When Irvine’s Korean American Center started offering adult Korean-language classes 2 1/2 years ago, the idea was to provide second- and third-generation Korean Americans who speak only English a way to learn their ancestors’ native tongue.
The program began with 10 students, then quickly ballooned to 90.
Now, the wait list is more than 400 long.
And just like enrollment numbers, reasons for attending the language classes — which include “Korean through K-Pop” and “Korean through K-Drama” — have also expanded.
Instead of a predominantly Korean American student body, which was envisioned at the program’s outset, an estimated three-quarters of learners are non-Koreans who are interested in the culture or developing a new skill for work.
This fall, with help from the South Korean government, the Korean American Center will scale up its work to meet the growing demand for Korean-language classes in Orange County.
Now officially recognized by the King Sejong Institute — which is part of South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism — the KAC will hire more teachers, strengthen its curriculum, offer study-abroad opportunities and host more cultural events. The center is affiliated with Korean Community Services in Buena Park.
“We’re hoping we can provide even greater access and visibility in promoting the Korean language and culture,” said Tammy Kim, the center’s managing director, noting that Orange County has the second-largest Korean community in the United States after Los Angeles.
Since 2012, King Sejong Institutes have been established in more than 50 countries to teach the Korean language. The United States has only a handful, including at the Korean Cultural Center in Los Angeles. This year, the Korean American Center’s language program — which has been renamed the Irvine King Sejong Institute at Korean American Center — was the only U.S. program selected for the designation.
“When people are studying with us, and when teachers teach for us, they’ll know they’re working with an institution that is recognized and accredited by Korea,” Kim said. Jini Shim, who has been teaching Korean at the center for the last year, said that for Korean Americans, one benefit is reconnecting to ancestral roots.
“Even if you have never been to Korea, or all your relatives are in the United States, so you don’t have any family or personal connections to Korea, there is something that you benefit from by learning about where you come from,” she said.
As an immigrant from Korea, Shim — who came to the United States when she was 10 — said that she, like many other Korean Americans, felt the need to assimilate while growing up. But now she and others want to reclaim their heritage.
“When we become adults, we want to go back and assimilate to our roots,” she said.
The language program offers five levels, starting at absolute beginner.
Many of the KAC’s non-Korean students work for Korean companies, such as Hyundai and Kia, which have offices in Fountain Valley and Irvine, respectively, as well as Irvine-based video game developer Blizzard Entertainment, which has many customers in South Korea. They view learning the language as an opportunity for professional advancement.
Others come to the language because of their interest in the culture, while others are married to Koreans and want to better communicate with their in-laws.