Imagine how awkward it would be if you were required to speak a foreign language with your colleagues on a particular topic at a designated time each week. All other times, you use your mother tongue with them. This is the awkwardness that many Korean instructors feel in front of Korean students during English-only classes. Interestingly, that awkwardness usually does not occur in front of foreign students or when the instructors are not Korean, apparently because communication in those instances always takes place in English, both inside and outside the classroom.
Efficiency is another problem. Although it is hard to generalize, the Korean instructors (me included) tend to say that the amount of content delivered to students through English-only classes is around 60-70 percent of that in comparable classes conducted in Korean. The instructors and students both face limitations in referring to examples and variations to enrich the discussions. Usually, what happens is a straightforward explanation of the principles and concepts with heavy dependence on hand-outs. Students then flock to the podium after class for a summary in Korean.
In spite of these problems, the percentage of English courses in Korean universities has increased steadily over the years, with the numbers in some universities in the Seoul metropolitan area reaching as high as 30 percent of the total curriculum. It has been a while since the English-only course teaching obligation became a boilerplate clause in a contract for a new professor.
New requirements are also imposed on students to take a certain number of English courses before graduation. The number of English courses was also one of the important factors in accrediting new law schools in 2007. The relentless pursuit of English permeation on campus is the reflection of the Korean universities’ desire to move up in the notches of the global rankings. Each year, several foreign institutions release rankings for colleges and universities in the world and Korean universities take this very seriously. One of the factors in this evaluation is the level of internationalization, which is translated into the number of classes at a university that are taught in English.
The reactions to English-only classes are somewhat mixed. On the one hand, some Korean students complain about intellectual indigestion, on the other, foreign exchange students see them as a chance for more class interactions.
This ranking-oriented English drive has also brought about positive changes to Korean universities. In tandem with the aggressive effort for globalization, the number of foreign exchange students in Korean universities has also shot up. The long list of courses in English has certainly contributed to luring them.
Foreign students report that their search for universities in Asia to visit starts with looking into how many courses are taught in English. The increased presence of foreign students on campus and in classrooms then further fosters interactions between Korean students and foreign exchange students. It is not uncommon that some Korean students, through these increased interactions, can get similar experiences that they can expect when they go abroad as exchange students. This is a good opportunity for the students who cannot afford to find such an arrangement because of financial constraints. The foreign exchange students also have good experiences in Korean universities.
So, the benefits are two-way: Korean students would have better understanding of the foreign countries and cultures, and the foreign students would be able to learn more about Korea. Upon their return to their home institutions, they will become good-will ambassadors for Korea. Having seen the European fans cheering for the K-pop stars with Hangeul signboards in Paris last weekend, it seems such cultural exchanges are already taking place. Foreign students visiting Korea could develop into a precious conduit for future cultural exchanges both ways.
In light of this, despite the downsides, the English-only courses seem to be worth a try. Adjustments could be considered to address the downsides. There are courses which are not suitable for English lecturing, while there are those that better achieve the objectives of the lecture when done in English. A guideline in this regard can be developed either by the Ministry of Education or by the association of universities to designate a more realistic number of English-only classes.
By Lee Jae-min
Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at the School of Law, Hanyang University, in Seoul. Formerly he practiced law as an associate attorney with Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP. ― Ed.