Filed Under Lesson Plan

Koreans and the Korean Language in Latin America

History and Social Linguistics

History and Social Linguistics1

The first group of 1,014 immigrants arrived in Yucatan, Mexico in 1905. Contrary to their expectations, they were forced to work at henequen (i.e., agave plants) plantations under extreme conditions. Most of these early immigrants have assimilated into Mexican society and have not maintained the language of their motherland. A bigger wave of immigration occurred in the 1960s and 70s, as individuals sought new opportunities. However, the majority of these immigrants arrived to Central and South American countries with little knowledge of Spanish (or Portuguese in the case of Brazil), and as a result, many of them ended up working in the textile and clothing industry. Moreover, Korean immigrants maintained a homogeneous community by building close ties among themselves rather than interacting with the local community. This aspect of Korean diaspora community in Latin America is reflected in their attitude towards Korean and their vocabulary usage.

Unfortunately, we could not find any studies that investigated how the first immigrants in Yucatan speak Korean. The short film “Yo Soy coreana” (2018) provides a glimpse of how much Korean has been lost among Korean descendants. They seem to enjoy Korean culture and food, but they barely speak any Korean. Considering that there were very few immigrants before the 1960s and that the transmission rate of Korean is very low, the information summarized below is based on questionnaires and interviews with those who immigrated in the 1970s or later (i.e., first-generation (G1)) and their children (i.e., 1.5-generation (G1.5) or second-generation (G2)). The term G1.5 refers to immigrants who were born in Korea and received some formal schooling there. G2 includes those who were born in Latin America or those who were born in Korea but moved to a Latin American country before entering school.2 Moreover, the respondents resided in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Paraguay, or Chile, and this provides a good representation of the Korean immigrant population, as approximately 90% of Korean immigrants in Latin America reside in these countries.

Language Use and Attitude

Koreans in Latin America reported relatively high usage of the Korean language. 86% responded that they watch Korean TV shows everyday, and speak Korean with their family members at least 50% of the time. Specifically, 88% of the respondants said they use more Korean than Spanish/Portuguese when speaking to their elders, and 62% responded that they use more Korean than Spanish/Portuguese when speaking to their siblings. Furthermore, the majority of the respondants (88%) had a positive attitude toward the Korean language, and they expressed that it is important for them to be competent in the Korean language. With regards to their proficiency in Korean, their self-report indicates that G1 (4.83-4.89) is the most fluent in Korean, followed by G1.5 (4.22-4.49), and then G2 (3.50-3.96). The reverse was true for their proficiency in Spanish/Portuguese (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Self-rated Proficiency of Korean/Dominant Language (i.e., Spanish or Portuguese) (원미진, et al., 2015:129)

Interestingly, the questionnaire responses demonstrate that G2s in Latin America use Korean more frequently and express a stronger desire to be good at Korean compared to their G2 counterparts in the United States.3 That is, those residing in Latin America use Korean much more often than Spanish/Portuguese when communicating with their family members, in contrast to second-generation Koreans in the US who tend to use English more often than Korean. Furthermore, it appears that G2s in Latin America have a higher need for the Korean language (4.07) than their counterparts in the US (3.95).4 Moreover, G2s in Latin America also exhibit better proficiency in Korean (3.50-3.96) than their counterparts in the US (2.46-3.49). Similar results were reported by 이재학(2006). G2 immigrants in Latin America tend to have higher proficiency in Korean, and show a stronger preference for using Korean when communicating with other Koreans compared to those in the US. Based on this data, we can conclude that the Korean language is maintained more effectively in Latin America than in the US.

1 The information illustrated here is mostly based on Wŏn Minjin 원미진 et al. (2015), with some supplementary data from Kim Hanch'ŏl 김한철(2010) and Yi Chaehak 이재학 (2006). 

2 Although the definition of immigrant generation may vary across studies, the studies discussed here primarily employ formal instruction in the heritage language as the main criterion to distinguish between the two groups, G1.5 and G2. Receiving formal instruction may have a positive effect on language competence, as well as influence the development of one’s identity and attitude toward the language. 

3 The US data is from Wŏn Mijin 원미진 et al. (2014). 재미 동포 언어 실태 조사, 재외 동포 언어 실태 조사 연구 보고서. 국립국어원. 

4 These two numbers are in a scale of 1 to 5 (= Strongly agree that Korean immigrants should be good at Korean). However, direct comparison between these two numbers should be avoided, as the numbers are from two different populations. 


Figure 1. Self-rated Proficiency of Korean/Dominant Language (i.e., Spanish or Portuguese) Chart Source: Wŏn Mijin et. al. 원미진 외. (2015). Pŭrajil tŭng Chungnam Mi tongp’o ŏnŏ silt’ae chosa브라질 등 중남미 동포 언어 실태 조사, Chaeoe tongp’o ŏnŏ silt’ae chosa yŏn’gu pogosŏ 재외 동포 언어 실태 조사 연구 보고서. Kungnip kugŏ wŏn 국립국어원. Creator: Anita Joo Kyeong Kim, adapted from Wŏn Mijin 원미진, et al., 2015:129



Anita Joo Kyeong Kim, “Koreans and the Korean Language in Latin America,” UCLA Korean History and Culture Digital Museum, accessed July 12, 2024,