By Park Ji-won
Romanized Korean can be found on the internet these days sprinkled throughout comments from adoring international fans of K-pop, inspired by the Korean lyrics from their favorite songs. For fans it's a way to communicate directly with their idols via such short and sweet cultural references.
But considering that the Korean language is not widely used outside Korea, non-Koreans' use of it in their online musings, albeit imperfect, is a point of interest for Koreans as it is a kind of validation of the country's soft power that has spread via K-pop and the nation's juggernaut entertainment industry.
For K-pop fans, using simple and common Korean words in English is a novelty. Along with the ultra-common "oppa," (a simultaneously innocent and intimate girlish address to a boy or man who is older than the speaker ― often translated as "older brother") words like "daebak" (an exclamation meaning "awesome!" or "jackpot!") and phrases like "saranghae" (I love you) are some of the most commonly used by K-pop fans on websites.
Some fans show their deeper understanding with the use of Korean buzzword "dolminjeongeum," a combination of the words "idol" and "Hunminjeongeum" the title of an ancient treatise on Korean phonology and script. The term is a kind of meme that conveys the idea of the K-pop-driven Korean language craze abroad.
As the popularity of Hangeul follows K-pop stars such as like BTS' rise to fame, TV production companies and private institutions are rushing to create K-pop-based educational content for those interested in learning Korean.
In August, Big Hit Edu, the education content subsidiary of Big Hit Entertainment, the management company of BTS, released "Learn! Korean with BTS" with video content featuring members of the group, as part of its business diversification strategy.
WeeTV, a cable channel, also launched a show called "K-Language School" in August which aimed at teaching Korean language to non-Koreans in any of 10 different languages.
The new show features celebrity language teachers, who came to public attention from successful appearances in TV shows, teaching Korean language and culture in 10 different languages: Chinese, French, Japanese, Khmer, Malay, Nepalese, Russian, Spanish, Thai and Urdu. It also educates viewers on Korean culture, including K-pop, in the classes. This is new in terms of the number of languages and the native speakers of them teaching Korean on TV. The TV program airs at 11:00 a.m. Fridays and is also viewable on online video platforms YouTube and Naver TV.
During a press conference held to promote the new show, Kim Hong-chul, vice president of TRA Media, presented his personal view about the causal relations created by K-pop in what he called "global Hangeul fervor."
Kim noted the connection between the popularity of K-pop and an ever-increasing interest in the Korean language.
Seven episodes of tvN's "K-pop Cultural Center," a show centered on teaching Korean expressions used in K-pop songs, were also released in February and March.
The number of organizations which run programs on Korean studies throughout the world has also increased over the last 10 years, to 1,348 in 2017 from 632 in 2007, according to the latest data from the Korea Foundation.
The phenomenon is largely attributable to the popularity of K-pop groups, represented by BTS, and Korean cultural content throughout the world, experts say, but it is also a reflection of the current position of Korean culture in the global market, on which it has had a huge influence in recent years.
"K-pop has definitely contributed to the phenomenon of Korean language use, but it is rather a show of the power of Korean culture itself in the global market," pop culture critic Kim Sung-woo said. "Now, Korean cultural content cannot be excluded from the global content business and more people are trying to find and learn the cultural meanings in the Korean language, as well. Korean culture used to be something unfamiliar and even strange, but it has become more prominent in recent years. Using the Korean language and enjoying Korean culture has become something trendy among so-called hipsters."
"The way a language is used in the world has been something of a barometer of a country's global status. If the language is being used, as it is, it could mean that it has more influence in the world. Korea has huge influence, not only in the culture scene, but also in other areas such as economics and military power."