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[Hello Hangeul] A snapshot of Korean language now

Where does Korean stand in league of world languages?

By Choi Jae-hee

Published : Jan. 2, 2023 - 11:30

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Illustration by Nam Kyung-don (The Korea Herald) Illustration by Nam Kyung-don (The Korea Herald)

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.

Korean has 81.7 million speakers around the globe, although most of them are found on the Korean Peninsula. This puts the language in 15th place in the table of world languages by native speakers, or 23rd when non-native speakers are counted.

As for language learners, the data is a little patchy and often not up-to-date. Yet they do not fail to underscore one trend: Korean is becoming more and more attractive to study among global learners who are seeking to understand a new pop culture superpower from Asia.

According to the latest data that The Korea Herald obtained from Korea’s Education Ministry, Korean is being taught at 1,806 schools in a total of 42 countries as of Dec. 31, 2021, having been adopted as a part of the elective curriculum of elementary or middle school. An update on the number of students taking Korean classes was not available, though it looks certain to have surpassed 160,000. The 2020 tally had fallen just shy of it.

It has grown from 1,700 schools and 39 countries in 2020 and 1,635 schools and 30 countries in 2019.

Japan has by far the highest number of schools offering Korean language classes with over 550, followed by Thailand and the United States.

The year 2020 was when the global acquisition of Korean as a second language gained momentum. Nine new countries including India -- with a vast population of 1.39 billion -- and Russia adopted Korean as one of the foreign languages to be taught at elementary and middle schools. There were three new additions in 2021, pushing the total to 42.

Meanwhile, eight countries outside Korea have adopted Korean as a university entrance examination subject. They are Japan, France, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan.

From 2025 onward, Hong Kong will include Korean as one of the foreign languages in its national university entrance examination. It will accept test results of TOPIK, or the Test of Proficiency in Korean, for the second foreign language category, the city's government announced in June.

Data on college-level Korean language courses also underscores the rise of the Korean language.

A report published by the US Modern Language Association in 2019 puts the number of undergraduate students enrolled in Korean language programs offered by four-year colleges across America in 2016 at 12,066, nearly doubling from 5,665 a decade ago.

A 2021 report released by the UK's University Council of Modern Languages shows that the number of UK university students taking Korean language courses had more than tripled between 2012 and 2018, from 50 to 175.

Korean pop culture’s global reach has certainly made leaps and bounds in the past few years, with the Oscar-winning “Parasite” released globally in late 2019, the Netflix megahit “Squid Game” in 2021 and the K-pop group BTS’ global domination from 2018 onward. It is likely that the momentum for Korean language learning will only grow stronger.

Outside schools, overseas branches of the King Sejong Institute Foundation, Korea’s state-run language education center, have been a major channel for learning Korean among many foreigners.

As of June 2021, over 81,400 students were studying the language at 244 King Sejong Institutes in 84 countries across the globe. In 2007, there were a mere 740 learners.

Korean has also become a popular language to study online.

According to Duolingo’s 2022 Language Report, there has been a 29 percent on-year rise in the number of Korean learners from June 2021. Korean is the app’s seventh most-studied language with 10.7 million learners.

With over 500 million users across 194 countries, Duolingo is the most downloaded education app in the world.