Fans Don't Need to Know Korean to Enjoy K-Pop, But it Helps
Korean class enrolments rose by 13.7% between 2013 and 2016, making it the 11th most studied language in the US. How much of this is to do with K-pop?
Lead illustration by Lord Izzy
Welcome! This is a monthly column where I’ll be talking about the many sides of K-pop and its fandom, from the perspective of both a writer and a long-time fan. Thanks for reading, and see you again soon, when the idols have next released an unspeakable number of new official things and we’ve responded with 1,000 niche memes.
Valerie, a 25-year-old from the Netherlands, loves music even when she can't necessarily understand every word sung it in. Well, not yet. Valerie – a BTS, EXO and Blackpink fan – is one of tons of K-pop fans who have have started out not knowing a word of Korean, but are changing that. Ultimately, “I don't think language adds a barrier,” she says. “It just adds another layer of cultural significance in my eyes. It made me realise what affect language has on music – do I need to understand what's been said to enjoy it? I realise I don't. But if I do find songs I like, I tend to look up translations, especially if the message of the song is something I can relate to.”
If you’ve been in the international K-pop fandom for longer than a couple of seconds, it’s safe to assume you’ve thought at least a little bit about the importance of language. It’s everywhere: in the in-jokes, the variety TV shows that are yet to be subtitled and the access to content in group-specific websites like BTS’ Fancafe. It’s also there in the criticism of the artists we love – in the barely-veiled racism and xenophobia of people who patronise idols, make fun of lyrics and who question the depth of young women’s understanding of their favourite music, as if it’s that difficult to get a translation online nowadays, or understand a feeling that exists beyond words.
Other outlets have already started to credit K-pop with the driving an increased interest in the Korean language. In addition, a report by the Modern Language Association showed a growth in Korean class enrolments by 13.7 percent between 2013 and 2016, making Korean the 11th most studied language in the US, while overall language enrolment was in decline. But the relationship between K-pop and language learning goes far beyond a classroom.
“The interest to learn Korean has always been there – it’s not like BTS or other famous groups are responsible for making people learn it,” clarifies Hyunwoo Sun, founder of Talk To Me In Korean, an award-winning multi-platform Korean learning service, used by fans worldwide. “However, it has made the learners job a little easier. In 2019, a learner can go online and connect with a fellow BTS ARMY member, and that’s a bigger motivation to learn. It’s easier for them to show their interest and be understood by other people. it’s not such a strange thing to talk about anymore.”
Katy, a 25-year-old multi-group fan from the UK, is currently studying Korean at university. “I decided to start learning Korean because I wanted to be able to understand what the lyrics of the songs meant and what idols were saying on entertainment shows,” she tells me. “I started learning words here and there and I was kind of sucked in. It was only a few months before I bought my first workbook for teaching myself Korean.”
Although you inevitably pick up some words along the way when listening to K-pop, many fans are especially thankful and quick to mention their appreciation for fan translators, who spend hours voluntarily making tweets, videos and releases more accessible to non-Korean speakers. Online one such translator goes by @Alittlefreakey (the personal name she gives me is 'S'). And she's a SHINee fan who runs a Twitter account supporting all members, but especially focused on her bias, Key.
“I'm Korean-American, but I didn't learn much Korean growing up because my parents are both fluent in English,” S says, when I ask what made her want to start learning the language. “I realised I needed to improve my Korean when I couldn't communicate as well as I wanted with my extended family. Translating [SHINee videos] was a fun alternative to Saturday language classes. I've been a Shawol [name given to SHINee fans] since their debut and learned how to sub videos specifically to help SHINee grow their international fanbase as rookies [the name given to a group that just debuted].”
S has been translating since 2009, returning after a long break to support Key during his recent solo releases. Seeing the fandom grow motivates her time-consuming work translating, but she is also especially conscious and quick to highlight the responsibilities that fan translators hold. She tells me she wishes “more fans who post translations understood that there’s a certain responsibility that comes with being a ‘fan translator’. International fans who don’t know Korean rely on us for information, so we should be very careful about our sources and the accuracy of our translations. Bad translations hurt more than no translations.”
She's right – it is not unusual for misinformation to spread quickly on Twitter due to a mistranslated remark, which is obviously far from ideal, sometimes even harmful. But contextualising quotes doesn’t just begin with reading – often, cultural aspects of songs need to be clarified, and entire outlets dedicate themselves to bridging this specific gap. One example of this is Danny and David Kim’s popular “Explained by a Korean” YouTube series, in which they thoroughly break down references and wordplay that an international audience might’ve otherwise missed.
However, beyond K-pop and Korean, and whether Western outlets would like to acknowledge it or not, language has always played a part in fandom for those of us who were raised speaking something other than English. As a Brazilian and native Portuguese speaker, I attribute my fluency in English largely to fandom, and my love of punk bands from California as a teenager. During those long-gone years of horrendous eyeliner decisions, I spent hours looking up translations and watching subtitled documentaries. This dedication seemed natural to me: I liked these bands and their music, so I wanted to learn more about them. So why would it be so baffling, as some English speaking people suggest, that K-pop fans would want to learn Korean?
“I think the misconceptions [about K-pop fans] are gendered, more than anything,” says Yady, a 24-year-old BTS, EXID and Twice fan from the US, whose native language is Spanish. “I know there are smaller fan groups of foreign language media in the US, but they’re largely male dominated – such as international film and even ‘world music’. But because K-pop fans are portrayed as young girls, people can’t wrap their heads around the possibility that girls are savvy and layered and have – at least – mastered the art of Google Translate.”
Most people in of the worldwide K-pop fandom are aware and proud of its unique linguistic diversity, both within their favourite groups and in online forums. K-pop fans also seem noticeably ready to help each other out when it comes to comprehension, whether that be knuckling down to help someone understand be a news article discussing their bias’ favourite hair products or untangling a more complex political landscape.
That said, it's not all joy and light. It can become grating when non-Korean fans fetishise Korean terms, or demand an English song from Korean artists. “I think there’s something satisfying about hearing the voices you’ve grown to love to speak in a language you understand,” says Yady who, like other fans, acknowledges that the prevalence of English requests is usually not malicious, but rather misguided. “I think there’s also a desire from the western industry to kind of intimidate foreigners into assimilation for the sake of reaching their own audiences,” she continues. “There’s always the pressure to make something more accessible or digestible.”
In any case, what needs to be understood by those scoffing at the idea of young women loving something that isn’t in English, is that our connection to language goes way beyond just wanting to learn choice words of Korean to understand songs – and that English accessibility isn’t, and should never be, the be-all end-all of someone’s love for music or a group.
Listening to 2NE1’s pulsating beat on “I Am the Best (내가 제일 잘 나가)” can give anyone a sense of soul-lifting self-affirmation. And when you combine the low timbre of BTS’ Kim Taehyung during “Singularity”, with its slow, soulful beat, it can be easy to understand the grief behind those words, even if you don’t immediately understand the words themselves. Combine that with impeccable music videos, and you get a story that can transcend oceans.
“Even if translations and subtitles didn't exist, music itself is a language,” says Tássia, a 28-year-old multi-group fan from Brazil, currently living in Portugal. “You know when a song is sad or happy, even if it's just instrumental. And with music videos, the messages are even more clear: you get the expressions of the artists, the images, the choreography. Everything is language — but not every language has words.”