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[Robert J. Fouser] Is Korean worth learning?

March 10, 2023 - 05:53 By Korea Herald

The 21st century has seen a boom in learning Korean around the world. The wave began in the early 2000s as hallyu gained popularity in Asia and grew in the 2010s as K-pop swept the world. Universities around the world have started and expanded Korean language classes, online classes have boomed, and K-pop fans have created informal learning networks spanning the globe. Meanwhile, the number of foreign students studying in South Korea grew rapidly, only to be cut short by travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Determining the number of language learners worldwide is difficult, but according to a 2022 report from Duolingo, a popular language learning app, Korean was the most popular language in four countries, ranking 5th in that category. It was the second most popular language in seven countries, ranking 6th in that category. In overall numbers Korean ranked 7th, behind Italian but ahead of Chinese.

The popularity of the Korean language raises some interesting questions that have yet to receive much attention. The first is what learners of Korean do after their initial learning activities. How do they use Korean after they finish a language learning program or a period of self-study? Finding answers to this question will help shed light on whether learners feel their efforts were worth it.

The first step toward answering this question is to recognize that Korean is not taught as a required foreign language in most countries outside of the Korean Peninsula. This distinguishes it from English, which is taught as a required second or foreign language in many countries around the world. This means that learners of Korean do so because they want to, while learners of English do so because they are required to. This also means that learners of Korean can stop learning whenever they want and that those who continue to an intermediate and then advanced level are highly motivated to do so.

From here, the next question is what is the source of motivation? Motivation in elective language learning comes from a combination of personal interest and perceived benefit. Personal interest includes various factors such as having an interest in something Korean and “liking” Korea and Koreans. Perceived benefits include factors such as career opportunities and living in South Korea. The balance between personal factors and perceived benefits changes over time, but motivation relying exclusively on one is difficult to maintain.

Discussions on the role of hallyu and K-pop in motivating people to learn Korean focus on the question of personal interest, but neglect the question of perceived benefit. For learners who end up living in South Korea, the perceived benefits of learning and using Korean are obvious even if they do not use it in their work. The perceived benefits are limited to situations where they interact with Koreans regularly.

While use of Korean overseas is most likely limited to interactions with Koreans, the situation in South Korea is different. Increasingly, non-native speakers of Korean living in South Korea use the language with each other. This situation leads to the next interesting question about how non-native speakers of Korean use it as a common language.

Use of Korean among non-native speakers in Korea is common in two main situations. The first is in multilingual enclaves near places with a large population of foreign factory workers. Ansan in Gyeonggi Province is the most famous example, but another large enclave is in Gimhae near Busan. In these areas, a simplified language dominates because of the wide range in Korean proficiency among foreign workers. Koreans who work in these areas also simplify their language. Simplification, of course, occurs frequently in other languages that are used as a common language among non-native speakers.

The second situation is the white-collar workplace. Here, non-native speakers work in teams with Koreans, but often use Korean among themselves in meetings and other workplace interactions. These workers are usually highly proficient in Korean, but have to adapt to the varied linguistic nuances of the workplace. In this situation, they may find speaking Korean with other non-native speakers less stressful because they may feel that they will be judged less.

As more people learn Korean, more learners will aim for advanced proficiency, hoping for some perceived benefit. If they find opportunities to live and work using Korean, then they will feel that learning the language was worth it. If not, they may feel regret, which could over time dampen interest in learning Korean to an advanced level.

Robert J. Fouser

Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Providence, Rhode Island. He can be reached at -- Ed.