native Korean professors who are not as proficient in English, and only using English as a medium of instruction with reluctance.
One of the consequences of this is that while classroom instruction in English may be mandatory, the professors still may prefer Korean outside the classroom. This can affect things such as a professor’s willingness to advise you.
From the letter sent to all students selected for a KGSP scholarship:
“Though a few grantees will take their classes mostly in English throughout their degree course, each one must possess adequate Korean proficiency to join various meetings and seminars, to participate in various research projects, and to live a fulfilling academic and social life in Korea.”
Korean will most likely be necessary or useful at some point in your academic career in Korea, and for those who don’t find an all English program (or aren’t confident in English either) it will be an absolute neccessity.
So NIIED provides a whole year of language study for exactly that purpose, right?
Well yes, that’s true.
BUT, by NIIED’s own admission, prior to 2012 only 60% of participants passed TOPIK level 3 after one year and were able to start their degree programs on time. Of the 40% forced to do an extra six months “a lot” were still unable to achieve level 3 and ultimately had to give up the scholarship.
Now as these language schools get more experience in teaching, and with NIIED’s encouragement making people take the language courses more seriously hopefully the percentage moving on after one year (or less) is increasing, as is the overall level achieved. Hopefully.
Still, I can say from personal experience that TOPIK level 3 is a bare minimum of what you will need to hold a (semi-intelligent) conversation, let alone study for an advanced degree. Even with a level of 5 or 6 (depending on how you got there) you will be at a disadvantage compared to native Korean classmates (in the Korean classes anyway). Things will just take longer and more effort. And, given the curriculum at most language schools, if you start from zero you won’t get as high as 5, unless you put in some serious self study.
So what am I saying?
I’m certainly not saying not to apply for the scholarship, not definitively anyway.
I am saying to consider it very carefully, and take the language issue seriously.
As I have mentioned before, know what you are getting into. Research the language of instruction for your program, but more than that research the professors. Where did they study? How comfortable are they likely to be with English? Pay specific attention to professors you might want to ask to advise you.
And, whether you have decided to take a gamble on a program with courses in Korean or not, don’t wait until you arrive in Korea to start learning the language. If you have found this blog then you have the resources to start learning Korean (the internet). Make use of them! More on that another time…