College Enrollment in Korean Courses Skyrockets in the U.S.

While college enrollment in other language courses has declined or plateaued in the past decade, more college students than ever are taking Korean courses.
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  • Korean popular culture has swept through the U.S. in the past decade. And more college students are taking Korean language classes — now more than ever.
  • Enrollment in other prominent language courses has declined since 2009.
  • College students can now major or minor in Korean at institutions across the U.S.

Between 2002 and 2016, U.S. college student enrollment in Korean language courses nearly tripled, from just over 5,000 students in the fall of 2002 to just under 14,000 students in fall of 2016, according to the Modern Language Association.

At the same time, college student enrollment in other languages (besides American Sign Language) either plateaued or decreased since 2009.

Even U.S. enrollment in two of the most popular language courses — French and Spanish — has also declined since 2009.

Spanish language enrollment dropped from over 860,000 in fall 2009 to less than 715,000 in fall 2016. And French enrollment declined by about 40,000 students during that time.

Interest in learning the Korean language seems to coincide with a skyrocketing American interest in Korean popular culture in the past decade.

From Psy's "Gangnam Style," which swept computer screens and social media in the U.S. back in 2012, to the worldwide craze for "Squid Game," Netflix's most watched show of all time, in 2021, Korean popular culture has become much more prominent in the U.S.

Korean pop (K-pop) music has also made a cultural splash in the U.S., and around the world.

BTS, a Korean pop boy band, is ranked No. 45 in the world for monthly listeners on Spotify, as of October 2022.

In 2020, the group topped the U.S. singles chart and has since notched three more Billboard number ones, according to Spotify. They have collaborated with popular artists such as Coldplay, Snoop Dogg, Halsey, Sia, and Charlie Puth.

BLACKPINK, an all-female K-pop group, has over 30 million monthly listeners on Spotify, as of October 2022. They are currently paving their way through the U.S. on tour.

College Students Across the Country Are Learning to Speak Korean

Only four states decreased or had no enrollment between 2002 and 2016. Other states saw an increase in students taking Korean language classes, and many saw enrollment surges.

Some states across the country have seen particularly high spikes of enrollment in Korean language classes throughout the past decade.

According to the University of Minnesota, increased interests in Korean classes were twofold: "First, Korean pop culture and culture in general is becoming more and more common and important in the U.S. The second factor that will continue to contribute to the growth of Korean studies in the U.S. is the ever fluctuating state of U.S.-DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea)relations."

In Virginia, enrollment increased from zero students in 2002 to over 300 in 2016, according to data from the Modern Language Association.

The University of Virginia offers eight different Korean language courses — from elementary through fourth-year Korean.

"For the past 20 years or so, South Korea has emerged as one of the strongest countries in East Asia in several aspects," the Korean at UVa webpage reads. "[Learning Korean] will give you an opportunity to explore an ever-growing popularity of Korean culture (Hallyu), such as Korean dramas and pop music, which has taken the world by the storm in recent years."

Georgia also saw spikes in enrollment in Korean language classes. Nearly eight times as many students took these Korean courses from 2002-2016.

At the University of Georgia, students can take Elementary Korean through Business Korean, where students learn to read, write, and speak about business in Korean. They also learn about the Korean business culture.

At the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), over 300 students take Korean classes, and not just because they listen to K-pop.

According to Georgia Tech's website, "The city of Atlanta has a Korean population of over 100K, and more than 180 Korean companies have a presence in the Southeast, providing a number of local and regional opportunities for student internships and involvement in the local Korean-American community."

In Texas, enrollment more than quadrupled from 149 students in fall 2002 to 608 in fall 2016. The University of Texas offers students the option to minor in Korean studies, as well as take first-, second-, and third-year Korean language classes.

Korean Culture Classes Are on the Rise, Too

Colleges and universities are also developing specific K-pop courses.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), over 100 students took the course Achieving the Unthinkable: K-Pop on the Global Stage during the spring 2022 semester, according to MIT News.

In New York, Skidmore College offered a first-year Scribner Seminar on K-pop in 2018, taught by anthropology professor Joowon Park.

And at the University of California, Berkeley, students could sign up for a physical education course on K-pop choreography and learn the moves that match current popular K-pop songs.