Korean language courses spring up all over Asia
Workers in the region believe fluency will result in economic advantages
|A Korean class is packed with Chinese students who want to learn Korean at the Korean cultural center in Beijing, China. By Kim Sang-seon |
The Korean language has come a long way. It was hardly on the map of foreign languages taught round the world a few years ago. But in the run up to Hangul Day this Friday, it’s fair to say that learning Korean is a lot more popular.
In fact, over 700 universities in 60 countries around the world have Korean language departments, according to Kim Jung-sup, head of Kyung Hee University’s Institute of International Education and president of the International Association for Korean Language Education.
Founded in 1985, the IAKLE is the largest association of Korean language educators, with over 1,500 members.
“This clearly shows the Korean language is gaining popularity around the world,” Kim said. “Of course, students’ level of learning Korean has improved compared to past years as well.”
Across Asia, new programs have sprouted. Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia’s largest, established a Korean department in 2003 for students hoping to work for Korean companies. Burapha University and Chulalongkorn University in Thailand and universities in Hong Kong all provide Korean studies courses as well. In Tokyo, Korean and Japanese professors officially launched the first Korean language and research institute in Japan on Sept. 26 at Mejiro University.
Kang Bong-sik, a professor at Iwate Prefectural University and also the first president of the new institute at Mejiro, says he plans to offer training for teachers of Korean in Japan and develop Korean textbooks for Japanese learners.
In some cities, Korean language education isn’t just a mind-expanding curiosity - it’s vital. That’s why 350 Chinese workers at some 40 Korean mid-sized companies in Shanghai take Korean language classes funded by the Korean Ministry of Knowledge Economy to help them interact with their corporate parents in their native tongue. The ministry’s plan will cost 200 million won ($166,000).
Lee Chang-bok, CEO of Fischbach China and Fischbach Korea, which makes sealant and adhesive cartridges, said the company employs 120 Chinese workers. Only two of the workers at its Shanghai offices are Korean citizens.
Lee uses a Korean-Chinese interpreter to communicate with his Chinese employees, but he hopes the language education program will allow them to communicate directly in the future.
“Fischbach China has its headquarters in Korea, and the workers in China make regular visits to headquarters to receive training on new technology and procedures,” Lee said. “But because many of our non-Korean workers cannot speak Korean, we cannot send those Chinese workers to Korea for training sessions.”
If their local employees become fluent in Korean, Lee says, they will be able to communicate more freely, which will in turn boost productivity.
The company plans to offer incentives to Chinese workers who acquire fluent Korean, such as promotions and business trips to Korea.
Currently, 18 out of Fischbach’s 120 Chinese workers take Korean language classes every Saturday for four hours, with the assistance of the Knowledge Economy Ministry and the BJ Korean Centre, a language institute in Shanghai.
“The majority of workers asked us to expand class hours so that they could be more exposed to a Korean environment,” Lee said. “Now the Korean classes are offered for two hours on Wednesdays and three hours on Saturdays.”
The 18 workers will take Korean classes for a total of 100 hours, and they will sit for the Korean Language Proficiency Test at the end of this year, Lee said.
Oh Eun-suk, head of the BJ Korean Centre, said the institute, with the Knowledge Economy Ministry, currently provides Korean lessons to 274 Chinese workers at 24 Korean mid-sized companies based in Shanghai. The center was established in 2003 with just 14 students in two classes - both of which Oh taught alone - but today it has grown into a linchpin of the Korean government’s educational plan in the Chinese city.
The center now has over 1,000 students, 60 classes and 30 teachers. Three branches are now operating in Shanghai alone, with plans to establish another in the capital of Beijing in the future.
“I’d say Korean has become the third language that Chinese people want to learn after English and Japanese,” Oh said. “Many say Korean learning among Chinese people mushroomed along with hallyu [Korean wave], but I don’t agree with that. A growing number of Chinese are turning to Korean because they are aware that more and more Korean companies are tapping into the Chinese market by establishing local branches. Chinese are starting to think that, in near future, they may have the chance to use Korean in line with the surge in the number of Korean companies on the mainland.”
Indeed, the number of people taking the Korean Language Proficiency Test in China is rising year by year. According to data provided by the Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation, only 261 peopled took the proficiency test in China in 2000. But nine years later, the number had jumped drastically to 143,470, an increase of 550 times.
Yang Yingying, a 23-year-old college student, signed up for a six-month course at the BJ Korean Centre because, she says, she wants to build her academic career in this country. “It’s really hard to imitate Korean pronunciation,” Yang said. “Some Korean letters confuse me because they sound differently than they’re written.”
Yu Xiang, who worked at a Korean company five years ago, started taking language courses at the institute last year. “I started learning Korean because I want to work at a Korean company [again],” the 28-year old woman said. “It’s still not easy to express things in Korean.”
And it’s not just Chinese workers who are eager to master Korean. For some, who completed Korean studies at a university back in his or her hometown, find a career opportunity in Korea.
Marwa Zahran, an Egyptian translator at the Korea-Arab Society, and also a new D.J. in charge of an Arabic language show at the Seoul-based Multicultural Family Radio Broadcast, is a case in point.
Zahran, one of the first graduates in Korean studies at Ain Shams University in Cairo, Egypt, speaks fluent Korean. She learned Korean literature, history, culture and Hanja (Chinese characters used in the Korean language) at the university. She saw a job ad for a radio DJ in her university and took this job and came to Korea in August. “When I first came [here], I felt Arabians were very not participating in Korean society,” said Zahran. “I thought that my job is to bridge the gap between Korean and Arabian cultures. I also want to be the person who can help Arabian people get over homesickness.”
Kim of the IAKLE said around 100 of the 1,000 universities in China are designated by the Chinese government to nurture global talent - and they all have Korean departments. “Only 40 universities in China taught Korean in 2002, 10 years after diplomatic ties between Korea and China were established in 1992,” Kim says. “Now the number has jumped to 100.”
Minzu University of China (formerly called the Central University for Nationalities) and Beijing International Studies University hold a Korean speech contest every year. Beijing Language and Culture University holds a Korean writing competition every year.
Kim of the IAKLE suggests it is crucial for Korean language groups to work together to expand the scope of classes offered to promote Korean language education at a global level.
Also important is the creation of a network to allow Korea scholars in foreign countries to share information about language education with scholars in Korea, Kim says.
To spread Korean language education even further, Kim says research institutions need to suggest “prototype” measures for overseas Korean language instruction. “Many overseas teachers have complained to me about a lack of sufficient teaching materials and textbooks, not to mention teachers’ manuals,” Kim says. “New teaching ideas will definitely propel Korean language education to a global level.”
By Kim Mi-ju [firstname.lastname@example.org]