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A Surge of US College Students Are Learning Korean Because of K-Pop

The number of university students learning the Korean language in the United States nearly doubled in just 10 years.

by Lia Savillo
07 November 2019, 8:53am

Fans wait for K-Pop group BTS to take the stage in Central Park, May 15, 2019 in New York City. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP.

There’s no denying that Hallyu or the “Korean Wave” has taken over the world. While South Korean pop culture — music, dramas, and beauty products — have been popular in Asia for a while, it has also surged in popularity in western countries in recent years.

If boy band BTS’ sold out concerts in the United States and United Kingdom, or beauty influencers' Instagram posts of their 10-step Korean skincare routines aren’t enough proof, here’s another.

The U.S. Modern Language Association found that partly because of the craze, more students in the U.S. are learning to speak Korean.

It said that between 2006 and 2016, the number of university students enrolled in Korean almost doubled. This was the biggest increase for any language with over a thousand students. It was followed by Arabic and Japanese.

lanuage learning korean united states universities
Graph by Statista.

And the hype is real everywhere. According to The Korea Herald, the Korean government now operates 172 branches of their King Sejong Institute, meant for language learning, around the world. They teach Korean to 57,000 students in 56 countries. This is a huge increase from just 13 institutes in three countries in 2007.

There has also been high demand for the TOPIK, the test that measures Korean proficiency, in recent years. In 1997, there were only 2,200 test-takers who registered to obtain the official certificate, that number is now almost 265,000.

Kang Hyoun-hwa, chief of the King Sejong Institute, told The Korea Herald that she wants to grow the younger generation’s curiosity in learning the language by creating a comprehensive study experience online.

“I want to make self-learning possible from the beginner level, all the way to the very high level, with online classes, level tests and evaluations, individually assigned study coaches, and even a chatbot,” she said.

Her vision has received tremendous support from the government, funding her organization to receive an extra 1 billion won ($878,000) on top of its annual budget.

So far, people can only access basic Korean lessons on the free language-learning app DuoLingo, which has also noted an increase in interest. The app added the language to the platform in 2017, after repeated requests. Korean is now their sixth most popular course. Of the app’s 300 million users, 3.3 million are learning Korean.

“Clearly, K-pop culture is making people want to know more about the country and learn the language,” Kang said.

“But for that curiosity to really develop into a determined and earnest study, which is what’s happening in many countries now, people must have seen future value in it such as job prospects and business opportunities.”

The government is now set to develop a new Korean proficiency test that properly measures one’s ability to communicate in the language since TOPIK only targets those seeking to take up higher education in Korea.

“We have already commissioned a study (for the new test) and are aiming for its launch in two years,” Kang said.

Conversion: 1 KRW = $0.00086

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