The Korean language is no longer restricted to the Korean people. The number of Korean language departments at universities in China rose from around 20 in 2004 to around 70 this year. There are more than 640 Korean language departments at universities around the world.
Thanks to the popularity of Korean culture in Japan, 3,000 language schools or institutes teach Korean there. In Southeast Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East, there is a tremendous amount of interest in Korean culture and language.
Since 1997, the U.S. Scholastic Aptitude Test has been available written in Korean and 4,176 students opted to take the test this year. There are 2,100 schools around the world that teach Hangeul, or written Korean, half of them in the United States.
The Test of Proficiency in Korean or TOPIK is administered twice a year to foreigners and Koreans living abroad whose first language is not Korean. For the next TOPIK administered on Saturday and Sunday in 97 areas in 20 countries, a record 93,173 people signed up. Including the 86,000 applicants who took the test in April, the total number of candidates rises to 180,000.
In 1997, the first year the TOPIK was offered, 2,274 people took the test. Twelve years later, the total number of applicants has grown almost 90-fold. The number of applicants grew 30 percent from last year alone.
Looking at the distribution of people who have applied this time, the largest group of 72 percent or 67,000 are Chinese. Japanese account for 6.4 percent, Taiwanese for 1.6 percent and Thais for 1 percent.
Among the reasons for the surge is the growing popularity of Korean culture, a rise in the number of foreign students wishing to study in Korea and the inroads Korean businesses are making overseas. Another reason is the requirement since 2007 for foreigners to pass a practical Korean-language test to be eligible to work in factories here.
Applicants taking the test in Korea are said to be mostly foreign manufacturing workers or women who married Korean men.
Linguist Suzanne Romaine has tabulated the total number of Korean speakers at 75 million, ranking 12th in the world. That excluded people in China and India who speak a dialect of Korean. If those people are included, the Korean language probably ranks 10th in the world, according to Korean scholars. In a UN evaluation in 2007 on the influence of different languages, Korean ranked ninth in the world.
Language is a valuable resource in boosting national competitiveness in this age of globalization and knowledge-based information. To boost the reach and influence of the language, the focus on a national level should be on developing a more systematic and efficient method of teaching Korean and disseminating it around the world.
By Chosun Ilbo columnist Kim Hong-jin