Photo courtesy of Professor Seung Hee Jeon of Boston College.

Boston College Hosts 5th Annual New England Korean Speech Contest

Asia Korea

Boston College hosted the 5th Annual New England Korean Speech Contest on April 6, 2024. Students spoke on their experience with Hallyu or the “Korean Wave,” an explosion in the global popularity of Korean culture that has engulfed Americans across the country.

On April 6, 2024, Korean language students from universities across New England assembled at Boston College to compete in the region’s annual Korean speech contest. First held in 2019, this year marks the 5th iteration of the contest and featured 20 students from eight academic institutions, including Boston College, Brandeis, Brown, Bridgewater State, Harvard, MIT, the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass), and Wellesley.

Alongside students’ speeches, attendees enjoyed Korean food and were treated to performances from Boston College’s dance team, a taekwondo demonstration, and a Korean song entitled 비처럼 음악처럼 - “Like Rain, Like Music” - by a UMass Amherst student. The event was held in collaboration with the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea in Boston, the New England Association of College Korean Educators, and the American Association of Teachers of Korean.

The idea for the Korean speech contest came from several Korean language educators, who hoped to showcase regional interest in Korean language and culture. “Six years ago, a group of professors who teach Korean in the New England region met to discuss launching this event in order to encourage and to celebrate the great efforts and successes of college students in the region who are learning Korean”, says Seung Hee Jeon, professor of Korean language at Boston College and proud speech contest organizer. “Throughout this time, we have witnessed our Korean programs thriving and growing, and our students’ interests in all things Korean—language, culture, society, history—deepening. I cannot help mentioning how exciting it has been for me to be a part of this growth.”

The thematic focus of the speech contest varies year-to-year, but routinely spotlights hot topics or developments in Korean history and culture. This year, contestants spoke on the phenomenon known as Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, an umbrella term used to describe the “global craze” for Korean pop culture that has emerged worldwide since the turn of the century. Students discussed a variety of topics in this broad category, ranging from K-pop and K-drama to their personal and family experiences with Korean culture.

The Korean Wave reportedly emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, gaining traction in China and then Japan, whose populations became fascinated with popular Korean television, movies, and music. Since then, Hallyu has continued to expand both in content and geographic reach. The phenomenon now spans the globe and encompasses not only digital content, but also Korean literature, food, beauty products, and more.

The global success of Korean culture represents a point of intrigue and pride for many Koreans. “When I think of Hallyu, the first thing that comes to mind is how this vibrant culture is a product of the Korean people’s collective and critical efforts to both embrace and overcome modernity”, says Professor Jeon. “As an interesting mixture of high- and low-brow cultures, recent Korean pop culture seems to me to be a locus where this creativity and vitality of the Korean people, underlying their society’s recent advancement, has bloomed.”

While the Korean Wave may have hit earlier in other nations, the popularity of Korean culture has increasingly surged in the United States in recent years. In 2020, Parasite became the first Korean film to be honored at the Oscars and took home four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, making it the first non-English film to earn this coveted accolade. Parasite’s success was quickly followed by the Korean film Minari, which earned six nominations at the 2021 Oscars and won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Korean television and music have seen similar jumps in popularity in the United States. In 2020, the Korean boy band BTS became the first South Korean group to obtain the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 with their songs “Dynamite” and “Life Goes On” – the first predominantly foreign language song to top the charts in the United States. In 2022, the American streaming service Netflix invested an estimated $750 million in Korean content and nearly 60% of the service’s 220 million subscribers tuned into Korean titles.

Americans’ fascination with Korean movies, music, and television has translated to a broader interest in Korea beyond the scope of pop-culture. In 2019, the number of Americans visiting Korea exceeded one million for the first time ever, with 13% of travelers citing Korean cultural products as the reason for their visit. Korean language enrollment in the United States has also increased significantly, jumping 78% from 2009 to 2016, even as total enrollment in language classes has plateaued.

Amidst this significant growth of American interest in Korea, initiatives like the New England Korean Speech Contest reflect and reinforce the power of culture to foster meaningful connections between nations and peoples. With the Korean Wave showing no signs of slowing, it’s likely that this avenue for US-Korea exchange and the international connections it forges will continue to grow for years to come.

The author would like to thank Professor Seung Hee Jeon of Boston College for corresponding with him via email and for being a valuable resource for this article.   

Jack Borrow is a participant in the Summer 2024 Young Professionals Program at the East West Center in Washington. He is a recent graduate of Boston College, where he obtained a B.A. in Political Science and Asian Studies.