Ana Perez, a graduate student living in New York, was ecstatic when she got her first “golden owl” in Korean on the popular language education app Duolingo. The golden owl is a trophy given to users who complete a certain set of skills in the language of their choice.
"As there are so many levels here, that took me about four months to get. I feel proud of myself, or jarang seu reo weo," said Perez, adding the word for "proud" in Korean to emphasize her language skill.
Being an ardent fan of K-pop juggernaut BTS, she had always wanted to understand the band’s lyrics without the help of translations. However, she didn’t think that she had time to invest in learning an entire language.
"One day I saw my friend learning a second language with Duolingo, almost like a game. That gave me the idea that I could learn Korean without much pressure," she said.
After practicing Korean for a few months on the app during her spare time, she can now not only partially understand BTS’ lyrics, but can even hold short on-spot conversations in Korean with local BTS fans.
"I thought it was impossible for me to learn a language that was so different from English," she said.
"But after deciding to learn Korean, I realized that getting motivated to learn it was the most difficult part. With some basis in Korean, I plan on taking formal lessons on it to further my fluency."
Perez is just one of many foreigners who are starting to learn the Korean language with the help of the app.
According to Duolingo’s 2022 Language Report, there has been a 29 percent on-year rise in the number of Korean learners on its platform since 2021.
The report from the world's largest language learning app also stipulates that Korean is the seventh most popular language to study and the second fastest-growing language in the world.
Experts say that Hallyu, or the Korean Wave -- referring to the rising global interest in Korean pop culture including K-pop, K-dramas and Korean films – sparks foreigners’ initial interest in learning Korean. Educational apps and services such as Duolingo and Talk To Me In Korean play a role in converting their mild interest into knowledge.
"One of the most defining barriers to a language education is how difficult it seems at first," said Kim Ji-hyung, a professor of global Korean studies at the Kyung Hee Cyber University. Kim has also served as the head of the Online Sejong Institute, an online operation of the state-run King Sejong Institute Foundation which manages overseas Korean language education.
"In that regard, language education apps such as Duolingo, busuu -- or even brief Korean language courses on websites people visit daily like YouTube -- help a lot in breaking down such psychological barriers. They function as 'middlemen' to facilitate the switch from casual interest into practice, however simple they may be," he said.
According to Kim, Hangeul, the written form of Korean, is also one of the few language systems that can be taught even with the lightest learning methods such as apps.
"Learning languages with apps -- even the basic alphabet and lexicons -- is inadvisable for most cases because of how restricted and unilateral the education can be. However, Hangeul is one of the few exceptions, considering that its intuitive structure makes learning possible even without the help of a teacher," he said.
In fact, Hangeul is often touted as one of the world’s most logical writing systems.
Unlike the Roman alphabet, which bears a litany of silent letters and homonyms, or Japanese or Chinese, which have thousands of characters that often sound different based on context, Hangeul has 14 consonants and 10 vowels that bear no ambiguity in what sound a letter represents.
"Hangeul also mimics the shape the tongue and lips take when forming the sound. Visual aids are crucial when learning it, and apps and YouTube videos can provide adequate and fun visual content," said Kim.
Furthermore, apps and YouTube content help learners develop study habits with their accessibility and entertaining elements.
"One of the most important factors in learning a language is repetition. Offline courses and formal training processes lack an edge in motivating students to practice the language daily -- but apps and YouTube content help students develop study habits with their approachability and gamification," said Mok Jung-soo, a professor of Korean language in University of Seoul.
However, while Hangeul is suitable for learning on apps, YouTube and online courses, experts warn that people should not expect to gain fluency in the Korean language – which encompasses not only Hangeul, but other aspects of language such as grammar and speech -- through these mediums.
"The transition in difficulty (for learning Korean language) is difficult to manage for apps and unqualified teachers who upload educational content on YouTube or blogs. Most of these educational contents’ levels are uneven, which makes it hard for learners to follow. Formal training with incremental learning stages are required, as the Korean language is very challenging for foreigners to learn," Mok said.
In fact, the US Foreign Service Institute puts Korean in Category V in its language difficulty ranking, which means it is "an exceptionally difficult language to learn for English speakers." Among the main reasons cited for this ranking are word order and honorific and colloquial forms.
"Interaction is also key in language learning. Unlike math and science, many variations and exceptions exist for languages. Feedback on why students get some things wrong is crucial, but apps and YouTube content cannot provide that."
The best method to master Korean is to take training courses authorized by established organizations such as the Korean government and universities, while developing study habits with apps like Duolingo, Mok advises.
"Languages, including Korean, are most reflective of honest work. With such diverse ways to get help, attaining fluency in them should be no problem," he said.