In July last year, I came across an Instagram post for a Hangul workshop — where beginners would be taught the Korean alphabet. Having been obsessed with K-dramas since 2017, I’d seen the Korean letters on my screen so many times that there was only one thing to do — register. After that, thanks to the Instagram algorithm, I kept getting recommendations of Korean tutors until I found one who suited me and started taking regular classes. It has been a long and arduous process, but the joy of understanding snippets of dialogue while watching a K-drama is unmatched. And I’m not alone.
THE FASTEST GROWING LANGUAGE IN INDIA
The Hallyu wave, or the rise in global popularity of South Korean culture, had taken over India a few years ago, but it exploded during the pandemic. The number of people who started watching K-dramas and listening to K-pop skyrocketed, fuelled by OTT platforms heavily investing in South Korean programming.
Recently, language-learning app Duolingo surveyed 1,013 people across 10 Indian cities and found that Korean is now the fastest growing language in India. While it was the seventh most popular language for Indians in 2020, it rose to the fifth position in 2021, and will only continue to go higher. Duolingo’s 2021 language report attributes this in large part to the release of Squid Game in 2021.
In fact, when Squid Game released in September, there was a lot of conversation around how certain nuances of the language, which added more depth to the scenes, were lost in translation when we watched the show with English subtitles. At the time, very new to learning the language, I’d promised myself that I would not stop learning it until I could watch an entire K-drama without subtitles. It felt good to have a goal in mind, which, it turns out, is the goal most people have when they decide to learn Korean.
Twenty-six-year-old Gaganpreet Kaur runs Ga Lingua Academy from her home in Kota. She’s been teaching since 2014, earlier in MNCs where employees needed to know the language for work, and then in her academy to a larger student base. In small batches of five, she was teaching 80 students at any given point of time in 2021. Her youngest student was seven, and her oldest was 66.
But, right now, her oldest student is an 85-year-old lady who’s learning Korean because she is “in love with BTS”, the South Korean band that is now a global phenomenon. “I get about five to six enquiries about classes every day, and 90 per cent of them are from K-drama fans. I can already feel the number growing this year,” Gaganpreet tells us. “A huge Korean company is setting up manufacturing units in India, so the demand is going to skyrocket in 2022 as more people would want to learn the language to be able to get those jobs.” She is currently building a school in her city, and plans to take offline classes for the language there.
Gaganpreet Kaur (L) and Era Kaundal
The Korean Cultural Centre in Delhi has also been noticing this boom. In 2020, 814 students registered with them for 23 classes, whereas, in 2021, 4,680 students registered for 37 classes. Their students usually consist of 70% university students and 30% adult workers, where on an average, 90% of the students are female, and only 10% are male. Since they also provide teachers, curriculum and textbooks for Indian schools, their teachers taught in 13 schools in 2020 to 434 students, whereas, in 2021, they taught 1,536 students in 26 schools.
Hwang Il-yong, director of the Korean Cultural Centre India, tells us, “We see and expect continuous growth in numbers. To prepare the ground for explosive demand in the future, we are working towards opening and operating a Korean language teacher training course ourselves and with other higher education institutes such as JNU.”
He explains that one of the main reasons for this rising popularity can be the fact that the Indian government has adopted Korean as a major foreign language in the National Education Policy, which was revised in July 2020. And, of course, the overall impact of the Hallyu wave. “In 2021, briefly speaking, the first half was led by BTS and it was handed over and continued by Squid Game,” he adds.
Goa-based language trainer Siddhi Kamat started watching K-dramas four years ago, but always felt like the subtitles weren't doing justice to the emotions of the characters. She started looking for tutors and language partners to study and practise Korean, and eventually started teaching. Over 2,000 students have enrolled in her courses so far, according to one of the tutoring platforms she used. She says, “I was really overwhelmed by the number of people interested in Korean initially. And that’s saying a lot, because that number has only increased drastically. If the data is anything to go by, there’ll definitely be a lot more students in 2022. Around 10% of my students say that they’re learning it for business, but the majority of them are just attracted to the language and wish to learn it.”
But there’s another trend she foresees. “I think in 2022 Koreans would also be fascinated by our country, noticing the amount of affection Indian fans have for their entertainment industry. I’ve even seen some Koreans trying to learn Hindi and understand our culture. A lot of Korean content online includes or talks about our country and it’s heartwarming to see that a few people have even dedicated their channels to it,” she says.
When I started watching K-dramas, I was struck by how similar the culture in Korea seemed to India’s. Unlike in American TV shows, in K-dramas, the leads behaved like me — they lived with their parents as adults, worried about ‘log kya kahenge’, and didn’t attend ragers every weekend in school. That kept me hooked.
Twenty-six-year-old Korean language trainer Era Kaundal from Delhi has leveraged just that. She runs @eraindiekor, a very popular Instagram page where one can see “Korea through (her) eyes”. What sets Kaundal’s page apart from other K-content creators is the fact that she makes informative videos on Korean culture and doesn’t just focus on K-dramas and K-pop. One of her most popular reels, explaining the similarities between Indian and Korean food, has over 3.5 million views.
She started teaching in March 2021, and teaches about 150-250 students every month. “Earlier, even though many people were interested in learning, they couldn’t because they didn’t have access to institutes. So, I was very clear that I will do this online, and teach as many people as I can.” She compares the language to art, and says, “The way my students start learning and comprehending, eventually making their way to speaking and creating sentences on their own, is such a beautiful thing to witness. I'm just grateful to be able to pass on that knowledge to them.”
In 2022, she plans to take more classes. “The Hallyu wave will continue to rise this year, and more people will want to connect with Korean culture on a deeper level,” she says. “There are also many students who want to crack TOPIK, the Korean proficiency test, get scholarships to Korea or get a job there. I only see this trend growing.”
Takshanda Pandit (L) and Siddhi Kamat
Twenty-one-year-old Takshanda Pandit is currently doing her masters in hotel management in Mumbai and learning Korean from the King Sejong Institute, but she also runs a popular Instagram page called @indokorean_chingu, where she creates Korean content. “I started making reels in Korean and they became super popular,” she tells us. “One day, a friend suggested that I should take classes for beginners since I’d be able to explain concepts to them like a fellow student. I put up an Instagram story for my first Hangul workshop and got about 250 students for the first class.” Since she started in June 2021, she has taught more than 500 people. This year, she’s planning more structured and consistent classes to meet the growing demand.
“Honestly, it's one of the best things that has happened to me,” she says, adding, “It's so nice to see one language bring people from different countries and age groups together. My favourite part about learning and teaching Korean is getting to know interesting things every day, and I don't just mean new words and grammar.”
A few years ago, if someone had told me that I’d start learning a new language at the age of 31 because of my obsession with television, I’d have laughed at them. Today, as I struggle with figuring out the difference between a topic and a subject in a Korean sentence, I’m glad I’m not alone.