[KIM SEONG-KON]Campuses as English-only zones

2010-02-25 1,579

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As Korean universities strive to become world-class universities, the number of courses instructed in English has dramatically increased as of late. Some universities require that even the departments of Korean literature and Korean history offer courses taught in English. Some professors are in favor of these “globalizing” changes, while others are doubtful.

Amid the controversy, Pohang University of Science and Technology or POSTECH recently announced that it will transform into an English-only zone within three years. Beginning this spring semester, most undergraduate courses and all graduate seminars at POSTECH will be instructed in English. Students, too, are required to speak in English in class and write papers and dissertations in English. Furthermore, all conferences and even faculty meetings will be conducted in English and all university documents will be printed in both Korean and English.

The innovative decision of POSTECH was immediately welcomed by international scholars and students who had been frustrated by severe language barriers and bureaucratic apathy on many Korean university campuses. “If other Korean universities follow POSTECH,” said an international student at SNU, “we will have a variety of courses to choose from and a chance to earn better grades.” “I wish I could understand what’s going on at faculty meetings,” confessed an international professor teaching at a Korean university.

Considering the challenges foreigners face at Korean universities, the foreigner-friendly policy of POSTECH deserves applause. Besides, the new environment will definitely attract more international students and scholars. Currently at POSTECH, international students only make up 2.2 percent of the student population and international faculty make up 7.2 percent of the faculty. With the new policy, however, the university hopes to increase its international student population to 10 percent and its international faculty population to 25.6 percent within three years.

Some patriots assert that international students and scholars should learn the Korean language, just as a Korean student must learn a foreign language when studying or teaching in a foreign country. “Why do we have to use English for foreign students and scholars?” They complain. “They don’t do that for us when we go to their country.” These patriots often forget the fact that many international students and scholars are not from English-speaking countries. Besides, English is a common language today used in the fields of science and technology, the humanities, social sciences and not to mention the internet. So these patriots’ objections to the English zone are not necessarily valid.

However, more persuasive objections come from those who are doubtful of the quality of courses taught in English. Experts have pointed out that a class taught in English will not be beneficial to students if the professor’s command of English is not good enough. The fact is most Korean professors, who are non-native speakers of English, are not ready to teach in English yet. If you force them to teach in English, the results will be disastrous. Similarly, students who do not have a good command of English will also suffer.

Recently I received a questionnaire sent out to professors who teach in English. One of the questions was “What do you think is the most serious problem of teaching in English?” Embarrassingly, possible answer choices included: “The anxiety that students may not understand my English due to my heavy accent and inaccurate pronunciation” and, “In my class, there are too many students whose English is not good enough to attend an English course.” If such issues are still at stake, universities are definitely not ready to offer courses in English. A professor who teaches courses in English should be capable of fluently lecturing for at least an hour without a manuscript or prior preparations. Students, too, should be able to participate in class discussions freely and write papers in fair, if not impeccable, English.

In the field of science and technology, which transcends the boundaries of language, using English as an official language may not be too problematic. For the humanities, however, things are a little more complicated; both professors and students should be able to freely verbalize their thoughts and discuss in-depth, abstract ideas in English. But such fluency is not easy to achieve. As for faculty meetings, it would be quite awkward if Korean professors were forced to speak in not-so-fluent, broken English.

In order to become truly world-class institutions of higher learning, Korean universities must “go global”; we need to invite international students and scholars actively, warmly accept them as one of us and offer more courses instructed in English. How then can we solve the various problems of creating English-only zones? As a first step, we should hire more international faculty members from English-speaking countries so that we can offer quality courses taught in English. Consequently, we can improve our native students’ English proficiency and foster a new generation of professors who can offer excellent teaching in English. Instead of rushing to create radical and immediate change, let us progressively transform our campuses, ensuring that any changes will enhance, not hinder, our academic advancement.

Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and director of the Seoul National University Press. – Ed.