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Korean getting most-favored language status
As Asians show a growing appetite for Korean pop music and TV dramas, Korea is beginning to capitalize on another cultural export: its language.
Last month, the South Korean government hosted its eighth round of the Korean language proficiency test, drawing 17,531 participants ¡ª an increase of 44 percent compared to last year and a 650 percent increase since the first test in 1997.
Of all the participants, 90 percent were non-Korean, while the rest were ethnic Koreans living overseas. The numbers of Chinese and Vietnamese grew significantly from the previous test, the government said, but the Japanese made up the largest group of foreign test-takers, with 6,000.
The boom is a byproduct of Korea's cultural exports and economic development, experts say.
"Korea has become a more powerful economy, and its culture has become popular around the world," said Kwon Young-min, professor of Korean language and literature at Seoul National University. "Asia has also become the focus of world attention."
The interest in hangeul is especially pronounced in Korea's former colonial master. In 1995, 170 four-year colleges in Japan offered Korean-language courses, but last year, 355 schools, or 48 percent of all four-year universities in Japan, had added Korean classes.
Kurume University in Fukuoka said 1,340 students are taking Korean language lessons, compared to 695 students enrolled in 2001.
This year, 27 percent of the school's 5,000 students are learning the language. "We had to increase the Korean-language classes to 30 from the initial 10 and hired a full-time lecturer," a school spokesman said.
Keio University's Shona-Fujisawa campus said Korean is the second most popular foreign language, next to Chinese. Japanese high school students are eager to learn Korean. In 1999, only 100 high schools offered Korean classes, but last year, 200 schools offered them. Today, 5,000 Japanese high school students are taking Korean. "Our school recently invited high school seniors and parents to an information session of 23 majors offered here," said Noma Hideki, a professor of Korean linguistics at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. "The session for majoring in the Korean language was just flooded. It was the most popular major."
Other Japanese are taking private classes. "We started providing Korean lessons starting this year, and we have about 40 new students every quarter," said Jeong Jang-hoon, head of Hana International Academy in Tokyo. He said about 200,000 Korean lesson books, published by NHK-TV, have been sold each month recently, up from 70,000 a month last year.
The Korean wave is also washing through China. In Beijing, the fifth floor of the Korean Culture and Public Information Center, the cultural arm of the South Korean Embassy, is filled at 4 p.m. on weekdays with Chinese students who pack its 200-seat auditorium for Korean class.
Wi Gye-chul, head of the center, said about 700 attended the Korean class in 1994, when it was first offered. This year, about 2,600 are enrolled, Mr. Wi said, and an additional 60,000 are also learning the language through classes held through the Internet. About 30 universities in China are offering a Korean-language major, with up to 800 students in the programs, he said.
He said one big reason for the Chinese people's greater interest in Korean are the TV soap operas, movies and music that come out of Korea, which are currently popular across Asia.
In Myanmar, also known as Burma, Chun Gi-hong, a 31-year-old businessman who recently opened a Korean-language institute in the capital of Yangon (Rangoon), said many locals understand some simple Korean words, such as "hello," and "thank you" because of Korean TV programs that have aired there. In Yangon, about 1,000 study Korean at the city's universities and private institutions, Mr. Chun estimated.
The well-documented "Winter Sonata" phenomenon in Japan, which saw many middle-aged Japanese women swoon over Korean actor Bae Yong-jun, star of the hit TV miniseries, explains much of the recent growth in Korean classes there. A Japanese office worker, Shimada Meiko, said she has been learning Korean so she could watch "Winter Sonata" in its original language.
Increased tourism and business exchanges between the two countries also account for the interest in learning Korean. Noma Hideki, professor of Korean linguistics at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, said, "In the past, most Japanese learned the Korean language for historic reasons. But today, many are learning the language out of pure curiosity because more than 10,000 people are traveling between the two countries every day."
In Hanoi, about 100 people graduate from the city's three universities with degrees in Korean language every year. With more Korean companies opening businesses in Vietnam, these graduates' employment rate is almost 100 percent, so students compete with each other to enter the program, Vietnamese education experts said.
The interest in Korean has brought more foreigners to Korea to take classes.
"About 7,000 foreigners are studying Korean at universities around the nation last year," said Park Young-soon, professor of Korea University and the head of the International Korean Language Foundation. "The number most likely has grown this year."
She said the numbers are extremely surprising because just five years ago, very few foreigners came to the country just to study the language.
Korean-language lessons specially tailored for foreigners are offered at 37 universities nationwide as a part of their continuing education programs. At Yonsei University, about 1,000 are learning the language every semester. Another 1,000 are taking similar lessons at Seoul National University.
And foreigners aren't just taking language classes, they're enrolling as full-fledged college students. In Professor Song Cheol-eui's classroom at Seoul National University's graduate school of Korean language and literature, 18 out of 27 students are foreigners. According to Seoul National University, 41 out of its 118 master's and doctoral candidates of the Korean language and literature are from Vietnam, Pakistan, the United States, Canada, Ukraine, Finland and the Czech Republic.
With all the new students of Korean, more job opportunities have opened up for Korean language teachers, as well as classes to teach Korean as a second language. Professional degrees for Korean language education are offered at 10 colleges around the nation, including Seoul National, Korea, Sogang and Ewha Womans universities.
At Seoul National University, 60 students are currently enrolled for the school's one-year professional course to become a Korean language teacher for foreigners.
Korea University said only about 20 students were enrolled in the first year of the program, in 1998, but this year, its 40-student quota filled up quickly. "There were far more than 40 applicants, but we have to limit the number because we do not have enough lecturers," said, Yu Jong-bok of Korea University.