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[Hello Hangeul] Americans seeking to visit Korea learn the language in LA

By Kim So-hyun

Published : Nov. 7, 2023 - 10:35

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Adults learn Korean in a class at the King Sejong Institute Center USA in Los Angeles. (King Sejong Institute) Adults learn Korean in a class at the King Sejong Institute Center USA in Los Angeles. (King Sejong Institute)

LOS ANGELES -- Stephanie Baldonado first came across Korean food in 2006 during her deployment at a US military hospital in Afghanistan, where she shared a camp with counterparts from the Korean military. She instantly fell in love with it.

Years later, her daughter Marlene “fully immersed” herself into the world of K-pop and Korean dramas. Marlene is the captain of a K-pop dance group at San Diego State University. The mother and daughter are both taking online Korean language lessons offered by the Korean Cultural Center Los Angeles.

“My first goal is to be able to watch Korean dramas without subtitles, and fully appreciate the lyrics in Korean music. My daughter is absolutely in love with everything Korean so I feel that in order for me to encourage and support her in all her endeavors, I too should be able to understand the language,” said Baldonado.

“We plan on traveling to Korea next year and I feel it would be wise of us to have some level of comprehension of the language.”

The KCCLA, run by South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, offers online classes once a week for US residents aged 18 or older in seven different levels -- from introductory to advanced -- while in-person classes are provided at the King Sejong Institute Center USA, located next to the KCCLA.

Students from over 24 states across the US are currently taking online classes, according to Jung Sang-won, director of the KCCLA.

“It’s a program that suits America, although in-person classes are better in terms of student satisfaction and concentration,” Jung told The Korea Herald at the KCCLA.

“Survey results showed that the students want to learn Korean to better understand its culture and dramas, and to use it when they travel to Korea. An increasing number of learners are saying they’re learning it to visit Korea," he said.

KCCLA chief Jung Sang-won KCCLA chief Jung Sang-won

The KCCLA also holds various exhibits, and performances and even runs a tour to Korea in cooperation with the King Sejong Institute.

According to the US Foreign Service Institute, the US government’s training institution for its foreign service community that has classified some 70 languages into five categories based on the average amount of time it takes students to reach “professional working proficiency,” Korean is category five -- “languages exceptionally difficult for native English speakers” -- along with Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese and Arabic.

Although many students find Korean becomes more difficult as they advance toward the intermediate level, the number of those continuing to learn the language for two to three years has been steadily increasing thanks to easy access to online courses that began in 2020 during the pandemic, Jung said.

The number of students choosing to take Korean as a subject in elementary, middle and high schools in California that offer it has also been on a steady rise from 8,052 in 2020 to around 8,500 in 78 schools last year.

Despite the rising demand among adults across the US, however, there are not many institutions that offer Korean courses.

As for the Los Angeles area, there are only three such places -- all of them King Sejong-branded institutes including Jung's, where adults can learn Korean outside universities, according to Jung.

For the fall semester of the nine KCCLA online classes with a total student quota of 340, some 700 people from 37 states applied, prompting applications to close early.

While most learn the language out of love for Korean culture or to visit the country, some have professional or familial reasons too.

Kathleen Strahm, a violinist and music content expert studying intermediate Korean, said she hopes to use her Korean skills in her career as there are many positions that ask for a second language, particularly Korean.

She supplements the KCCLA courses with in-person tutoring for speaking, and uses the Talk to Me in Korean website for help with listening skills and grammar.

She has arranged to go teach English in Korea for about two months next summer.

Nick Kim-Skenderian, a 32-year-old office worker, said he is taking beginner classes to be able to speak with his Korean wife and her side of the family in their native language.

“I'd also like to easily sing my favorite Korean songs at noraebang,” he said, referring to Korea's culture of private karaoke rooms.

Marlene, the 20-year-old captain of her school’s K-pop dance club, said her desire to learn Korean grew as she got to work as an undergraduate teaching assistant for a K-pop dance course led by Chuyun Oh, a professor of dance at her university.

"I hope to develop my Korean skills to minimize potential miscommunications and as a way to show my appreciation of the Korean language and culture which has led me to life-changing opportunities," she said.

This is part of The Korea Herald’s “Hello Hangeul” project which consists of interviews, in-depth analyses, videos and various other forms of content that shed light on the stories of people who are learning the Korean language and the correlation between Korea’s soft power and the rise of its language within the league of world languages. – Ed.