You love pop culture, but stick for the language – why Korean is India’s new favorite

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KOrean is currently the fastest growing foreign language in India, a popular language learning app called DuoLingo concluded after polling more than 1,000 Indians. Given the rise in popularity of Korean dramas and K-pop music in the country, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic, the growing interest in the language is not unexpected.

I started learning Korean in 2017, after voraciously consuming Korean popular culture for over a decade. What spurred me on was a failed attempt to learn it on my own and later from a Korean neighbor. Therefore, I enrolled in the South Korean government-run language center in New Delhi, the King Sejong Institute. Although I have been watching K dramas and movies since 2008, it was the uplifting effect of K-pop that ultimately drove me to learn the language.

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You go for pop culture, but stay for the language

On the first day, our teacher said, “A smart person can learn Korean in a day and a stupid person in a week. Learning the Korean alphabet system is indeed easy – the initial learning curve is very steep. This is because Korean is a language that was intended for commoners. Any learner of Korean would know its history: King Sejong the Great called for the creation of an easy-to-learn writing system. Until 1443, Chinese was the main medium of writing in Korea and was known only to the upper classes.

Lessons become progressively more difficult with Korean homophones, and the grammar tests each learner’s resolve. But, beyond the euphoria of figuring out what your favorite K-pop celebrity was talking about, the language becomes a gateway to understanding a whole new culture. Somewhere along the way, the pop culture aspect that encouraged me to learn Korean took a back seat. Now, it’s the beauty of disentangling the meanings, decoding the cultural context of a new vocabulary, and getting some Korean puns that pique my interest. Language, as a medium of expression, is one of the most intrinsic aspects of any culture. As the Korean wave strengthens its grip on India, the growing tendency to learn the language is a natural result.

Who are the learners?

As I resumed my active studies long after leaving college, I realized that ordinary classrooms had turned into smart classrooms, and people from all walks of life were coming. A few came to learn Korean for work and business, but it was mainly the country’s popular culture that attracted most of the learners. Striking up a conversation with them was effortless as they all shared the same passion.

During breaks between classes, teachers sometimes played classic K-pop hits such as Taeyang’s “Eyes, Nose, Lips” or their favorite Korean ballads. Once a teacher explained the etymology of the two K-pop groups – 2PM and 2AM. The students discussed the latest updates from K-pop groups and K-dramas as serious news. The classes were fun but rigorous. Sometimes traces of Korea’s inflexible education system have crept in, especially during exams. Nonetheless, the classroom was a utopia for Korean devotees where reality could be forgotten for a while.

Whether they are schoolchildren or people in their fifties, new students at orientation sessions would infallibly mention the desire to enjoy Korean content without subtitles as a primary motivator. In a podcast, a former student-turned-teacher at the institute mentioned that breaking down the closed caption barrier remains the driving force behind her students. She also noted that many adopted the language for the purpose of studying in South Korea. Additionally, the language has managed to capture the interest of polyglots in India, she noted. As Korean, Japanese and Chinese share linguistic similarities, the intersection of interests among enthusiasts of these languages ​​is quite common. I remember having classmates who were simultaneously learning Japanese and Korean due to their interest in manga and K-pop.

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The rise in popularity of East Asian languages

The King Sejong Institute opened in India in January 2013, starting with 50 students in New Delhi. Over the years, the number of applicants has grown exponentially. Today the center holds entrance tests and has expanded to Patna and Imphal. As classes went online due to the pandemic and the Korean Cultural Center in India launched free online classes, 600 places were filled as soon as registration opened. People rushed to take seats like they were buying K-pop concert tickets on the cheap.

At the same time, there has been a boom in private platforms offering online courses. My Instagram ads are countless platforms offering to teach Korean. The physical barrier to learning the language has disappeared.

Ensuring easy accessibility seems to be the mantra of South Koreans. The digital revolution has brought a Korean wave that has made its pop culture content visible around the world, and now it is at stake for its language with increasing popularity.

This growing interest in the Korean language is a trend that is not unique to India. Korean is the fastest growing foreign language in other countries as well: Brazil, France, Germany and Mexico, according to the DuoLingo report. The UK is seeing an increase in the number of Japanese learners as interest in the popular culture of the eastern country grows. What if my K-pop Twitter to feed is all indication from the development of the trend, the next big thing will probably be the Chinese dramas.

“Once you get past the one-inch-high barrier of subtitles, you’ll find so many more amazing films,” South Korean director Bong Joon-ho said in his speech after Parasite won the Best Picture Award at the Oscars in 2020.

Looking back, Bong’s statement in Los Angeles seems to have resonated with the Indian public. K-drama and K-pop fans weren’t limited to enjoying the captioned content. They have gone further and are trying to bridge the gap by learning the language.

Opinions are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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