There’s never been a better time to learn Korean.
It is one of the fastest growing languages in the world, overtaking traditionally popular rivals like Chinese in several markets – reflecting the global phenomenon that many call the “Korean Wave”.
In 2022, Korean was the seventh most-studied language on the Duolingo learning app, according to the company’s annual language report. And it is particularly successful in parts of South and Southeast Asia, because the most studied foreign language in the Philippines, and not far from first place in Thailand, Indonesia and Pakistan.
Although Chinese – which for years has been considered the business language of the future – remains the second most spoken language in the world, thanks in part to the size of the Chinese population, it has held eighth place on Duolingo for several years. years. years, behind Korean.
Korean is the second most studied Asian language on Duolingo, just behind Japanese, according to the Language Report. Duolingo, which has more than 500 million users worldwide, ranks Korean ahead of Chinese, Russian and Hindi, and behind Italian. English and Spanish still comfortably occupy the top two spots.
According to experts and teachers, this surge in interest is due to the Korean wave, or “hallyu” – the proliferation of Korean culture internationally.
Over the past two decades, South Korean exports have swept the world, from K-pop and Korean TV dramas to beauty products, fashion and food. The country has become an international cultural juggernaut – 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 phenomenon has been aided by South Korea’s own government, which has been working to spread the country’s cultural influence through music and media since the 1990s. Now the Korean language could be the next export to come. globalize.
“Compared to when I started my career, perceptions of Korea as a nation, Korean culture and society, and the Korean language have undergone a significant and positive change,” said Joowon Suh, director of the Korean language program at Columbia University. . “Now it’s seen as more modern, advanced, marketable, cooler and hipper.”
For decades, East Asian language studies abroad were mostly limited to Mandarin Chinese and Japanese.
But that’s started to change over the past decade after big hits by Korean artists and directors, such as Psy’s 2012 song “Gangnam Style,” the 2019 thriller “Parasite,” the Netflix show of 2021’s “Squid Game” and the emergence of BTS, arguably the world’s biggest K-pop stars.
The figures show a resurgence of interest in the language over the same period.
The number of students enrolled in Korean courses at institutions of higher education 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 striking considering that Korean is not easy to learn for non-native speakers. The US State Department classifies Korean as a “super hard language”, meaning it is “exceptionally difficult” for English speakers and takes an average of 88 weeks to achieve professional fluency.
Modern Korean follows a phonetic alphabet called Hangul, which means 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 instructor, said she started noticing an increase in interest around 2015 — but it’s accelerated over the past three to four years. The number of Columbia students enrolled in Korean classes increased by 50% between the 2017 and 2021 academic years, she said.
Other popular languages have seen their numbers plateau or drop over the past decade. American students enrolled in Chinese courses, for example, increased dramatically from 2002 to 2013, a period marked by China’s massive economic growth and global influence.
But Chinese enrollment had plummeted in 2016, according to the Modern Language Association – coinciding with deteriorating US-China relations and a worsening perception of China in the West over its alleged human rights abuses.
“Student interest in learning foreign languages in American higher education depends more on the perception or reputation of a country 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 courses tripled from 2012 to 2018, according to the University Council of Modern Languages – compared to an increase of just 5% for the Chinese, and a decline in several European languages such as French. and German.
Korean’s newfound popularity was no accident, as South Korean authorities jumped at the chance to promote their language through its more successful exports.
“It was Hallyu that persuaded Asian countries on a societal level that Korea is truly part of the developed western world,” John Walsh said in his 2014 book on the phenomenon. This change in perception has in turn strengthened the government’s ability to pursue “national interests in the areas of diplomacy, investment, education and trade”, he wrote.
Over the past decade, the Ministry of Education has sent Korean teachers abroad, including several dozen to Thailand in 2017 to teach the language in middle and high schools.
In recent years, many 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 the agency. South Korean press Yonhap.
Meanwhile, King Sejong Institute, a government-funded Korean language brand, has established 244 learning centers around the world, according to its website.
These efforts are aimed at “maintaining interest in the Korean language overseas, which has become very popular with the Korean Wave,” the Ministry of Education said in a 2017 press release.
“In the long term, Korean language lessons in the local school curriculum will serve as a stage to encourage Korean experts and thus strengthen friendly relations between Korea and other countries,” he added.
Suh warned that the Korean Wave runs the risk of oversimplifying the nuances of Korean culture and society, such as regional differences or class conflict, while glorifying “everything (Korean) without fully understanding his history”.
But, she added, this simplification could actually benefit the South Korean government as it expands its influence, as something “any growing soft power might have to go through.”
Experts say students come to the table with various reasons for pursuing the Korean language — although some trends have emerged across regional and ethnic lines.
“The Korean wave is a big factor for non-heritage students,” Suh said, referring to those who don’t have Korean ethnicity or heritage and are simply interested in Korean cultural products like movies and K-pop.
Meanwhile, students of Korean descent tend to take Korean classes for more “integrative” reasons, she said – for example, wanting to live in South Korea, better connect with their communities and their families, or exploring their own Korean identity.
Jiyoung Lee, an assistant professor in the Department of East Asian Studies at New York University, pointed to the rise of social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok. These have facilitated international cultural exchanges and “largely influenced” the number of Korean learners, she said.
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’re more interested in the culture…and want to talk to their favorite singers or actors,” she said.
In contrast, Southeast Asian students mainly study Korean to get a job in South Korea, or in a Korean company in their home country, she said, noting the number of Korean brands “who settle not only in Southeast Asia but also in various countries”. .”
For example, Korean entertainment giant SM Entertainment is expanding into Southeast Asia with a new headquarters in Singapore. Meanwhile, Korean convenience store chain GS25 has more than 180 outlets in Vietnam and is expected to open in Malaysia this year, according to Yonhap.
The expansion of Korean business and pop culture may also push young Southeast Asians 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.
Jeffrey Holliday, who teaches Korean linguistics at Korea University in Seoul (with classes taught in English), said about 40 percent of his students are exchange students, mostly from the United States. These students tend to be undergraduates, only in Seoul for a few semesters, and almost all of them are avid fans of Korean pop culture like K-pop, he said.
Meanwhile, its foreign graduate students — who tend to study there full-time and seek employment in Korea — come largely from China and Vietnam.
“For me, it’s so surprising because when I was in college (in the United States) from 1999 to 2003…there was no one who learned Korean without speaking traditional. I was the only one who wasn’t Korean American,” he said.
“While now these students come here, they’re very focused, very determined – they really want to learn Korean and they’re here for that.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misrepresented the placement of Japanese in the Duolingo report. It is the most studied Asian language on the platform.