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The Peninsula

Recent Trends in Korean Language Study

Published May 17, 2012

By Ben Hancock

Going to Korea to learn Korean has become significantly more popular in recent years. But despite the growth in numbers, interest among U.S. citizens still appears to be relatively weak, according to statistics from the Korean Ministry of Justice.

In 2010, nearly 18,000 people — 17,880 to be exact — were in South Korea for the sole purpose of learning Korean. That’s nearly double the number of people who were there for the same reason just four years prior in 2006, the first year the ministry started keeping such figures. (The “D-4-4” visa for Korean language learners was introduced in 2006, and was changed to the “D-4-1” visa in 2009.)

In both 2006 and 2010, the majority of aspirant Korean speakers came from China. But the demographics otherwise have changed. For example, the number of learners from Vietnam jumped drastically from 134 to 400, nearly matching the number of students from Japan in 2010. They totaled 556 that year, marking a slight drop from 2006.

In the same period, there has been some growth in language student arrivals from the U.S. — from 67 to 108 — but it pales in comparison to the numbers coming from Asia. There were 305 language students from Uzbekistan in 2010; the same year, there were nearly 1,700 from Mongolia, and hundreds from countries around Southeast Asia.

These numbers don’t tell the whole story, of course. For example, there were 966 overall study abroad students from the U.S. in Korea in 2010, and we could assume that many of them were taking some kind of course in the Korean language. That’s slightly up from the 933 study abroad students from the States in 2006. Then there’s of course the thousands of American English teachers in Korea, some of whom we could guess are also taking an interest in the local language.

To get a better sense of what’s been happening on the ground, I interviewed my own former Korean language instructor, Yeon Jeong Kim. Ms. Kim has taught Korean for eight years to a variety of foreign learners, and is on her way to England this fall to study for her masters in Intercultural Communication. The following is her perspective on the changing dynamics in Korean language education, the challenges foreign learners face, and what foreign residents miss when they don’t take part in the language. (This interview can also be read in the original Korean; any errors in translation are my responsibility, seonsaeng-nim!)

1.       What made you decide to become a Korean teacher?

When I was in college I had the chance to teach some foreigners Korean, and I found that I enjoyed teaching our culture and language to people who came from other cultures and spoke other languages. I thought to myself how great it would be if I could do this as a job. But at the time, there weren’t many institutions outside of universities and private academies, and I worried because finding work was more difficult than I had imagined. But I ended up coming across an advertisement for Ganada Korean Language Center and applied, and luckily was able get the job.

2.       Have you noticed any trends in your students? For example, has there been an increase in the number of students from one particular part of the world?

Korean language education has actually undergone many changes since eight years ago. At first there were mostly students from Japan or China or other neighboring countries, and because studying Korean as a hobby wasn’t very popular at the time, most of the students were studying the language for business purposes. Of course, as in the past, most of the students now are still from Japan and China. But with international marriage [in Korea] on the rise and Korean popular culture gaining a higher profile worldwide, the people learning Korean are coming from a more diverse group of countries and are increasingly studying for their own reasons.

3.       Are there concepts in Korean language or culture that seem especially difficult for foreign learners to grasp? And is there a big difference between, for example, a student from China or a student from the United States?

Almost all students say they have difficulty with Korean honorifics. Because this is a part of the language that is so tied up in Korean culture, it takes a lot of time for students to fully grasp it. Also, because most students understand Korean on the basis of their own language, another challenge is that they often carry over pieces of their mother tongue. For example, students from English-speaking countries say they have difficulty using conjunctions to make long sentences because the sentence structure is so completely different in Korean. Learning all the many Korean vocabulary words based on Chinese characters is also hard for English-speakers. At the same time, students from countries that use Chinese characters learn these vocabulary easily, but because they are sometimes used differently or in completely different contexts compared to China, this can sometimes be even more confusing.

4.       When I worked in Seoul, a co-worker of mine once described Korean to me as an “emotional” language. Do you think that’s an accurate characterization? Is there a big difference between the way thoughts and feelings are expressed in Korean compared with other languages?

Rather than being an emotional language, I would say that it’s a language that allows you to express emotion in a lot of different ways. As students would get up to higher levels, they would often say that the variations of expressions were actually the most difficult thing about learning Korean. There were a lot of students who would complain to me about how there were so many different words that, if you just look in the dictionary, all mean the same thing. But even if those words are similar, they are all actually different words. Koreans choose their words carefully based on the situation, and foreigners are of course going to have difficulty knowing the subtle differences between them. I think the reason why Korean has so many different expressions probably has something to do with the fact that Korea has a history close to 5,000 years long. Because language is a human trait, I think it’s to be expected that it will continuously change, and the longer the history, the higher likelihood there will be that it will become more diverse.

5.       Compared to China or Japan, there are relatively few Korean books being translated into English. Do you have a theory for why that is, and do you think that increased access to Korean literature in English might drive greater interest in Korea?

I actually think this is closely related to the fact that Korean has so many different expressions. As an example, the poet Ko Un has been nominated for the Nobel Prize nearly nine times, but has never won. Some experts see that as related to the difficultly in translating the various Korean expressions. I think that if there were just more skilled translators there would be an increase in interest in Korean literature. Outside of literature, though, a lot of the rights to Korean movies have been bought by Hollywood and re-made, and many of my foreign friends really like a lot of the recent Korean movies. It is a different area [than literature], but as a part of Korean culture and art, I think you can see that as evidence that Korean thoughts and perspectives are interesting to a foreign audience.

6.       As you know, many Koreans are fervent about learning English, and the amount of English spoken now in Korea allows many Westerners to travel around the country without really learning the language. Is it still important to study Korean, and what do visitors or foreign residents miss without an understanding of the language?

Of course, compared to the past there are more Koreans who can speak English, but the language of Korea is still Korean. I’m not even sure about the extent to which the younger generation, which has been the subject of the English fever, can really speak English, but certainly most older people cannot speak it. If someone is just traveling through Korea for a short time, not knowing the language will not be a problem, but I think that if you are living here you absolutely need to study Korean. A lot of people say that Korea has become an increasingly individualistic society, but I still think that fundamentally the thoughts of most Koreans do not revolve around “me” but “us”. In Korea, if you want to cross over the barrier and be one of “us,” knowing Korean is essential. If you don’t know the language, there’s a chance that you will miss the opportunity to experience that something extra, that special affinity that Koreans can show to others that we call jeong.


Ben Hancock is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. He has studied Korean language and culture since 2004, and most recently lived in Korea from 2008 to 2010. The views represented here are his own.

Photo from Vitor Antunes’ photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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