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[Robert J. Fouser] Korean language education

Soon we’ll be entering the second half half of the 2010s, which means that the 2000s are rapidly fading into history. From a cultural perspective, the 2000s, particularly the late 2000s were monumentally historic because they marked the first time that modern Korean culture became popular among non-Koreans. The wave reached its crescendo as Psy’s megahit “Gangnam Style” took the world by storm.

The hallyu and K-pop boom also produced a boom in Korean language learning that has gone largely unnoticed. As Korea became cool, more 
people became interested in learning Korean, particularly in Asia. Universities in China, Japan and other Asian countries began to start Korean programs. Hallyu fans in Japan formed clubs and members began to study Korean as a hobby. In the West, the boom was much smaller, but the number of learners increased at a faster pace than ever before.

The 2000s were marked by steady economic progress that put the standards of living in Korea on par with those in Europe, Japan and North America. Economic growth brought more foreigners ― tourists and resident foreigners ― to Korea than ever before. Koreans, meanwhile, went overseas in ever greater numbers for study, travel and work, giving the country a higher profile on the world stage. Increased interaction with Koreans and the increase in the number of foreigners in Korea added another dimension to the pop-culture-induced boom.

Over the past two years, however, interest in hallyu and K-pop has started to wane. Economic growth has slowed, too, and Korea is gradually being viewed as being past its peak, much like Japan. On the other hand, China and India are on the rise and interest is shifting elsewhere.

The end of “Dynamic Korea” is making itself felt in Korean language education as well. Growth in the number of learners has leveled off in most places and numbers have started to decline in Japan, one of the most important markets for the Korean language. The number of foreigners coming to Korea to learn the language has started to decline after years of steady growth. The same thing happened to Japanese language education in the 1990s as it became apparent that Japan would not regain its “Japan-as-No. One” status.

Problems offer opportunities, and the current downturn in Korean language education offers a chance to think about what has been accomplished and what needs to be improved. On the plus side, Korean language education now has more qualified teachers and better learning materials than ever before.

To move toward a stronger footing, Korean language education faces several challenges. The biggest challenge reflects that of Korean culture overall ― diversity. Korean society does not give much room to competing paradigms and the established paradigms are often built on narrow foundations.

In Korea, the dominant paradigm is university-based language institutes that are required to turn a profit for the university. This results in the employment of a large staff of part-time teachers who are paid by the hour and have no benefits. This means that few teachers of Korean have full-time, career-track positions. This creates a high turnover in the field, leaving it with few experienced leaders.

Clearly, different paradigms are needed. University-based language courses are typically intensive and require a half-day commitment five days during the workweek. This makes it impossible for people with full-time jobs to attend the programs. Likewise, there are few seasonal or weekend experiential learning programs that combine language teaching with other activities that are tied to local communities.

Another side to diversity is the teaching staff. The overwhelming majority of teachers in university-based language courses are young native speakers who have completed some sort of teacher-development course in Korea. At present, no teacher-development course in Korea has a rigorous foreign language requirement. Many learners of Korean who are confused about grammar prefer explanations in their native language, but find that instruction difficult to get in Korea. Improving foreign language education for native-speaker teachers and creating positions for non-native-speaker teachers will help improve the situation. The lack of non-native-speaker teachers deprives learners of empathic role models.

Finally, language materials need further improvement. Most Korean language textbooks have been developed for university-based intensive programs and do not meet the needs of more casual study for “survival.” And despite Korea’s prowess as an IT power, there is a dearth of interesting Internet and multimedia materials. In the end, making Korean more attractive to learners is the most effective way to overcome the current slump and ensure a more stable future for Korean language education.

By Robert J. Fouser

Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Ann Arbor, Michigan. ― Ed.