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Current Status and Future of Korean Language Education in Europe: The University of Helsinki Case

Jeong-Young Kim
Jeong-Young Kim
Professor, University of Helsinki
In the last decade, the Korean language has been drawn more interest among the younger generation than earlier in European history. This might be due to Hallyu as well as the rapid economic growth of Korea. Although it was an unknown language in the past, it was already explored by the renowned Finnish linguist, G. J. Ramstedt, who published A Korean Grammar in English in 1939. Not only had he begun his research on Korean in order to investigate the origin of his own national ethnic group, but he also taught Korean language and history at the University of Helsinki from 1934 onwards. His academic interest in the Korean language raises the question of the reasons for it being taught at European universities and asks for an appraisal of Korean language education in Europe. At present, many universities might be expanding the language programme to appease Hallyu fans, but it would be more likely that they recognise other more valid reasons to teach 'Korea' through the language. I presume that they want to unveil the humble hermit kingdom that has come to Europe by means of its attractive pop culture on the Internet. The spread of Korean pop culture has exposed Europe to modern Korea with its unique writing system rendering the nation even more interesting, intriguing the younger generation with aspects, such as its history, traditional culture, miraculous industrial development and international politics. The Korean language itself may represent the nation of Korea; hence, it has played the role of a basis on which to build up Korean Studies. As the demand for the study of Korean language is growing higher than ever, it is crucial to promote it better as a concrete branch of Korean Studies.

1. Korean Language at the University of Helsinki

1-1. Gustav John Ramstedt
The University of Helsinki is located in the center of Finland's capital, in the eastern corner of Northern Europe and bordering Russia. It was established in 1640 as the Royal Academy of Turku when Finland was part of the Swedish Empire and Turku was the capital city. However, it was moved to Helsinki in 1828 following the Great Turku Fire. After Finland declared independence from Imperial Russia in 1917, the name was changed to the University of Helsinki. It is currently the university in Finland with the longest history. While Finland's history as an independent nation was short, the fledgling nation appointed Gustave John Ramstedt (1873 – 1950), a professor at the University of Helsinki, as the first foreign diplomat to Japan from 1920 – 1929. While working in Tokyo, he learned Korean from a Korean student named Ryu Jingeol.

His passion for learning was the foundation for becoming the first faculty member to teach Korean and Korean history after his return to the University of Helsinki in 1934. This same passion about Korean language research led him to publish A Korean Grammar in 1939, the first English language text on Korean grammar. Ramstedt remains one of the most revered linguists in Finland. He was professor in the University of Helsinki's Asian and African Languages and Cultures Department (Aasian ja Afrikan kielten ja kulttuurien laitos: AAKKL), and he published several other books besides the one mentioned above, including Remarks on the Korean Language (1928) and Studies on Korean Etymology (1949). He never stopped researching Korean language up to the end of his life. His life's work was later recognized by the Republic of Korea's government when he was awarded the Order of Civil Merit, Peony Medal in 1982.

1-2. Korean Faculty
Korean language education practically disappeared in Korea after the death of Ramstedt. However, Go Songmu, a Korean student who went to the University of Helsinki in 1967 to study Finno-Ugrist studies, reinvigorated it. After receiving a PhD with a thesis entitled "Koreans in Soviet Central Asia" in 1987 until his death in a car accident in Kazakhstan in 1993, he worked as a faculty member in charge of East Asian studies and taught Korean language and other courses related to Korean history. At the same time, some Finnish people also taught Korean, including Leitonen and Lehonkoski.

Korean language education slowed again after Professor Go's unfortunate accident, but they were revitalized again for two years from 1999 – 2001 when Busan University of Foreign Studies Professor Song Hyanggeun was appointed as full-time Korean teacher. Professor Song's position was made possible thanks to the effort of Juha Janhunen, an Altaic studies professor in charge of the East Asian studies program. As a scholar with much interest in Korean and Korean history, he strove to make sure the department offered options for Korean along with Chinese and Japanese. Professor Juha Janhunen, who had taken over Ramstedt's position, had deep knowledge of ancient Korean language and history, and he published (along with Tauno-Olavi Huotari and Ilmari Vestarinen) the first Finnish language academic text on Korean history and culture in 2000, entitled Korea, Kolme ovea tiikerin valtakuntaan (Korea, Three Doors to the Tiger Kingdom). Shortly after Professor Song returned to Korea, I was hired in Fall 2001 and am currently a fully time faculty member.

1-3. University Restructuring and the Expansion of Korean Language Programs
Since 2001, AAKKL has experienced many changes due to the creation of the EU and university financial difficulties. The biggest change was the closing of AAKKL. As evidenced by the appointment of Ramstedt as Altaic studies professor in 1917, AAKKL had a long history. However, Finland struggled with an economic downturn, and the University of Helsinki relied on the government for 100% of its funding. This meant that a decrease in funding required the university to combine some of the smaller departments. As a result, AAKKL was incorporated into the newly created Department of World Cultures (Maailman kultturien laitos) in 2010. The Department of World Cultures included AAKKL, the Department of Classical Philology, the Renvall Institute for Area and Cultural Studies, and the Department of Comparative Religion. Although AAKKL was incorporated with the above broader topics into the Department of World Cultures, there were no real changes besides budgetary execution. However, as the country's economic situation continued to decline, the Department of World Cultures disappeared at the end of 2017. This was due to a reorganization that took place throughout the whole Faculty of Arts. The Faculty of Arts was reorganized into six different units: The Aleksanteri Institute for Russian and East European Studies; Cultures; Digital Humanities; Finnish, Finno-Ugrian and Scandinavian Studies; Languages; and Philosophy, History and Art. As a result of this innovative restructuring, AAKKL was unable to maintain its original form any longer, and most of the language professors moved to the Department of Languages. This means that the Korean courses moved from the Korean studies department to an independent "Korean Language Program," and the degrees that students would receive in each program were different. In the case of Asian studies, the restructuring which had been undertaken to save money paradoxically caused a split between the language and culture aspects of the programs. This actually led to growth in the language program.

The impact of the unexpected changes that took place in Asian studies during the restructuring had a significant impact on the Korean language program. Korean studies had been treated as a sub-specialty of degree programs such as East Asian Studies in AAKKL and Asian Studies in the Department of World Cultures. Even if students couldn't take courses labeled as "Korean studies," they could still gain a BA or MA in (East) Asian Studies by focusing on Korean language courses and completing the remaining number of required courses in other topics. Therefore, majoring in Korean studies practically meant focusing on Korean language as if it were your major, taking a few (East) Asian studies courses, going to Korea as a foreign exchange student if wanted to improve language, and receiving a degree in (East) Asian Studies. However, Korean is now included in the independent, degree-granting Department of Languages along with 24 other foreign languages and linguistics and translation. This increase in Korean studies' status has made it possible for the University of Helsinki to receive Korean visiting professors through Korea Foundation programs.

1-4. Current Status and Future of Secondary School Korean Language Education
One notable thing about students who major in Korean language is the fact that many of them would like to become Korean language instructors in secondary education. Finland's Ministry of Education and Culture included Japanese and Chinese in the secondary education curriculum in 2016, but Korean has not been added as of now. This doesn't mean that you can't teach Korean in elementary or secondary schools. In Finland, it is common for elementary and secondary educators to be qualified to teach more than one subject. In particular, Korean language can be quite attractive to student who want to become language teachers in the future because it is viewed as an unexplored field due to its scarcity. Kulosaari yhteiskoulu is a high school in Helsinki that teaches Korean.

2. Current Status of Korean Language Education in Europe

Finnish people generally agree that language learning is important, and that consensus is reflected in the way funds are allocated in universities. However, with the exception of a few universities like the University of London's SOAS or Oxford University, Korean studies continues to be viewed as part of a larger subject such as East Asian studies, rather than as an independent field of study. This may be due to the fact that Korean language instructors at these universities were selected from a pool of native-speaking international students without regard to their major. Recently, more and more universities are improving their outlook on Korean language teaching and employ language majors to teach their courses. However, because the situation was stagnant for such a long time, many Korean language instructors still work on contract and therefore are unable to actively carry out research due to their busy class schedules.

The Korean Wave spreading through Europe has caused a rapid increase in the number of students who want to study or major in Korean. While this has led to an increased realization that universities need Korean teachers with academic talent and expertise, the reality remains that financial uncertainty and uncertainty about how long Korean will remain popular are barriers to universities hiring actual Korean scholars to teach their courses. I believe that now, unlike the past, is the time for Korean language education to be firmly established as a field of Korean studies, and not just as a hurdle to pass when majoring in Korean studies. My reason for believing this way can be found in the words of a student experiencing the future that we will face (a Stockholm School of Economics student at Japan's Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University):

"From my travels around the world, I've found that language is the most important thing. I learned that it is extremely difficult to truly integrate into a society without being able to speak the language. I first experienced Europe and then America. Then I experienced China and Japan. While I felt this way in China as well, the thing I felt most strongly in Japan was that you could tell how people's emotions and feelings change through their language. You will never be able to understand a country's society or people if you don't know how their emotions change when the weather is good, or when their favorite athlete wins, or when they have a family event. Until then, I thought that language was merely a way to communicate. Now, I realize that it is the most important means of understanding culture" (Choi Inhyeok: 118-119).

At first glance, this sounds like the student is saying that you must learn a country's language to understand its culture. But if you think about it a different way, it also means that language must be treated as an indispensable element in understanding a country because it reveals its culture.

3. European Association for Korean Language Education

The European Association for Korean Language Education (EAKLE) is an academic meeting that we can use as a window to Korean language education in Europe. The first meeting was held at the University of Warsaw in Poland in 2007 with support from the Korea Foundation. Subsequent meetings were held at Ankara University (Turkey, 2008), University of London's SOAS (UK, 2010), Charles University (Czech Republic, 2012), Ca' Foscari University of Venice (Italy, 2014), University of Copenhagen (Denmark, 2016) and University of Helsinki (Finland, 2018). The 2020 meeting is scheduled to be held at Aix-Marseille University in France.

The meeting was first intended to provide a place where those involved in Korean language education in Europe could meet and share ideas. However, the meeting has changed over ten years to include more participants and different activities. The 2018 meeting in Helsinki included 82 participants, including Korean language educators from North America and Asia. Additionally, 45 academic papers were presented at the meeting. Meetings in the early years included presentations about Korean culture classes. Over time, however, the ratio gradually decreased. In Helsinki, the number of presentation submissions rose so suddenly that we were forced to exclude presentations that focused on Korean studies (rather than Korean language education) as a way to limit the number of applications. As a result, we are striving to hold workshops focused on linguistics by giving priority to presentations that deal with teaching and acquiring grammar and pronunciation skills, applying teaching theories in Korean language classrooms, examples of Korean language learning, and examples from the King Sejong Institute. Since 2016, presenters from the National Institute of the Korean Language in Korea have attended the meeting, providing very useful and diverse information to Korean educators in Europe.

Like other academic societies, each time EAKLE had a meeting, they printed and distributed proceedings of all the completed presentations. The 3rd meeting held at SOAS was the first to have the proceedings published. The volume, titled Current Issues in Korean Language Education in Europe, was published by Pagijong Press and was the first to be sold on the market. Proceedings from the 7th meeting in Helsinki were published by Doseochulpan Hawoo, making it the second proceedings to be published. EAKLE continued to receive funding from the Korean Foundation for the 1st meeting in Warsaw through the 6th meeting in Copenhagen. However, the 7th meeting in Helsinki was able to be completed successfully, even though the scale of the meeting grew so much due to the increase in number of participants, thanks to the generous support of the Academy of Korean Studies.

EAKLE's success is an indicator of the increased status of Korean language education in Europe. Indeed, Korean was selected as an acceptable subject for foreign language in the French secondary education system called the baccalauréat in 2017. We expect that Finland will soon elevate Korean to the same level. Even in the early 2000s, some people had an absurd idea that Korean was not the official language of Korea and thought that Koreans used Chinese or Japanese as their official language. However, young people today even know about the convenience of the Korean alphabet Hangeul and are interested in learning it.

This enthusiasm for Korean is not limited to K-pop fans in their teens. It can also be found amongst linguistic students who are majoring in linguistics or related fields, even if they do not have any interest in popular culture or television dramas. One representative success of this interest for Korean in Europe is the adaptation of Han Kang's The Vegetarian. Korean language education must play a larger role if we expect to continue to have such successes.

4. The Importance of Developing Korean Language Studies

There are many other important matters in the development of Korean language education. This is because not only does language express the history and culture of the country in which it speaks, but the study of language also teaches about the spirit of that language's speakers and the identity of the country. In this context, it is very encouraging that The Handbook of Korean Linguistics (Lucien Brown and Jaehoon Yeon: 2015) was published by WILEY Blackwell, one of the major linguistics publishers. This book has contributed to raising awareness of and focusing attention on Korean in academia in a similar perspective and manner as many other world languages. However, it is also important for two other reasons. First, it shows that Korean is a subject for continued academic research and not just a fad that came in with the Korean Wave and will soon disappear. Second, it clearly shows that active research on Korean is being carried out to accompany the growing number of students studying Korean.

As a linguist, Ramstedt immersed himself in research of other languages that might have something to do with Finland in search his people's origin. His enthusiasm for linguistic research led him to learn and research Korean and even to develop and teach courses about Korean history and culture. In order to find his people's identity, he immersed himself in the study of the language of a country that was considered insignificant by neighboring strong powers. While each educator and scholar will find a different meaning in this, I believe that Ramstedt's attitude about Korean suggests something to the Korean scholars and teachers of today and tomorrow.

[ Announcement of "2019 AKS International Conference on Korean Studies" ]

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