Student parlays her love of K-pop into a language-contest victory
Story by Eric Geringas
One Saturday morning last March, Debol Pu stood up in a U of T lecture hall and delivered a speech in Korean.
This would be entirely unremarkable, except that the second-year psychology student had started learning Korean only a few months before. She was competing in the beginner category of the annual Toronto Korean Speech & Quiz Contest. The contest was organized by U of T’s Centre for the Study of Korea at the Munk School’s Asian Institute, and sponsored by the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea and the Korean Education Centre.
The contest was the final round of a competition held at 15 universities across Canada. Just over 40 students qualified for the final, 10 of them from the University of Toronto.
For Pu the contest was a chance to challenge herself, and to test her Korean skills in front of some pretty tough judges.
“One of them was the editor of a Korean newspaper, one was from the Korean Consulate,” she recalls. “They all looked very serious, and they were sitting in the first row, so that kind of made me nervous.”
It was nothing she couldn’t handle, though. Six years earlier, at the age of 14, Pu had immigrated to Canada with her parents from China, and landed in a suburban Toronto high school in the middle of Grade 9. That was a much bigger challenge.
Within a couple of years, she was mired in serious depression and isolation, skipping school for as long as a month at a time. The only thing keeping her company, she says, was K-pop, the sugary boy-band music from Korea that has used YouTube to worm its way into the ears and hearts of teenagers all over the world.
“All I did was spend time on YouTube and watch videos about K-pop,” she recalls.
But if K-pop was part of the problem, it was also part of the solution. Pu discovered the music of Epik High, a hip hop group with a Korean-Canadian member, Tablo, who raps in both Korean and English and has talked about his own battles with depression. “Their music actually got me through the hardest period of my high-school life,” she says.
And that’s why, at university, Pu decided to sign up for a Korean language class.
In that, she was far from alone. Korean language study is booming all over North America, says Kyoungrok Ko, a professor in U of T’s Department of East Asian Studies and coordinator of the Korean Language Program.
According to the Modern Languages Association, the number of university students learning Korean in the United States almost doubled between 2006 and 2016, while enrollment in virtually all other language classes declined. That trend is echoed at the University of Toronto, where today Korean classes are at full capacity, with a long waiting list for the foundation course every year.
So, why is Korean study growing while other language programs are in decline? Ko says it’s mostly thanks to K-pop.
“The Korean language program was originally for East Asian Studies majors, and many students were of Korean heritage,” he says. “But there’s been a dramatic change over the last 10 years. Now almost 100 percent of the students are non-heritage speakers. Many students—from technology, business, life sciences—choose Korean for their breadth requirements because they’re interested in Korean pop culture.”
For Pu, her fascination with Epik High was not just a gateway to the study of Korean; it was also the obvious choice of topic when she decided to enter the Korean speech contest.
Ko, her language professor, helped her translate her ideas into Korean, and she would show up at his office once or twice a week to practice her speech.
“She was really motivated,” says Ko. “She wanted it to be perfect. She had a very clear goal—she wanted to win first prize.”
When it came time to face the judges and deliver her speech, Pu nailed it. She was relaxed and animated, and even got laughs from the audience.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” says Ko. “Her pronunciation was so clear, and it was more like she was talking to the audience rather than giving a speech. That was impressive, and the judges agreed.”
The judges awarded Pu first prize, which includes tuition for summer language school at Korea University in Seoul.
“I’m very excited, but I’m a bit worried,” she says, “because I don’t know if I can really take care of myself in a foreign country. But if any Epik High concerts are coming up in Korea, I’m going to be just super excited.”
MIDDLE: Winners of the 2018 Toronto Korean Speech and Quiz Contest.
BOTTOM: Professor Kyoungrok Ko and beginner category winner Debol Pu.