What a foreign language is worth

There is a growing appetite among North Korean students to speak foreign languages such as English or Chinese, as many have come to realize such skills lead to better chances of making money through foreign currency earning jobs, Daily NK has learned.

“More people these days believe those who work in trade have better standards of living than provincial Party cadre, so there’s more interest in language skills that can get people into trade companies,” a Daily NK source based in Yanggang Province said on Wednesday. He added, this trend can also be seen among parents, who want their children to have an upper hand in society. “If you’re good at a second language you can get into a good university and get a nice job, so the drive among parents to get their children into special foreign language classes is fierce and in some ways they’re even desperate.”

“Parents who want their children to have good language skills and get a solid job will do anything including selling home assets to make sure they have the support,” the source explained. “Even if this means paying foreign language teachers multiple times more the average cost of raising their kids, many don’t even bat an eye,” he added.

The popularity of foreign languages was first fired up about a decade ago, the source said, following stiffer competition to enter trade companies. “This led to more interest in Chinese and English among college students, and now parents who have middle and high school students are getting their kids into the game, so they can gain admission to prestigious universities,” he said.

The greater desire to learn second languages also has to do with Chinese TV dramas and other cultural content students are exposed to. Especially for students who live in areas bordering with China, they encounter more situations in which they would benefit from learning Chinese, according to the source. This is why parents in the border areas want their children to learn Chinese over English.

“Some college students are staying behind at their schools instead of returning to their hometowns during summer vacation so they can study Chinese harder,” said the source. Success cases such as one recent incident in which a trade company hired a college graduate from Yanggang Province’s Hyesan Central University after the student had studied Chinese extensively further fuel this passion, according to the source.

“People now think that it’s wise to study for jobs that are more lucrative,” the source explained. “In the case of Yanggang Province, given its proximity with China, I think this effort to learn Chinese will continue on,” he speculated.

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Kang Mi Jin
Kang Mi Jin is a North Korean defector turned journalist who fled North Korea in 2009. She has a degree in economics and writes largely on marketization and economy-related issues for Daily NK. Questions about her articles can be directed to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.