By Chang Dong-woo
SEOUL, Sept. 7 (Yonhap) -- Along with the global explosion of K-pop, the need among global fans to better understand what K-pop artists are singing, saying and writing in Korean has grown significantly.
The online edition of American business magazine Forbes highlighted in a recent article that many international fans of K-pop nowadays are turning to "fan translators on social media platforms as the most accessible news source."
The worldwide fan base of K-pop super group BTS -- referred to as ARMY -- is arguably at the forefront of this trend, as seen in cases of fan translation Twitter accounts such as @BTS_Trans, which has over 1 million followers eager to catch up on the global boy band's daily activities through translations done by fans.
Big Hit Entertainment, BTS' label-management company, recently began a new project that tries to tackle this issue at its core, by giving loyal BTS followers the tools to learn the Korean language itself -- a learning package that uses officially licensed content of the seven-member K-pop act.
In an exclusive interview with Yonhap News Agency, Choi Yeong-nam, general manager of Big Hit Edu, Big Hit Entertainment's education subsidiary, explained that the company's new product, "Learn! Korean with BTS," was designed specifically for those dedicated fans who are willing to take the ultimate leap: learn and study the mother tongue of BTS to have a deeper appreciation of the band.
"('Learn! Korean with BTS') was designed for global fans of BTS who have difficulties enjoying K-pop music and content due to language barriers," Choi said in the interview conducted recently via email.
The package, comprised of four textbooks and a "sound pen," which plays back pronunciation of words of phrases by touching symbols on pages, was released on Aug. 24 and has seen a strong reaction -- it was sold out in the U.S. in just 20 minutes and three hours in Japan, according to Big Hit Edu. The kit also includes a set of Hangeul computer keyboard stickers.
Co-developed by Big Hit Edu and the Korean Language Contents Institute at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS) for over a year, the package is designed for users to study Hangeul vowels, consonants and basic phrases based on Korea's regional traits and culture introduced in BTS' music and videos.
"'Learn! Korean with BTS' is a study kit for those who want to learn a foreign language in trying to genuinely understand and communicate with someone,' Choi explained. "We developed the product with the emphasis on fans' wish to better understand the artist and the artist's wish to better communicate with fans."
Big Hit Edu has been uploading short videos every week related to the educational package since March on Weverse, Big Hit's online fan community-mobile commerce platform.
Last month, the company announced that it has partnered with the Korea Foundation, a nonprofit public diplomacy institution, and HUFS in producing a remote Korean-language course using "Learn! Korean with BTS" in overseas Korean-teaching institutions.
The first schools adopting the course starting this fall are Middlebury College in the U.S., Ecole Normale Superieure and EDHEC Business School of France, Ain Shams University in Egypt, and Vietnam's University of Languages & International Studies and Thang Long University.
"Roles of the three partners are divided up respectively. Under the general leadership of KF, Big Hit Edu provides the study package to overseas universities and faculty of HUFS runs the courses remotely either live or prerecorded," Choi explained.
Choi said that a number of other overseas schools have also shown strong interest in the "Learn! Korean with BTS" program. "We anticipate the number of participating schools and courses to increase consistently."
The entry of Big Hit Edu, founded in November 2018, came at a time when demand for Korean learning had shown a steady increase worldwide, in line with the explosion of K-pop music and K-culture at large across the world.
According to a 2018 report by the Modern Language Association in the U.S., the number of students taking Korean courses at American universities reached 13,936 in 2016, up 13.7 percent from three years ago, even when overall language enrollments decreased during the same period.
The number of King Sejong Institutes, state-run overseas Korean culture and language education centers, has jumped nearly tenfold in the past decade, from 23 in 2010 to 213 in 2020. The number of students as of 2019 stood at 72,713, showing a steep increase from the 4,301 tally from 2009.
According to the South Korean culture ministry, Korean is the 14th most widely used language in the world as of 2019. The number of international applicants for the state-run Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK) stood at 375,000 last year, reaching an all-time high.
To answer to the growing demand to learn Korean, the culture ministry announced that it will increase the number of King Sejong Institutes to 270 by 2022 and also introduce a certification system for Korean courses to ensure the quality of the programs.
Big Hit's differentiating factor, according to Choi, is the company's guiding principle, which aims to abandon preconceived notions of learning by using Big Hit artists as motivation to learn and study.
"Most of those who want to study a foreign language nowadays tend to have very specifically defined goals: to either pass a test, to go abroad to study or to get a job. Hence the messages the language education companies send out are also very clear. They promise students that they can learn easily, fast and effectively," Choi said.
The corporate philosophy of Big Hit Edu, according to Choi, centers around asking what the consumer genuinely wants from its product and to provide a variety of solutions that meet those demands.
Big Hit Edu also communicates and works closely with the other subsidiaries of Big Hit Entertainment, Choi explained.
"While the areas of specialty differ, we all use the same intellectual properties, and each subsidiaries businesses integrates and converges with one another to create secondary and tertiary services."
Choi said Big Hit Edu is keen on listening to the feedback and opinions of customers and plans to add "new methods, structures and elements that are deemed most effective and useful" in follow-up learning packages.
Having majored in education from Seoul National University, Choi joined the online education venture business after graduating and later managed a project in developing an online language learning program using cutting-edge technology at Etoos Academy, the largest online learning company in South Korea.
As a seasoned veteran in the online education industry, Choi said his goal is to lead Big Hit Edu in becoming the leader in the educational technology industry.
"We are living in an era where everything changes at unexpected levels and speeds," Choi said. "The concepts of teaching and learning must also change and evolve. I hope to lead the evolution (of teaching and learning) together with Big Hit Edu by attempting to reform the underlying motivation in learning among people."