There has never been a better time to learn Korean.
It is one of the fastest growing languages in the world, outpacing traditionally popular competitors such as Chinese in multiple markets – reflecting the global phenomenon many call the “Korean Wave”.
In 2022, Korean was the seventh most studied language on learning app Duolingo, according to the company’s annual language report. It is particularly successful in parts of South and Southeast Asia, as it is the most studied. A foreign language in the Philippines, not far away in Thailand, Indonesia and Pakistan.
Although Chinese—considered for years the language of business in the future—remains the second most spoken language in the world, thanks in part to the massive size of the Chinese population, it has been ranked eighth on Duolingo in recent years. years behind korean.
Korean is the second most studied Asian language on Duolingo, right after Japanese, according to Language Report. Duolingo, which has more than 500 million international users, ranks Koreans ahead of Chinese, Russian, and Hindi, and far behind Italians. English and Spanish still comfortably hold the top two spots.
Experts and educators say this surge of interest is due to the Korean Wave, or Hallyu. Spreading Korean culture internationally.
Over the past two decades, South Korean exports have taken the world by storm, from K-pop and Korean TV dramas to beauty products, fashion, and food. The country has become an international cultural powerhouse — 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 on the crest of the Korean Wave.”
This phenomenon has been aided by the South Korean government, which has been spreading the country’s cultural influence through music and media since the 1990s. Now, the Korean language could be the next export to the world.
“Compared to the beginning of my career, perceptions of Korea as a country, Korean culture and society, and the Korean language have undergone significant positive changes,” said Joowon Suh, director of the Korean Language Program at Columbia University. . “Now it is considered more modern, more advanced, more marketable, cooler and more powerful.”
For decades, East Asian language study abroad was limited to Mandarin Chinese and Japanese.
However, this has started to change over the past decade after major hits by Korean artists and directors, such as the 2012 song Psy. 2019 “Gangnam Style” thriller “Parasite” 2021 Netflix show “Squid Game” and the emergence of BTS, undoubtedly the world’s biggest K-pop stars.
The numbers show an increase in interest in the language over the same period.
The number of students enrolled in Korean language courses at higher education institutions in the United States has increased from 5,211 in 2002 to nearly 14,000 in 2016, according to data analyzed by the Modern Language Association.
This leap is surprising given that the Korean language is not easy to learn for non-native speakers. The US Department of State classifies Korean as a “very difficult language,” meaning that it is “extremely difficult” for English speakers and takes an average of 88 weeks to gain professional proficiency on the job.
Modern Korean follows a phonetic alphabet called hangul, which means that syllables are usually pronounced as they are written, unlike non-phonetic languages such as Chinese, which use symbols to represent specific meanings.
Suh, the Columbia University instructor, said she began noticing a surge of interest around 2015 — but it has accelerated over the past three to four years. She said the number of Columbia University students enrolled in Korean classes increased by 50% between 2017 and 2021.
Other popular languages have either stabilized or declined in numbers over the past decade. For example, enrollment of American students in Chinese language courses rose from 2002 to 2013, a period marked by China’s explosive economic growth and global influence.
But enrollment of Chinese dropped in 2016, according to the Modern Language Association — coinciding with the deterioration of US-China relations and the deterioration in the West’s view of China over its alleged human rights abuses.
“Students’ interest in learning foreign languages in higher education in the United States tends to depend more on a country’s perception or reputation in terms of economics and geopolitics, such as China, Russia or Portugal,” said Suh.
Similarly, in the UK, the number of tertiary students taking Korean language lessons tripled between 2012 and 2018, according to the University Council for Modern Languages — compared with an increase of just 5% for Chinese, and a decrease for many European languages. Like French and German.
The new popularity of Korean was not accidental, as South Korean authorities took the opportunity to promote their language through its most successful export.
“It was hallyu that convinced Asian countries at a societal level that Korea is part of the developed western world,” John Walsh said in his 2014 book about the phenomenon. This shift in perspective, he wrote, in turn strengthened the government’s ability to pursue “national interests in diplomacy, investment, education, and trade.”
Over the past decade, the Ministry of Education has sent Korean teachers abroad, including dozens of teachers to Thailand in 2017 to teach the language in middle and high schools.
In recent years, several countries, including Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, have officially adopted Korean as a foreign language in their school curricula, under agreements signed with the Korean Ministry of Education, according to South Korean press agency Yonhap.
While the government-founded King Sejongune Brand Korean Language Institute has set up 244 learning centers around the world, according to its website.
The Ministry of Education said in a 2017 press release that these efforts aim to “maintain interest in the Korean language abroad, which has become very popular in the Korean Wave.”
She added, “In the long run, Korean lessons in the local school curriculum will be a step to foster Korean experts, thus promoting friendly relations between Korea and other countries.”
Suh warned that the Korean Wave risks oversimplifying the nuances of Korean culture and society, such as regional differences or class struggle, while glorifying “everything (Korean) without fully understanding its story.”
But, she added, this simplification could actually benefit the South Korean government as it expands its influence, which is where “any growing soft power might have to go.”
Experts say students come to the table for different reasons to learn Korean — though some trends emerge across regional and ethnic lines.
“The Korean wave is a big factor for non-heirloom students,” Suh said, referring to those who have no Korean ethnicity or heritage and 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 says — for example, wanting to live in South Korea, better connect with their communities and families, or explore their Korean identity.
Jeong Lee, assistant professor in the Department of East Asian Studies at New York University, pointed to the rise of social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok. She said it 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.
She said 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.”
In contrast, Southeast Asian students mainly study Korean to get a job in South Korea, or at a Korean company in their home country, she said, noting the number of Korean brands “that are not only settling in Southeast Asia but also in different countries.” . . »
For example, Korean entertainment giant SM is expanding into Southeast Asia with its new headquarters in Singapore. Meanwhile, Korean convenience store chain GS25 has more than 180 outlets in Vietnam and is expected to launch in Malaysia this year, according to Yonhap.
The expansion of Korean business and pop culture can also attract young people from Southeast Asia to travel to South Korea. Southeast Asians make up more than 40% of foreign students in South Korea and 30% of foreign residents nationwide, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Nearly 40% of its students are exchange students, most of them from the United States, said Jeffrey Holiday, who teaches Korean Linguistics at Korea University in Seoul (with classes in English). He said that these students tend to be college students, only in Seoul for a few semesters, and almost all of them are fans of K-pop culture such as K-pop.
Meanwhile, foreign graduate students — who tend to study there full time and seek work in Korea — largely come from China and Vietnam.
“For me, it was very surprising because when I was in college (in the US) from 1999 to 2003… no one was learning Korean without talking about heritage. I was the only one who wasn’t Korean-American,” he said.
“Since these students are now coming here, they are very focused, very determined, they really want to learn Korean and they are here for that.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Japanese in Duolingo’s report. It is the most studied Asian language on the platform.