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Netflix’s Squid Game Is Inspiring People to Learn Korean

Mental Floss logo Mental Floss 10/12/2021 Ellen Gutoskey

Since its Netflix release in September, Korean survival drama Squid Game has become an international pop culture sensation. It’s also generated a swell of interest in learning how to speak Korean.

As Reuters reports, the number of U.S. residents registering to learn Korean on Duolingo spiked by 40 percent in the two weeks after the series debuted. In the UK, the increase was even more impressive: 76 percent. Overall, Duolingo’s Korean language learners total more than 7.9 million, which have helped make it one of the platform’s most rapidly growing languages (second only to Hindi).

“Language and culture are intrinsically connected and what happens in pop culture and media often influences trends in language and language learning,” Duolingo spokesperson Sam Dalsimer told Reuters. “The rising global popularity of Korean music, film and television is increasing demand for learning Korean.”

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Duolingo isn’t the only language-learning service that has seen an influx of interest in learning Korean over the past several years. In 2007, South Korea’s King Sejong Institute taught Korean to about 740 students across just three countries. As of last year, those stats had ballooned to 76,000 students in 82 countries. One student in Russia, Milica Martinovic, told Reuters she’s expressly motivated to learn Korean so that she can understand Korean dramas and K-pop music without subtitles and translations.

The reason Squid Game in particular may have attracted so many new Korean language learners could be related to the discourse surrounding its English subtitles: Viewers fluent in Korean have lamented how much nuance gets lost in translation. Youngmi Mayer, comedian and co-host of the podcast Feeling Asian, took to TikTok to share some examples. In one scene, Mayer explains, a character says something to the effect of “I am very smart; I just never got a chance to study.” According to the subtitles, however, she’s saying, “I’m not a genius, but I still got it [worked] out.”

“That is a huge trope in Korean media,” Mayer said. “The poor person that’s smart and clever and just isn’t wealthy. That’s a huge part of her character.”

But chalking up inaccurate subtitles to sloppy translation work would be an inaccuracy itself. As Denise Kripper, a translator who’s done TV subtitles before, told NBC News, there are strict rules—which vary by streaming platform or channel—about profanity, cultural references, and especially length.

“In general, subtitles can’t be longer than two lines—that’s even fewer characters than a tweet,” Kripper said. “The most perfect of translations still needs to be paraphrased or adapted if it doesn’t fit within those spatial limitations.”

In short, the way to get the most out of Squid Game is to understand Korean—a rationale that more than a few people have found compelling enough to download the Duolingo app.

[h/t Reuters]

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