There’s never been a better time to learn Korean.
It’s one of the fastest-growing languages in the world, outpacing traditionally popular rivals like Chinese in multiple markets – reflecting the global phenomenon many call the “Korean wave.”
In 2022, Korean was the seventh most-studied language on the learning app Duolingo, according to the company’s annual language report. And it’s seeing particular success in parts of South and Southeast Asia, as the most-studied foreign language in the Philippines, and not far off the top spot in Thailand, Indonesia and Pakistan.
Although Chinese – which for years has been considered as the business language of the future – remains the second most spoken language in the world, thanks in part to the sheer size of China’s population, it has sat in eighth place on Duolingo for the last several years, lagging behind Korean.
Korean is the second most-studied Asian language on Duolingo, only narrowly behind Japanese, according to the language report. Duolingo, which has more than 500 million users internationally, ranks Korean ahead of Chinese, Russian and Hindi, and behind Italian. English and Spanish still sit comfortably in the top two spots.
This rise in interest, experts and teachers say, is thanks to the Korean wave, or “hallyu” – the proliferation of Korean culture internationally.
The last two decades have seen South Korean exports sweep the world, from K-pop and Korean TV dramas to beauty products, fashion and food. The country has become an international cultural juggernaut – so much so that the Oxford English Dictionary added more than 20 words of Korean origin in 2021, saying in a statement, “We are all riding the crest of the Korean wave.”
This phenomenon has been aided by South Korea’s own government, which has worked to spread the country’s cultural influence through music and media since the 1990s. Now, the Korean language could be the next export to go global.
“Compared to the time I started my career, the perceptions of Korea as a nation, Korean culture and society, and the Korean language have gone through a significant, positive change,” said Joowon Suh, director of the Korean Language Program at Columbia University. “Now it is perceived more modern, advanced, marketable, cooler, and hipper.”
Rise in language classes
For decades, East Asian language studies overseas have mostly been limited to Mandarin Chinese and Japanese.
But that began to change in the past decade after major hits by Korean artists and directors, such as Psy’s 2012 song “Gangnam Style,” the 2019 thriller “Parasite,” the 2021 Netflix show “Squid Game,” and the emergence of BTS, undoubtedly the biggest global stars of K-pop.
Figures show a surge in interest toward the language in the same period.
The number of students enrolled in Korean classes at higher education institutions in the United States leapt from 5,211 in 2002 to nearly 14,000 in 2016, according to data analyzed by the Modern Language Association.
This jump is striking given Korean isn’t easy for non-native speakers to learn. The US State Department lists Korean as a “super-hard language,” meaning it’s “exceptionally difficult” for English speakers and takes on average 88 weeks to achieve professional working proficiency.
Modern Korean follows a phonetic alphabet called Hangul, meaning the syllables are generally pronounced as they’re written – unlike non-phonetic languages such as Chinese, which uses symbols to represent specific meanings.
Suh, the Columbia instructor, said she first began noticing a rise in interest around 2015 – but it has accelerated in the last three to four years. The number of Columbia students enrolling in Korean courses increased by 50% from the 2017 to 2021 academic years, she said.
Other popular languages have seen numbers either plateau or drop over the last decade. US students enrolled in Chinese classes, for instance, jumped significantly from 2002 to 2013, a period marked by China’s massive economic growth and global influence.
But enrollments in Chinese had dipped by 2016, according to the Modern Language Association – coinciding with the deterioration of US-China relations, and the worsening perception of China in the West due to its alleged human rights abuses.
“Students’ interest in foreign language learning in US higher education tends to depend more on the perception or reputation of a country in terms of economy and geopolitics, such as China, Russia or Portugal,” said Suh.
Similarly, in the United Kingdom, the number of higher education students taking Korean courses tripled from 2012 to 2018, according to the University Council of Modern Languages – compared to just a 5% increase for Chinese, and a decline in several European languages like French and German.
Korean’s newfound popularity was no accident, with South Korean authorities jumping at the chance to promote their language on the back of its more successful exports.
“It is the Hallyu that has persuaded Asian countries at the societal level that Korea is really part of the developed, western world,” said John Walsh in his 2014 book on the phenomenon. This shift in perception has in turn boosted the government’s ability to pursue “national interests in the areas of diplomacy, investment, education and trade,” he wrote.
Over the last decade, the Ministry of Education has sent Korean teachers overseas, including several dozen to Thailand in 2017 to teach the language at middle and high schools.
In more recent years, numerous countries including Laos, Myanmar and Thailand have officially adopted Korean as a foreign language in their school curricula, under agreements signed with the Korean education ministry, according to South Korean news agency Yonhap.
Meanwhile, the King Sejong Institute, a government-founded Korean-language brand, has established 244 learning centers worldwide, according to its website.
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These efforts aim to “keep the interest of Korean language abroad, which has become widely popular with the Korean Wave,” said the education ministry in a 2017 press release.
“In the long term, Korean language courses in the local school curriculum will serve as a step to foster Korean experts, and thereby strengthening friendly relationships between Korea and other countries,” it added.
Suh cautioned that the Korean wave runs the risk of oversimplifying nuances of Korean culture and society, such as regional differences or class conflicts, while glorifying “anything (Korean) without fully understanding its history.”
But, she added, this simplification could actually benefit the South Korean government as it expands its influence, as something “any rising soft power might have to go through.”
From K-pop to employment
Experts say students come to the table with various reasons for pursuing the Korean language – though certain trends have emerged among regional and ethnic lines.
“The Korean wave is an important factor for non-heritage students,” said Suh, referring to those without Korean ethnicity or heritage who are simply interested in Korean cultural products like movies and K-pop.
Meanwhile, students of Korean descent tend to take Korean classes for more “integrative” reasons, she said – for instance, wanting to live in South Korea, to better connect with their communities and families, or to explore their own Korean identities.
Jiyoung Lee, an adjunct instructor at New York University’s Department of East Asian Studies, pointed to the rise of social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok. These have facilitated international cultural exchanges and “largely influenced” the number of Korean learners, she said.
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But Lee, who previously taught Korean in Indonesia and South Korea, also noticed differences among students in different parts of the world.
US students tend to learn Korean “because they are more interested in enjoying culture … and want to talk to their favorite singers or actors,” she said.
By contrast, students in Southeast Asia mostly study Korean to get a job in South Korea, or at a Korean company in their home country, she said, noting the number of Korean brands “establishing themselves not only in Southeast Asia but also in various countries.”
For instance, the Korean entertainment giant SM Entertainment is expanding into Southeast Asia with new Singapore headquarters. Meanwhile, the Korean convenience store chain GS25 has more than 180 outlets in Vietnam, and is set to break ground in Malaysia this year, according to Yonhap.
The expansion of Korean business and pop culture may also be pushing young Southeast Asians to travel to South Korea. Southeast Asians make up more than 40% of foreign students in South Korea, and 30% of foreign residents in the country overall, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
South Korean rapper Park Jae-Sang also known as Psy performs “Gangnam Style” in front of a crowd during a flashmob on November 5, 2012 in Paris. The video to “Gangnam Style” went viral after its July release, becoming the second most viewed clip in YouTube history, where it has notched up more than 650 million hits despite being sung almost entirely in Korean. AFP PHOTO / THOMAS SAMSON (Photo credit should read THOMAS SAMSON/AFP via Getty Images)
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Jeffrey Holliday, who teaches Korean linguistics at Korea University in Seoul (with classes taught in English), said roughly 40% of his students are exchange students, mostly coming from the US. These students tend to be undergraduates, only in Seoul for a few semesters, and nearly all are avid fans of Korean pop culture such as K-pop, he says.
Meanwhile, his foreign graduate students – who tend to be studying there full-time and are seeking jobs in Korea – largely hail from China and Vietnam.
“To me it’s so surprising because when I was in college (in the US) from 1999 to 2003 … there was no-one learning Korean who wasn’t a heritage speaker. I was the only one who wasn’t Korean American,” he said.
“Whereas now, these students come here, they’re very focused, very determined – they really want to learn Korean and they’re here for that.”