The Korean language is booming at Australian universities. What needs to be done to keep the momentum going?

By Nicola Fraschini, Senior Lecturer in Korean Studies, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne.

In the last of a series of articles on the state of Asian studies and language teaching in Australia, Nicola Fraschini addresses the challenge of sustaining burgeoning interest in Korean language studies beyond the hype of Korean pop culture.

The number of students in Australia deciding to take a language subject has been declining for many years. Asian languages too often show low enrolments and are not offered widely, in particular when we consider the intermediate to advanced levels.

While the number of students studying Korean at the secondary school level is still generally low in most Australian states and territories, tertiary level enrolments have shown a quite different trend. For example, students enrolled in beginner Korean courses at the University of Western Australia increased by 66 percent between 2015 and 2022.

Many have pointed out that the increasing interest in the Korean language has been boosted by the worldwide spread of Korean popular culture. Nevertheless, while it is true that the global interest in contemporary Korean cultural production is an important factor influencing language learning enrolments, it would be simplistic and reductive to consider it the only reason. We need to acknowledge that the reality is complex and multifaceted if we want to retain Korean language students beyond the beginner level.

Understanding students’ vision

Research conducted in a beginner Korean language class at the University of Western Australia showed that some students are deeply interested in learning the language to achieve advanced proficiency suitable for employment as interpreters, teachers, or academics. A further perspective is represented by students who learn Korean to give them a better chance of a career with international bodies or multinational companies. Others study the Korean language to gain a multilingual outlook and a better multicultural understanding.

This variety of visions and motivation must be taken into consideration in setting course outcomes and designing educational material at the beginner levels and to stimulate students to study further at the more intermediate and advanced levels. If interest in Korean popular cultural production is a strong motivator at the beginner level, but a weak one at a more advanced proficiency, then understanding much more nuanced learner visions may be the key to motivate students towards upper-level courses. Opportunities such as scholarships for long-term in-country study and internships (of which there are very few in relation to Korean language) can also be effective in promoting learners’ motivation on the long run.

Designing and publishing learning material that suit Australian students

Locally developed language teaching and learning resources are not widely available to external students and practitioners. One of the reasons is that, compared to the teaching of other Asian languages, Korean language teaching in Australia has a relatively shorter history.

My suggestion is to introduce a coordinated effort, in the fashion of a working group of Korean language scholars working in Australian universities, facilitated by existing scholarly associations such as the Korean Studies Association of Australasia (KSAA) or the Australian Association of Teachers of Korean (AUATK) and supported by Korean and Australian institutions, which able to tap into this extensive submerged potential. This initiative should re-organise, re-structure, re-work and eventually publish, or at least make available online, a series of Korean language learning and teaching resources for the Australian university context.

Despite requiring considerable coordination, time, and funding, such initiatives are not new and have been successful in other Korean language learning contexts. The range of materials that could be developed would not be limited to beginner-level textbooks, but expanded to classroom activity resources for instructors and, most importantly, material for intermediate to advanced learners. This sort of collective initiative would guarantee that Australian expertise in Korean language education and instructional material design is recognised and that the material created suits Australian universities and students, therefore responding to their needs and providing a much more stimulating and motivating language learning experience.

Developing a streamlined pathway from school to university

Secondary school learners of Korean who continue studying the language at university are placed, in most cases, into the equivalent of a second-year course thanks to their acquired background knowledge. Nevertheless, the secondary school curriculum and university courses are not always aligned, which means that school leavers who enter tertiary Korean language courses may repeat some content already learned, which could increase boredom, or be given content that is too difficult, which could generate frustration.

While it is understandable that schools and universities have profoundly different requirements which affect the way their curricula are designed and implemented, and that some decisions are well beyond the good will of school teachers and university lecturers, it is also true that increased dialogue between secondary and tertiary Korean language teaching experts can have a positive influence on students’ learning experience if it translates in the alignment of secondary and tertiary programs.

There is a need for dialogue between the secondary and the tertiary sectors in the form of teacher workshops organised by universities or forums organised by scholarly associations. The Australian Association of Teachers of Korean (AUATK) organises yearly workshops where university experts and school practitioners meet, but these opportunities are too scant to trigger a meaningful change. One way to improve this would be to regularly invite university experts to collaborate, as external consultants, on curricular updates. A clear and established pathway from school to university, which provides the possibility of reaching an advanced level at graduation, may itself become a motivational component for younger learners.

Introducing an Australian teacher training program for the Korean language

A Korean language teacher training program established within Australian universities is necessary. This would make sure that teachers are well acquainted with the characteristics of the Australian education sector, which would ultimately benefit learners. Teachers trained in such a program would understand local learners’ motivations and needs and would be able to use this knowledge to design suitable courses and teaching materials. Secondly, for administrators, it would mean there would be a reliable pool of qualified teachers.

Thirdly, the opening of an Australia-based Korean language teacher training program would provide current Korean language students at the university level with a tangible career pathway and an additional language-related qualification. For some students interested in language studies, this can be a motivating factor to pursue language learning at an advanced level.

I recognise that some of the actions suggested here require a significant collective effort and considerable funding, and that much more discussion is needed to redefine the details and implement plans to grow Korean language learning.

Nevertheless, to keep the momentum going, we need to invest in long-term efforts to increase firstly, the number of Australian learners of the Korean language, and secondly, to support learners’ trajectory towards higher proficiency levels.

Nicola Fraschini is a senior lecturer in Korean Studies at the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne.

A longer version of this article was originally published by Melbourne Asia Review, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne.