AMSTERDAM -- At first it was through a Korean drama that Fauzia Jonas, a 52-year-old Dutch national, got captivated by Korean culture. Then came the K-pop sensation, BTS. Now, it is everything about Korea and Koreans that she wants to learn more about.
“It drew me in like a magnet. The attraction (to the Korean culture) keeps getting deeper as I learn more about the culture and interact with Koreans,” she said, adding that she especially appreciates “the softness and warmth” in the way Koreans interact with each other.
The desire to understand Korean culture better led her to sign up for Korean classes every Saturday morning, together with her daughter, Deniece Reid, 35, at the Korean School of Amsterdam, one of three Korean language schools in the Netherlands.
Jonas and Reid are among some 130 non-Korean students from the Netherlands and other countries enrolled in Korean classes at the school, the second biggest among 114 Korean schools in Europe, funded by the Overseas Koreans Foundation.
The school has seen steady growth in the number of non-Korean students seeking to learn Korean in recent years, according to Park Hyun-ju, principal of the Korean School of Amsterdam, attributing it to the rising popularity of Korean pop culture, which is considered “cool,” especially among young Europeans.
Why and how to learn Korean?
Reid has been studying Korean since the beginning of the pandemic because she had a lot of time on her hands. Deeply in love with K-pop music and a member of the BTS Army, she is learning Korean to be able to understand the lyrics and sing along with them without depending on subtitles.
She learned the Korean alphabet through YouTube videos, which she said was “the easiest part.”
“The hardest part for me is grammar -- the structure of sentences and conjugation. Also vocabulary. I can read it and I know how to pronounce it, but I don’t know what it means,” Reid said.
Anastasija Lescinskaja, 28, a Lithuanian national living in Amsterdam, is also a case in which a love of K-pop evolved into a passion for the language.
She calls herself one of the “early” fans of K-pop from when “no one really knew K-pop,” and who has witnessed the rise of Korean acts onto the global stage since 2006.
Growing up together with K-pop stars such as Wonder Girls and SHINee, she got to know Korean culture and its people more broadly. That deeper connection with Koreans has kept her learning Korean for the past four years.
“You can have a real connection with someone if you talk in the same language. If you only talk in English or Dutch to someone that has their own language, then it is different,” she said.
“It is not the same close feeling.”
What she now needs most is someone with whom she can share daily conversations in Korean to improve her speaking skills, she added.
According to a report by the Korea Foundation and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Seoul, Europe was the fastest growing market for Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, which refers to the global popularity of Korean cultural products, as of December 2022. Europe had an estimated 13.2 million Hallyu fans, a 37 percent hike from 2021.
The motivation to study Korean language started with their fascination with Korean contemporary culture, but Jonas shared that it has been a journey of learning more about Korea, Koreans and also about themselves.
“We are exploring more and more of Korean culture -- not only the artists and celebrities, but real people in the country,” she said.
“It is like I found where I belong, where I need to be.”
Not everybody is driven by the love for K-pop. For Simon Kuijper, a 26-year-old Dutch national, it was about understanding his Korean girlfriend's roots and her family. He decided to sign up for the school because studying alone with mobile apps had its limits.
“I hope to speak with my girlfriend's parents (in Korean) in the future,” said Kuijper, who has studied Korean for four years.
“I hope to have good enough Korean proficiency to understand my girlfriend’s secret Korean food recipes. Her Korean food is much nicer than mine!”
A bridge between Korea and Netherlands
The Korean School of Amsterdam also serves as a bridge to Korea for Koreans living in the Netherlands. Founded in 1993, it opened its doors to offer Korean language education to the children of Koreans who had emigrated to the Netherlands, or adoptees.
Now, it offers Korean language courses for children in Korean or multicultural families, as well as for non-Korean adults. The school has about 300 students and 46 volunteer teachers.
When the school was founded, most of the students were children of Koreans who emigrated to the Netherlands or adoptees. Now, the school sees more children from mixed Korean-Dutch families and students of diverse backgrounds -- from Turkey to China, according to the teachers.
For Kim Da-jung, who has a 4-year-old with her Dutch husband, sending her child to the school is part of her effort to make sure he grows up with a Korean -- not just Dutch -- identity.
“Even though we are living in the Netherlands, I hope he gets to know his country -- Korea -- and feels familiar with the Korean culture,” she said, adding she already feels a bit isolated when the child speaks Dutch with his dad.
In Europe, there are 114 schools that receive funding from Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with many of them relying on volunteer teachers from the Korean community.
These Korean schools are distinguished from the King Sejong Institute, a government-run Korean-language education institute that runs 244 Korean language centers across 84 countries as of the end of 2022. The King Sejong Institute is funded by Korea's Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.