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Culture and opportunity: motivations for learning East Asian languages

“The meteoric rises of Asian languages indicate that global interest… is more than a passing fad”, said Duolingo in a report last year after revealing that all five of the fasting growing languages on its platform were Asian: Hindi, Korean, Japanese, Turkish and Mandarin Chinese.

AsianMore and more people are learning Asian language. Photo: Unsplash

All five of the fasting growing languages on [Duolingo] platform were Asian

With Korean have jumped two spots in popularity on Duolingo to seventh place and Chinese expected to steal Russian’s position in ninth by the end of this year, interest seems to show no sign of letting up.

“The meteoric rises of Asian languages indicate that global interest… is more than a passing fad”

However, as the pandemic prevents travel to many places, tests are cancelled and global geopolitics change opportunities in terms of business and careers, the priorities of languages learners could shift. And some languages will likely be more affected than others.

Cultural Clout

Just 2,692 people worldwide sat the inaugural Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK) exam in 1997. By 2019, that number was in the hundreds of thousands annually.

The explosion in learning Korean has often been credited to the popularity of K-Pop and K-Dramas around the world, particularly among young people, much as interest in learning Japanese has also been linked to cultural products such as anime.

While there is some difference in the market – Duolingo noted the biggest concentrations of Korean learners are still to be found elsewhere in Asia, and the largest numbers of Japanese learners were more likely to be found in English-speaking western countries like the US and UK – both have managed to inspire language learning through interest in culture.

The phenomena has even extended to incorporating “Korean Cool” into language learning.

In March, K-Pop boy band BTS – which became the first all-Asian band to feature on the cover of Rolling Stone – launched a 30-lesson series of classes for fans “designed to make it easy and fun for global fans who have difficulty enjoying BTS’ music and contents due to the language barrier”, and more recently a set for learners complete with books and Korean Hangul stickers for computer keyboards.

This month the state-run King Sejong Institute also announced the launch of a new learning program based on K-Pop and K-Dramas and featuring clips from popular shows including Guardian: The Lonely and Great God and The Heirs.

Business and Career

With the popularity of Korean culture concentrated among young people, there is always the possibility that interest may decline. It’s also a risk faced by Chinese, although the motivations for learning it are somewhat different.

Chinese-language music and media is yet to have the same sort of influence globally as that from Japan and Korea. Instead, Mandarin has been marketed as a language for business and careers based on the argument that as China develops, greater opportunities for those who speak the language will arise.

This does however mean that the perception of the value of learning Mandarin is particularly susceptible to the influence of geopolitics.

“The perception of China as a place where you would want your child to make a career has taken a severe knock”

According to an article in The Economist last year, UK parental interest in their children learning Chinese has declined as global tensions mean “the perception of China as a place where you would want your child to make a career has taken a severe knock”. China, it argued, “doesn’t seem like the big golden opportunity it was before”.

This has been echoed in the closure of Confucius Institutes amid accusations of trying to influence decisions on campus, although by the US government’s own admission in reports, the concrete evidence for such activities isn’t as solid as the antagonism would suggest.

However, China is hardly the only place where Mandarin skills can prove useful, and as Confucius Institutes close, Taiwan has been establishing plans and agreements to fill the gaps in Mandarin education abroad.

It’s also growing as a popular choice of destination to study Mandarin, not least due to the extensive range of scholarships offered by the government.

“At the moment we have more than 1,000 students learning Mandarin, and among the 1,000 we have 57 taking bachelor courses in Chinese literature for international students,” said Ya-Feng Wu, associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts at National Taiwan University in Taipei.

“We have many different kinds of courses, we offer summer programs for summer, short-term programs and also online courses for those who cannot really travel here. We also provide MOOC and Coursera online courses.”

Looking South

If one of the motivations for learning Chinese for many was business and work opportunities, the same rationale may in the future lead to greater uptake in learning Southeast Asian languages too.

As some companies formerly based in China relocate operations to Vietnam and its neighbours, could a growing interest in languages such as Vietnamese be developing?

Setting up Vietnamese language course is the next big project of LTL Mandarin School, which until now has taught Mandarin and a smattering of Chinese dialects such as Hokkien, Cantonese and Shanghaiese across China, Taiwan and Singapore, as well as online.

“I live in Vietnam and am studying Vietnamese. So Vietnamese is a logical next step to add [to our courses],” said Andreas Laimböch, LTL’s founder.

“Vietnam is 98 million people, it’s a quickly growing economy and it’s a beautiful country”

“Vietnam is 98 million people, it’s a quickly growing economy and it’s a beautiful country. It’s a very fascinating culture.”

While resources for learning Southeast Asian languages currently remain few and far between, they are far more accessible than just a decade or two ago, and a growing understanding of the region’s significance and potential as it develops could spur greater demand for speakers.

Efforts to promote greater exchange among students between ASEAN countries at the university level could also prompt demand for language learning – although intra-regional mobility remains something of a challenge.

“Southeast Asia has many very relevant languages. Thai is certainly interesting, as is Bahasa Indonesia or Bahasa Malay,” added Laimböch.

“But there’s also more people who want to learn a language because there’s a culture attached to it, there’s a way of life attached to it.

“Language allows you to explore a part of humanity that otherwise you can never touch.”

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2 Responses to Culture and opportunity: motivations for learning East Asian languages

  1. Hi Callan, A very informative article! As a leading Chinese language Centre in Australia, Australasian Centre of Chinese Studies (ACCS), we have also noted a slight decline in student numbers in the past 6 months which is also due to the growing tensions between China and Australia. Although the pandemic did affect our student population last year, we managed to maintain student numbers by going online and also offering our Accelerated Learning Mandarin and Cantonese courses internationally through our new global website at However, I do believe that once international travel is possible again, there will be a resurgence in people wanting to learn Chinese again. The other issue is the hugely declining number of students from China studying in Australia. This not only creates a widening gap in the social fabric of our multi-cultural community but in our case, it is nowalso more challenging to find new Chinese teachers. Best Regards Jeff

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