Korean pop music (or “K-pop”) has become more and more popular in the past decade. We see artists such as BTS and Blackpink climb the charts and perform at major festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza. When people are introduced to K-pop, there’s often two (somewhat contradictory) questions they ask:

  1. why do you listen to music you don’t understand?

To that, I usually just ask mister monolingual if he also needs to speak Violin in order to enjoy classical music?

  1. Why is there so much English in K-pop?

Of course, far from every K-pop song incudes lots of English (if any English at all), but the role of multi-lingualism in Korean music is actually a very nuanced and interesting question to look at. Because no, it is not “just” a matter of the BTS boys writing “Dynamite” to specifically target America. This is a question of culture, language and globalization. Let me explain:

Historical context for English in South Korea

English is a global “lingua franca” – meaning, a language used to facilitate communication internationally. For this reason, much of the world learns English in school or has some sort of passing knowledge of it. However, this doesn’t mean that they use it in their daily lives. In postcolonial countries like India that were once under British rule, it’s not surprising to find Indians mixing Hindi and English, whereas hearing Koreans, who were colonized by Japan, use “ice cream” and “fork” in everyday language might be more surprising.

Korea’s English mixing has many explanations; one is, of course, globalization and how English has become highly important for international business. English quickly came to signal high social class in South Korea, as only the privileged had access to English education. It was established as a mobility enabler, and, especially after their independence from Japanese colonization (in 1945), the Korean elite was eager to display their connection to the US as a symbol of power by embracing the language (J. Cho 2017).

The American military presence in South Korea resulted in direct contact between the languages for an extended period of time: after the Allied Powers defeated Japan in WWII, the country was split in two – the North, occupied by the Soviet Union, and the South, occupied by the United States. This has a direct impact on the Korean language, because, while the South Koreans do call ice cream “ice cream”, the North Koreans call it “ereum kwaja” meaning “ice snack”. There are several such differences between Korean as spoken in the North compared to the South, which shows how the influence the American military had on the language, but indeed also on the culture:

During this time, American military bases became hotspots for mass dissemination of American pop culture and language (Jin and Ryoo 2014, p. 117). Korean musicians would perform American pop music at these military bases for the soldiers, sometimes gaining large popularity as a result. American culture (and subsequently the English language) was thus not only associated with business careers, but also creative careers such as music.

Multi-lingualism in Korea

Despite the privilege English fluency is considered to hold, and while the presence of minority languages in Korea should be acknowledged, South Korea is ultimately a highly monolingual nation (SY Park 2009, p. 30). Still, English lyrics in Korean songs have increased considerably since the birth of K-pop as an industry in 1992 (Yoo et al. 2017).

The bilingualism of K-pop is often seen as solely a product of globalization; both in the way that more and more English creeps into the lyrics, but also that it seems to globalize the Korean language, as well as normalize bilingualism in Korea (B. Cho 2015).

Although this is undoubtably part of the truth, I would like to point to the fact that multi-lingualism in Korean music isn’t just a “trend” that appeared after the war. When Korea was still under Japanese rule, Korean media and entertainment often involved mixing with Japanese (Robinson 1994). In 1938, the multilingual song “전화일기” (Jonhwa ilgi), meaning “Telephone Diary” by Park Hyangrim and Kim Haesong, was one of the top songs on the national chart. This song, released roughly half a millennia before the rise of K-pop as we know it, contains both Japanese, English and Korean. at this time, Korea was more focused on making entertainment consumable by the local population rather than the international market, so the use of English here can’t simply be explained as “globalization”. This therefore implies that English was meant to appeal to the local population first and foremost, rather than to increase international marketability.

Why include English lyrics?

I want to stress the fact that Korea is, as mentioned, not a multi-lingual nation – most Koreans are able to live their lives without learning another language, and the use of English in K-pop songs can’t be said to be solely for the sake of the Korean audience. What I want to explain is the fact that, equally, it’s not solely for the sake of the international fans either. With English symbolizing this high level of mobility, it indicates a sense of cosmopolitan life to the Korean audience. In short, English is sometimes used to “sound cool” – sometimes specifically to the Koreans, because sometimes, the English in K-pop songs sound quite… strange. In 2008, girl group KARA released the song “Pretty Girl” that contains these lyrics: “If you wanna pretty, every wanna pretty”… Now, I don’t know about you, but I just scratch my head at the people who would claim that lyrics like these are meant to appeal to English-speakers – because it makes little to no sense. But I think I can still explain what it means.

Let me introduce you to Konglish: unlike loanwords, Konglish are words or phrases that sound English, but aren’t. Here are some examples:

  • “Healseujang” (헬스장; lit. health place) = the gym
  • “Man-to-man” (맨투맨) = a sweatshirt
  • “Gageuman” (개그맨; lit. man who does gags) = comedian.

Another characteristic of Konglish is applying Korean grammar in English sentences, which I believe is the case with KARA’s “Pretty Girl”. In Korean, adjectives and verbs are often conjugated the same, which is why KARA seem to imply that “pretty” is something one can do. Additionally, Korean often uses the verb “to do” (하다) in contexts where English may use “to be”. Considering this, I would translate Kara’s lyrics to: “If you wanna be pretty, like everyone wants to be pretty”. However, these lyrics are a bit long, and the grammar is complicated for Koreans, so the sentence has been shortened and Koreanized. As researcher Shinhee Lee puts it: “the linguistic expression of modernity in South Korea is guaranteed by English bilingualism” (S. Lee 2006, p. 60). Lee argues that the use of English in Korean advertisement is used more symbolically than for the sake of communicating, as there is no expectation that the general Korean public will be able to understand it (ibid, p. 61). In K-pop, when the English lyrics are simplified as Konglish, it seems to be for the sake of appealing to the young Koreans who are attracted to the idea of modernity, while still ensuring that the lyric are simple enough to allow them to understand and sing along.

The secret language of K-pop

While some K-pop groups these days are made to promote in the West (like SuperM) or make songs specifically targeting the West (such as “Dynamite” and “Butter” by BTS), it shouldn’t be forgotten that K-pop is Korean pop music, meaning their main audience most of the time will be Koreans. This is why the usage of English can mean such different things:

Like most pop songs, K-pop tends to include a “hook”: a hook is a musical idea, a short riff, passage or phrase, used in pop music to be catchy, and often includes meaningless, repeated words. In Korea, the trend of hook music came after the group Wonder Girls released their massive hit “Tell Me” in 2007 with the hook “tell me tell me t-t-t-t-t-tell me / tell me I’m the one for you” (Yoo et al. 2017). Since then, it’s become very popular to use English in hooks. This can be for the sake of allowing international audiences to sing along to the part of the song that is repeated the most, and, indeed, to entice young Koreans.

The inclusion of English is therefore a deliberate choice with a specific goal in mind (Lee 2004, p. 434). A fun example of this is how Park Ji-Yoon’s song “할줄 알어” (can you do it?) was banned from broadcasting in 2003 due to inappropriate and suggestive language, whereas songs such as “Everything” by Fly to the Sky, which has arguably cruder lyrics, was not banned. A possible explanation for this is that the crudeness of the latter was intentionally concealed within the English lyrics, while Park Ji-Yoon’s song was almost entirely in Korean, exposing its sexual nature to the Korean audience.

Another good example of hiding meanings with English is SISTAR’s 2014 hit “Touch My Body”. This song uses a considerable amount of English throughout, and does also have instances of konglish (“Yeh baby dancing with me”), however, the main point of interest here is the title, which also functions as the hook of the song.

The Korean lyrics can’t be said to be innocent, including phrases like (translated) “Do you like my lips? Or do you like my body?”. However, what makes this song overtly sexual in nature is the title, “Touch My body”. The English here is used to obscure the suggestive nature to Koreans, allowing it to not be banned and even reach the top of several hit lists. Additionally, to Western ears, the song becomes less of a flirty, shy song, and much more of a female empowerment song, as the lyrics explicitly state what the female singers want from their lovers.

In Korea, it’s a very common conception that the West (especially America) is a lot more liberal and open to sexual content compared to the notoriously conservative Korean society. Because of this, English is seen as a language through which such “deviant” ideas can be expressed safely, as there is no expectation that those who understand it will object.

I can’t help but make a point of “Oh My God” released by girl group (G)I-dle in 2020: Korean songs used to only speak about love through metaphors, but during the 20th century, lyrics started to become less vague (Yoo, Ju and Sohn, 2017). I think songs like this might show further progress in that direction.

In “Oh My God”, lyrics such as (translated) “hypnotized and captivated by the seductive music” and “It’s so dangerous I want it ... And now I have you at last” leave little to the Korean imagination, it’s fairly direct. Regardless, the song was not banned and did in fact chart on several Korean charts. However, English is still used in this song to conceal things that the Korean public may not approve “Oh my god / She took me to the sky / Oh my god / She showed me all the stars”.

Korean grammar allows for the subject of a sentence to be omitted, and thus enables lyrics to be gender neutral. However, in this case, the writers of the song chose to include the pronoun through English to indicate a lesbian romance, as the song is sung by women. Unfortunately, Korean society is still not very open to LGBT+, so the inclusion of the pronoun holds large significance. It’s something that shows high consideration of audience. Once again, English is used to signal progressiveness to those who understand it, while disguised as “modern sounding” to those who do not.


So, why is there so much English in K-pop?

Like I said at the start, this is a nuanced question, but here are my suggestions:

Because of Korea’s unique history with the American military, and the part that the military concerts played in the development of the Korean pop industry, English is the language of possibilities. While older Koreans may dislike the inclusion of English, K-pop is generally targeted to young people who see English as a sign of modern, cosmopolitan life. It “sounds cool” – even if it’s more Konglish than English.

English naturally plays a big part in attracting international audiences and using it strategically can attract both the international and Korean audience (as with “Oh My God” and “Touch My Body”). And an English hook, whether explicit in nature or just somewhat nonsense, allows English speakers to engage and sing along.


Cho, Jinhyun. 2017. “The Genealogy of English in Korea.” In English Language Ideologies in Korea, 23:43–91. Multilingual Education.
Jin, Dal Young, and Woongjae Ryoo. 2014. “Critical Interpretation of Hybrid K-Pop: The Global-Local Paradigm of English Mixing in Lyrics.” Popular Music and Society 37 (2): 113–31.
Lee, Jamie Shinhee. 2004. “Linguistic Hybridization in K-Pop: Discourse of Self-Assertion and Resistance.” World Englishes 23 (3): 429–50.
Lee, Jamie Shinhee. 2006. “Linguistic Constructions of Modernity: English Mixing in Korean Television Commercials.” Language in Society 35 (1): 59–91.
Park, Joseph Sung-Yul. 2009. “The English Language in South Korea: History, Politics, and Sociolinguistics.” In The Local Construction of a Global Language, 24:29–56. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter.’
Robinson, Michael. 1994. “Mass Media and Popular Culture in 1930s Korea: Cultural Control, Identity, and Colonial Hegemony.” In Korean Studies: New Pacific Currents, 59–82. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Yoo, Yeawon, and Yonghan Ju. 2017 “Quantitative Analysis of a Half-Century of K-Pop Songs: Association Rule Analysis of Lyrics and Social Network Analysis of Singers and Composers.” Journal of popular Music Studies, 29(3): e12225.