Study Abroad Asia – Overcoming the Language Barrier


There are many good reasons to choose Asia as a destination when planning to study abroad. China is an economic power that is in ascendancy, and will be playing an increasingly dominant role in global economic matters in future decades. Likewise, Korea is an economic powerhouse and a center for the creation of new software and gaming technologies (Koreans are among the biggest consumers of computer video games).

There is a major challenge faced when one chooses to study abroad. Korea and China are countries with languages that are exceptionally difficult for Westerners to learn. Chinese dialects, the predominant one of which is Mandarin, are monosyllabic and tonal; Chinese has no linguistic relationship to any Western language. A single phoneme may have up to eight different meanings depending on whether the tone is rising, falling, level, high, low, etc. In addition, there are some 100,000 different pictograms that are difficult for Western eyes to tell apart without extensive study and practice.

The one characteristic of Chinese that is helpful is the fact that the grammar is quite simple. There are none of the conjugations, inflections, word endings, agreements and cases that are part of most Western languages; however, because of the tonal nature spoken Chinese, excellent hearing skills are necessary.

Korean is a language that is completely unrelated to Chinese; whereas the latter is part of the Sino-Tibetan linguistic family (which also includes Burmese), Korean is an Altaic language, distantly related to Turkish, Mongolian and several Central Asian and Siberian languages as well. As such, Korean has many grammatical features that are more familiar to speakers of Western languages. Unlike Chinese, Korean is non-tonal and highly dependent on word order, inflections, verb agreements and context.

Written Korean uses an alphabetic system called Hangul consisting of 14 consonants and 10 vowels. Like Western languages, Korean can be written and read horizontally from left to right; however, it may also be written vertically in rows running top to bottom and organized right to left.

The good news is that English is by default the international language of business, so a great many people in China and Korea have it as a second language. However, the ability to communicate in the language of one’s hosts is considered a courtesy and will put you in very good stead with your hosts (although ironically, many Asians can be suspicious of foreigners who speak their language too well).

There are several excellent programs used by the U.S. State Department and Diplomatic Corps that will help you in preparing to study abroad Korean and Chinese programs such as Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone are moderately-priced and are proven to be highly effective methods of absorbing a new language.

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