The following series is part of The Korea Herald’s “Hello Hangeul” project which consists of interviews, in-depth analyses, videos and various other forms of content that shed light on the stories of people who are learning the Korean language and the correlation between Korea’s soft power and the rise of its language within the league of world languages. – Ed.
South Korea’s thriving popular culture has been drawing an increasing number of curious young people around the globe to learn its language for years.
Aficionados of Korean culture often study the language to watch Korean shows without subtitles or to enjoy the lyrics of their favorite K-pop bands. Many create online communities with those who share the same passion, and teach Korean to one another through YouTube and social media.
This adds to the hundreds of thousands of non-Koreans studying Korean for professional reasons such as scholarship or job opportunities.
More than 330,000 people, over 191,000 of them outside Korea, took the Test of Proficiency in Korean last year, a huge increase from around 200,000 in 2014.
Among those who took the state-administered test overseas, 94.6 percent were in Asia, followed by 3.26 percent in Europe, less than 1 percent each in South America (0.96 percent), North America (0.68 percent) and Oceania (0.23 percent).
According to the world’s largest language learning app Duolingo, Korean is the seventh most popular language to study, and one of the fastest growing languages on the Pittsburg-based app in countries like Brazil, France, Germany, India and Mexico.
While the goals and dreams of each pupil may vary, most of them marvel at the relatively simple and logical script of Hangeul, which makes the Korean language more approachable and easy to learn for beginners.
For The Korea Herald’s special series “Hello Hangeul,” the newspaper spoke to learners of Korean all over the world, from Japan and Vietnam to Cameroon and Romania. Here are some of their stories.
Hobby leads to new life
Rana Elmetwally from Egypt began watching Korean shows around 2009 when no one else around her did, except for her mother, who introduced her to the world of K-dramas.
“Egyptians back then watched either American or Egyptian movies. There were no Korean shows on Egyptian TV. Being an introvert, I spent a lot of time online, and got to watch countless Korean shows, movies and webtoons,” said the 25-year-old who studied film as an undergraduate at the American University in Cairo, and is about to get her master’s degree in Korean culture at the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS) here.
“Korean shows became hugely popular in Egypt from 2020. Now you can see Korean dramas on TV and Korean movies in the theaters. Friends who were never interested in Korean pop culture before are now asking me what to watch and listen to.”
When she joined a club of Korean pop culture fans in Egypt years ago, it had less than 50 members, but now she heard it has to rent an entire building to hold meetings due to its large membership.
Rana’s interest in K-culture led her to come to Korea as an exchange student in 2018, and again in 2020 as a scholarship graduate student at AKS.
She plans to get a Ph.D. in international relations and pursue a career in cultural exchanges between Korea and Egypt.
Investment for the future
The charms of Korean show business are often what piques people’s interest in the language, but it is usually scholarship opportunities or job prospects in Korea or Korean companies abroad that motivate many of them to become serious learners.
Ananda Limbu in Nepal began learning Korean and Hangeul when he was 13 from an older friend who worked at a travel agency as an interpreter. He often visited his friend’s office where he conversed with Koreans, and went on trips together.
He began taking proper Korean classes after enrolling at a university of languages in Kathmandu in 2013, and during his last semester, he went to Korea after taking a test to get an employment permit here.
Having worked for five years in Korea, the 27-year-old hopes to return to Korea for further studies after completing his undergraduate degree in Nepal.
“I was most fascinated by Korea’s modern history of development and Koreans’ love for their nation which transformed it from a country that received foreign aid 60 years ago to one that provides aid to other nations,” Ananda said.
“I also learned a lot from Koreans’ working culture. I had some difficulties in the beginning, but watching Koreans work so hard encouraged me to work hard too. I thought this is what propelled Korea’s development.”
Wilson Okoth Odoyo from Kenya said South Korea is like “a beacon of hope” to him.
Interested in Korea’s politics and economy, he said he studied the country’s modern history which is “full of pain and suffering, but the present South Korea, though not perfect, was able to overcome its dark past and become a self-reliant nation.”
“This gives me hope that there is a way out for countries that are currently struggling,” said Wilson, who began learning Korean in Nairobi’s King Sejong Institute, and ultimately aims to serve as a bridge between Korea and Kenya -- and Africa by extension.
Just for pleasure
Others start learning Korean simply as a hobby.
Elias Sanabria, an 18-year-old college freshman who lives near the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion, said he began taking Korean classes with his girlfriend about five months ago because she was very much into Korean pop culture.
“She was watching (Korean TV show) ‘Running Man’ whenever I was with her, so I got to watch as well. I had heard Korean music before, but I didn’t know it was Korean. Now, I listen to (K-pop group) Twice, and Lee Kwang-soo is my favorite on ‘Running Man,’” he said.
“When we found out about free Korean language courses at a local community center, we thought we should give it a try.”
Currently studying and working as a web programmer, Elias wants to teach philosophy or psychology after graduating. But for now, he has Korean numbers written on a big piece of paper on his bedroom wall.
The main reason Kell Ku in Singapore started taking Korean lessons after work was to watch Korean dramas and YouTube videos without reading the subtitles, so that she can focus on the actors' acting skills and other details of the show.
Though her job as a quantity surveyor doesn't require her to speak Korean, Kell always imagines herself ordering food in Korean at a Korean restaurant, or conversing in Korean when she travels to Korea one day.
The Korean drama fan said what she likes most about the country is its rich history and traditions as well as its modern lifestyle and high level of aesthetics seen in cafes, fashion, street performances, pop-up stores and art exhibits.
Hashimoto Rio, a second-year student at Keio Girls’ High School in Tokyo, learned Hangeul two years ago, and started learning Korean grammar and expressions last April at a nearby King Sejong Institute.
“I was hearing a lot of Korean music because my sister likes K-pop, and I had more time after I entered high school, so I decided to study Korean,” she said.
“I listen to Korean songs or watch Korean videos everyday to practice listening. I also love Korean food. We often make ‘jeon’ (fritters) at home, but it’s so difficult to make.”
When she goes to university, Rio wants to study in Korea through a student exchange program.
“There are some problems to be solved between Korea and Japan, but I will study hard, and if there is something I can do, I want to be of help,” said Rio, who wished she had more chance to meet Koreans.
“I interact with other fans of K-pop groups that I like on Twitter, but I want to make Korean friends outside social media.”
Sometimes, working with good colleagues lead to learning a new language.
Manuela Attouh from Cameroon was a freelance French-English translator when she first worked with the Korean embassy in 2017 as an escort interpreter for a Korean theater troupe visiting the capital of Yaounde to perform.
From 2018, she worked as an assistant to the Korean ambassador to Cameroon who informed her about a scholarship program in Korea.
“At first I was hesitant because my Korean was not enough to study in Korea,” said Manuela who came to study at AKS in August 2022.
“Then another colleague at the embassy offered to teach me Korean. She convinced me to decide to go. As a translator and interpreter, I had always been thinking about adding a third language.”
Manuela, 34, knew little about Korea before working at the embassy. Korean shows are not available on Cameroonian television, and Hallyu was enjoyed by only a small group of young people in the Western African country through the Internet.
What most Cameroonians in their 40s or above know about Korea is that it is divided into South and North Koreas, and that Korea has highly advanced technology, as Samsung is the most popular brand for smartphones and laptops there, she said.
During her time at the embassy, Manuela was deeply impressed by “changgeuk,” a traditional Korean opera performed as a play but in the Korean folk song style of pansori.
She plans to focus her research on how traditional theater embraces globalization and modernity while maintaining the dignity of traditional art.
‘Easy at first’
While the Korean language shares some similarities with Japanese, Turkish or Nepali in terms of word order, vocabulary or grammar, it has almost nothing in common with Western European languages.
Even so, to Alex Tritean from Romania and Olga Deviatkina from Russia, Korean seemed much easier than Chinese or Japanese thanks to the relatively accessible alphabet.
Alex was one of the three students in her high school who were interested in learning an Asian language.
Romanian television had aired Korean historical dramas for many years, but she didn’t know they were Korean.
As a teenager, she had a knack for languages and had enough time on her hands after school, so she joined a local university’s Korean class that was open to anyone. She enjoyed it, and went on to study at the Korean language department of a university in northern Romania.
Alex is currently doing her Ph.D. in education at the AKS.
Olga, 22, who began learning Korean six years ago in Moscow and currently studies at Korea University, thinks Hangeul is pretty, and really simple to learn for beginners.
“In high school, I was interested in Asia, so at first I thought about learning either Chinese or Japanese, the two most popular Asian languages. Then I attended a lecture about Korea, and Korean seemed much easier,” she said.
“I think Hallyu was another factor. Psy’s hit song came out around then, and I began to watch Korean dramas, which greatly motivated me in learning the language.”
Sumeyye Kodalak from Turkey was a nurse looking for something else to do because she found the job too taxing.
She had always been interested in foreign languages, so she decided to pick one from Chinese, Japanese and Korean as she applied for university again.
“I chose Korean because it has the same word order with Turkish, and seemed less difficult than the other two. My mother loved Korean dramas, and my sister was a fan of Super Junior, so there was always a Korean show or song playing in the house,” said Sumeyye who became more engrossed in the language during her time as an exchange student at Chungnam National University.
“Korean is easy at first, but the more you learn, the more difficult it gets. But it’s also a fascinating language to learn. I found Korean phonetics most interesting at Chungnam.”
Sumeyye is now doing her master’s program in Korean literature at AKS, and is thinking about translating modern Korean novels into Turkish after graduation.