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 such as Chinese in many markets, reflecting a global phenomenon that many call the “Korean Wave.”
According to the company’s annual report, in 2022 Korean was the seventh most studied language on the Duolingo learning app. It is particularly successful in some of the most studied regions of South and Southeast Asia It is a foreign language in the Philippines, and it is the leading language in Thailand, Indonesia and Pakistan.
Touted as the business language of the future for years, Chinese remains the world’s second most spoken language, but thanks in part to China’s large population, it ranks eighth on Duolingo. years behind the Korean language.
According to the Language Report, Korean is the second most studied Asian language on Duolingo, just behind Japanese. With more than 500 million international users, Duolingo ranks Korean ahead of Chinese, Russian and Hindi, and behind Italian. English and Spanish still sit comfortably in the top two spots.
According to experts and teachers, this growth in interest is due to the Korean wave, or “hallyu” – the spread of Korean culture internationally.
Over the past two decades, South Korean exports have swept the globe, from K-pop and Korean TV series to beauty products, fashion and food. The country has become an international cultural juggernaut – so much so that the Oxford English Dictionary will add more than 20 Korean-derived words in 2021, saying, “We’re all riding the crest of a Korean wave.”
This phenomenon has been aided by South Korea’s own government, which since the 1990s has tried to promote the country’s cultural influence through music and media. Now the Korean language may be the next export to go global.
Juwon Suh, director of the Korean Language Program at Columbia University, said, “Compared to when I started my career, the perception of Korea as a nation, Korean culture and society, and the Korean language have undergone significant, positive changes. . “Now it’s perceived as modern, advanced, marketable, cool and hipper.”
For decades, the study of East Asian languages abroad was mainly limited to Mandarin Chinese and Japanese.
But that’s starting to change over the past decade with big hits from Korean artists and directors, such as Psy’s 2012 song Gangnam Style, the 2019 thriller Parasite, the 2021 Netflix show Squid Game, and the emergence of BTS. The world’s biggest K-pop stars.
Indicators show that interest in the language has grown over the same period.
The number of students enrolled in Korean classes at universities in the United States rose from 5,211 in 2002 to nearly 14,000 in 2016, according to an analysis by the Modern Language Association.
This jump is surprising because learning Korean is not easy for non-native speakers. The US State Department lists Korean as a “very difficult language,” meaning it is “exceptionally difficult” for native English speakers, and it takes an average of 88 weeks to achieve professional proficiency.
Modern Korean follows a phonetic alphabet called Hangul, meaning that syllables are mostly pronounced as they are written – unlike non-phonetic languages such as Chinese, which use symbols to represent specific meanings.
Suh, the Columbia instructor, said he first noticed an uptick in interest in 2015, but it has accelerated over the past three to four years. The number of Columbia students enrolled in Korean courses increased by 50% from 2017 to the 2021 academic year, he said.
Other popular languages have seen plateaued or declining numbers in recent decades. For example, the number of US students enrolled in Chinese classes jumped significantly between 2002 and 2013, marked by China’s tremendous economic growth and global influence.
However, according to the Modern Language Association, as of 2016, acceptance of the Chinese language has declined — coinciding with the deterioration of US-China relations and a worsening perception of China in the West over human rights abuses.
“Students’ interest in studying a foreign language in higher education in the United States depends more on the country’s prestige or reputation in terms of economics and geopolitics, such as China, Russia or Portugal,” Suh said.
Similarly, in the UK, the number of university students taking courses in Korean tripled between 2012 and 2018, according to the University Modern Languages Council – Chinese increased by 5% and several European languages such as French decreased. and German.
The newfound popularity of the Korean language is no accident, with South Korean authorities jumping at the chance to promote their language thanks to its successful exports.
“This Hallyu has publicly convinced Asian countries that Korea is indeed part of the developed, Western world,” John Walsh said in his 2014 book on the phenomenon. This shift in perception, in turn, increased the government’s ability to pursue “national interests in diplomacy, investment, education, and trade,” he wrote.
Over the past decade, the Ministry of Education has sent Korean teachers overseas, including several dozen in 2017 to Thailand to teach the language in middle and high schools.
According to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, in recent years many countries such as Laos, Myanmar and Thailand have officially accepted Korean as a foreign language in their school curriculum under agreements signed with the Korean Ministry of Education.
Meanwhile, the Korean Sejong Institute, a government-backed Korean-language brand, has established 244 study centers around the world, according to its website.
These efforts are aimed at “maintaining overseas interest in the Korean language, which has become widely popular with the Korean wave,” the Ministry of Education said in a 2017 press release.
“In the long run, Korean language courses in the local school curriculum will be a step to educate Korean professionals and thereby strengthen friendly relations between Korea and other countries,” he added.
Suh warned that the Korean Wave risks oversimplifying nuances of Korean culture and society, such as regional differences or class conflicts, and glorifying “anything (the Korean language) without fully understanding its history.”
However, he added, this simplification could benefit the South Korean government as it expands its influence because “any growing soft power can come through.”
Experts say students come to study Korean for a variety of reasons – but certain trends have emerged along regional and ethnic lines.
“The Korean Wave is an important factor for non-heritage students,” Suh said, referring to those who have no Korean nationality or heritage but are simply interested in Korean culture such as movies and K-pop.
Meanwhile, students of Korean descent take Korean language classes for more “integrative” reasons, he said — such as wanting to live in South Korea, better connect with their communities and families, or explore their own Korean identity.
Jiyung Lee, an adjunct professor of East Asian Studies at New York University, noted the rise of social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok. It facilitated international cultural exchanges and had a “huge impact” on the number of Korean language learners, he 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 learn Korean because they are “more interested in enjoying the culture…and wanting to talk to their favorite singers or actors,” he says.
In contrast, students in Southeast Asia often study Korean in order to get a job in South Korea or at a Korean company in their home country, he said, noting that the number of Korean brands “have established themselves not only in Southeast Asia, but also in different countries. .”
For example, Korean entertainment giant SM Entertainment 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 set to open in Malaysia this year, Yonhap reported.
The expansion of Korean business and pop culture may encourage Southeast Asian youth to visit South Korea. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Southeast Asians make up more than 40% of foreign students in South Korea and 30% of foreigners in the country.
Geoffrey Halliday, who teaches Korean linguistics at Korea University in Seoul (which is taught in English), said that about 40% of his students are exchange students, many of them from the United States. These students will only be undergraduates in Seoul for a few semesters, and almost all are fans of Korean pop culture, such as K-pop, he says.
At the same time, its foreign graduate students – students studying there full-time and looking for work in Korea – are mainly from China and Vietnam.
“It’s very surprising to me because when I was in college from 1999 to 2003 (in the US), there was no one who studied Korean. “I wasn’t the only Korean American,” he said.
“And now these students come here, they’re very focused, they’re determined — they want to learn Korean, and they’re here to do it.”
Edit: A previous version of this story misstated Japanese in the Duolingo report. It is the most studied Asian language on the platform.