There’s never been a better time to learn Korean.
It is one of the fastest-growing languages in the world, overtaking rivals such as traditionally popular Chinese in a number of markets – reflecting a global phenomenon that many call the “Korean Wave”.
In 2022, Korean learning app Duolingo was the seventh most-read language on Duolingo, according to the company’s annual language report. And it is seeing particular success in parts of South and Southeast Asia, as the most studied. Foreign language in the Philippines, and not far from the top spot in Thailand, Indonesia and Pakistan.
Although Chinese – which has been touted as the business language of the future for years – is the second most spoken language in the world, thanks to China’s large population size it has been ranked eighth on Duolingo for many years. . Year, behind Korean.
According to Language Report, Korean is the second most read Asian language on Duolingo, behind only Japanese. Duolingo, which has more than 500 million users internationally, is ahead of Chinese, Russian and Hindi, followed by Korean and Italian. English and Spanish still sit comfortably in the top two spots.
Experts and educators say the surge in interest is thanks to the Korean wave, or “hallyu” – the spread of Korean culture internationally.
From K-pop and Korean TV dramas to beauty products, fashion and food, South Korea’s exports have been seen around the world over the past two decades. The country has become an international cultural gem – so much so that the Oxford English Dictionary added more than 20 words of Korean origin in 2021, saying in a statement, “We are all riding the crest of the Korean wave.”
This trend has been aided by South Korea’s own government, which has worked to spread the country’s cultural influences through music and media since the 1990s. Now, the Korean language may be the next export to go global.
“Compared to when I started my career, I have made a significant, positive difference in perceptions of Korea as a nation, Korean culture and society, and the Korean language,” said Joon Soo, director of the Korean Language Program at Columbia University. Change has come.” . “Now it’s considered more modern, trendy, marketable, cool and hipper.”
For decades, East Asian language study abroad has been largely limited to Mandarin Chinese and Japanese.
But that began to change in the past decade following major hits by Korean artists and directors, such as Psy’s 2012 song “Gangnam Style,” the 2019 thriller “Parasite,” the 2021 Netflix show “Squid.” Game,” and the appearance of BTS, arguably K-pop’s biggest global stars.
The data shows an increase in interest towards the language over the same period.
According to data analyzed by the Modern Language Association, the number of students enrolled in Korean classes at institutions of higher education in the United States increased from 5,211 in 2002 to nearly 14,000 in 2016.
Learning Korean is not easy for non-native speakers, so this leap is surprising. The US State Department lists Korean as a “super-hard language”, meaning it is “exceptionally difficult” for English speakers and takes an average of 88 weeks to become proficient. .
Modern Korean follows a phonetic alphabet called Hangul, which means that phonetic alphabets are generally pronounced as they are written – unlike non-phonetic languages such as Chinese, which have specific Uses symbols to represent meaning.
Soh, the Columbia instructor, said he first started seeing an uptick in interest around 2015 – but it has accelerated over the past three to four years. He said the number of Colombian students enrolled in Korean courses has increased by 50% from the 2017 to 2021 academic years.
Other popular languages have seen numbers either plateau or drop over the past decade. For example, American students enrolled in Chinese classes jumped significantly from 2002 to 2013, a period driven by China’s tremendous economic growth and global influence.
But according to the Modern Language Association, enrollment in Chinese had declined by 2016 – coinciding with a worsening perception of China in the West due to the deterioration of US-China relations and alleged human rights abuses. .
“Student interest in learning a foreign language in American higher education depends more on a country’s perception or reputation in terms of economy and geopolitics, such as China, Russia or Portugal,” Suh said.
Similarly, in the UK, the number of higher education students taking Korean courses tripled from 2012 to 2018, according to the University Council of Modern Languages - compared to just a 5% increase for Chinese, and several European languages such as French. A decrease in and German.
Korean’s newfound popularity was no accident, with South Korean officials jumping at the chance to promote their language on the back of its more successful exports.
John Walsh said in his 2014 book on the phenomenon that “it is Helio who has socially convinced Asian countries that Korea is truly part of the developed, Western world.” This shift in perception has in turn enhanced the government’s “ability to advance national interests in the areas of diplomacy, investment, education and trade,” he wrote.
Over the past decade, the Ministry of Education has sent dozens, including Korean teachers, to Thailand in 2017 to teach the language in middle and high schools.
According to South Korean news agency Yonhap, in recent years, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand have officially included Korean in their school curricula under agreements signed with the Korean Ministry of Education. I have adopted as a foreign language.
Meanwhile, King Sejong Institute, the Korean language brand established by the government, has established 244 educational centers around the world, according to its website.
The Ministry of Education said in a 2017 press release that these efforts are aimed at “sustaining the interest of the Korean language abroad, which has become widely popular with the Korean wave.”
“In the long run, Korean language courses in the local school curriculum will serve as a step to promote Korean experts, and thus strengthen friendly relations between Korea and other countries,” he added. said
Suh warned that the Korean Wave, by defining “anything (Korean) without fully understanding its history”, runs the risk of oversimplifying the nuances of Korean culture and society, such as regional differences or Class conflicts.
But, he added, the easing could actually benefit the South Korean government as it expands its influence, as “any rising soft power might have to go through.”
Experts say students come to the table with different reasons for pursuing Korean — though some trends have emerged across regional and ethnic lines.
“The Korean wave is an important factor for non-heritage students,” Suh said, referring to those without Korean ancestry or heritage who are only interested in Korean cultural products such as movies and K-pop.
Meanwhile, students of Korean descent tend to take Korean classes for more “integrative” reasons, she said — for example, to live in South Korea, to better connect with their communities and families, or to improve their Korean. Finding Identity.
Jeong Lee, an adjunct instructor of East Asian studies at New York University, points to the rise of social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok. He said it has facilitated international cultural exchanges and “greatly affected” the number of Korean learners.
But Lee, who previously taught Korean in Indonesia and South Korea, also noticed differences between students in different parts of the world.
American students tend to learn Korean “because they are more interested in enjoying the culture … and want to talk to their favorite singers or actors,” he said.
In contrast, students from Southeast Asia mostly learn Korean to get a job in South Korea, or at a Korean company in their home country, he said, adding that the number of Korean brands “not only in Southeast Asia but establishing itself in different countries.”
For example, Korean entertainment company SM Entertainment is expanding into Southeast Asia with a new Singapore headquarters. Meanwhile, Korean convenience store chain GS25 has more than 180 outlets in Vietnam, and is set to break ground in Malaysia this year, according to Yonhap.
The expansion of Korean business and pop culture is driving young Southeast Asians to travel to South Korea. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, more than 40% of foreign students in South Korea and 30% of the country’s total foreign residents are Southeast Asian.
Jeffrey Holliday, who teaches Korean linguistics at Korea University in Seoul (whose classes are taught in English), said that about 40% of his students are exchange students, mostly from the United States. These students are undergraduates, in Seoul for just a few semesters, and almost all are fans of Korean pop culture like K-pop, he says.
Meanwhile, their foreign graduate students — who study there full-time and are looking for jobs in Korea — are mostly from China and Vietnam.
This is very surprising to me because when I was in college (in the US) from 1999 to 2003 … there was no one learning Korean who was not a heritage speaker. I was the only one who wasn’t Korean American,” he said.
“Whereas now, these students come here, they’re very focused, very determined – they really want to learn Korean and they’re here for it.”
Correction: A previous version of this story made the mistake of placing the Japanese on the Duolingo report. It is the most read Asian language on the platform.