Hangul and the Philippine High School

Did you know that Korean — with its Hangul writing system — is now a foreign language elective in some Philippine high schools? (Link) Most people who hear the news are a little surprised. What does the Korean language have to do with the Philippines?

The two friends who told me the news were more than surprised — they were indignant. They argued that a language with no cultural and historical significance to the Philippines should have no place in public schools. Especially when languages that are significant are ignored. I think they’re still unhappy that Spanish stopped being a required foreign language three decades ago! But these days, qualified Korean language teachers probably outnumber qualified Spanish language teachers.

I love a good debate on eduction more than most people, but that isn’t the topic of this post. My own reaction to the news was a little different. I was actually impressed.

Hangul High School Memories

About fifteen years ago, when I was still a student, my English teacher pulled me out of class for a special conference. A few guest speakers had come to our school to talk about Korean culture and politics. The organization that sent them was also sponsoring an essay-writing competition on Korean-Philippine relations. So I and a few other writers from the school paper had to attend the talk and write some essays. Others in the small audience were a few teachers who were between classes and some students doing extra credit for Asian History class.

At the time, it seemed a little silly. Why did we need to know about the DMZ between North and South Korea? And what did we care about the Korean practice of considering people only two years older as your elders? It was a little interesting . . . but it didn’t also seem relevant. And the speakers, who struggled with thick accents and limited English, did not really help us think it was.

Do you know what my classmates and I might have welcomed instead? A talk with speakers from Ireland. Is that surprising? Although Ireland is much farther away geographically, the most popular boyband in the Philippines at that time was Irish. This may sound like an incredibly superficial reason for a country to be interesting, but it was more than South Korea gave us.

If only I had guessed that the boring talk and the baffling essay topic were part of something much bigger!

From Pop Culture to Philippine Classroom

It’s almost as if a South Korean strategist had interviewed my future self for advice! Since my high school days, several Korean boybands and girl groups have become huge hits among Filipino teenagers. And unlike the Irish boyband, these artists only sing in Korean. They are probably the main reason local learners have eagerly studied the foreign system of Hangul for years.

We can also look at Korean romantic dramas — South Korea’s answer to the Mexican telenovela. They have also found a sweet spot among Filipino audiences. In the last ten years, many of them have been dubbed in Tagalog and syndicated on national television. During that decade, local fans have also grown more proactive. Instead of waiting for media networks to present new series to them, they seek these out on their own. And thanks to file sharing and other new technology, they can get everything they want.

One of my best friends loves Korean dramas, and she told me that she only has to wait one day after an episode airs in South Korea before an English-subtitled version appears online. They aren’t official versions — it is fans who add the subtitles and share the video files. I asked if they were Korean fans who had learned English or English-speaking fans who had learned Korean; but my friend did not know. Either way, language learning plays a big part!

“You should study some Hangul on your own,” I suggested. “You’ll learn it really quickly because you already hear so much Korean!”

“I think I already am learning,” she said. And of course she was right.

Tagalog and the Asian High School?

After I stopped marveling at South Korea’s achievement, I started wondering if the Philippines could do the same thing. Given twenty years, could we take Tagalog from an insular Southeast Asian language to a popular elective in Southeast Asian high schools? And if we had more time, could we spread the interest further across the globe?

I think we could — and I have already working on a future series of posts about how we can do it!

What foreign languages do high school students in your city study?

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