Challenges and Prospects for Korean Language Education in Russia
Five years ago, Korean ranked as the third most popular foreign language in Russia. Today, Korean language education in Russia is facing unique challenges. Yet as a recent report from KBS shows, the study of Korean in Russia, which itself has a long history, is not entirely held hostage to the state of Moscow-Seoul ties. Indeed, in spite of that, there is no shortage of people within Russian academia who are determined to learn and impart the Korean language.
With China and Russia growing closer, is the Korean language getting pushed out? In Russia now… (Correspondent’s Report)
“It’s basically still in a pandemic state. Students think ‘I can’t get to Korea any time soon, so I don’t need to learn Korean.’ Now there is considerable interest in Chinese.”
Russia is the country with fourth-largest number of university-level Korean language and Korean studies classes and programs. So why would Sergei Kurbanov, chair of the All-Russian Association of University Professors or Korean, offer such an assessment?
Professors from Korean language and Korean studies programs from all over Russia gathered at the general meeting of the All-Russian Association of University Professors of Korean, which took place in Moscow on April 28-29. I met with professors participating in the meeting and heard about Korean language education and Korean studies in Russia today.
■ Is interest in Korean cooling off while interest in Chinese is heating up?
Professor Kurbanov from St. Petersburg State University’s Korean studies program has been teaching Korean history for 30 years. He said that interest in Korea among young people began to develop in the early 2000’s, especially from around 2010.
He explained that during the “Korean wave’s” boom period, when Korean dramas and music easily spread through people’s smartphones, the number of students interested in learning about Korea also increased. This was because those who majored in Korean could also study abroad in Korea. It came to a point where Korean studies became so crowded with students that they raised their quotas, while at the same time there was not enough teaching faculty. There was more interest in Korean than in Japanese or Chinese.
Yet studying in Korea became difficult due to the pandemic, and while the gate has since been unlocked, it’s still not easy to get to Korea.
“One could say that Korea is still in a pandemic state even now. There are different reasons, but students think that ‘Because I can’t get to Korea any time soon, I don’t need to learn Korean.’
Flights to China have been restored and there are lots of jobs. Businesspersons are coming to Russia. You can even study there. Therefore, there is considerable interest in Chinese. The number of students who study Korean will decline.”
Up to this point, it sounds gloomy. Yet Professor Kurbanov says he’s not worried.
“The professors and instructors who attended the meeting today, they are mainly in their 30’s and 40’s. They are young. They are passionate. They love the Korean language and want to teach it. (More than when there were too many students) I think they can keep teaching with depth and substance.”
■ A 126-year history of teaching Korean in Russia
Russia was the very first European country to teach Korean at the university level. In 1897, St. Petersburg State University established a Korean language program. It all started when Kim Byeong-ok, the interpreter for Min Yeong-hwan who was the head of the Korean delegation at Tsar Nicholas II’s coronation in 1896, stayed in Russia and taught Korean.
In the 2010’s, as interest in the Korean language and Korean studies rose, an increasing number of universities added Korean language classes, producing rising teachers of Korean.
According to statistics from the Korea Foundation (KF), Russia has the fourth-largest number of universities offering Korean classes (37) after Japan (377), China (276) and the US (131).
As Chung In-soon, professor at Moscow State University, explained “Unlike in Europe, where interest is purely in the Korean language, in Russia, Korean studies includes Korean language, Korean culture, Korean history, Korean politics, and studies in the Korean economy for the sake of depth, with major universities running Masters-level and doctoral programs.”
■ What was behind BTS’s success? Diversifying research in Korean studies.
After 126 years, Korean language education and Korean studies are becoming more specialized and increasing in scope.
In 2021, Moscow City University established a Korean language major. After two years, the number of students majoring in Korean is 100, while the number of students who majored in Japanese over the same number of years after it was listed as a major in 2009 was 205. Thus, one can see by comparison the considerable interest in Korean.
The university has courses on special topics not found at other universities, including “Korean teaching methods”, “The culture of Korean technological development” and “Korean geography”.
Professor Sergei Letun says that he comprehensively studies and analyzes South Korea’s innovative models through the lens of the success of K-pop groups such as BTS.
He emphasized the need for South Korea and Russia to cooperate in developing teaching methods in order to teach Korean as a foreign language in an effective manner.
“The Russian Federation has over 100 ethnic groups living within its borders, borders that are also adjacent to many countries. For this reason, various foreign language teaching methods have been developed from early on. With Korea’s IT and AI technologies, new teaching techniques may emerge.”
■ What does jjikmeok mean? The need for a textbook for non-Koreans living outside Korea.
Russian professors of Korean cited the lack of “satisfactory” textbooks as the main difficulty they face. Professor Kurbanov said “Professors make them themselves or use textbooks being used in Korea, but we need materials that serve the needs of non-Korean students here in Russia who can’t travel to Korea.”
“Modern Russian is not that different from the language of Pushkin in the 19th century. This is not the case with Korean. Can you read the Korean Declaration of Independence? Today there are new words like jjikmeok and eongdda. Korean changes so often, new textbooks need to be made every ten years. This is because even words that can be learned easily while living in Korea constantly need explaining.”
Recently, Altai University in Siberia, which started offering Korean not long ago, reached out to Moscow State University with regards to developing its Korean language curriculum. Professor Chung In-soon expects that “if a Korean teacher’s training program can be developed, Korean studies can be supplied to other universities that will open new Korean studies departments, and that the quality of Korean language instruction in Russia can be raised.”
Original article by Cho Bitna. Translated by Anthony V. Rinna.
 Source: “With China and Russia growing closer, is the Korean language getting pushed out? In Russia now… (Correspondent’s Report) [중-러 밀착 속 한국어도 중국어에 밀리나? 러시아에선 지금… [특파원 리포트]]”, KBS News, May 5, 2023, https://news.kbs.co.kr/news/view.do?ncd=7668635
 Translator’s note: jjikmeok (찍먹) is a new Korean word that comes from jjikeo meokgi (찍어먹기) meaning “dip (into a sauce) and eat”; eongdda (엉따) is short for “eongdeongireul ddaddeuthage mandeureojuneun charyang jangchi (엉덩이를 따뜻하게 만들어주는 차량 장치) or “automotive equipment that warms one’s bottom”.