As the world becomes more and more interconnected and cultures are shared across continents, you would expect that the language diversity in pop culture would match such a global society.
Instead, though, we’ve seen almost the complete opposite happen over the years as one language, in particular, has emerged as the go-to lingua franca of, well, the world, and dominated global pop culture and media: English.
That’s not to say that other languages haven’t had their time to shine, though, but in terms of reach, scope, and international appeal, one could argue that for years English has hogged the limelight and left no room for other languages to enter the mainstream.
Why is this? Well, there are a lot of reasons, to be honest, and I’d say that the main one is likely that many native English speakers are quite comfortable in their mono-lingual world and have no real interest in incorporating other languages into their lives.
There is a very real issue with a lot of native English speakers, particularly in the UK & Ireland, in that they don’t see the point in learning other languages – be it a superiority complex or just ignorance. One thing is clear though, in our society, and particularly in education, learning languages is not pushed and encouraged the way it should be.
In other parts of Europe, children are beginning to learn a second language in their primary (elementary) education, but in the UK, you aren’t even introduced to French or Spanish until you’ve started secondary school.
The very real reality is that it’s too little too late at that point; children are beginning to turn into teens and going through the thick of puberty. Mix that with the fact that there’s no drive in our society to pick up a second language, and you’ve another generation of English speakers who have no interest in studying another language.
Furthermore, the mindset of many when it comes to education is geared toward what’s ‘practical’ to learn in school, and there’s a real apprehension towards deviating from traditional methods. These kinds of mentalities are stripping children from learning things they want to learn because ‘what would they do with it anyway’?
And it’s really sad.
If I want to learn Swedish because I love the cadence and musicality of the language, then it shouldn’t be discouraged because it’s not ‘practical’. Arguably, the languages we do ‘study’ are practical – but most children don’t even leave school with a rudimentary understanding of these languages anyway.
However, that’s not the point I’m wanting to make in this article, nor the main topic either.
What I’m most interested in is how other languages are pushing their way into the mainstream, and the effect that it’s having on the English-speaking world, and consider what the future of pop culture holds in terms of language diversity.
I see an increase in the desire to learn a second language in a lot of younger children now than when I was in school, and I think it’s incredible.
The languages they want to learn though are a little different than what we’re given the option to in school, and I think I have a pretty good idea why.
Languages like French, German and Spanish are always going to be top of the ranks in terms of language learning, with English following up as a pretty sought-after language to learn too.
Two other languages are steadily – and rapidly – on the increase in terms of the number of people studying them, and they likely won’t come as a surprise to those who pay attention to pop culture: Japanese and Korean.
In truth, Spanish, Japanese, and Korean are perhaps becoming some of the most impactful languages in modern pop culture – and there’s a myriad of reasons beyond the obvious.
So, what are the effects of these languages, and how exactly have they broken into the mainstream? Let’s take a look in order of learning popularity – as per everyone’s favorite learning app, Duolingo.
Spanish shouldn’t come as a surprise in being one of the most popular languages to learn; Spain is a favorite for many Brits to expatriate to in their retirement, and the language is a firm favorite in terms of its pleasing sound.
Let’s also remember that Spanish is also one of the most spoken languages in the world, with 214,265,000 speakers in South America alone.
Bearing the above in mind, it’s kind of a no-brainer that Spanish has become one of the most attractive languages for learners.
There’s also been a notable shift in the music industry, with Spanish rocketing into the mainstream (to whole new heights) with 2017’s massive hit Despacito. Not to say that Spanish music hasn’t been huge before – look at acts like Colombian queen Shakira and the incredible Ricky Martin – but Despacito brought in a new age of Spanish dominating the charts.
It seemed that almost every singer was trying to get a collab with Spanish-speaking artists – look at Karol G’s Tusa with Nicki Minaj, or even DJ Snake’s Taki Taki which brought Puerto Rican rapper Ozuna together with Selena Gomez and Cardi B for another Spanish featured hit.
For a more recent example, just look at the smash hit that Disney’s Encanto has been, and I can assure you from personal experience – it is inspiring kids to learn Spanish! I have a 9-year-old brother who is obsessed with the film- and of course – tío Bruno. But we don’t talk about that.
Perhaps one of the best parts of Disney’s Encanto is the fact that it doesn’t subtitle any of the Spanish used in the film either, and I love that it doesn’t. Sure, the film is made primarily in English, but the soul of the film is truly Colombian, and the Spanish shouldn’t have to be subtitled.
Set in Colombia, the film has been a massive success for Disney thanks to the connivingly catchy hit “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” and for its celebration of Colombian music and culture. They even managed to bag some incredible Colombian artists to perform some other soundtrack songs for the movie, such as Carlos Vives who sang on the track “Colombia, Mi Encanto”, and a chilling performance from singer-songwriter Sebastian Yatra on the song “Dos Oruguitas”, which is sung completely in Spanish – and yet – you can feel what the song is about, despite the language barrier.
With the continued success of Spanish media in the mainstream, it’s looking like the language is here to stay and solidify its place in popular culture – so now might be a great time to hit up Lingoda!
Oh, Japan; a country with outstanding natural beauty and cities that stretch to the heavens.
I remember when I was a young girl, I was obsessed with the Geisha of Japan and found their aesthetic so mesmerizing and sophisticated.
I remember seeing pictures of Tokyo and being amazed by the neon lights and scope – being from such a tiny city, the thought of a metropolis housing over 35 million people was unfathomable to my young and innocent mind.
Japan has captivated many people for a myriad of reasons: the food, the landscape, the traditions and history, the technology, and most importantly, its culture that seamlessly blends its traditions with the modernization of the country.
When you consider the above, it’s not surprising that Japanese is one of the most popular languages to learn.
Thanks to a thriving video game industry with companies like Nintendo, Square Enix, SEGA (to name but a few) and intricately animated shows that have captured the hearts of many; media from Japan has always existed in the English speaking world – but for a long time, it has been dubbed.
It’s quite a controversial choice these days, to dub or to sub, and you will be judged for your answer.
However, in the 90s, some of the most famous anime – Sailor Moon, Dragonball, Yu Yu Hakusho, and Pokemon – went as far to create English opening themes as well as dubbing the voice acting. To be honest, I do miss the English openings a bit – some were awesome.
Now though, the preference for many is to watch anime subbed; whether it’s the opinion that the voice acting is better or the love for the language, the reasons people prefer subbed vary.
Admittedly, I tend to prefer subbed myself. Not to say I haven’t enjoyed dubbed anime (Fullmetal Alchemist has an incredible English – and I’ve been informed German too – dub), but I love listening to the language and trying to learn words and phrases, and gaining that sense of familiarity with the language.
It would seem I’m not the only one, as Japanese has consistently been one of the most studied languages in recent years.
I always wonder if the reason can be linked to the acceptance of anime into popular culture – you might get called a weeb but the reality is that anime is not the niche visual media that it used to be – and the growing popularity of cosplay.
The Impact Of Anime
I don’t want to fall into the trap of claiming that anime is the main influence on people’s decisions to learn the language, but I do think it’s interesting how the number of people studying the language has grown alongside the popularity of anime.
In my own experience, anime was not something that many were into growing up. I think I was in secondary school when I watched my first anime (it was either Death Note or Tokyo Ghoul) and I remember having no one to talk about it with.
This is around the time when I started to get called a weeb because I had actually seen an anime. Apparently, that’s all it took to deserve such a label back then.
Cut to 2021 and I’m watching the Demon Slayer Mugen Train in an Odeon Cinema in Belfast – what? On top of that, the cinema also began doing Studio Ghibli screenings too. It was a shock to me, maybe these films do normally reach the cinema in the States or other parts of Europe – but I had never seen an anime film advertised in one of the big cinema chains in Northern Ireland until then.
I think this is a good indication that anime is becoming a more widespread interest and one that doesn’t make you as susceptible to being shamed, anymore.
In my first year of Uni, I decided to enroll in a Japanese class with a few friends who were also interested in the language and culture. It was a great shame to me that anytime I told someone about taking the class that it would be met with ridicule and the assumption that we were all ‘weebs who’ll quit once we realize how difficult the language is’.
I was quite taken aback the first time I heard this for several reasons. Firstly, the implication that finding a language difficult and potentially not having the time to dedicate to it meant that it wasn’t worthwhile to even try, was maddening.
According to the Foreign Service Institute, Japanese is in the Level 4 category of difficulty for language acquisition (specific to English speakers). This category is the most difficult one, meaning that it takes approximately 2200 class hours (within-country study) to learn the language to near fluency.
Bearing that in mind, it’s quite a narrow-minded response to mock people who struggle with learning these languages, and they should be commended for having the interest and drive to try in the first place!
I won’t pretend that there aren’t those who do have unhealthy misconceptions and ideals of the country – many anime fans indeed see the country as some sort of Fantasy Land, undermining the difficulties that the people who live there face and diminishing them to nameless side characters.
Generally speaking though, there are so many who genuinely want to learn this language and it comes from more than just their interest in anime and video games.
Whilst there are still those who give me the judgmental side-eye when I tell them of my plans to study Japanese in Tokyo, I’m definitely met with a lot more supportive reactions now – so I’m hoping that this indicates a change in the public’s perception of those interested in the language, creating a safer space for those people to actually pursue it.
I think many forget that Japan has a rich literary culture too. Authors like Haruki Murakami and Sayaka Murata have had incredibly successful novels translated into English that have exposed people to the country and enticed them into delving into the language and culture.
Music & Fashion
Let’s not forget the phenomenon that was Babymetal in the early 2010s, with their fusion of heavy metal and kawaii culture, it was an odd but charming combination for sure! If somehow you missed the rise of Babymetal, take a look at one of their most popular songs – Gimme Chocolate!! – below.
Following up on kawaii culture, we can’t discount the influence that it’s had on bringing people into the country. Japan is known for its many fashions and subcultures, but I’d bet almost anyone you’ve ever met knows all about Harajuku in Tokyo.
In fact, Harajuku fashion and kawaii culture have inspired western celebrities such as Gwen Stefani and Avril Lavigne (although, their ‘appreciation’ for the culture has been called out for actually appropriating it), which definitely opened my eyes to the culture – albeit, to a stereotyped version of it.
I’m thankful that, thanks to the internet, it’s a lot easier to find authentic representations of this subculture, and not the offensive portrayal of it viewed through a Western lens. It also should be noted that many in the Kawaii Community are incredibly accepting and hold the belief that ‘kawaii’ is for anyone – with such a striking visual and open community, it’s not a surprise this subculture has brought so many people to Japan to study the language. Of course, there’ll always be those who gatekeep such communities, but from my observation – it’s always people from outside of the community. But that’s another story for another time.
Bearing all of the above in mind, it’s not a surprise that Japanese has become a dominating language in recent years. It’s also a language that has influenced English long before now too; words such as tsunami and karaoke are Japanese after all.
It’s just mindblowing that a language that’s essentially contained within one country (officially, but you’ll find Japanese-speaking communities in North America, Brazil, and Guam too!) is one of the most studied in the world.
Similar to what we’re going to see with Korean, the rise of Japanese isn’t linked to colonialism (unlike English or Spanish in the West) or due to the number of countries that speak it, the drive to learn these languages comes from a totally different place altogether. I won’t say it’s only down to the impact the languages are having on pop culture (that would be much too simplified an explanation), but I do think that the impact of Japan on modern Western pop culture is absolutely one of the factors contributing to the language’s popularity with students.
Let me preface this by saying that Korea is more than K-Pop and Gangnam Style – but we will be looking at these because it would be crass to not include them.
South Korea has become (and continues to become) a very big country of interest for many in the West / English Speaking World. Maybe it has been for a lot longer than even I realize.
Another economic powerhouse with stunning natural landscapes and sparkling cities, South Korea has become, arguably, one of the most relevant producers of media and perhaps the biggest influence on modern pop culture. I do not believe that is an exaggeration in any way either.
It would be inaccurate to claim that this is thanks to the 2012 unlikely hit, Gangnam Style, by Psy – but I do have to have credit where credit is due. Whilst K-Pop was popular well before this song, it definitely broke into the mainstream following it.
I can’t speak for people in other countries, as my perspective is from someone who lives in Northern Ireland (and maybe, as a relatively homogenous community, we’re ignorant of other countries compared to the states), but K-Pop is only something I’ve seen become popular here fairly recently.
For me, Gangnam Style was not the first K-Pop song I’ve ever heard, nor the one that sparked my interest in Korean Culture either.
I remember the first K-Pop video I ever watched, was BIGBANG’s “Fantastic Baby”, and I was mindblown that such music and visuals existed. The bright colors, the outfits, the makeup, and my god, the hair – these were things I had not ever seen in a Boy Band – scratch that – like, any music video ever? Bear in mind, this was around the time that One Direction was big – and yes, I was a fan – who had really changed the boyband dynamic in the West by consciously choosing not to dance.
So seeing such a different type of music video (and honestly, the music was unlike anything I’d ever heard before either), made a very huge impact on 12-year-old me – though one that wouldn’t really come to full fruition until many years later.
In fact, many would argue that BIGBANG was one of the key K-Pop bands to bring the genre into the international market, and set it up for its future success.
As I say, K-Pop at this time wasn’t as popular as it is today, but it certainly wasn’t a super niche thing either. Gangnam Style, however, with its funny video and catchy hook, took YouTube and the world by storm, and I would wager it may have been the video that pulled many people down the rabbit hole of K-Pop.
But K-Pop now has undeniably reached new heights, and it’s hard to pinpoint when exactly this happened, or who exactly is behind it.
You might be thinking that this is an easy answer – clearly, it’s thanks to BTS (Bangtang Sonyeondan), and absolutely have they been instrumental to K-Pop becoming such a cultural phenomenon – but were they the first?
They certainly took the popularity of K-Pop to new heights, and currently are the only K-Pop group to have performed at the American Music Awards in 2017, and have actually won artist of the year too. First debuting in 2013, the band has had continued success and seems to be on a steep incline to the highest levels of stardom.
One of the things that I think is so striking about BTS is their multi-generational appeal – I at 20 was able to relate to the kids that I tutored (who were between the ages of 5-15) because so many of them adored K-Pop, specifically BTS and Blackpink.
In fact, some of the children were actively trying to learn Korean too and would write words they knew in Hangul on the whiteboard. Bear in mind, Korean is not a language offered in schools here, so these kids were teaching themselves the language because they wanted to understand the music that they enjoyed.
On the other side of the scale, you’ll not be hard-pressed to find a lot of older people who enjoy K-Pop either, though its influence is definitely more prominent with the younger gen.
This brings me to a similar point discussed back in the Spanish section of the article, regarding the rising popularity of Non-English music. Similar to the influx of Spanish/English collabs following Despacito, we’ve also had seen a rise in Korean/English collaborations – whether it’s Selena Gomez and Blackpink, or BTS and Coldplay, there are more and more bilingual songs coming out utilizing both languages.
I think it’s safe to say that K-Pop is influencing Western pop culture in many ways, whether it’s the interesting music production or the top-class music videos, Korea is dominating right now, so it’s not a surprise that the language is becoming increasingly popular with learners.
But is it solely down to K-Pop?
Absolutely not. It’s not just music that Korea is influencing, but the screen too.
Tv Shows & Movies
Perhaps you haven’t watched a K-Drama before, but I’m sure you’ve heard of them.
Korean Tv Shows and films have had a lot of success over the past few years; from director Bong Joon-Ho’s Oscar-winning masterpiece Parasite in 2020 to the phenomenon that was 2021’s Squid Game, Korea has become one of the most proficient producers of quality entertainment.
In terms of the effect, the success of such multimedia entertainment has had on the language, 2021’s Squid Game has reportedly had the most impact to date.
According to Duolingo, only 2 weeks after Squid Game premiered, they saw a 40% increase in people learning Korean on their app alone. Bear in mind that Duolingo isn’t the only language learning app, so who’s to say this figure isn’t a lot more across as platforms?
Of course, there’s no definite correlation between Squid Game and the rise in Korean learners, but the below tweets and the fact that Squid Game became Netflix’s biggest show (amassing a massive 110m views in less than a month from its premiere) makes it a very likely conclusion to come to.
I also think that it should be noted that certain K-Drama apps & sites (Viki, in case you are interested!) specifically have watch styles that are for facilitating learning Korean, so even if Korean shows aren’t inspiring people to learn Korean – they are definitely being utilized to help those who have already made the decision.
What Does This Mean for the Future of Pop Culture and Media?
So, we’ve established that Spanish, Japanese and Korean are having massive influences on contemporary pop culture – but what does that mean for the future of pop culture? Or the future of society?
Well, no one can know for sure – we’ve seen the massive impact these languages have had, but what really matters is if they continue to make the same impact and if their relevance is long-lasting.
What I hope will be the outcome, is that we’ll see more bilingual/multilingual media being created, and for the general public to at least be more open-minded to listening to another language.
I think that we’ll absolutely see an increase in popularity for bilingual artists – we’ve already seen it with celebrities like Shakira and Jennifer Lopez – as cross-market appeal offers them a much larger platform and fan base.
What I’d really hope happens, though, is that rather than these artists existing in two separate spheres, eg, the Spanish sphere of music and the English, their songs in both languages will transcend the barriers of language and be appreciated in both.
I do think, unfortunately, it will take time to get to this point. Many non-English speakers already enjoy music in various languages – but English speakers can be a stubborn and single-minded bunch. Not to generalize, of course, many English speakers do enjoy opening their minds to other languages and get over the English superiority complex – but as a culture (particularly in the UK), the former outweighs the latter.
I think there will undoubtedly be a cultural shift, and a new generation of English speakers pushing for more language education in schools, and opportunities outside too (that don’t cost a ridiculous amount).
Plus, with the rise of online classes (such as Preply or even Lingoda) those who want to learn have a lot more resources than before!
However, whilst there might be a cultural shift, I think the social shift and attitudes towards other languages will be a much harder war to wage.