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Korean language learning booming on back of Hallyu: report

Scene from
Scene from "Parasite" (CJ ENM)

If you’re looking to pick up a new language this year, you might want to consider Korean. And if you’re a native speaker or have at least some knowledge of the language, then rejoice: Korean is currently the second fastest-growing language in the world, according to Duolingo’s 2020 “Year in Language” report, which was published in December.

With over 500 million total users across 194 countries, Duolingo is the most downloaded education app in the world, meaning that its usage trends can serve as a useful proxy for trends in language study across the globe.

The Duolingo report found Korean to be the world’s seventh-most popular language to study on the app, up two spots from the previous year. The report attributes the growing popularity of Korean to the Korean Wave -- that is, the rising global interest in Korean pop culture, particularly K-pop, K-dramas and Korean films.

While the Korean Wave, or Hallyu, has been sweeping across Asia for quite some time, it has taken off in the West only in recent years, leading to an unprecedented surge in the number of people learning Korean. For example, a study by the US Modern Language Association found that between 2006 and 2016, the number of US university students taking Korean language courses nearly doubled -- the biggest increase for any language with at least 1,000 enrolled students. Most of the other languages included in the study saw a decline in the number of students over the same period.

As another indicator of Korean’s global rise, the number of King Sejong Institutes -- Korean language centers operated by the South Korean government -- has also drastically increased since 2007, when the network was launched with only 13 institutes in three countries. By 2019 there were 172 King Sejong Institutes in 56 countries, and in 2020, the network expanded even further to include 213 institutes operating across 76 countries. The South Korean government hopes to boost that number to 270 branches across the globe by 2022.

With the Korean Wave showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon, it seems quite possible that the South Korean government will be able to reach that goal. Although 2020 was a real downer in many ways due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was also the year that marked key milestones in the ongoing evolution and globalization of Hallyu, beginning with “Parasite” winning the Oscar for Best Picture -- the first non-English language film to do so in the Academy’s 92-year history.

As the pandemic drove people around the world to spend more time online and on social media, K-pop groups such as BTS and Blackpink enjoyed massive popularity in the West, and scores of homebound viewers discovered Korean dramas on Netflix.

A report by the Korea Foundation revealed that by September 2020, there were over 100 million members in 1,835 Korean Wave-related clubs across 98 countries, an increase of over 5 million fans of Korean culture from the year before. Colleges and universities in the US, France, Vietnam, Egypt and other countries have launched BTS Korean language classes to help students learn Korean through content related to the K-pop superstars. This year Vietnam plans to begin teaching Korean at its elementary schools as a “first foreign language.” And the list goes on.

“What makes the growth of Korean so impressive is how diverse Korean learners are,” said Cindy Blanco, Duolingo’s Senior Learning Scientist. “We see Korean as one of the most popular languages to study (on Duolingo) in seven countries in Asia and the Pacific. It’s the fastest-growing language in Mexico, and it’s topping the charts in the US as well. There isn’t just one kind of Korean learner in one kind of place -- instead, Korean culture, media and entertainment seem to attract learners from all backgrounds.”

Among Duolingo’s Korean learners, travel and culture were shown to be important motivators for studying the language, further proving the growing influence of South Korea’s soft power.

“We also see that younger learners are the most interested in learning Korean,” added Blanco.

This should come as no surprise, given the fact that the current global Korean pop culture craze is being largely driven by Gen Zers. And as their enthusiasm for contemporary Korean culture continues to help spread Hallyu to all corners of the world, it seems very likely that the number of people learning Korean will keep climbing in the near future.

“Korean has now broken through onto the main stage of language learning,” Blanco said. Now the question is: How far can it go?

By Regina Kim (reginakim07@gmail.com)

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Regina Kim is a communications director for a global media agency and a freelance writer based in New York City. -- Ed.
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