College of Liberal Arts | Spring 2021

Reason to add Korean

Seoul lights
Signs and neon lights in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo by Peter Rimar)

Purdue’s global engineering program experienced a problem that became increasingly common in recent years as South Korea’s global industrial presence continued to grow.

The number of students interested in traveling to South Korea for jobs or internships was increasing, but Purdue did not offer the language courses that would best prepare them for these opportunities.

“If you notice the technology through the cell phone, the TV, the industries, Korea is becoming an important region in the world,” said George Chiu, assistant dean for global engineering programs and partnerships and professor of mechanical engineering. “Samsung, LG, Hyundai, Kia, Daewoo, all these companies – automotive, electronics, computer technologies – are in Korea, so we see a lot more interest and demand from students wanting to go to Korea in addition to Germany, China, Spain, and Latin America.”

For that reason, representatives from engineering approached School of Languages and Cultures head Jen William about partnering to introduce Korean as the 15th language on the SLC menu. In addition to traditional language instruction, they hoped to tailor the program to include cultural training that would prepare engineers, business professionals, and technical workers to feel as comfortable working in Seoul as they might in Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles.

Otherwise, participating in a program like Purdue’s GEARE (Global Engineering Alliance for Research and Education) would be difficult – perhaps nearly impossible – for students desiring to work in Korea.

“If you can speak the language, you will have a better understanding of how people from another culture think,” said Purdue Assistant Director of Global Practice Programs Joe Tort, who leads GEARE. “Language has an impact on the way people think about problems, and it can also give students more comfort to meet and connect with others.

“Development of personal connections are the best way to understand people different from yourself. If you travel to a place that speaks a totally different language, you may feel afraid to talk and interact with others. Lack of experience with a foreign language may inhibit your ability to develop personal connections and grow interculturally.”

Students did their part to demonstrate interest in Korean language offerings, as well.

After William told a group of students requesting Korean courses that they needed to prove that a sufficient number of students wanted to enroll, the students circulated a petition to support their request. Andy Kim, a sophomore in aerospace engineering, said they needed a minimum of 20 signatures, but ended up with approximately 50.

Starting in fall 2019, Purdue offered its first Korean courses in nearly a decade – much to the delight of all involved.

“We can’t just provide languages on demand, but one reason why we were especially interested in adding Korean is that Korean is actually one of the few languages whose enrollments nationwide have been growing,” William said, citing a 2018 report by the Modern Language Association that showed gains by only Japanese and Korean in a survey of 2013-16 enrollments.

“In the last decade or so, people have started to understand that Korean is an important language, and not just considering South Korea and the economic benefits, but also because of the international global security situation with North Korea right now,” William added. “It’s an important language to know, so for us it was a win-win to add a language to our East Asian Studies offerings that actually has great significance in the world, as well as to our students here at Purdue.”

Purdue’s Korean course offerings got off to a similarly promising start according to continuing lecturer Huai-Rhin Kim. Her Korean 101 course last fall was originally slated to seat a maximum of 20 students, but interest far outreached the available space.

“Because so many students wanted it, we increased the capacity to 24 and then they kept coming,” she said. “Actually I had a long waiting list. So I can see that people wanted to take it, so now I’m teaching Korean 101, 102, and 202 and I had so many emails requesting, ‘Oh, can I be on the waitlist?’ and ‘Do you have any plan to have additional sections for Korean 101?’ and so on.”

She pointed to university demographics as a leading reason why Purdue students might be interested in Korean courses. In terms of fall 2019 enrollment, only China (3,103 students) and India (2,025) sent more international students to Purdue than South Korea (685).

“We have a big community here,” she said.

Purdue students also enjoy the opportunity to take shared-content courses offered by other Big Ten universities. These cultural courses cover subject matter from dating, sex, and marriage in Korea to Korean film, pointing toward another reason beyond economic interests that it made sense to reintroduce Korean course offerings.

When associate professor Song No secured funding from the Korea Foundation to offer language courses at Purdue in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, international interest in Korean culture simply did not exist to the extent that it does today. The timing was not right, No said, and the funding was not renewed at the end of the two-year period.

Now, the winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture is “Parasite” – the first foreign film ever to win Oscar’s top prize – and K-pop boy band BTS has more than 24 million worldwide followers on Twitter.

“We had a lot of international students, but in terms of the whole society, K-pop or K-drama, it was not huge trends, at least around here,” No said. “But now more and more especially U.S. students and students from other parts of Asia show much more interest in K-pop and K-drama. There is Psy from “Gangnam Style,” but also BTS and other K-pop groups have become well known so there’s more interest.”

Indeed, exposure to Korean pop culture sparked a passion for the language in at least one of Kim’s students in the new language courses. For Jenna Sveum, stumbling across the Korean show “Boys Over Flowers” on Netflix during her sophomore year of high school, first created a casual interest.

“It was just so different and so enthralling. I had never seen a TV show like it,” said Sveum, a sophomore in chemical engineering. “But it was just the right mix of cheesy and funny and corny, and I loved it.”

Before long, she was creating flashcards to learn more about the language. Sveum’s parents encouraged this new hobby, helping her locate a Korean-focused summer camp in Minnesota that she attended for two summers.

This experience eventually led to Sveum applying for and receiving a National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) scholarship that allowed her to live in South Korea with a host family during the summer between her senior year of high school and her freshman year at Purdue.

Sveum’s classmate Andy Kim, who helped circulate the petition, had an entirely different motivation for wanting to improve his Korean skills.

As a member of a Korean-American family, Kim attended language classes ever Sunday as a child. But as he aged, he became increasingly aware that he did not have as firm a grasp on his parents’ native language as he would have liked. He decided to become fluent, and hopes to someday add a Korean minor to accompany his engineering degree.

“I was originally interested in learning Korean so I can work there, but now it’s more like, as an American-born Korean, it’s more of an opportunity to get in touch with my other culture for lack of a better word,” he said. “There’s kind of this dissonance, I guess, as someone who looks Korean, but doesn’t know the language as well as I should.”

Whatever their motivation, the students – now taking Korean 202 – are not short on enthusiasm for their new language studies. They even produced a tongue-in-cheek “Purdue News” video to advertise the courses’ availability.

Likewise, Tort and Chiu expect student interest to grow as their programs establish relationships with South Korean companies and additional professional opportunities arise.

That was their rationale when they approached William with a partnership idea more than a year ago, and they are now beginning to see their vision come to life.

“Language is one manifestation of the culture. It’s one facet,” Chiu said. “As an engineer, we want to take a multifaceted approach to the team we’re working with in a multicultural environment. It’s not just language, it’s not just the engineering we’re doing, it’s communication.

“We have many, many cases where it’s not the technical part that’s causing a problem, it’s actually the communication part that we overlooked. We want our students to be able to have that sensitivity, have that appreciation. Learning language through this context, I think, will help us bring that out.”