April 13, 2022

Spotlight on Korean: The Language of 21st Century beauty

The rapid rise of cultural phenomena such as K-pop, K-beauty and K-dramas and films has fuelled a growing interest in Korean across the world. According to language learning app Duolingo, it was the second-fastest growing language on the platform in 2020 as well as the seventh most studied that year. Likewise, the 2021 inclusion of more than 20 new Korean words in the Oxford English Dictionary reflects this growing interest in Korean culture and the increasingly central place of the language on the global cultural stage.  
With more than 80 million speakers worldwide, Korean is mainly spoken in South and North Korea at present, although it has considerable communities of speakers in other countries, including China, Japan and the US.  
Below we share our three top insights about the language of global cultural icons such as Parasite and Squid Game. 
1. Its genealogy is disputed. Traditionally considered a language isolate, some linguists have considered Korean to be part of the Altaic family, to which Turkish and Mongolian (among many others) would also belong. However, others argue there is not enough evidence to do so. 
2. Its modern alphabet was created to promote literacy. The modern Korean alphabet, Hangul, uses 24 basic letters and 27 complex letters. It was first introduced by King Sejong in the 15th century to replace classical Chinese and the different phonetic systems that were used for written communications. The monarch’s aim was to increase literacy, especially among the lower socioeconomic classes, as the previous systems were more complex and harder to learn.  
3. It has complex grammar. The grammar system of Korean is vastly different and more complex compared to English, often making it difficult for native English speakers to learn. Like Japanese and Turkish, it is an agglutinative language which, to save you a Google search, means words are formed by a sequence of affixes (morphemes) that add different layers of meaning to a stem — a process that can lead to complex formations in the eyes of non-natives. Additionally, Korean has an honorifics system, which uses special words and verb endings to reflect the social dynamics between the speaker and the addressee, the object of the conversation or the audience. It also has seven speech levels to mark how formal the exchange is through verb endings. This means that Korean speakers need to have a clear idea not only of grammatical rules but also be aware of social customs and etiquette guidelines. 
K-beauty: putting Korean in the Western limelight 
K-beauty has played an instrumental role in bringing both the Korean culture and language into the world’s spotlight over the past decade, not only introducing Western consumers to new products but also familiarising them with a different concept of beauty and self-care. 
With 10-step beauty routines, ingredients such as snail mucin and trends including ‘glass skin’, the interest in K-beauty has steadily become more mainstream in the West over the past few years. As a result, South Korea became the third largest exporter of beauty products, with exports growing by 15% year-on-year in 2020. The US is the second biggest destination for these products globally, with China as the top one. Meanwhile France is the leading market in Europe, followed by the UK and Germany. 
This meteoric rise in popularity has meant that there were millions of consumers across the world that needed to be educated on these new skincare and cosmetics products and procedures. Having accurate translations became essential to familiarise consumers with the products and for them to have a clear understanding of how to use them and for what purposes. This while ensuring the authentic K-beauty spirit still shone through. 
For translators, this not only means having to find the right words in the target language, but also being familiar with a range of beauty-related concepts and buzzwords that may be unique to the Korean market. Being constantly up to date with the latest trends and new terms is an essential part of the job for linguists working with K-beauty, a particularly dynamic industry marked by speed of innovation: according to Reuters, K-beauty product development takes 4-6 months for local mass brands, compared to up to over a year for global brands.  
Likewise, translators need to understand how these products work and need to be applied. This practical knowledge is essential, too, and not also assists in relaying information effectively to international audiences in a way that is both accurate and locally relevant, but also carves out a unique place for K-beauty products in the global market.  
This also extends to product packaging, which not only needs to be informative for consumers, but also comply with the target market’s regulations for cosmetics and personal care products. Hence, working with native linguists who are experts in the beauty sector is always crucial for beauty businesses looking to expand to new locales. 
At THG Fluently, we’ve been providing expert language services to beauty ecommerce brands for nearly 20 years. In that time, we’ve learned what it takes to give organisations such as LOOKFANTASTIC, GlossyBox and ESPA the support they need to thrive in international markets. So, if you’d like to learn more about how our teams and network of specialised linguists can help your beauty business grow, get in touch.  
Did you know that demand for skincare products for men is on the rise in Korea, China and India? Download our beauty trends report and discover all the beauty industry trends shaping the APAC and US markets in 2022.

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