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Korean Language Education Is on a Growth Spurt in North America

By Ross King, Founding Dean, and Dafna Zur, Current Dean of the Korean Language Village | Published: January 8, 2019

With foreign language education on the decline in the United States especially in post-secondary levels of instruction, Korean is bucking the trend and growing by leaps and bounds. It isn’t due to generous funding from Korean sources of any description—no massive or concerted investments by Korean government agencies, Korean corporate interests or Korean community stakeholders. It’s all driven by “K-Pop”—Korean popular culture.

A K-Pop concert.

“K-pop” refers to Korean all-boy or all-girl groups that can be found all over YouTube. These groups include anywhere from four to 15 members, all sporting the latest fashion items and makeup trends, singing flawlessly and dancing dynamically to music that evokes everything from mainstream pop to Latin beats. It is contagiously sharable on social media, with groups like BTS, Super Junior and Black Pink winning recognition on a global scale, and performing for tens of thousands of fans in the world’s largest venues.

These pop groups have done something for South Korea that other countries can only envy: they have raised the profile of the country by identifying Korea with the ultimate sense of ‘cool’ among young people. And now these young people want to learn Korean.

In early November 2018, Stanford University hosted a conference titled “Future Visions: Challenges and Possibilities of Korean Studies in North America.” Notable educational experts shed light on both the challenges and the opportunities associated with this phenomenal growth streak in Korean language studies across the United States.

Dr. Sahie Kang, Professor of Korean at Middlebury College, presented some interesting statistics about Korean instruction in the college/university setting:

  • Over 150 post-secondary institutions now offer Korean in North America, meaning that Korean is available in approximately 1% of such institutions (a significant increase from ten years ago).
  • Korean recorded the fastest growing enrollments among all languages during the period 2009–2013, during which it grew by 44.7% across the U.S., whereas overall foreign language enrollments declined by 6.7% during the same period.
  • Korean now ranks 10th overall in terms of foreign language enrollments with almost 14,000 students (compared to Japanese in 5th place with 69,000 in 2013, and Chinese in 7th place with 53,000).

Despite this growth trajectory, Dr. Kang enumerated a number of challenges for Korean language education: the continuing low visibility of Korean language education despite notable enrollment increases; teacher shortages; and the need for more K–12 programs and more professionalization of teacher candidates.

Professor Sung-ock Sohn from UCLA, which boasts the most robust post-secondary Korean language program in the U.S., underlined the drastic changes in students’ demographics over the past decade, with a majority of Korean learners at UCLA now being non-heritage learners from diverse backgrounds.

Rosa Kim, Principal of Silicon Valley Korean School, noted a number of challenges shared by more than 1000 Korean American weekend schools (informal education outside of the traditional classroom for pre-collegiate learners). These community schools focus on programming for 2nd-generation Korean Americans from homes where Korean is spoken, but are feeling more pressure to provide for 3rd-generation Koreans who now no longer speak Korean as their main language. Most enrollments are in the lower grades, with few students opting for classes at the middle and high school level. Teacher recruitment and retention are key issues.

The Korean Language Village has been experiencing exactly the same trends. Our enrollments have grown to the point that we now have wait lists (especially for the high school credit program), and our villagers are highly diverse. Second-generation Korean Americans with Korean surnames are a distinct minority, but on the other hand we are seeing more and more 3rd-generation Korean immigrants … proving yet again that American culture tends to kill immigrant languages within three generations.

What should we make of all this? The statistics and trends beg two questions: what if Korean government or corporate interests actually did start making meaningful investments in Korean language education? Similar investments made by Japanese government and industry in the 1970s and 1980s created the infrastructure keeping Japanese language education alive today in the U.S. And what if “K-Pop” were suddenly to lose its popularity?

We came away from the conference feeling cautiously optimistic about the prospects of collaboration between the Korean Language Village and both Korean community schools and post-secondary programs. And of course hope springs eternal when it comes to the prospects of major investments in Korean language education from Korean sources.

About the Authors

Ross King is Professor of Korean and Head of the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Ross was a villager at El Lago del Bosque, Waldsee, and Lesnoe Ozero throughout the 1970s and served on staff at both the German and Russian Language Villages before going off to college at Yale in 1979, where he branched out into Japanese and Arabic in freshman year, but ultimately settled on Korean as the most interesting and challenging. Ross was the founding dean of Sup sogŭi Hosu and served in that role from 1999 to 2013.

Dafna Dahee Zur is an assistant professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Stanford University. She started out as a counselor in the year 2000 and over the years she has worked in the village as Taekwondo instructor, language teacher, business manager, and assistant and acting dean. She has been dean of the Korean Language Village since 2014.

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