By Federico Arcuri and Mats van den Boogert
When Kim Mirae left South Korea to work at Leiden University as an intern teacher three years ago, she noticed how each year the classrooms got fuller and fuller with students willing to learn her mother language. The Korean language has risen in popularity all around the globe. In December 2021, the popular language learning app Duolingo stated in its annual report that Korean is the 7th most popular language to study on the platform. This means that Korean has surpassed Mandarin Chinese in terms of popularity on the app. In addition to that, in Brazil, France, Germany, India, and Mexico the Korean language is even the fastest growing language on Duolingo. For some people, this might come as a surprise, but it shouldn’t. South Korean culture has taken the world by storm over the past decade, with recent global successes such as the Netflix series Squid Game, the K-pop group BTS, and the movie Parasite. The increasing popularity of Korean culture globally is known as the phenomenon of ‘The Korean Wave’ or hallyu. Multiple scholars have highlighted how ‘the Korean Wave’ has positively contributed to South Korea’s image, its economy, and soft power strategies.
As two Korean language learners ourselves, we have seen the real-life effects of ‘the Korean Wave’ in our studies. Many of our classmates are inspired to learn Korean through engagement with Korean popular culture. The dynamics of ‘The Korean Wave’ fascinated us, but it also made us think critically. What do South Koreans think of the hallyu? Has it led to foreigners viewing South Korea only through the lens of popular culture, thereby overlooking other elements that shape South Korea? What are the positive and negative sides of this phenomenon? To find answers to our questions, we decided to understand the opinions of our fellow students who study Korean through a poll. Then, we interviewed three South Koreans who work or study at Leiden University to ask about their perceptions of ‘The Korean Wave’, and juxtaposed these interviews to the results of our poll, to understand how they complement and differ from each other.
Perceptions of International Studies Korean language students
Besides interviewing Koreans working or studying at Leiden University, we were also curious to know the perspective of our fellow classmates in International Studies (IS) Korean classes. Why did they choose Korean as a language of study? What is their perception of the Hallyu? Do they confirm the hypothesis that the phenomenon of the ‘K-wave’ is determining a sharp increase in the number of people studying Korean as a foreign language?
We asked them these questions and more through an anonymous poll, and the results were not surprising, confirming the role that Korean popular culture is playing in convincing foreign students to study this language. Of those who filled in the questionnaire, 94% stated that the reason why they decided to study Korean was either related to K-pop or K-drama. Similarly, 72% of the respondents included either the word K-pop or BTS in their answer, when asked what two words came to their mind when they thought about the word “Korea”. Besides these reasons, a significant number of students justified their choice also by pointing at their initial perception that the Korean language, in particular the alphabet, is easier when compared to Chinese and Japanese.
The following section of our questionnaire delivered interesting results. We asked our classmates to self-evaluate their knowledge of Korean culture, history, economics and politics on a scale from 1 to 5. The results show that most of our classmates feel quite knowledgeable about Korean culture (44,4% of the respondents chose option 4), but less about history (only 22,2% chose 4). In contrast, an overwhelming majority admitted their lack of knowledge when it comes to economics and politics – with only 5,6% of the respondents choosing option 4 in the latter. Option 5, as expected, was chosen extremely rarely, so we decided to focus on the number of people who chose the 4th option. These results are confirmed by the fact that almost ¾ of our classmates studying Korean could not name the main candidates and parties running for the next Presidential election (March 9th), with only 2 people being able to indicate both. These results are not as surprising, taking into consideration that starting to study a language is in many cases only the beginning of a potential wider interest in the more specific aspects of the country’s society.
However, to understand if these results have a broader significance and, if they can tell us something new about the K-wave, it would be interesting to compare such results with similar questions asked to foreign students of other languages. We decided to compare these insights with the perceptions of Korean people studying or working at Leiden University.
Korean perceptions about Hallyu: three interviews
Disclaimer: these findings are based on a small number of interviews and can/will therefore not represent the general view of all South Koreans regarding these topics. With these interviews, we aimed to capture the personal insights of these individuals regarding the matters discussed.
We interviewed three Koreans who study or work at Leiden University. The first two are the above mentioned Prof. Kim, and Prof. Lee, both teaching Korean language classes at Leiden University, in the International Studies program. The third is Hosoo, a Korean student of MA International Relations in Leiden. We asked the interviewees if they have noticed an increase in the number of students that are learning Korean. They all agreed that over the past few years, enrollment into Korean language courses has increased rapidly. For both Kim Mirae and Lee Myungji, this became especially apparent as they are Korean language teachers at Leiden University. By being teachers, Kim and Lee get to interact with many students and discuss what made them interested in studying Korean, which provided interesting insights.
Lee confirmed that popular culture is a significant source of interest for Korean language courses: “I think there are many ways to access Korean cultural content nowadays and the government has been promoting it a lot. As a result, you see how popular K-pop groups or series such as Squid Game have become very popular. There are also students that are more interested in Korean history for example. However, I still think that popular culture is the biggest factor nowadays to the increasing popularity of studying Korean.” Kim adds to this: “K-pop songs and movies are all related to language in some way, which leads foreigners to be curious about their meaning and what they are saying in their songs. This might affect students’ choosing Korean.”
The increasing popularity of the Korean language has not gone unnoticed by the South Korean government. According to The Korea Herald, the number of King Sejong Institutes, the Korean counterpart of Cambridge English or Goethe German, has reached an astonishing 172 institutes in 56 different countries in 2019. In 2007, there were merely 13 institutes divided over three countries. During the interviews, Kim also made a comment regarding the language institutes: “the Korean government has been increasingly wanting to create language institutes abroad. Last year there were 30 more countries having these institutes. The name of this institute is 세종학당 [Sejong Hakdang], after the famous Korean king. The numbers of this institute are increasing, and the government budget for it is as well. For example, the institute in Rome reached over 300 members.”
However, we were wondering whether the increasing popularity of Korean popular culture could potentially lead to a generalized and over-simplistic view of South Korea. Therefore we asked the interviewees what their thoughts were on the matter. Their insights are extremely valuable as they are currently living in an environment in which this generalized and simplistic view could be manifesting itself. Hosoo, a South Korean exchange student at Leiden University, has an interesting opinion about this, seeing the effects of this phenomenon more as positive than negative: “I do feel that it is one-dimensional. But I – and other Koreans as well – feel good about it. Just a few years ago, if you said ‘I’m from Korea’, then you would be asked ‘Oh, from the North or South? Do you know Kim Jong Un?’, and other stupid questions, while now you hear ‘Oh, I love BTS! I watched many K dramas.’ I mean, it’s still a generalization, but better than the former.”
Lee provides a slightly different perspective, as she does acknowledge the prominent factor of culture, but would not necessarily call it one-dimensional: “I notice that popular culture does play a big role. Often when I meet new students they say that they are K-pop fans. But this is not bad, it is a first step to introduce South Korea. But I’m not sure whether it is really ‘one dimensional’, because I have also spoken to a lot of students who are interested in Korean history and politics.”
Similarly, Kim emphasized the potential positive effects of the Hallyu, the most evident one being an increase in tourism: “People in Korea are expecting an increase in tourism, but this is impossible right now. I think that maybe after the pandemic, Koreans will feel that Hallyu is empowering our nation and helping growth. By now, I don’t think that they can feel that, because of the pandemic”. According to her, this is a small step for Korea to be known in the world. So this is a very positive thing. If it goes on like this for 20/30 years maybe it won’t be as good, but now we are still at a ‘starting point’, so the kwan shim 관심 [interest] for Korea is very positive.
Another interesting insight about the positive sides of the K-wave is provided by Hosoo, who believes that Korean music and dramas are “adding a bit of diversity to international pop-culture which is very dependent on Western culture. In this sense, I think that there are a few elements of Korean culture that I’m glad are being appreciated”. Thus, she thinks that the Hallyu is a “mostly positive phenomenon”, even if it’s hard to say.
In South Korea opinions are divided about the effects of Hallyu, especially regarding how foreigners might perceive South Korea. During street interviews held in Seoul, by AsianBoss, most people stated that in general global successes such as Squid Game contribute positively to getting South Korea on the map. However, during the interviews, it was also discussed how certain elements in for example Squid Game could give an inaccurate representation of South Korea to a foreign audience due to exaggeration.
Hosoo contributes with an interesting insight, stating that sometimes she feels like some Korean cultural products are worshipped in South Korea, not because of their value, but mostly because of their success in the West, making the ‘Westernization’ of Korean culture one of the main side-effects of the Hallyu: “I do not know if there is such a thing as a ‘pure’ Korean culture, I would be careful with that. But I think that it would be better to be aware of the fact that, because of this appreciation in the West, [korean pop culture] is being westernized. I can notice that, for example, the BTS songs are getting more westernized as time passes, and I don’t really like that. Koreans are not really recognizing these products, but then when they go to the West and they are approved, then they come back to Korea and suddenly become superheroes. I think that in this sense Western hegemony can still be observed. I especially noticed this with BTS. There were many groups more popular than them, but then BTS got popular in the West, and suddenly became superheroes.”
Another possible negative feature of the K-wave is mentioned by Kim: “I cannot give a percentage, but I can say that […] more than half of students who are interested in Korea don’t really think deeply about Korea as a ‘big country’, but only about small portions of it or one dimension.”
All in all, whereas a few negative side effects are inevitably identified by the three people interviewed, the major connotation of the phenomenon of Hallyu is viewed as positive.
In conclusion, after talking with three Korean people who live in The Netherlands we received a mostly positive impression regarding the K-wave trend. Like with any phenomenon, the Hallyu cannot be only positive or negative, inevitably implying both kinds of consequences and connotations. For instance, on the negative side, it has been argued that the K-wave trend could be criticized for its oversimplification of Korean culture, which is seen and appreciated only for one of its many complex dimensions. In addition to that, it has been mentioned that, by entering in contact with Western consumers, Korean culture risks being ‘Westernized’ to meet their demands. However, all in all, we got the impression that the positive effects of this phenomenon outnumber the negative ones. Specifically, the K-wave is praised as the recognition of Korean and East Asian culture, and it is seen as simply the beginning of wider interest for other aspects of South Korean society. Moreover, the K-wave has the huge potential to challenge the hegemony of ‘The West’, specifically the U.S., in the international pop culture scene, if it is not channeled by Westernizing pressures. Finally, it can help South Korea’s economic growth, attracting new tourists and foreign students.
But why does this matter? Can a human phenomenon even be negative or positive? We decided to write this article to reflect upon our experience of learning a foreign language which, even if spoken by more or less only 50 million people, is seeing a booming increase in foreign interest. This is a very unique and insightful phenomenon that, as any human trend, needs to be analyzed and understood critically. Human phenomena cannot be judged simplistically through binary lenses, but need to be constantly put under scrutiny instead of taking them for granted because they affect our daily lives. Why do we make certain choices? Why did our classmates choose Korean as a language of study? What do Korean people think about this trend? We tried to provide a small analysis to contribute to a debate that is not under the radar of academia or mainstream media – yet.
Edited by Helena Reinders, artwork by Teresa Valle