When Laura Krupp started learning the Korean alphabet, or Hangul, she’d practice memorizing the characters by doodling the names of her favorite K-pop idols in the margins of her notebook. “정국,” she’d scribble on the page, burning the distinct vowels and consonants of BTS member Jung Kook’s name into memory. Amid a busy college semester, it took the geology major a month to master all 24 letters. “I probably could have learned it in a week if I had had more time,” she tells MTV News over a video call from her bedroom in Michigan.
Three years later, the 21-year-old can read Korean phonetically and knows the basics: how to introduce herself; how to count to 10; and how to read and pronounce the go-to Instagram hashtag of her ultimate bias, as favored idols are known in the K-pop fandom, Lee Know. (The hashtag “#리노는기여어,” which roughly translates to “#LeeKnowIsCute,” connects her to thousands of posts from fans around the world who use it too.) She admits that the process has been slow. Juggling a full course load with teaching herself Korean grammar hasn’t been easy, but she revels in the small victories. “I’ve left a couple of comments in Korean on Lee Know’s Instagram posts,” she says, his poster one of many crowding the bedroom wall behind her. And when she met Stray Kids earlier this year at a fan engagement on their District 9: Unlock tour, she was able to tell youngest member I.N, “행복하세요,” or, “I wish you happiness.”
“I was going to tell Seungmin that I liked his voice [in Korean], but he smiled at me and my brain short-circuited,” she says. “So I didn’t get to say that.”
While understanding Korean isn’t a requirement to take part in K-pop standom, it can enrich the experience. In K-pop, content is king. A group can produce hundreds of hours of interviews, livestreams, performances, digital programming, and more during a single promotional cycle. Depending on the company’s internal resources, as well as the size of the unit’s global following, subtitles and translations can take days to weeks to months to be added, if at all.
And international fans know just how agonizing waiting for subtitles can be. 20-year-old fan Nico, from Ohio, became so frustrated by the lack of translated content available for one of her favorite girl groups, Weki Meki, that she took matters into her own hands. “Smaller girl groups don’t get any [English] translations because there’s not a big demand for them,” she says. “So I pledged to myself that I would learn Korean so that I could help international fans of these girl groups have translations for social media posts and V Lives.” She’s still working toward that goal (“I’m so close!” she says), but she did join a Weki Meki fan account to help organize global streaming parties.
For most, the desire to learn Korean stems from something as simple as wanting to connect with idols on a deeper level. 22-year-old media studies student Lissete Vega started learning Korean in 2015 because she wanted to sing along with her favorite SHINee songs. “I wanted to better understand them through their language and also through their culture,” she says. Now, she meets with a private tutor once or twice a week and she’s able to understand “most of what BTS tweets without having to wait for translating accounts to do it, which is an awesome feeling.” She says, “Just being able to connect with them without having to rely so much on outside resources like subtitles or translations has been really beneficial.”
It’s a sentiment a lot of K-pop fans share. After all, there are nuances that don’t always translate well. While music often transcends language, jokes may not. “Namjoon’s dad jokes are really hard to get if you don’t speak Korean, but once you do, they’re so stupidly funny,” 20-year-old Hannah Smith says. The New York University student and multifandom K-pop enthusiast has been teaching herself Korean for years via free online resources; she plans to take Korean as her foreign language elective. “It’s an academic way of consuming my entertainment,” she adds.
It’s also a facet of being part of an increasingly globalized fandom. “Now, practically every fan I meet at least knows how to read Hangul,” Vega says.
But K-pop superfans aren’t the only people interested in learning the language. A 2018 report from the Modern Language Association showed an increase in Korean class enrollments across college campuses in the United States by 13.7 percent between 2013 and 2016, while the overall number of language registrations decreased. But even as universities across the country cut foreign language departments altogether, the general rise in popularity of Korean sees many people, like Krupp, teaching themselves. Free resources like Talk To Me In Korean, How To Study Korean, Duolingo, and YouTube make the learning process more accessible to millions of eager students. Roughly 3.3 million people practice their Korean on Duolingo, making it the sixth-most popular course among English learners on the language-learning app after it was added to the platform in late 2017. Meanwhile, three times a week YouTuber Korean Unnie teaches everything from must-know words and phrases (in both formal and informal speech) to grammar to cultural nuances on her popular channel.
And now, global superstars BTS have joined the mix: Just as Friends helped BTS leader RM learn English, BTS want to help their fans learn Korean.
Two weeks ago, Big Hit Entertainment launched “Learn Korean With BTS,” a new online program that integrates language-learning into pre-existing BTS videos. Over the course of 30 free, short-form episodes uploaded weekly to their official fansite on WeVerse, the initiative aims to make learning Korean “easy and fun for global fans who have difficulty enjoying BTS’s music and contents due to the language barrier,” according to a statement from the company.
“It’s a very nice way to bring together this massive fandom who are very much interested in learning,” says Monica Yadav, a culture writer and K-pop enthusiast based in Mumbai, India. She started teaching herself Korean through YouTube and webtoons to better understand the depth of BTS’s lyricism, which is largely rooted in literature and philosophy. “Those seven boys have so much power to influence so many people.”
For Jesse*, a 27-year-old Asian-American publicist from San Francisco, California, the fact that they’re using their power “to do something positive makes me feel even better about my choice to be a fan.” But it also signifies what makes the industry so unique. “The way that K-pop actively invites its fans to be a part of the whole experience isn’t really paralleled in Western music,” she says. “It’s a participatory experience. There’s so much to do, and so much they ask you to do, that learning the language has helped me feel more involved as a fan.”
Devised by Professor Heo Yong of Hankuk University and researchers at the Korea Language Contents Institute, the curriculum five episodes in has covered pronunciation of consonants, introductions, numbers, and key phrases like “thank you” and “how have you been?” — all while using memorable clips from the group’s numerous variety programs and broadcasts as teaching aids. Reading “안녕하세요” is an accomplishment, but hearing singer Jimin cutely say “annyonghaseyo” gives learners a better grasp on the language entirely. This is especially important for beginners.
“It’s important to learn pronunciation and annunciation properly if you’re starting to learn Korean,” Eun Oh, a manager and teacher at Korean Culture Center of New York, says. “From a linguistic perspective, pronunciation is the foundation of communication.” Oh encourages her students to avidly consume all types of Korean media, from dramas to music to Korean variety shows, to not only improve listening comprehension but to also familiarize themselves with how Koreans speak.
“I do like hearing Korean spoken naturally,” 26-year-old fan Lindsey Bosak says. “I feel like it’s a good way to figure out what I’m saying incorrectly.” Bosak first started teaching herself Korean three years ago with the hope of one day being able to multitask while watching Korean dramas. (“I wanted to be able to do things while watching TV, like clean,” she suggests.) But it wasn’t until discovering BTS that she got serious about her studies, purchasing textbooks and practicing on apps throughout the day. “I started reading lyric translations, and I fell in love with the way that they write and the topics they talk about,” she explains. “I wanted to be able to understand that on my own and not have to follow along with lyric sheets.”
Bosak turned to BTS content to brush up on her skills, like Bangtan Bombs on YouTube and episodes of Run! BTS and Bon Voyage, which are available on V Live and WeVerse. “It’s always a little exciting when I recognize a word without looking at the subtitles,” she says. “I do try and test myself. When I learn new words, I like to watch [variety program] Run! BTS to see if I know anything. I really like hearing native speakers. It helps with pronunciation.”
This is what Jon Hills, director of New York-based language center Hills Learning, refers to as “authentic material.” Basically, it’s something that has been written or spoken by a native speaker for a native speaker. “In the language-learning world, there are textbooks and a variety of tools that are written by Korean speakers for English speakers,” Hills says. “But there’s been a move to try and integrate more authentic materials. A song or a piece of content from BTS is technically an authentic material. So what they’re trying to do makes sense. You’re learning Korean from an authentic source.”
Still, a device like “Learn Korean With BTS” is best used as a supplement. “It’s not a beginner course,” Bosak says after binging the first three episodes. “They do expect you to have a basic understanding of the Korean alphabet. I had to watch them a few times because they go so quickly. There’s not a lot of time to stop and digest what they’re saying. But I like the fact that they’re using old content. BTS has been such a big part of my life the last few years that I think this is a way for me to stick with it. It’s an incentive.”
And motivation is the key to learning any language. And part of that incentive, Hills says, is “having external stimulants that you can watch and engage with.” But no matter how someone was introduced to the culture, be it through K-pop or Bong Joon Ho films, learning Korean is ultimately a long-term goal. “I really respect K-pop fans’ curiosity and love for the language,” Oh says. “But I would love to see that it goes beyond K-pop. BTS is opening a new door for [fans] to be introduced to a new world, just like how language has opened so many doors for me — to talk to people, to interact with people, to understand people.”
“There’s a whole other world out there,” Hills says. “There are a lot of perspectives out there that are not just Western.”
In their initial press announcement, Big Hit said that through learning Korean with BTS the company hopes “global fans will be able to deeply empathize” with the music of their artists. But, in the process, they’re helping fans empathize with one another. “I’ve had full conversations with other fans [online] where they’re speaking in Korean, and I respond in English, and they respond in Korean,” Smith says. “Because they understand English but can’t write it, and I understand Korean but can’t write it. So we communicate that way.”
“It breaks down the barriers between Korean and international fans,” Ciara adds. The 24-year-old activist from Dublin, Ireland, started learning the language after gradually picking up words after hours-long marathons of BTS content. Though it’s only been seven months since she began teaching herself Korean, she’s already experienced the joy of understanding something before it’s been subtitled. And she’s excited to start “Learn Korean With BTS.”
“They understand that this is something their fans are passionate about,” she says. “Especially with a lot of the fandom devalued or being belittled — a lot of that rooted in misogyny. It’s a testament to fans caring about what these artists are saying and not just what people assume fans care about.”
And with a better understanding of the world comes a better understanding of yourself and how you fit into it. “It’s made it feel like a smaller world, especially in this time where there’s so much going on that’s negative,” Bosak says. “It’s really nice to have something to connect with people over. And I’m meeting people that I probably never would have met had I not started learning Korean.”
Back in her bedroom in Michigan, Krupp sums it up perfectly: “It’s boring being monolingual, honestly.”
*Last name withheld for privacy