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'Gangnam Style,' Austin Style: Interest Builds in Korean Culture

Mincheol Kwon for KUT News
A Korean language class at Austin Language Learning School. Korean teacher Immanuel Song speaks to three students.

Every evening at the Austin Language Learning School in the West Campus, you can hear Korean spoken by American students.

Last Wednesday, a new Korean learning class of three people began. It started with the students receiving their new Korean names for the class. Jason Crawford was named Jaeseng Go by his teacher, which is a common name in Korea. Another student, Robert Boone, was presented the Korean name Ryubeom Ban. It’s the same family name as U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

"I come from a pretty good family, eh?" the student joked.

Although the classmates’ motives for learning are different, there’s one common motive: the interest in Korean culture. And the huge viral video success of “GangnamStyle” – 767 million views on YouTube and counting – has become a catalyst to spread Korean culture to the U.S.

"After 'Gangnam Style' … calls asking about Korean class are dramatically increased. Everyday we get two, three similar calls steadily." school director Jes Kim says. "Considering that the city of Austin is not a huge city like New York or L.A., this need to learn Korean is a big surprise to us."

That kind of change is similar to the Austin Korean School. It delivers very low-priced Korean conversational classes to the public, every Saturday at Webb Middle School.

Unlike other commercial language academies, this school is a non-profit organization that runs 17 Korean classes with 180 students. School chair Seungho Oh says "it is fact that the interest about Korean culture became stronger and stronger, especially after 'Gangnam.'"

This trend is detected at public schools too.

Will Davis Elementary School realized its pupils’ interest in Korea when they launched a Korean language class as an after-school programs last month. Since it recruits members on a first-come-first-served basis, it had to cut off several children after its initial 20 students. There’s still 10 children on the waiting list. "Gangnam Style" was directly used in the class.

"The lyrics of 'Gangnam Style' are not appropriate to the children,” instructor Jihyoung Baek says. “But I could make use of the words like Oppa [elder brother], Sanai [male] in the song, to teach related words like Nuna [elder sister] and Gajok [family], which was really effective."

In case you’re not one of the close to eight billion to have seen "Gangnam Style," here you go:

Mincheol Kwon is a visiting reporter at KUT. He is from CBS, Christian Broadcasting System, a South Korean radio station in Seoul. He is also studying audio journalism at the Journalism School of Texas State University at San Marcos.