Studying at KAIST: How Much Korean Language do You Need?

So, you’re prepared to study at the 3rd ranked best universities under 50 years old huh? Well congratulations! However, I’ve received questions asking me about the language problem at KAIST: that is, whether they’re really going to need to learn korean language at all to study or not. I’ll try to give some background explanation about KAIST itself, and additional information based on my own experience as a graduate student from 2012 to 2014.

About KAIST itself

Among Korean universities that I know, KAIST is one of the readiest to accept international students. It has a functional international student association, international student and scholar support office, free Korean language classes, and a volunteering group where they have native Koreans conduct one on one classes with international students. Major classes are conducted in English, and important notifications also use English so you don’t have to worry about missing any important details. International students also create events periodically, so should you ever want to mingle with students of other nationalities, you can join year end parties, strawberry parties, field trips, anything!

Just for comparison, there are Korean universities out there which don’t conduct English classes, so you just need to do assignments, take exams, and work in labs.  I don’t mean to speak ill, but some universities accept international students only to improve their ranking without the necessary preparations. If you managed to enter KAIST, then you’re in good hands.

So, do I need to learn Korean if I attend KAIST?

Depends. I’ll just give some example cases, and you might fit into one of the cases.

A. You spend all of your time holed up in KAIST. You just commute from your dorm to lab, lecture buildings, and the library. You barely go off-campus until graduation. Then you’ll do just fine without even a tiny bit of Korean language. Although personally I sincerely hope that you don’t fall into this category. Most of the staffs at KAIST speak English, so you’ll be fine. It’s a shame, though. I know this guy who attended KAIST (previously ICC until it merged with KAIST) for 7 years, but can’t even read hangeul. He was an excellent student, but because he was unable to speak Korean he had some difficulties when finding employment.

B. You go around Daejeon, and from time to time travel to other parts of Korea. The most common type (and I think I fall into this category). You don’t have to be fluent in Korean, but you should have some basic conversation skills e.g. asking for price, telling the taxi driver where to go, ask for tickets, etc since most Koreans can’t speak english. For more complicated issues like immigration issues or taxes, it’s OK to ask help from your Korean friends. As a bonus point, learn how to use Naver to find your way around when traveling.

C. You seek employment. Although not always a requirement when applying for a job, it is really vital for your career (and sometimes they ask you to speak in Korean during interview to gauge your ability). There’s a really good chance that not all of your co-workers are fluent in English. As such, they tend to shy away when you try to speak with them in English. This also applies when working in lab with Korean students.  Based from my experience, they’ll appreciate you more if they know that you can speak, or at least attempt to learn Korean. It will really help you get closer to Koreans.

Unfortunately, having a technical discussion in Korean language would be really difficult if you just learn Korean normally. Even students taking intensive one-year course in Korean from zero can’t always speak fluently. If this is your target, then honestly speaking it would be a really huge challenge if you stay for only, say, 4 years and squeeze learning Korean in between your jam-packed schedule. Personally even I feel envious when my fellow labmates are able to have a heated discussion about lab works in Korean language, but they are unable to do so with me due to communication barriers.

So there’s my post. Hope this helps anyone wanting to go to KAIST prepare for their study.

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