During my recent visit to South Korea, people often asked me about the popularity of K-pop overseas. Answering the question was always a bit of challenge because I’m not a fan of K-pop and don’t follow it closely. I have a sense of its popularity in the US and, to a lesser extent, Japan, but don’t know much about the rest of the world. I start the answer with these limitations, partly in the hope that the conversation will soon move in another direction, which is usually does.
At times, however, I get a follow up question about the relationship between K-pop and Korean language education overseas that keeps the conversation going. The question is interesting because it assumes that the popularity of K-pop has stimulated an interest in learning Korean. This assumption, of course, rests on the assumption that an interest in popular culture of a particular country correlates with an interest in learning its language. But are these common assumptions correct?
A quick history is a good place to start. Since spread of public education in the 19th century, most foreign language learning has taken place in school, usually in required classes. The requirement comes from policy decisions that reflect the social context of the times. Student needs and motivation have figured little into the policy decisions and have instead been reserved for discussions on teaching methods and materials.
This means that languages that are required in school have a large learner base and strong professional support network. Around the world, five types of languages are required. The first is English, the global lingua franca that is required nearly everywhere. The second are major European languages, French and Spanish, which have a global presence and are often required as second foreign languages. The third are regional languages, such as Arabic, German, and Russia that are commonly taught and may be required. The fourth are a range of languages that are required in countries with bilingual policies. In Finland, for example, Swedish is required because of the Swedish minority. Finally, the fifth are languages, such as Chinese, Italian, Japanese, that are commonly taught as electives in school.
Korean fits best with the last category, but unlike Chinese or Japanese, it is taught mainly at the university level. In Japan and the US, for example, enrollment in Korean classes has grown at the university level, but few high schools teach it, and opportunities for getting a teaching certificate in Korean are limited. By contrast, Chinese has grown rapidly as an elective in schools around the world. It is now offered as an elective in all schools in Kenya, for example. A 2018 survey of foreign language study in the Australian state of Victoria showed Chinese as the most popular language for the first time. It was followed closely by Japanese and Italian, with Indonesian close behind. Indonesian was taught in 285 schools, whereas Korean is taught in only in seven.
The lack of a strong presence in primary and secondary education makes it difficult for Korean to continue to grow in higher education because many learners want to continue studying the language they learned in high school. Interest in K-pop may encourage some students to take Korean in university, but future growth may be limited by the pool of available students.
Policymakers hold the key to getting Korean into schools, but the popularity of K-pop is not sufficient reason to do so. At the national level, policymakers typically view foreign language education as a way to promote the national interest or as a way to help student learning and development. At a local level, the presence of a large Korean community is important to policymakers. In Los Angeles, home to the largest Korean community in the US, Korean is one of 11 languages taught in high school.
Apart from the university level, most growth in learning Korean has taken place at the “hobby level” through self-study and interactions with Koreans, or in languages schools. K-pop has no doubt motivated fans to learn Korean, but they do so mainly as a hobby, making the learner base inherently unstable. For most K-pop fans, fandom -- not language learning -- is the main draw of K-pop.
The South Korean government has worked hard to promote Korean language education overseas. To move forward, it should shift its focus to helping Korean take root in primary and secondary schools which remain the heart of foreign language education.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Providence, Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Ed.