English Growth -- and Backlash -- in Korea

As use of language becomes more popular and more required, some fear cultural homogenization.

February 20, 2007

English-language programs are flooding South Korean universities -- and they are creating a backlash from Koreans who fear a loss of their culture and professors who worry about a loss of control.

The new English programs include increasing use of English as the language of instruction in a range of fields, special English-only zones on campuses and even residential villages in which only English is spoken, as well as the more traditional English language and literature classes. Proponents of the programs see them as a way to deal with global changes and local demographics. But critics fear that the English takeover will hurt the quality of instruction and that local students will lose their cultural heritage.

Already, concern about the issue has led in part to the ouster of a president of Korea University, one of the two top private universities in South Korea. With 30 percent of its courses taught in English, Korea University is currently the frontrunner among South Korean universities using English as a medium of instruction

Professors at the Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology (locally referred to as KAIST), the country’s most prestigious science university, now teach well over 20 percent of their courses in English. In March, the start of the new academic year, KAIST freshmen will have to study all their subjects in English. Yonsei University, the traditional rival of Korea University, increased the percentage of courses taught in English from 18 percent last year to approximately 20 percent this year.

“With several top universities leading the way, the pattern will be followed by other universities in Korea,” said James Larson, deputy director of the Fulbright Korean-American Educational Commission.

The main subject areas being taught in English are liberal arts, engineering and natural science.

Although some universities have increased recruitment of American and other foreign English-speaking professors, the vast majority of professors tasked with teaching in English are Koreans who have studied abroad. Last year, Euh Yoon-Dae, then president of Korea University, established a policy of only hiring Korean faculty members who were capable of teaching in English except those teaching Korean language or culture. He aimed at having 60 percent of the courses at his university taught in English.

Most Korean universities have high percentages of faculty with overseas degrees. More than 80 percent of the faculty members at Pohang University of Science and Technology earned their doctorates in the United States. Nearly 70 percent of Yonsei’s faculty earned their advanced degrees abroad.

South Koreans are looking at English as a way to pull their universities out of a quagmire of problems resulting from a declining student population, stultifying teaching methods and an over emphasis on a few prestigious schools mainly located in Seoul. At the same time, they hope to enhance the global reputations of their universities, faculties and students. A steadily falling birth rate has reduced the number of college-age students by over 25 percent in the last ten years. The government has plans to shut 25 percent of the national universities in order to keep them competitive as the percentage of high school graduate attending college and universities pushes past 90 percent.

South Korean universities are also facing a drain of students to overseas institutions. South Korean students make up the third largest group of college students in the United States after China and India. Large numbers also are studying in Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

Many South Korean universities are setting their sights on creating an Asian education hub like Singapore and Hong Kong in order to retain more Korean students and to attract more foreign students. They have already concluded agreements with American, British and Australian universities for joint degrees, study abroad programs and faculty exchanges. Prestige is another factor in inducing universities to opt for teaching courses in English. South Korean universities are almost obsessed with the number of refereed journal articles their faculty annually publish in English and with the international rankings established by The Times of London and other rating bodies.

Many universities have set aside space where they require English to be spoken. Gyeongsang National University, for example, has created an English-only zone on its campus. Participating students agree to live in the zone, which includes two dormitories and a new classroom building with a coffee shop. The university hired English-speaking foreign students to work in the zone as waiters, guards and even trash collectors to maintain the fiction of an English zone.

Monitors and professors issue penalties to those who slip into their native tongue while in the English zone. If students receive too many demerits, they are asked to move out of the English Zone. One anonymous critic denounced the concept by comparing it to the colonial period (1910-1945) when the Japanese rulers required everyone to speak Japanese instead of Korean.

A backlash is also occurring at the universities, which propose increasing the percentage of classes taught in English.  More than half the 900 faculty members at Korea University opposed Euh’s reelection as university president in December, mainly because they feared for their jobs if English instruction took over.

As a result of this opposition, Euh was eliminated as a candidate for reelection to the four-year presidential post. Most outsiders had expected him to stay in power because under his tutelage, Korea University had advanced in world standings, funds from industry had increased considerably and student applications had risen dramatically. Korea University also saw a five-fold increase in the number of applicants for courses taught in English within a three-year period.  

Professors at KAIST voted last July to oust its American president, Robert Laughlin, because they thought his policies were too radical. One of Laughlin’s proposals was to send the entire junior-year class to China to study English. He reasoned the students could learn English in a foreign environment without being too far from home and without the risk of becoming Americanized. The new president, a naturalized American of Korean descent, scrapped this idea.

The fate of Euh’s plans to internationalize Korea University through increased usage of English in the classroom is uncertain. His replacement resigned last week amid plagiarism charges so direction of the university is unclear.

Taking a more moderate approach, Dankook University president, Kwon Ki-Hong, said, “I am not opposed to an increase in English-language classes, but the increase should be gradual.”  He anticipates that it would take 10 years for his university to increase the percentage of courses taught in English from the current 5 percent to 20 percent.

Student reactions to classes being taught in English are mixed. Although students see the advantages of being able to communicate in English, the global language, they worry about the quality of the instruction they will receive.  

Lee Young-Kyung, a third year student in English language education at Korea University, contends that students will have a lot of trouble coping with being taught in English.  “But”, she added, “ I think professors will have even more trouble than students because they don’t have sufficient English ability.  The quality of classes as a result will be lower.”

Shin Dong-Min, a student at Sogang University, however, contends that by taking classes in English while in South Korea, students can save the trouble and expense of studying abroad. “They can improve their English skills and get college credits as well,” he said.

Some college professors, seeing the handwriting on the wall, are brushing up on the English they used as grad students overseas and some are even taking private English lessons with native speakers.  

English education is big business in South Korea.  The nation spends over $3 billion a year on various forms, ranging from rudimentary language school courses to Ph.D. programs.  South Korea, despite having a population a third the size of Japan's, spends more than three times as much money as Japan does on English education.


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