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[My Hangeul Story] 'Hangeul unfolds a brand new world'

Grace Iriberri, a Filipina kindergarten principal, on how Korean language put her on an unintended but fascinating path

April 24, 2024 - 15:46 By Lee Si-jin
Grace Iriberri poses for photos after an interview in a cafe in Makati, central Manila, on April 16. (Lee Si-jin/The Korea Herald)

MANILA -- Guiding top K-pop artists visiting Manila was something that Grace Iriberri had never imagined when she started learning Hangeul, the Korean writing system, out of curiosity, some 10 years ago.

Now, Iriberri feels that the Korean language has expanded her universe, creating new connections with people not only from the Philippines but also from South Korea.

“My relationship with Korea started when I tutored Korean children as an English teacher in Manila,” Iriberri told The Korea Herald at a cafe in Makati, central Manila, on April 16.

“But, Korean language piqued my interest when I first came across Park Hyo-shin’s love song ‘After Love’ (2009). After enjoying different types of Korean music, I moved on to Korean dramas and entertainment shows when streaming services or YouTube videos were not as popular as nowadays,” the 38-year-old kindergarten principal added.

After repeatedly writing down Korean lyrics, switching to Romanized lyrics and translating Korean songs, Iriberri started to sense that she was becoming familiar with the Korean language.

Hoping to share her Hangeul insight with fellow Filipinos, Iriberri started online Zoom lessons a few years ago, which grew into a large course with 40 students.

Grace Iriberri explains the history of the Philippines to Korean visitors at Ayala Museum in Makati, central Manila, on April 16. (Lee Si-jin/The Korea Herald)

“Though teaching Korean is not my main task, many people are expressing their willingness to participate in group studies and ask when the new Korean courses for beginners (or intermediate speakers) will be open via my social network services,” said Iriberri, emphasizing that she is not the only Filipina who is fluent in Korean.

Iriberri’s multilingual skills caught the attention of Korean entertainment industry insiders, which led her not only to translate and interpret but also act as a guide for some of the top Korean boy bands, such as GOT7, in Manila.

Jay B of GOT7 (left) and Grace Iriberri (Courtesy of Iriberri)

“I will be helping two Korean artists, who are scheduled to hold their concerts in Manila in May and June,” she said.

Iriberri felt that the popularity of South Korea is reaching its peak, especially in the Philippines, where there is increasing love and support for Korean cultural contents.

“I personally think Korean can be the third-most popular foreign language that Filipinos want to learn in a few years. My students, for instance, are from teenagers to those who are in their 40s. And these people are certainly increasing,” she said.

She felt Hangeul is a beautiful language that could be attractive to language enthusiasts across the globe.

"If you know how to pronounce Hangeul, you can basically read most Korean words. Unlike Chinese, which requires you to spend a lot of time memorizing the meaning of the individual characters, Korean only takes two or three days to read properly,” Iriberri said.

Sharing how many Koreans have been excited about her "second-to-none" Korean fluency and understanding of Korean culture (both in the Philippines and South Korea), Iriberri said she hopes to elevate her skills even further.

Her favorite Korean show nowadays is “Just an Excuse” -- “Pinggyego” in Korean -- a YouTube-based talk show featuring top comedian Yoo Jae-suk.

“For me, Yoo is a fast talker. And I am trying hard to concentrate to fully understand his stories. The show is a great exercise for me to keep improving my Korean,” she said.

Korea Herald Correspondent