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Commentary: Is it frivolous to learn Korean to appreciate Squid Game and K-drama shows?

We may be a pragmatic bunch, but learning new languages for the fun of it draws on our yearning for connection and community, says NUS Centre for Language Studies’ Daniel Chan.

Commentary: Is it frivolous to learn Korean to appreciate Squid Game and K-drama shows?
Interest in learning Korean spiked worldwide after Netflix’s blockbuster show Squid Game. (Youngkyu Park/Netflix via AP)

SINGAPORE: Interest in learning Korean spiked worldwide after Netflix’s blockbuster show Squid Game hit our screens, reported language platform Duolingo.

It observed a 40 per cent growth in new Korean learners in the United States after the show premiered in September, even though the K-wave already had success in recent years - from global boy band phenomenon BTS to Bong Joon-Ho’s Oscar-winning film Parasite.

And with the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting our social lives, perhaps more found motivation and spare time to take that first step.

As a linguist, it’s always amusing, but unsurprising, to see non-English popular culture motivating viewers to try their hand at learning foreign languages.

There are many “good” reasons to do so – but does interest in a TV show count as one of them? Or is it a frivolous reason? 


Throughout my 21 years as a French teacher and interacting with like-minded multilingual peers, I’ve seen many reasons for picking up a new language.

Think of it as a spectrum of increasing practicality (or frivolity): On one end, school, work and travel tend to be common reasons. English is, by far, the most popular language to study worldwide.

What might be other practical languages for native English speakers like us?

Looking at economic, geopolitical and cultural indicators, the British Council ranked the top three most important languages for the United Kingdom in the future - Spanish, Mandarin and French.

But when one learns languages for work, we tend to be driven by extrinsic motivation– or tangible “rewards”.

Depending on the nature of the job or the value of the reward, this may not always be sufficient. After all, don’t we have professionals or machine translation for that?

Interest in learning Korean spiked worldwide after Netflix’s blockbuster show Squid Game. (Photo: Unsplash)

Studies suggest we may make more rational, less emotional decisions in a foreign language, possibly because we don’t acquire it through family, friends and experiences infused with emotion like with our native tongues.

Another common practical reason is when a romantic interest has a different language and cultural background, when there is greater intrinsic motivation – such as a student I’ve come across who wanted to impress and communicate with his next-door crush from France.


But when picking up a language has never been easier, with free apps and online communities to practise with fellow language learners or native speakers, why tie ourselves to practicality?

Some “heritage learners” seek a sense of belonging to the cultural roots of their forefathers. Others desire less superficial interaction with the locals during travels.

We could simply be drawn to the aesthetic value and exotic sounds of a language, or the prestige attached to its underlying culture.

As it turns out, language learners doing so out of sheer love for the language are quite common. In a 2017 survey of 600 young adults on why they were learning French as a third language, nearly three-quarters cited “liking the French language and/or culture” as their top reason.

The other end of the practicality scale is exemplified by pop culture fans deriving pleasure and pride from learning and using entirely fictional languages. From Star Trek’s Klingon to Lord Of The Rings’ Elvish, these satisfy their enthusiasm for the fantasy worlds and create a special sense of community among fans.

Starting to learn may be easy but communicating in a new language takes time, persistent commitment and effort.

Each language has its own peculiar set of mind-bending rules for you to internalise: Nouns are gendered in some Indo-European languages according to form, not meaning. So in French, a lady’s blouse is masculine (le chemisier) while men’s shirts are feminine (la chemise).

And you don’t just learn Japanese, you learn three different scripts – Hiragana syllables for native words, Katakana syllables for foreign loanwords, and Kanji characters adopted from Chinese.

Intrinsic motivation – doing something for the inherent satisfaction it brings – tends to drive us more strongly in these cases.


Learning new languages for the fun of it shouldn’t be dismissed as frivolity. And it’s certainly not new.

In Singapore, you probably know someone who picked up Cantonese watching Hong Kong serials, tried out Japanese after they listened to Ayumi Hamasaki, or dabbled in French after falling in love with Amelie Poulain.

Does entertainment serve no redemptive value or purpose in our lives? Watching a TV show may propel us to learn a language as a personal challenge - the realisation that meaningless gibberish slowly makes sense can be oddly satisfying.

Without knowing a language, viewers are limited to watching either dubbed or subtitled version – complicated by matching actors’ lip movements or constrained by onscreen space and display. Worse still, dialogue containing wordplay, idiomatic expressions and culture-specific references can be quite simply untranslatable.

Korean speakers were quick to point out cultural nuances in Squid Game, such as honorifics used to hammer home its critique of social classes and emotional pivotal scenes, that were lost in translation.

And it isn’t simply about understanding what is being said either, but the cultural and social realities of daily life it paints.

The resemblance between Netflix-viewers-turned-Duolingo-learners and fans of fictional universes is the most striking: Entertainment fuels a keen desire to further delve into a culture, which in turn triggers the motivation to learn.

It signals our yearning to feel connected to and exchange with another culture or people, and in a meaningful way that doesn’t gloss over intricacies and subtleties of the language.

And in a world where international travel was largely shut down for almost two years, perhaps learning a foreign language is our way of letting our minds travel when our physical selves were isolated.

And this certainly can’t be a frivolous reason.

Dr Daniel Chan is deputy director and senior lecturer of French at the Centre for Language Studies, National University of Singapore.

Source: CNA/ch