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The Peninsula

The Elusive Korean Language Major

Published October 31, 2017
Category: South Korea

By Jeff Zwick

Korean language study is on the rise in the U.S. and throughout the world. Many experts have indicated that the growing popularity of Korean music, TV shows, and movies has likely influenced this surge in Korean language study. The Korean Wave started in the 1990s in Asian countries and later made its way to the U.S. market, bringing more interest for introductory Korean classes. But has this relatively new trend for all things Korean actually caused an increase in the number of advanced Korean language speakers or has it merely resulted in more beginner level speakers who abandon Korean after the first semester or year?

The surge in Korean study may be a result of the growing popularity of K-pop, K-dramas, and kimchi. If it is indeed the case that the “Korean Wave” has inspired college students to study Korean, it has proved to be no fleeting motivation. In a report by the Modern Language Association (MLA), the percentage of undergraduates enrolled in a Korean course who were studying in 3rd or 4th year Korean in 2006 and 2009 was higher than Japanese, Chinese, and Arabic, the three other hardest languages for English speakers among the top 15 most studied foreign languages in the United States. In 2013, the percentage of Korean language students continuing for a 3rd or 4th year Korean course came in second place among the four languages, after Chinese. Among these four languages, Arabic had the lowest percentage of undergraduates enrolled in an advanced (3rd or 4th year) Arabic course in 2006, 2009, and 2013 and the most unbalanced ratio of introductory level to advanced level students.

Various colleges and universities in the U.S. offer Korean language courses. However, the number of U.S. schools offering a Korean major is the lowest when compared to Japanese, Chinese, and Arabic. This may be obvious considering that, despite its growing popularity, the number of total students studying Korean is still the lowest among the previously mentioned languages. However, a closer look at the numbers reveals that, with only seven universities offering Korean language and literature majors, it is also the lowest per capita when compared to Japanese, Chinese and Arabic. Using the numbers from the 2013 MLA study, for each of the seven universities that offer a Korean related major, there are 1,747 Korean language students. The ratios for Japanese, Chinese, and Arabic are 1 to 695, 1 to 642, and 1 to 1,113, respectively.

The argument that there is not enough interest to support adding more majors of a particular language is valid if the percentage of students in advanced level courses of that language is low, like Arabic. But, as I previously explained, that is not the case for Korean. In fact, students who are interested in Korean studies may find that the main obstacle is the lack of official Korean major programs. Unless more Korean majors are added in the United States, the amount of advanced level Korean language learners may have nowhere else to go but down.

The Korean Wave has proved to stimulate not only an interest in Korean dramas, music, and food, but also a lasting and committed drive to learn the Korean language to an advanced level. The wave may peter out at some point but, for now, it still seems to have momentum. To effectively ride the popularity of Korean culture and sustain an interest in academic Korean studies after the wave has passed, the ratio of Korean language students to Korean language majors in the U.S. should start to look more like that of Japanese and Chinese. This increase will allow students with a desire to make Korea their focus, to take classes in a variety of Korea-related subjects outside of language courses, and their final degree will distinguish them as a specialist in Korea. With a Korea-focused degree, graduates will be able to show their Korean language skills and cultural knowledge more clearly on their resume when applying for positions with a global Korean company, a Korea-focused NGO or non-profit, or a job in another industry with ties to Korea. As such, more Korean majors at U.S. universities will benefit both the United States and South Korea.

Jeff Zwick has a Master’s degree in Asian Studies from the University of Utah and is currently an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Jason Tong’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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