Japanese and Korean on a roll

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There are reasons why this is so:

"Can you say Squid Game in Korean? TV show fuels demand for east Asian language learning:

Japanese and Korean are in top five choices in UK this year at online platform Duolingo"

James Tapper, The Observor (12/24/21)

The surging growth of Japanese and Korean language learning is a veritable phenomenon:

Whether it’s down to Squid Game or kawaii culture, fascination with Korea and Japan is fuelling a boom in learning east Asian languages. Japanese is the fastest growing language to be learned in the UK this year on the online platform Duolingo, and Korean is the fourth fastest.

Most of the interest is driven by cultural issues, the firm said in its 2021 Duolingo language report, which will be published tomorrow and analyses how the 20 million downloads of its platform are used.

Established elements of Japanese popular culture, such as Pokémon and video games, have been joined by a global surge in the popularity of anime such as Dragon Ball and My Hero Academia.

Duolingo said that 26% of language learners had been influenced by key cultural moments, such as the Tokyo Olympics and Euro 2020, and by TV shows such as Squid Game, which saw a 76% rise in Korean learners after it launched in September. A third of learners said they had chosen to watch a film or TV programme in another language.

Globally, Japanese overtook Italian to become the fifth most popular language in 2021.

Jun Jinushi, executive director of the Japan National Tourism Organisation’s London office, said that the numbers of people travelling from the UK to Japan had been at an all-time high before the pandemic hit.

“We have certainly felt the growing interest in Japan and Japanese culture over the past few years,” he said, citing the Rugby World Cup in 2019, and TV shows such as Joanna Lumley’s Japan, James May: Our Man in Japan and Tom Daley Goes Global.

“There may also be something to be said for the ubiquity of Japanese food on UK menus, and a generation of children who fell in love with Japanese pop culture now coming of age and reappreciating the country and language that gave them the likes of Pokémon, Super Mario, and Studio Ghibli.”

Spanish, French, German, English and Italian are the most popular languages on Duolingo in the UK, followed by Japanese and Welsh, the fastest growing language last year.

Welsh remains popular, according to Colin Watkins, UK country manager at the firm. “We’re almost at two million learners, which I expect we will pass before Christmas,” he said.

“The increasing popularity of Asian languages, driven by the interest in Asian culture, point to a fundamental change in learner motivations and a real shift in what the UK wants to learn.”

But where's Chinese?


Selected readings


  1. Jason Stokes said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 4:33 pm

    As someone who started learning Japanese some years ago, dabbled in Chinese, and is currently enrolled in online Korean lessons, Korean's simple, straightforward writing system is a major factor in my choice to study it versus the kanji languages.

  2. Camiel C. said,

    December 5, 2021 @ 5:13 am

    > But where's Chinese?

    On the one hand, there is no form of Chinese media popular in the west like anime is for Japan. On the other hand, and I say this anecdotally but confidently, many potential learner in the West like the (perceived) clean, simple phonology of Japanese (and to a lesser extend Korean), which makes it approachable. Chinese absolutely does not have the aesthetic advantage. And then of course there are the characters, compounding the perceived difficulty/alienness of Chinese.

    I believe that, in some alternate universe where Chinese had the phonology of Japanese and vice versa, it would have a lot more learners in the west.

  3. ktschwarz said,

    December 5, 2021 @ 6:22 am

    The OED recently made a timely update of Korean-derived words in English. From their blog:
    Daebak! The OED gets a K-update

    … many of the Korean words in this update have been used earliest in East and Southeast Asian publications written in English. … South Korea is a country whose cultural and consumer products are highly sought after in the region, and the way it sells these products to countries in Asia and beyond is through the global lingua franca that is English. That is how a country where English is not a majority language, and where it plays no official role, can have such an impact on modern English vocabulary.

    After reading that blog, I correctly guessed that the answer to the trivia question "The song that just debuted at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 is sung in what two languages?" was "English and Korean" — without ever having heard the song or anything about it!

  4. david said,

    December 5, 2021 @ 7:47 am



  5. a s said,

    December 5, 2021 @ 10:16 pm

    > On the one hand, there is no form of Chinese media popular in the west like anime is for Japan.

    Oh but there are now. They're starting to make very good fake-anime games like Genshin Impact; you can see all the Japanese media it copied from, but it's superior in every way (makes more money, much more technically advanced, is more fun, etc.)

    There's also danmei novels, which are like fanfic/BL i.e. porn for young women featuring purple prose about gay men being unrealistically emotionally open with each other. Same thing already existed in Japan and the West, but it's the first time I've seen people read a mainland Chinese series too.

  6. wanda said,

    December 6, 2021 @ 1:07 am

    @david: Presumably ktschwarz is talking about a song debuting this century… BTS fans buy so much music, they reliably send anything new to the top reaches of the Hot 100.

  7. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    December 6, 2021 @ 8:59 am

    Don't forget wu shu / kung fu films (since the '70's!).

    Although you'd have to learn Cantonese for that, wouldn't you?

  8. Thomas said,

    December 7, 2021 @ 5:59 am

    There lies a big misunderstanding at the heart of this article. One cannot learn a language using Duolingo. I tried, and it is just a terrible system. It is enough to take a quick peak at the basics of a language, but getting off Duolingo and into serious studying is essential to learn any language.

    Also, with the current tide going against Mandarin Chinese for obvious reasons such as mainland China's cultural output that is mostly garbage and political tensions rising, it is no wonder that Japanese comes back strong. Japanese has for decades been very popular. Meanwhile, South Korea's soft power machine is running as smoothly as ever. This pays off.

    But the obvious caveat is that Duolingo users does not translate to language learners.

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