K-pop fuels interest in Korean language
By Noh Hyun-gi
When Prof. Sohn Ho-min, 78, started teaching Korean at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1972, he had about 30 students, mostly second generation Koreans.
For the fall semester of 2011, 480 students are enrolled and only one student has Korean heritage. A majority of the students with diverse backgrounds are learning Korean because they love K-pop. There are about five to six classes for freshmen.
“The popularity of K-pop is unbelievable and if that’s what gets the students to step into the classroom, that’s great for me,” Sohn told The Korea Times on Friday, Seoul.
Sohn, professor of Korean language and linguistics at the University of Hawaii and former director of the Center for Korean Studies, was in Korea to receive the third Korea Foundation Award in recognition of his contribution to training educators of Korean language and establishing foundations for Korean language education in the United States.
But linguistically speaking, Korean is one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn.
“The two languages have absolutely nothing in common,” explained Sohn.
Typologically or synthetically speaking (categorizing languages based on structural features,) Korean is a “subject-object-verb language” while English is a “subject-verb-object language.”
Korean is an agglutinative language or an affixing language. This means that suffixes are added to the stem of a vocabulary, and they have independent meaning. English is an inflectional language like French and Spanish where the words are conjugated.
Socio-linguistically, Korean has honorific features which, according to Sohn, tortures his students, where different words and phrases are used to express respect. Thus, the communication pattern is heretical; whereas modern English language has no such characteristic.
So Sohn and his fellow professors have been integrating Korean culture into language classes to keep students interested and motivated with the help of “hallyu,” or the Korean wave.
For example, classes like “Korean proficiency through drama” or “Korean language in culture and society” incorporate clips from Korean movies and television dramas.
“Sometimes we use songs from K-pop groups like Girls’ Generation and you would be surprised at how quickly you can get students attention with these songs!” said Sohn.
In addition, professors introduce Korean traditions, holidays and historical events to complement each lesson and progression in students’ language ability.
The students find the creation story of “Hangeul,” or Korean characters, led by King Sejong of Joseon Kingdom marked by the publication of “Hunminjeongeum” in 1446, especially fascinating.
“It is very interesting to students and linguists alike because it is the only writing system where we can trace the origin to a person and a time,” said Sohn.
Most importantly, at the Korean Language Flagship center where students learn the Korean language, this cultural and historical material is taught in Korean.
“This approach differentiates us from other departments like history or philosophy. Though they teach Korean history and philosophy, they teach them in English. By offering these subjects in Korean, Sohn believes that Korean Studies and Korean Language education can complement each other to truly educate someone about Korea.
Since 1971, Sohn has been striving to establish a basis for Korean language education in the U.S.
Also, with other linguistics scholars from various academic institutes, Sohn published a Korean Language Education and Research (KLEAR) text book series in 2000 which is being used in over 80 colleges in the U.S. for language classes.
In 2004, he founded the Center for Korean Studies at the university and established the Korean Language Flagship Center to educate Korean experts in 2007. The flagship center offers both Master’s and Bachelor’s degrees in Korean.