When Bob Huh’s students started the school year, most knew little Korean. But as the year winds down, Maerielle Batugo and others have learned the alphabet, memorized vocabulary words, formed sentences, read passages in books and performed skits.
With this, they are marking a first in Maryland.
Their school — Eleanor Roosevelt High, in Greenbelt — has become the state’s first public school to offer courses in Korean, and their class is leading the way. The lessons have been challenging at times, but after nine months, students are gaining a foothold.
“I’m going to continue it next year and am going to definitely improve,” said Maerielle, 15, a ninth-grader at the Prince George’s County school. She was inspired to take the course by her affection for South Korean pop music — K-pop — and televised dramas, called K-dramas.
“It made me want to learn the language,” she said one day last week.
Her enthusiasm comes amid signs that foreign-language learning is on the rise in Prince George’s and beyond. Enrollment in foreign-language programs is up in Maryland’s elementary and middle schools, state officials say. They also note that for the first time Maryland will this year award the “seal of biliteracy” to students graduating with high levels of language proficiency. Two dozen other states and the District have also adopted such initiatives.
Nationally, about 20 percent of U.S. students in K-12 schools are studying a foreign language, and parents are demanding more programs at the elementary level, said Marty Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
Research has pointed to cognitive advantages in early language learning and academic gains on standardized tests, she said, and a new report shows a sharp increase in demand for bilingual workers in an increasingly global society.
Her organization and others are working to raise awareness among students and parents of the benefits of picking up another language. “It’s hard for adult Americans to wrap their heads around it because it’s not the norm in this country, but it is the norm in the rest of the world,” she said.
In Montgomery County, school officials already report increasing interest. More than 47,000 middle and high school students are taking foreign-language classes, a number that’s up by 1,400 in three years. Two new elementary school two-way immersion programs — teaching in Spanish and English — are planned to start in the fall.
“I think world languages are making a comeback,” said Francoise Vandenplas, Montgomery’s supervisor of world languages. “People realize what an asset it is to be bilingual and biliterate in the 21st century in order to be competitive. It is not enough to speak English.”
In Prince George’s, with 132,000 students, school officials say 37,000, or 28 percent, are getting foreign-language instruction. That’s up from about 35,000 last school year, and 30,000 in earlier years, said Maria Flores, supervisor of world languages in Prince George’s.
“Every year, our numbers are growing,” she said.
The county’s embrace of Korean comes four years after it became the first public school system in Maryland to offer Portuguese, Flores said. Next year, Roosevelt will offer Korean 1 and Korean 2.
In Prince George’s, every high school has foreign-language courses, as do most middle schools and an increasing number of elementary schools. Korean became the school system’s 12th offering, following Arabic, Chinese, Russian, American Sign Language, French, Spanish, Latin, Italian, German, Portuguese and Japanese.
For Huh, the Korean teacher, the idea has been long in the making. Having grown up in South Korea, Huh, in his 16th year as a county teacher, had thought about the possibility of teaching Korean for years, he said. The idea took shape after he arrived at Roosevelt in 2014 and noted the popularity of Japanese.
“Why not Korean as well?” he recalls thinking.
The class came together with the support of Flores and the school’s principal, Reginald McNeill, as well as the South Korean embassy, he said. For the first year, Huh tested the waters by sponsoring a Korean club at the school. The first meeting drew 22 students, a number that grew over the school year.
Student interest was a key factor in starting up the course, said McNeill, the principal. “We are a very diverse school, and we are attempting to make sure our students have all types of opportunities to learn globally and collaborate globally,” he said.
Huh also sought advice in 2015 from Song Ja Johnston of Fairfax High School, who has been teaching Korean in Northern Virginia since 2002. The region’s large Korean community helped nurture the development of Korean courses there. Early on, Johnston said, most of her students were Korean American. But that has shifted recently. “Now I have so many ethnic groups that want to take Korean,” she said.
When Huh’s class got going, it was not all word drills and grammar lectures. He created learning games to get students engaged. He organized group activities. He invited guest speakers on Fridays. One visitor brought spicy stir-fried rice cakes called tteokbokki.
In mid-April, the students performed skits for a Korean showcase at Roosevelt, before an audience of more than 200. By year’s end, he guesses nearly all in the class will earn A’s and B’s. Just two of his 18 students are Korean American.
“They are not only learning from me,” he said. “They are also really into Korean culture.”
Several students attributed some of their success in the class to Huh’s teaching style. “He tries to make it easy and challenging at the same time,” said Melissa Corpeno, 16, a junior. “I’m very surprised at how much I learned.”
Looking back, she said: “When I first started the class, I was like, ‘Oh my God, what did I get myself into?’ ”
Veronica Simpson, 16, says she only wishes Korean class had come sooner. Now a junior, she took Italian in ninth and 10th grades. She likes Korean so much that she will take Korean 2 next year and hopes to attend a college with Korean courses.
“English is my first language,” she said, “and now, even though I don’t know it fully, I kind of see Korean as my second language.” Veronica said she’s getting better at understanding K-dramas without looking at the subtitles.
She said she thinks her Korean will help as she applies to colleges in coming months. “Korean, it kind of stands out,” she said. She also hopes to travel to South Korea. “It’s the place I want to go the most, and the place I want to stay the longest.”