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Korean Boom: As Foreign Language Enrollments Drop in the U.S., Korean is on the Rise


By Jenna Gibson

In a June article, Foreign Affairs magazine decried the “decline of international studies,” citing a broad trend of “the scaling back of a long-term national commitment to education and research focused on international affairs.”

This trend can clearly be seen when it comes to foreign language education in the United States. According to a new report from the Modern Language Association, enrollment in language courses dropped 6.7 percent from 2009 to 2013. Across the board, American students are choosing not to study foreign languages.

U.S. Language Enrollments, 2009-13

Foreign Language Enrollments

Source: Modern Language Association

But even as top languages like Spanish, French and German slip, Korean is experiencing a major boom. In contrast to the overall decline, enrollment in Korean classes rose by 44.7 percent across the United States, and was the only language to grow at the two-year, four-year and graduate level.

Students Studying Korean

Source: Modern Language Association

 Officials at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) told the LA Times that there are often waiting lists for their Korean courses, which have skyrocketed in popularity over the past few years. Even more striking – this increase can be seen both in their heritage classes (aimed at Korean Americans with some knowledge of the language) and in beginner classes for non-Koreans.

This increase comes despite the fact that Korean is one of the hardest languages for English speakers to master. The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) includes Korean at the top of its language difficulty scale, along with Arabic, Japanese and Chinese. Because Korean sentence structure and verb conjugations are completely different from English, plus the fact that a significant portion of vocabulary is based on Chinese characters (hanja), English learners can have a hard time picking up Korean. According to FSI, Korean language learners need to spend at least 2,200 classroom hours to achieve proficiency.

Americans are not alone in jumping on the Korean bandwagon. In 2012 the Korean government established the King Sejong Institute Foundation to help provide Korean language education abroad. As of the end of 2014, the foundation had established 130 institutes in 55 countries. Meanwhile, more than 1 million people have registered to take the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK) since the exam was first offered in 1997.

Why Korean?

South Korea’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism believes the expansion of Korean businesses globally, along with a rise in foreigners living and working in Korea, have contributed to this trend. However, one of the biggest driving factors may be the spread of Hallyu, or the Korean Wave.

Hallyu, a phenomenon that seems to have originated with the popularity of Korean dramas in Japan in the early 2000s, has now attracted millions of fans from around the world. The rising interest in Korean pop music and television has corresponded with this trend of increased demand for Korean language education. In fact, according to a 2013 survey of Sejong Institute students, 34.3 percent cited interest in pop culture as their main impetus for studying Korean. The second most common response was a general curiosity about Korea and Korean language at 28.1 percent. In fact, the King Sejong Institute Foundation cites “Rapid increase in the Korean language education thanks to the spread of Hanryu [Hallyu]” as one of the main factors that sparked their establishment.

The government has continued to seize on this fact, using interest in pop culture to draw more students. The Sejong Institute in Washington, DC, for example, offers a five-day Hallyu Camp each summer focused on teaching the basics of Korean language along with cultural programming.

In addition, Study in Korea, the official government site providing information on studying abroad in Korea, also emphasizes Hallyu as a reason to study Korean, noting that “while Hallyu fans first fall in love with the concepts and creativity of Hallyu, immersion in language, the true essence of the country’s culture is also a critical step.”

More Resources

Along with the spread of Hallyu, an increase in online resources may be fueling, or at least facilitating, this trend. The popular website Talk to Me in Korean (TTMIK) provides free podcast and video lessons ranging from how to read and write Korean characters all the way up to reading the daily news. Since its inception in 2009, the site has drawn more than 8.7 million users and surpassed 50 million total downloads.

And students from all over the globe have better access to Korean educational materials thanks to the world wide web. In fact, G Market, an online shopping service, said sales of books and videos teaching Korean rose around 37 percent from 2013 to 2014. This included shoppers from 76 different countries, up from 57 the previous year.

Through the Korean Wave and a push to increase access to Korean education both on and offline, Korean is bucking the trend in language study the United States and around the world. Whether this increase in interest is sustainable, however, remains to be seen.

Jenna Gibson is the Associate Director for Communication Technology and Programs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Shaylor’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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  1. […] a Korean government initiative that has established 130 language institutes in 50 countries, was established in 2012 in part because of “Rapid increase in the Korean language education thanks to the spread […]


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