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Spread of Culture and Language in Global Age – A Soft Power Tool: Comparing Germany and South Korea

The article explores the use of language and culture by states in the contemporary high-tech and globalised world where inter-connectedness has enabled states to use it as a soft-power tool. The article analyses the comparative case studies of Germany and South Korea using their state languages- German and Korean to attract foreigners towards their culture and language through facilitative policies.

Photo credits: Photo by cottonbro studio- Pexels


In an increasingly connected world, we have various choices regarding acquiring foreign language skills. Our personal decision to learn a language has wide-ranging implications for states. They finance or actively create language learning opportunities for foreign language students. To understand the politics behind foreign language learning, it is worth diving into Germany's and South Korea's language promotion policies. This article will analyse how Germany and South Korea stand to gain from elaborate and varied cultural and language diplomatic programmes. While Germany has an elaborate institutional set-up and channels of language learning and exchange programs, the Republic of Korea (henceforth referred to as Korea) has seen increased popularity in Southeast Asia linked to the Korean Wave (Hallyu) phenomenon, in which Korean pop culture is exported. These two cases show how different approaches to establishing a language learning base in Southeast Asia allow both states to pursue their policy aims. In the first part, this paper will illustrate the link between soft power and language learning. The second part will analyse the German and Korean institutional set-up of language programs. The conclusion will show the differences between Germany's and Korea's foreign language learning policies.

Definitional Concepts

The article applies the term soft power as defined by Nye as "the ability to entice and attract" rather than just "the ability to shape the preference of others" through coercive hard power (Nye Jr, 2008, p. 95). Soft power can be influenced or built on the hard power capabilities of a state, such as its military or economic power. Among the soft power resources available to a state are language, "ideas, images, theories, education, discourses, culture, traditions, national or global symbols” (Lee, 2009, p. 6). These soft power resources, or "symbolic resources to exert influence upon others" (Lee, 2009, p.6), are then promoted to foreign states and their people to influence their perception, attitude and relationship towards the state. In the age of globalisation, the nature of diplomacy has changed with the multiplication of international exchange channels. Public diplomacy, which incorporates the mobilisation of soft power resources to reach out to the public of other countries (Nye Jr, 2008, p. 95), goes beyond the official channels of state-to-state cooperation. Public diplomacy involves "broa dcasting, subsidising cultural exports and arranging exchanges” (Nye Jr, 2008, p. 95) to bring foreign publics in contact with its culture. Culture is "the set of practices that create meaning for a society” (Nye Jr, 2008, p. 96) . Language education operates as a vehicle for a language learner to engage with a foreign culture and gain a deeper understanding of the values perpetrated in that society.

Germany and South Korea: same goal, different paths?

The Case of German Diplomacy through Language and Culture

Germany and South Korea are illustrative cases that show the power of language policies in strengthening a state's soft power. Both German and Korean are considered regional languages. Both states have placed language and cultural diplomacy at the centre of their foreign policy. While Germany established language learning institutions earlier than Korea, Korea can rely on the heightened interest in language learning due to the global dissemination of Korean pop culture products.

As its foreign policy aims outlined, language and culture are integral to Germany's foreign policy. Cultural, educational and language institutes linked to this aim are the Goethe-Institut (GI), the German Academic Exchange Service or Deutscher Akademischer Auslandsdienst (DAAD), the Central Bureau for Education Abroad or Zentralstelle für das Auslandsschulwesen (ZfA), and the Pedagogical Exchange Service of the Council of Ministers of Culture and Education or Pädagogischer Austauschdienst der Kultusministerkonferenz (PAD). Importantly, all these institutes are federally funded and "created to promote the German language and German cultural policy" (Salerno, 2015, p. 3) and take place on different levels of language learning, starting in schools, universities and language centres. Germany's cultural policies relate to promoting German arts and literature abroad and exchange programmes between German and foreign nationals in the educational, creative and academic fields (Auswärtiges Amt Deutschland, 2020).

One of the earliest established is the Goethe Institute (Goethe Institut), which in 1976 signed an agreement with the German Foreign Office to be an independent cultural organisation. Since its first establishment in 1952, the number of Goethe Institutes has grown to 110 institutes spread across 158 countries. The Goethe Institute is a language learning space, an examination centre, and a cultural hub with libraries and information centres. It is tasked with standardising teaching and learning German as a foreign language and offering exams for the Goethe language certificate. The Goethe also assists 106,000 local schools that offer German language courses (Goethe Institut e. V, 2021). The annual report 2021-22 shows that in the region of Southeast Asia and Oceania, the 12 regional Goethe Institutes had roughly 12,660 language course participants and nearly 44,000 language certificate exam participants (Goethe Institut e. V, 2021). Globally, the number of German learners has reached roughly 15.4 million (Deutsche Welle, 2020). Grants of the German Foreign Office contribute roughly 70% of the Goethe Institutes revenues (Goethe Institut e. V, 2021). The German Foreign Office has allocated roughly €1.3 billion to its foreign cultural and education programmes, with funding going primarily to foreign schools (38%) and the Goethe Institute (34%) (Auswärtiges Amt Deutschland, 2020).

Germany's foreign language policies aim to internationalise Germany's academic landscape and recruit qualified professionals. This policy mirrors the theoretical understandings of German public policies, which aim to encourage the migration of "top executives" to transform the state into a global player in education, science and research (Schwan, 2012). Germany's active funding and promotion of cultural institutes and culture in its language learning programmes is "a means of increasing cultural attractiveness, which in turn increases soft power capability" (Salerno, 2015, p. 8). In 2021, an international survey of 622 participants revealed that over 60% find Germany very attractive in the context of being inspired by art and culture. Regarding the attractiveness of Germany's university landscape, 79% of respondents consider Germany a very attractive place for university studies and research. Perceptions of Germany are related to its strong economy (55%), "science and technology" industry (37%) and country of "poets and thinkers" (32%), about Germany's literary legacy (DAAD et al., 2021).

The Case of German Diplomacy through Language and Culture

Compared to Germany, South Korea's focus on cultural and language diplomacy has been developed fairly recently. A striking feature of Korean cultural diplomacy is the rise of global consumption of Korean pop culture. The so-called Korean Wave, or Hallyu, originated in the 1990s and was a government-backed process for which entertainment media, such as pop culture, films, music, literature, and TV series, were exported internationally. It was seen as "a vehicle for soft power", a "tool to boost Korea's reputation in the region" (Feng & Zhao, 2018, p. 94).

Over the years, the Korean government has increased its soft power resources and strengthened the institutional support system for public diplomacy.

Since 2012 Korea focused on public diplomacy and cultural policies (Hernández, 2018, p. 28), comprising three aspects: "culture-oriented public diplomacy, knowledge-oriented public diplomacy, and policy-oriented public diplomacy" (Korea, 2023). Similarly to the Goethe Institute, the leading cultural and language institute backed by the Korean government is the King Sejong Institute Foundation (KSIF). In March 2009, the KSI was identified as one of the ten priorities of the Presidential Council of National Branding. As a result, the number of institutes grew from 29 in 2010 to 244 in May 2023. Compared to the 12 Goethe Institutes, the region of Southeast Asia and Oceania comprises 55 KSIF centres (KSIF, 2023).

Korea, as of now, is aiming to increase funding for its language and cultural programmes. In January 2023, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism allocated 844.2 billion Won to the creation and promotion of “K-content”, thus allowing Korean culture to be “enjoyed by the public and appreciated by the rest of the world” (MCST, 2023).

Hallyu has sparked a heightened interest in learning Korean: understanding Korean film and music has strongly motivated language students to take up Korean language education (Chan & Chi, 2010, 2011; Sornsuwannasri, 2020a, 2020b).

The effects of this can be seen in today's perception of Korea. In a study of 1800 ASEAN youth, over 38% of them mainly associated Korean pop with Korea, followed by Korean dramas (20%) and food (17%) (ASEAN- Korea Centre, 2020, p. 45). ASEAN youth also rated Korea's cultural attractiveness highly, averaging 3.5 out of 4 points among all ASEAN states (ASEAN- Korea Centre, 2020, p. 49). The study suggests that over 70% of ASEAN youth view Korea favourably (ASEAN- Korea Centre, 2020). Therefore, the promotion of Korean pop culture and mass media consumption has positively impacted Korea's language learning programmes abroad and, in turn, strengthened Korea's soft power.


Germany and Korea can look back on the successful implementation of cultural and language policies and are reaching their national goals and strengthening their soft power. Germany's approach to funding language learning on all levels of education differs from Korea's approach, which uniquely features a strong focus on promoting mass entertainment media and pop culture. While it may not be as apparent to a future language student, the politics of language learning are key drivers for states to vie for our attention and interest in their culture and language.

This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.



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