Aesthetically, grammatically and aurally, the Korean language couldn’t be further removed from English. It crops up on “most difficult to learn” lists while its students moan and complain of its complexity.
Yet London’s Sejong Institute (the free language course run by the Korean Cultural Centre) has a huge waiting list, Korean language programmes at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) sell out at £335 per term, and numerous private lessons are available for up to £100-per-hour.
Any learner of Hanguk-o will be familiar with the obligatory ice-breaker at the start of the first lesson. It goes something like “What’s your name, and why do you want to learn Korean?” As awkward as this may seem at the time, it’s a very good question! Let’s look at some of the reasons why Londoners are drawn to learning the Korean language…
In today’s painfully competitive jobs market there is an inherent need to stand out from the crowd — it’s all about boosting your portfolio and gaining extra skills. And although parkour, snorkelling, and cross-stitch may be fun, their relevance to the workplace is somewhat dubious. Rather, learning a language is the way to go! Boasting the only free language classes in the city and a trendy reputation, Korean is becoming London’s lingo vogue. From personal experience, mentioning “Korean” under your CV’s “Language Skills” section is a great interview talking point, and a sure-fire way to gain brownie points.
Speaking of careers, budding linguists are increasingly drawn to modern languages with promising business prospects. With a dynamic economy, high-profile companies like Samsung, LG, and Daewoo, and an ever-growing global presence, Korea and its native language bode well. One of my classmates from the Sejong Institute was awarded an internship with Samsung, and is adamant that his intermediate Korean language skills played a huge role in securing this.
There’s a huge East Asian community in London, and Korean is often the next logical step from languages such as Chinese or Japanese. This is equally true for Brits who have taken the time to learn other Asian languages for business or pleasure.
Gap Year Prep
We Brits love spending a gap year (or five) living and working in Korea. Whilst I knew little more vocab than “anyeong haseyo” and “bibimbap” on the day I arrived for my teaching year, a big part of me wishes I had been far better prepared. Two of my Sejong ex-classmates recently made the move to Korea, and were able to use the skills they had learnt in class to integrate into society and culture. Is it a surprise that neither of them show any intention of returning to London in a hurry?
Friends in Korea
Those on the other side of their gap years will have inevitably met many awesome Korean people with whom they’d love to keep in touch. It’s almost guaranteed that a Korean friend will do their utmost to speak English to you, so it’s only polite to return this gesture (or try, at least!). Even my ex-students, more than 20 years my junior, send me emails written completely in English. I dream of replying to them in fluent Korean, and of having witty, clever, and deep conversations with my friends (yes, in Korean of course!).
Friends in London
Then we come to our Korean friends living or staying here in London. The often embarrassing English/Korean language imbalance when chatting with said friends is more than enough to spur on the will to attend some K-classes. If this seems all too formal, there’s always the 1,077-person strong London Korean Language Meetup Group attended by native Korean speakers, as well as learners at all levels. Chatting and socialising can often be better language study than reading a book!
At my first-ever K-class, I was really surprised that about half of my classmates stated having a Korean husband, wife, boyfriend, or girlfriend as their reason for wanting to learn the language. Some said this was a display of their commitment; others wished to have a deeper understanding of their partner’s background and longed to be able to communicate with them in their mother tongue. One of my mates just wanted to learn how to ask his girlfriend’s father for her hand in marriage (aw!). The “partner” reason for learning Korean begs the question “Why not just get them to teach you?” which, for some reason I’ll never understand, always evokes a shudder and defeated facial expression.
Inspired by Hallyu
You knew this was coming, but it’s so true! Rocking to K-pop, religiously following dramas, flicking through manhwa, and crooning in the noraebang all require use of the Korean language. Even if a Korean wave-er had no language-learning intentions, it would be impossible for them not to pick some up along the way. Immersion in culture comes hand-in-hand with language, and a taste of Hanguk-o is usually enough to get someone hooked!
Love of Korea
After compiling the above list and then reading through it, I realised that my main reason for learning Korean is actually ‘”none of the above”, but something far simpler: I fell in love with Korea. I can safely say that I’m definitely not the only one, either. Another prime example is the story of a classmate who was introduced to Korea when she tagged along on a friend’s trip to Seoul on a whim. Within days, she was transformed from K-clueless to K-obsessed!
Whether having actually travelled to the country itself or just feeling a connection with a TV show, being charmed by a celebrity, moved by a song, or tantalised by a culinary delight, there are endless reasons why so many of us fall for Korea. And once this happens, we tend to stay committed.
For whatever reason a waegook saram is drawn to learning Korean, it benefits us all in the same ways: opening up new worlds of opportunity, challenging and enriching us, and most of all, being ever so fun! To all students of the Korean language: “화이팅!”