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‘Hallyu an asset for Korean studies’

Prof. Sohn says language education and Korean studies must go together

When Professor Sohn Ho-min started teaching at University of Hawai’i some 40 years ago, only about 30 students would sign up for its Korean classes.

Meanwhile, Japanese classes were enjoying enormous popularity, having more than 1,000 students packed into classrooms. Even Chinese classes had at least 300.

“We really started from a scratch,” Shon said during an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul, Thursday.

“We didn’t even have proper textbooks. We scrapped newspaper stories and used them for class reading materials.”
Sohn Ho-min, director of Korean Language Flagship Center at University of Hawaii, speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald at Imperial Palace Hotel in Seoul, Thursday. (The Academy of Korean Studies)
Sohn Ho-min, director of Korean Language Flagship Center at University of Hawaii, speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald at Imperial Palace Hotel in Seoul, Thursday. (The Academy of Korean Studies)

Sohn, who arrived in Seoul on Wednesday to attend International Conference 2011, “Korean Studies Education for International Communication,” from Aug. 18 to 19, is one of the foremost scholars who have been teaching Korean language and studies overseas.

Having studied linguistics at Seoul National University, Sohn earned his Ph.D in linguistics at University of Hawai’i at Manoa in the U.S. in 1969.

“I returned to Korea after finishing my studies and planned to live a peaceful, quiet life,” Sohn told The Korea Herald.

“Then University of Hawai’i of Manoa invited me as they needed a researcher to study Pacific languages. When I arrived, however, they also suggested I teach at their Korean language department. I served both of the jobs, and eventually ended up settling down in Honolulu.”

From 1994 to 2000, Sohn, along with both Korean and American scholars, worked on “The Korean Language,” 20 volumes of Korean language textbooks.

Released in 2000, the books are used by about 800 universities in the U.S.

Throughout the past 40 years, the Korean studies program at University of Hawai’i has gone through enormous changes and development. The university started offering degree programs in Korean studies in the late 1980s. In 2011, a total of 482 students have enrolled in Korean classes at the university, while 397 signed up for Chinese classes and 1,200 chose to learn Japanese.

“About 30 percent of the Hawaii population consists of Japanese descendents, while Korean immigrants make about 4 to 5 percent,” Sohn said. “Considering that, Korean studies have gained much popularity in recent years. The number of its students has already exceeded the one of Chinese classes. Back in the 70s, the number of students who took Chinese classes was 10 times bigger than the ones who chose Korean.”

In 2007, Sohn became the director of the university’s Korean Language Flagship Center, which is the first and only Korean language center in the country dedicated to educating Korea specialists in all kinds of fields ― sociology, politics, economy and the arts ― with exceptional linguistic ability in Korean. It offers both M.A, and B.A, programs, along with non-degree programs.

“Most of KLFC graduates end up working for the U.S. government sectors that are in need of Korea experts, such as the department of defense or DHS,” Sohn said. “A lot of students get job offers before their graduation.”

Yet Sohn said Korean studies in the U.S. still faces a lot of challenges, as only five of its universities ― UCLA, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, Brigham Young, Ohio State, and SUNY Binghamton ― currently offer degree programs in Korean studies.

“One of the biggest problems is lack of tenured professors in the field of Korean studies,” Sohn said. “They have much power in regards to what they want to study and research. If a certain field of study does not have tenured professors, it is much easier for the school management to cut its funding. So it is important to have as many tenured professors in the field of Korean studies as possible. ”

Sohn also stressed that language education and Korean studies must go together.

“If one does not have much knowledge in Korean language, she or he has to rely on translated materials when learning about Korea,” Sohn said. “You can’t fully understand the Korean context that way, and there aren’t that many translated books available to begin with. And one cannot fully master a foreign language without learning about its country, especially its history, culture and literature.”

In the recent years, Sohn has seen many students who have chosen to study Korean as they loved Korean popular TV dramas.

“In the past I thought hallyu was something that’s rather temporary,” Sohn said.

“Now I’m convinced that it’s not. It has motivated so many in the world to learn more about Korea, and I think it’s important to make that motivation continue. My department offers classes that engage Korean TV shows or films, and these classes are always packed.”

By Claire Lee (