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Saturday, 20 December 2014

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The Myanmar Times

Korean language winning hearts and minds

IT started with a love story. But now it’s serious business.

Traditionally, young Myanmar people interested in learning a foreign language would plump for English. The second most popular was Chinese, and then Japanese.

But about 10 years ago, language teachers started to notice that another language was coming into vogue. Inspired by the success of the TV soap opera “Autumn in My Heart”, students are increasingly seeking Korean language instruction.

“The main reason students became interested was Korean TV programs,” said Daw Khin Thu Zar, a teacher at the Cheon Korean Language Centre, which opened on Pyay Road in Mayangone township in 2003. “Ever since ‘Autumn in Love’ was broadcast on Myawaddy in 2000, people wanted to know more [about the culture] … so language schools started teaching Korean.”

Now there are many private schools, as well as Yangon University of Foreign Languages (YUFL) and Mandalay University of Foreign Languages (MUFL).

“I got interested in Korean after watching their TV programs. Then I wanted to know more about their culture and customs. I wanted to go and study in [South] Korea, so I took the matriculation exam for university entrance. I worked very hard,” said Ma Khin Thu Zar, who has a degree from MUFL, and who won a special prize at last year’s Korean Speech Contest.

Like Ma Khin Thu Zar, many Myanmar students are now attracted to Korean as much by the prospect of scholarships and jobs as by televised amorous intrigue. Since 2003, the South Korean embassy in Yangon has been organising the Korean Speech Contest. Top contestants receive prizes – as well as a full scholarship to study at a university in South Korea.

“The primary goal of the contest is to motivate people who want to study Korean, and to offer them opportunities. We offer at least two scholarships to study at a [South] Korean university each year. Myanmar students work very hard, so this is a win-win situation,” explained Mr Jae-hwan Kwon, first secretary at the South Korean embassy.

And the number of entrants is growing, he said.

“There are 300 students at MUFL and YUFL each year. There were 21 participants in the preliminary test for 2009, and 43 for 2010. But because of limited resources, we only choose 10 participants for the final every year,” he said, adding that staff at the South Korean embassy study the Myanmar language three times a week.

Additionally, the South Korean education ministry administers the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK) in Yangon and Mandalay every year for those seeking work in South Korea. The test is offered at six levels, for students of varying experience.

“Most of my class work for South Korean companies, and some are going to study or work in South Korea. Things took off in 2008, when South Korea and Myanmar signed an agreement to send Myanmar workers to South Korea with employment permits. You have to pass the Korean Language Test to get a permit,” Daw Kin Thu Zar said.

The two governments signed a new agreement on workers in late October, and the first batch departed in mid-January. Several thousand are expected to travel to South Korea this year.

Some, like Ma Chan Mya Mya Thaw, who won the top prize at the 2010 Korean Speech Contest, are able to use their language skills to find employment here. “It’s very good to be able to speak Korean fluently. Now I’m working as a translator for a KOICA (Korean International Cooperation Agency) project,” she said.

Mr Kwon said employment opportunities for Korean speakers were only likely to expand in coming years. “Myanmar has a lot of natural resources and business opportunities, so [South] Korean companies want to invest here. There will be more job opportunities in the future as the number of Myanmar who speak Korean grows.”

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