History of the Korean Language Program at Yale


Photograph of Prof. Samuel E. Martin and Seungja K. Choi at the ceremony in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library in which Prof. Martin was awarded the Republic of Korea Presidential Medal of Honor for Distinguished Cultural Contributions (Pokwan munhwa hwuncang) in 1994.

In 1984, a student-led organization called Korean-American Students at Yale (KASY) was formed to promote the cultural, political, and social interests of the Korean-American student community at Yale. KASY’s mission was to advocate for Korean language classes, and its leaders conducted multiple meetings each year to appeal its case to high-ranking university administrators. Thanks to KASY’s tenacity and a private donation, the Korean Language Program at Yale came to fruition. Prof. Samuel E. Martin and Seungja K. Choi, who was then a Ph.D. student in Linguistics at Yale, started the Korean language courses in the fall of 1990. The classroom for Yale’s first Korean class, Harkness Hall, Room 113, was crowded with over 80 students, many of them overflowing into the hallway.

The New York Times covered the historic opening of the Korean language class at Yale, stating, “after eight years of student lobbying, Yale College has begun offering a course in Korean language study, and the response has been overwhelming.” (September 23, 1990, p. 49 – link to article)

The prelude to Korean language studies at Yale, however, dates back to the period of the Second World War when the study of languages such as Chinese, Korean, and Japanese was critical to the U.S. war effort. In 1943, a group of accomplished teachers and researchers formed the Chinese Language School at Yale, which grew into the Institute of Far Eastern Languages (IFEL), to provide training in spoken Chinese for U.S. Army officers. With federal funding, Elinor Clark Horne, a Yale graduate with an M.A. in Linguistics, instituted a Korean language course in 1947 at IFEL. Air Force students, missionaries, and a few graduate students enrolled. A few years later, Professor Samuel E. Martin took over the Korean program with the assistance of Ms. Young-Sook Chang and Mr. Sung-Un Chang.

Prof. Martin (1924-2009), who earned an A.B. and an M.A. in Oriental Languages from the University of California, Berkeley and a Ph.D. in Linguistics from Yale University, started teaching at Yale in l950 in the Departments of Linguistics and East Asian Languages and Literatures. With his passion for Japanese and Korean languages and linguistics, and years of dedicated teaching and research, Samuel E. Martin was a true pioneer and distinguished figure in his field, and was instrumental in establishing Korean language study at Yale from the beginning.

Archived transcripts indicate that the last of the IFEL Air Force students enrolled in Korean language courses in 1961-1962. Academic records show that the Korean program at the IFEL offered a wide range of courses, 12 in total, including Elementary Spoken Korean, Conversational Korean, Intermediate Korean, Elementary Korean I/II, Specialized Conversation I/II, Basic Military Reading, Intermediate Korean Reading, Elementary Newspaper Korean, and Advanced Reading Seminar. In the early 1960s, however, with the Air Force’s support quickly diminishing and the number of foreign missionaries declining, the Korean language program could not attract enough students and eventually closed its doors. In 1965, IFEL was dismantled, and its language teaching functions were incorporated into the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures.

When Korean language study returned to Yale 25 years later in 1990, the program offered two levels, Elementary Korean (K115) and Intermediate Korean (K135). Seungja Choi taught both levels with the help of teaching assistants, and Prof. Martin provided a grammar lecture session once a week. Despite this constraint, total enrollment each semester in this period ranged from 52 to 69. As the demand for Korean courses steadily grew, the Korea Foundation and Yale established a $1 million fund to support the program in 1995.

In 1999, a third-year course, Advanced Korean (K150 I), was created when Dr. Jaehoon Shim, who had earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago, joined the faculty. He taught Advanced Korean I and a course on Korean history until he left Yale in 2002. In 2003, Dr. Angela Lee-Smith, who earned a Ph.D. in Korean Linguistics from Sangmyong University and taught for many years at the Sogang Korean Program and Brown University, joined the faculty. The program has grown in the years since, and now offers the first through fourth levels and heritage and non-heritage tracks for the first and second levels.

text by Seungja K. Choi