The Korea Herald


[Robert J. Fouser] Seoul as a multilingual city

By Korea Herald

Published : March 22, 2024 - 05:24

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When people think of multilingual cities, big names like New York and London immediately come to mind. Other important global hubs, such as Brussels, Dubai, Singapore, and Toronto are known for their linguistic diversity. But what about Seoul?

With 95 percent of its residents being native speakers of Korean who were born in South Korea, Seoul does not give the impression of being a multilingual or multicultural city. At 5 percent, the percentage of residents born abroad is high by historical standards, but pales in comparison to Dubai at 85 percent or Toronto at 47 percent. Compared to these cities, foreign languages are not often heard in Seoul, except in popular tourist areas or in various “ethnic enclaves.”

Beyond the monolingual image, Seoul is a surprisingly multilingual city. The most visible example is signage. For years, Seoul has put official English on official signage throughout the city. That effort expanded in the run-up to the 1988 Summer Olympics and English became widespread in the city. Chinese and Japanese were added in the 2000s with the tourism boom. Information on websites is frequently available in English and several other languages. An English-speaking tourist to Seoul can get around easily using the signage and a smartphone.

Residents from abroad bring with them a wide range of native languages. Chinese speakers, the majority of whom are ethnic Korean, are the largest group, but English, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese are also large groups. Central Asian residents from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are often fluent in Russian as well as their national language. South Asian and Philippine residents are usually fluent in English. By manipulating various languages, they act as bridges between South Korea and different cultures and communities.

Proficiency in Korean is increasing among residents from abroad. Increasingly, people are studying Korean before coming to Korea, either formally in school or informally as a hobby. This base helps them learn Korean faster after arrival. A related trend is an increase in the number of international students studying for degree programs in Korean universities. Many of these students reach a high level of proficiency by graduation and go on to use Korean professionally in their work.

An overlooked group is Koreans who have returned to South Korea after spending most of their lives abroad. As South Korea developed into an advanced democratic society, Koreans who emigrated or spent years abroad began to return, bringing the language of the country where they lived with them. Many returned from English-speaking countries, such as the US and Canada, but others returned from Latin America and Germany which were also popular destinations for emigrants. These returnees add another dimension to Seoul’s multilingualism.

A related group is the large number of Koreans who studied for degrees at universities abroad, mostly in the English-speaking world, China, Japan and Europe. Many of these students completed graduate degrees, which require a high level of language proficiency, and went on to become leaders in most professional fields. Their ability to read specialized information in different languages has helped South Korea absorb information and research from abroad quickly. It has also helped leaders in professional fields interact at a high level with counterparts abroad.

And finally, there are the mass of Korean residents whose main experience with a foreign language is “school English” and another language that they learn in high school or later in life. In the mid-1990s, the start of English education was moved down to elementary school and the university entrance exam adopted a listening test. These two reforms helped shift the focus of English education from grammar-translation to use in communicative situations. The people that attended school after these reforms are now entering their mid-30s, which helps explain the higher level of English proficiency among younger people. Deepening relations with China and Japan since the 1990s have spurred many people to learn those languages.

What does all this mean? And what does the future hold? Unlike cities with a large immigrant population, Seoul presents a form of varied multilingualism. Different groups of Koreans and residents from abroad bring a wide range of personal experience with language to the city. Because of its size and widely extended global connections, Seoul is buzzing with activity in various languages, not all of which is heard or seen on the street. In the future, multilingual activity in Seoul will continue to prosper as the population of residents from abroad grows and Korea’s connections around the world deepen.

Robert J. Fouser

Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Providence, Rhode Island. He can be reached at