In trilingual Hong Kong, Korean is new kid on the block

While Korean has long been taught at private academies and universities, elementary, middle and high schools have just begun to pay attention to the rise in interest in the language.

The Japan News

The Japan News



A student completes an exercise in Korean class at Mu Kuang English School in Hong Kong on March 21. (Naomi Ng/The Korea Herald)

May 4, 2023

SEOUL – At the chime of the school bell, ten 15-year-olds rise from their seats and bow to the teacher, chirping in unison, “annyeonghaseyo,” or “hello” in Korean.

It’s an unusual greeting to hear in Hong Kong schools, where the corridors are usually filled with a cacophonic mix of Cantonese, English and Mandarin. But at Mu Kuang English School, a middle and high school partly subsidized by the government, it’s how 90 students begin their weekly Korean classes.

Over the next hour, teacher Canny Lai Yuen-wa speaks in an interwoven mix of Cantonese and Korean, explaining how to make simple sentences like “I eat lunch in the classroom.”

“In Korean, the sentence structure is different from Chinese. You’d say, ‘I, classroom at, lunch, eat’ instead,” Lai said, eliciting giggles from the students.

While Korean has long been taught at private academies and at the university level in the city, elementary, middle and high schools have just begun to pay attention to the rise in interest in the language.

Riding the Korean Wave

Mu Kuang was the first school in Hong Kong to introduce Korean as part of its regular curriculum in September 2021. First- and second-year middle schoolers are required to take a foreign language subject and can choose between Korean and Japanese. Around a third of the 282 students picked Korean.

When asked why he chose to learn Korean, Jacob Xiang Wenjie, 14, proudly spread his collection of photo cards of his favorite K-pop girl group, Blackpink, on the table.

“I have so much more at home … at least 500 of them,” Jacob said.

“Lisa is my wife,” he added, professing his love for the quartet’s Thai rapper.

Students show off their love of Korean culture at Mu Kuang English School in Hong Kong on March 21. (Naomi Ng/The Korea Herald)

Educators say the move to offer Korean classes was undoubtedly driven by students’ interest in all things Korean.

Thanks to the Korean Wave, young people have been exposed to a heavy dose of Korean pop culture in the past decade or so, such as the 2019 Oscar-winning “Parasite,” 2021 Netflix hit “Squid Game” and BTS, arguably the biggest boy band in the world.

“There’s no denying that the students are captivated by Korean culture, K-dramas and K-pop,” said Ho Sai-cheong, principal of Mu Kuang English School.

Burgeoning student interest aside, Ho said the school also recognized Korea and Japan as rising economic powers in Asia, and the school wants to equip students so they can better communicate with their neighbors.

“In this increasingly global village, you can’t survive if you don’t know at least five to six languages,” Ho said.

Part of Jacob Xiang Wenjie’s Blackpink photo card collection (Naomi Ng/The Korea Herald)

Multilingual edge

For decades, the most popular foreign languages among Hong Kong students have been French, Spanish, German and Japanese. But in recent years, Korean has emerged as the new kid on the block.

The latest estimate by the Korean consulate in Hong Kong showed there were around 40,000 Korean learners in 2017 based on enrollment figures at universities and private academies.

Korean is offered at six of the city’s eight universities, three community colleges, some 20-30 private academies and 20 secondary schools, according to the consulate. At secondary schools, most Korean lessons are taught as extracurricular classes, but some have gone a step further to include the language in their curriculums as a mandatory elective.

The introduction of Korean into the public school curriculum, although still at a fledgling stage, is significant and a testament to its popularity, experts say.

Students complete an exercise in Korean class at Mu Kuang English School in Hong Kong on March 21. (Naomi Ng/The Korea Herald)

While foreign language subjects are common at international schools, whose number of students account for some 6 percent of the student population, they still play a minor role in the public school curriculum that already has to ensure students speak the city’s three official languages.

Under Hong Kong’s trilingual and biliterate language education policy, students are expected to be proficient in writing Chinese and English, and to be able to communicate in Cantonese, English and Mandarin.

Professor David Li Chor-shing, an expert in Hong Kong’s language education policy, said the launching of Korean classes in public schools shows that school management recognizes that many young people are motivated to learn Korean, and that it could help students with their future career prospects.

It’s clear schools want to give students “an edge in terms of extending their additional language profile to yet another popular language,” said Li, who heads the Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s Department of Chinese and Bilingual Studies.

A student completes an exercise in Korean class at Man Kiu Association Primary School in Hong Kong. (Man Kiu Association Primary School)

That is the case at Man Kiu Association Primary School, an elementary school fully funded by the government but that has more autonomy in designing the curriculum compared to government schools. From September 2022 onward, students in third to sixth grade can choose to study either Korean or French as a mandatory foreign language. Around half in those cohorts, or 200, opted for Korean.

“We want students in the first and second grades to form a strong foundation with their Cantonese and English before they pick up a foreign language, which is a lot easier to master the younger you are,” school principal Ivy Yip Shuk-ting said.

“Our vision is to broaden students’ international horizons,” she said, adding that foreign language learning should also be accessible to more underprivileged communities, and not only for those who can afford to attend international schools.

Man Kiu Association Primary School in Hong Kong holds a Korean cultural event for students. (Man Kiu Association Primary School)

More than a hobby

Teachers say Korean has gained traction in public schools as young people see learning Korean as more than just a hobby.

Lai, who has taught Korean for over a decade, said she has seen a shift in the past two to three years in the reasons young people want to learn the language.

“It used to be K-pop fans wanting to learn how to write ‘Oppa, I love you’ in letters to their idols,” Lai said.

“But now, aside from that, it’s also students seeing Korea as a study destination or wanting to work there.”

Canny Lai Yuen-wa teaches Korean at Mu Kuang English School in Hong Kong on March 21. (Naomi Ng/The Korea Herald)

The number of Hong Kong candidates sitting for the Test of Proficiency in Korean, which non-native speakers use to apply for universities or jobs in Korea, was 1,757 last year, according to official data. The figure fluctuated during the COVID-19 pandemic because several rounds of tests had to be canceled. In 2018, there were 2,650 there taking the test.

The government has also taken notice of the steady growth in serious learners. The popularity of Korean has surged so much that the city last year announced it would include Korean as one of the foreign languages in its university entrance examination from 2025. Students can submit scores from the TOPIK to apply for universities in Hong Kong or abroad.

In Korea, foreign students need to score at least a level 3 proficiency — the highest is level 6 — to be eligible for university entry.

After the government’s announcement on the inclusion of Korean in the entrance exam, United Christian College, a government-subsidized middle and high school, started offering Korean prep classes in September 2022 for students planning to take the TOPIK.

Bella Li Fu-yan (left) and Tien Ho Wing-laam (center) take a prep class for the Test of Proficiency in Korean. (Naomi Ng/The Korea Herald)

Sixteen-year-old Bella Li Fu-yan will be among that first batch of students to apply to university with her TOPIK scores.

“I chose to study Korean because I’m considering studying and living in Korea,” said Bella, a student at United Christian College.

Although she has never been to Korea, she can see herself in a few years hanging out on a college campus in Korea and speaking to friends in Korean.

“Studying in Hong Kong is so stressful. In Korea, I can study and see my favorite K-pop stars at the same time. It seems like I would be happier there,” Bella said.

Simon Lau Chun-wah, the principal at United Christian College, said the focus is not so much about getting into university.

“At the end of the day, they will speak an additional language and this skill belongs entirely to them,” he said.

For other Korean learners, the goal is even simpler.

“I want to be fluent in Korean so there are no barriers to communicating with Koreans,” said Mu Kuang student Janice Law Yau-hung, 15.

“If I can communicate with no barriers, I guess it’ll seem like I have another place to call home.”

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