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Way More College Students Are Studying Korean. Is 'Hallyu' The Reason?

A recent study found that in general, college students aren't taking foreign language classes as much as they used to — a slowdown of nearly 7 percent since 2009. But for one language in particular, there's actually been a pretty amazing jump in the rate of enrollment: Korean.

The Modern Language Association says there was a 45 percent increase in university-level enrollment in Korean language classes between 2009 and 2013, from 8,449 students to 12,229. Though the raw numbers are still quite small, a look at whyany sort of jump might be happening is interesting. Larry Gordon, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, thinks the wave of international fascination with Korean pop culture — hallyu — is partially responsible.

The surge and spread of Korean pop culture as a national export became especially strong in the late 1990s, when South Korea's President Kim Dae-jung wanted to punch up the country's "soft power" by developing a super-fast Internet structure and a network of Korean entertainers the world would pay attention to.

"Non-Koreans fascinated with contemporary culture are leading the trend," Gordon points out. "Some were drawn by the K-pop dance moves of Psy in his 2012 international video hit 'Gangnam Style' or by the English-subtitled TV series 'Queen of Housewives.' And some by the prospect of jobs at Korean corporations."

Check out his story for more on what's behind the drop in languages enrollment overall, and how some professors are using K-pop videos in the classroom.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kat Chow is a reporter with NPR and a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is currently on sabbatical, working on her first book (forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing/Hachette). It's a memoir that digs into the questions about grief, race and identity that her mother's sudden death triggered when Kat was young.