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Wona Lee, a lecturer in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies at UC Santa Barbara, shares how the popularity of K-pop caused a spike in students signing up for Korean language classes. Lee recalls it is similar to how she started learning English by listening to American pop music. Discovering a societal hierarchy between English and other minority languages, she realized bilingual education is not just about language education — it is more about celebrating students’ identity.

Lee teaches us onomatopoeia: 두근두근 — deu-geun deu-guen — the sound of the heart pumping that is used to express excitement. 


What drove your interest to obtain a Ph.D. in linguistics and bilingual education?

I came to the United States in 1997 and I became a mother of two Korean-American children who are now both in college. When I first came to the U.S., I had this idea that If I lived here, I would gain fluency in English and thought my kids would be bilingual. Unfortunately, that did not happen. My English proficiency didn’t improve automatically and my kids actually switched every single Korean word into English as soon as they started kindergarten. So this brought up questions about why bilingualism wasn’t something that can come naturally. I ended up studying linguistics at San Diego State University with an emphasis in second language acquisition. I’ve studied topics such as mechanisms for language learning.

When my younger son started kindergarten, he told me not to speak Korean in public. I was in a huge shock because this was [my] native language and the language I can [best] express my love. However, my son didn’t want me to speak in Korean because he thought people will think I am stupid for not speaking English. This led me wonder why he thinks speaking another language in America makes you look stupid. This question inspired me to pursue my Ph.D. in Education at UCSB and [made me] realize that there was a societal hierarchy between English and other minority languages. As I researched for a Ph.D. with [an] emphasis in bilingual education, I realized bilingual education is not just about language education, but more about encouraging and celebrating students’ identity.

As a trilingual speaker, how important is music in language learning in your experience?

When I was young and learning English in Korea, the only resource I had was to tape record American pop songs from the artists such as Micheal Jackson, Madonna, and Mariah Carey when it played on the radio. I memorized the lyrics since we didn’t have the internet to look [them] up. Music was the best resource to learn the tone, pronunciation, and the pattern of grammar since we didn’t have much opportunity to speak in English with native speakers and the textbook sentences were very vague.

While learning Japanese, I listened to a lot of Japanese music to catch the repeated patterns of the language and expressions too. It is also hard to produce your own sentences just from learning textbook materials. Listening to Japanese songs over and over helped me learn and memorize the patterns, and [to] differentiate the ending of the sentence and grammatical structures. Plus, Japanese grammar is very similar to Korean grammar so it was easier to pick up compared to other languages.

K-Pop and the Korean language

Forbes and BBC have released articles on K-Pop about increased interests in the Korean language. Could you explain this phenomenon?

A journal article from the Modern Language Association written in 2016 included a survey about the number of students in college [enrolling in] foreign language classes. There was a huge decrease in the number of students enrolled in overall language classes. However, the only two languages which increased in enrollment were Japanese and Korean. The growing trend is because of [the popularity of] anime for Japanese and K-Pop for Korean. 

I have been informed that UCSB had previously stopped offering Korean language classes, but recently continued. Is there any correlation between the rise of K-Pop and UCSB providing Korean classes?

The previous data actually led to reopening of Korean classes at UCSB in 2017. As I was finishing up my last year of the Ph.D. program, the department contacted me If I would be interested in teaching Korean classes in the summer of 2017. At first, I thought they wanted to develop a curriculum for Fall 2018, but they wanted to start offering Korean classes in Fall 2017. It was a big surprise because the enrollment for Fall Quarter starts in April and it was a last minute proposal. This sudden development of Korean curriculum happened [due to] emergency funding to open up Korean classes [as there was] high interest from the students and the data. Even though the department wasn’t sure about continuing the program, the number of students who wanted to take the Korean classes for the first year were extremely high. We had so many students on the waitlist.

For this year, I had two class sections and there were 90 people on the waitlist. I had to go through a crashing process because there’s no way I could keep all the students. One of the survey questions I gave prospective students was, “Why do you want to take this class?” Around 80% of the students said that they’re K-Pop BTS or EXO fans. This shows a similar trend as the reason why Korean and Japanese are the only language classes that have a higher number of enrollments. Now we have another professor who is teaching about Korean films and popular culture, and has received support from the Korea Foundation.

What is the demographic of your students? What has influenced your students to take Korean Language classes?

About half of my classroom consists of Chinese international students and the other half are students of color. I have one or two Caucasian students per class. I think this has to do with a lack of Asian/Asian American culture that the minority students can cherish in the U.S. They still can enjoy the similarity from their home culture with help of translation. About half of Chinese international students grew up watching Korean drama and listening to K-Pop songs, [as] it is pervasive in Asia. It makes sense for Asian students to enjoy K-Pop, instead of French, Spanish, or Italian music or culture. I think that Korean classrooms are not just a place of language learning, but a place where they can actually be together and share the sense of community.

Among that sense of belonging, it is my projected learning outcome for the students to experience a sense of achievement as well. I also think that the students are gaining life lessons from music, especially from the group BTS, whose music encourages self-love. Especially for the Asian American students because no cultural figures have said or taught anything positive like this. This is something other minority cultures such as hip-hop couldn’t offer these students — a positive way of expressing cultural suppression and minority identity. It also offers a role model effect to look at people singing in their own language on a major American TV show. It is a very empowering phenomenon.

As I mentioned, The reason why I came into the Ph.D. program is because my son was ashamed of his own culture. I think that many minority students experience this throughout their childhood. But now, Asian performers are on mainstream media and sing in foreign languages. That empowers and gives a sense of pride to minority students. Even though I don’t agree with the K-Pop industry as a whole, the impact that the K-Pop stars have on the younger generation is very influential. K-pop artists are also changing the perception of Asian masculinity and Asian female hypersexuality into more positive light.

Do you incorporate K-Pop as one of the tools to teach Korean? How effective is it for the students’ language proficiency?

The YouTube generation student’s attention span is getting shorter and shorter, since the length of the videos on YouTube is around 15 minutes. I am adapting to it by providing something interesting such as K-Pop videos or pictures of the K-Pop stars every 15 minutes and incorporating it into my lessons, such as practicing how to count in Korean.

When I’m teaching pronunciation, I show Jungkook‘s face (a member of BTS) to teach the final consonant concept (Korean alphabetical structure which finishes a sound) and they learn the function of it, but it works if my students know who the K-Pop star is. Also, when teaching onomatopoeia (the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named, e.g. 두근두근 (deu-geun deu-guen) is the sound of the heart pumping, but is used to express excitement for Korean speakers), K-Pop provides an opportunity for the students to learn something that native Korean speakers learn naturally ever since they were babies, as the Korean language students typically learn the grammatical structure of the language first. I am trying my best to contextualize my lecture material so that students can easily learn.

Korean is ranked as one of the hardest languages to master for an English speaker according to Foreign Service Institute (FSI). What do students find to be the hardest component of the language?

The particles and conjugations in Korean such as “e/ga” or “ul/lel” (이/가 & 을/를;  identifier/subject particle & object marking particles) is the hardest concept to teach because these are the structures that the Chinese or English language don’t have. For example, there is a concept of object particles and location particles, students find it confusing as to why hakkyo (학교, school in Korean) has so many particles (가, 를, 에, 로 which functions as is and to respectively in English but added at the end of the word to change the structure of the sentence). It is so hard to teach these kinds of concepts because if you are learning Korean in Korea, you can get a lot of input outside of the classroom setting. However, in the U.S., it is hard to apply the concept and practice.

Has your education affected your son’s identity as a Korean American individual?

The biggest change is not just about their identity, but my concept of the language learning actually changed. Before, I had this concept that if you are a Korean-American, you should be able to speak Korean. My kids can speak Korean but not fluently. It is bigger than my willingness to teach my kids Korean language; it is about the society they were growing up in. There is a huge monolingual ideology in the U.S. and they encourage English speaking and suppress other languages systematically.

My dissertation from a bilingual education program, the participants were learning everything in Korean from nine months to twelve months of age, then learning in English from the age one to three. Even in this dual language immersion program, there was a hierarchy of languages and English was higher than Korean. It discourages the participants to reach a high proficiency level and different learning expectations. The most important thing in language learning is motivation, and the motivation is influenced by society. So as a mom, I need to provide something that my son can be proud of such as his heritage or his culture, and actually K-pop and Korean culture having more positive identity helps very much.

Are there any issues that you see from this growing popularity in Korean Culture, such as cultural hierarchy?

As Korean stars and Korean identities got higher status in culture, it creates a multiple layered hierarchy within Asian-American community. As the status of Korean culture has gotten higher, it became the new standard, like a model Asian within Asian Americans. We already have a model minority issue that Asian Americans go through in the U.S., but this a new kind of model minority that was created within Asian Americans community and is certainly worrisome. It is important that Korean/Korean Americans cherish and be proud of the rise of popularity of K-Pop and Korean culture, but not to feel superior or look down upon anyone else who appreciates the culture because it negatively impacts the culture and the identity.


impactmania’s past interviews and programs have been featured in international media, a number of universities, the UN, U.S. Consulates, and have been cited by Harvard Business School, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, and Duke University Press. impactmania’s Women of Impact program was awarded the U.S. Embassy Public Diplomacy grant (2019).