WashU Offers New Korean Major

This year, Washington University has introduced a new Korean Language and Culture major. The Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures previously offered majors in both Chinese and Japanese, but without a Korean major, an essential component of this department was lacking. Rebecca Copeland, department chair and a professor of Japanese language and literature, offers insight as to how this development came to be, and early interest from WashU students in studying Korean.

“An East Asian Studies department or program without a strong Korean Studies component is deficient,” Copeland states. “Korea is an integral part of the East Asian regions. Korean culture is vibrant and unique in its own right. But it also pivots importantly between China and Japan. Thus it has long been the interest of the East Asian faculty to develop Korean Studies here. And the department has advocated for this for over two decades. Before we were able to offer Korean language on our own, we did so through a joint arrangement with the University of Missouri-St. Louis in the mid-1990s. (We taught Chinese on their campus, and they taught Korean on ours.)”

Later, a grant from the Korea Foundation in 2008 allowed for Ji-Eun Lee to be added to the department. Lee is now an associate professor of Korean language and literature and the head of the Korean section of the department.

“When I was hired in 2008, I was told that creating a Korean major would be one of the next goals for the department. (Back then, it was Dept. of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literatures,)” Lee says of the status of the Korean major at the time of her hiring. “Korean language had been offered for 10+ years by then, and my senior colleagues in the Chinese and Japanese fields understood that having a Korean studies program was vital to any reputable East Asian program.”

Citing a report from the Modern Language Association, Lee notes that there has been a surge in interest in Korean. Between 2009-2013, U.S. enrollment in Korean language saw its most rapid growth (44.7%), while overall enrollment in foreign languages decreased (-6.7%).

“Korea-related courses at WashU have seen both steady growth and dramatic increases in enrollment that reflect the national and global trend. I have also observed that our enrollment numbers are among the largest, surpassing some of the much bigger and older East Asian programs such as Stanford, Chicago, or Harvard. I should add that in the past, those interested in Korea at WashU often majored in International and Area Studies or East Asian Studies with a minor in Korean, so in a way, we have been operating a Korean major for quite a while, but under different names,” notes Lee.

While both Copeland and Lee touched on the necessity of Korean in a university’s language department, both spoke to the broader importance of studying Korean in our current world. As the interest in studying Korean in an academic sense grows, there is a logical growth in the desire to explore Korean culture as well. Lee noted that her students are interested not only in the study of Korean language, but in studying the greater context of Korean society—ranging from a desire to better understand North Korean politics to a fascination with South Korean K-pop music.

“I think studying Korea provides a distinctive opportunity to understand the world that we live in, in particular by contrasting Korea's condensed modernization process and rapid growth on one hand, and its pre-20th-century history defined by long and politically stable dynasties spanning many centuries,” speculates Lee. “Probing the culture and society that blossomed, suffered and persevered throughout the long history of Korea reveals many parallels to and critical insights into the workings of contemporary society.”

With a new Korean major and a growing enrollment and faculty, the university seems to have acknowledged just how valuable the study of Korean language and culture is today. Copeland speaks to this value, not only on a university level, but on the level of WashU students.

“We know our students will find the study of Korean language and literature rewarding on a multitude of levels,” Copeland says. “Given the intrinsic benefits of learning about other cultures, they will come away with skills that will aid them in future careers, future graduate studies, and in developing them as global citizens. The major helps students hone the tools they will need for learning and thinking about anything and everything that may come their way.”