K and the city: Why are more and more Chennaiites learning Korean?

Around five years ago, R Bhavani got hooked to the Korean drama You’re Beautiful, all thanks to her daughter; after all, it was how the two bonded. Over multiple sessions of unwinding with these soap operas, the mother-daughter pair noticed something unusual. “The show was in Korean, but it had English subtitles. And we observed that words like ‘day’ were the same in both Tamil and Korean (naal)!” she exclaims. Soon they began noting down these similar sounding words, from ‘later’ (aparam in Tamil, appuro in Korean) to grass (pul in Tamil and Korean) and something as basic as father and mother (appa, oemma in Korean).

That was enough to push the 49-year-old yoga practitioner down a rabbit hole of K-drama and K-pop. After spending three months learning Korean online off various YouTube channels and websites, she joined a formal Korean learning class at InKo centre, on her daughter’s insistence. “My daughter was in her third year of MBBS at the time, and she didn’t have the time to join a class. So she pestered me until I did,” she says.

K and the city: Why are more and more Chennaiites learning Korean?

At InKo centre, the number of students learning Korean, like Bhavani, is steadily increasing since 2015, and senior manager Nandini Menon credits the wave of Korean pop culture for the rise, calling it “an element to reckon with”. “When we started in 2006, we had only a handful of students: mostly people who worked in Korean firms. But today, we have 100 students in different levels. We even have a waiting list,” she says.

Agreeing, Dr Ishrath Naz Ara, founder of Bright Training Centre adds, “Fourteen years ago when we started, only certain people such as ones who dealt with export, or managers of Korean companies would come to us. But now others do too,” she says, adding, “Every month, we get 10 to 15 calls for Korean alone. I can see it booming in the next five years.”

Nandini classifies the students who come to learn Korean into three types, “There are engineering students looking to build a resume,” she says, pointing out the many Korean companies based in Chennai such as Hyundai and Lotte. “Then there are those interested in K-Pop, and older people with a love for the Korean culture and language.” While it is generally a mixed bag, those influenced by Korean pop culture are increasing in number, according to Nandini.

The learning module at InKo centre is spread over 16 levels, each taking up 54 hours, essentially making it a four-year course at least.

Bhavani, who has been learning Korean for the past four years, is at an advanced level, standing as proof that it isn’t only youngsters who are taken in by the Korean wave. Secret Garden, Coffee Prince, Boys before Flowers — she watches them all. Her car’s playlist is filled with Korean pop music.

K and the city: Why are more and more Chennaiites learning Korean?

However, she did hesitate before joining Korean classes. “I felt I was too old for it! Meeting all these new kids in the classes... The girls there were my daughter’s age,” says Bhavani. As it turned out, she really enjoyed learning. “Learning the alphabet was not easy, maybe it was for the kids,” she says, “But I like learning the grammar in any language, it’s like solving a puzzle, it makes logical sense.” Now, some of those younger students are close friends of her daughters.

“Learning Korean has changed my life,” she says. The biggest one was when she got a chance to go to Korea on an all-expenses paid trip organised by InKo centre. “I have never stepped outside even Tamil Nadu without my family. And here I was, going to a whole other country alone.” There she met participants from all over the world, and “all of us spoke to each other in Korean”. They even performed their traditional music on Hanguel Day, October 9, a holiday to commemorate the invention of the Korean alphabet.

“Or, as they call it, Hanguel Nal,” she adds. It is Bhavani’s aim to keep learning Korean until she unearths more Dravido-Korean similarities. “I want to contribute to research on the links between our languages. Maybe one day I’ll be able to teach Koreans our yoga in their language.”

The article is the first in a series exploring how the demand for learning Eastern languages is rising in Chennai.

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2020 4:42:47 AM |

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