South Korea’s English Frenzy

Michael Hurt at the Metropolitician writes a pretty stellar post tackling South Korea’s unhealthy infatuation with learning English – infuriated (and rightly so) at new plans for Korean universities to teach classes solely in English:

” […] As a non-native speaker of Korean and native speaker of English who has lectured and taught in Korea’s top universities, and in a subject that was in English but was not English – history, social science, and translation – I will say that what the Korean academy needs is not another swift kick in the nuts and something else to make it harder for native Koreans to be effective academics in their own language in their own country while privileging the privileged who are able to live and study overseas.” (read full post)

I echo a lot of Hurt’s conerns. While these univerisities employ rhetoric of wanting to make their programs more “global,” it seems more like they’re stomping out their own language, and thus, their own national identity.

Almost all of my friends who are Korean nationals, especially those studying in the U.S., have expressed to me at some point in time that their less-than-perfect English skills continue to bring them a sense of shame or inadequacy – this is both sad and absurd. For one, if I could speak Korean at the level that they speak English, people would be amazed – but for them, it’s demanded.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, what happens to a society that ceases to value its own language? If Korean-language education will stop at a high school level, who will be the authors of great Korean literature? What will be special or distinct about Korean scholars?

Korean nationals often look down upon Korean-Americans who cannot speak their mother tongue; but with South Korean society focusing all of its educational energy on English, it’s hard not to wonder if they’re really in a place to be criticizing.


6 Responses to “South Korea’s English Frenzy”

  1. 1 Iain March 5, 2007 at 10:19 pm

    Perhaps they just recognise the reality that English is for all intents and purposes THE global language…

  2. 2 enriched March 6, 2007 at 7:12 am

    Again, S. Korea is not the only country ‘abandoning’ their national language as the language of instruction at schools & colleges. Plenty of other Asian countries have embarked on this path too, and resulting in their citizens either i) being almost monolingual, to an extent that their mother tongues are left to the colloquial & informal speech only, or ii) really talented & bright students being left behind because they are unable to comprehend or express their thoughts in the new languange. What is strange is that the proponents of the usage of English as ‘the’ medium of instruction argue on the basis that most technologically advanced countries speak English and the resources (esp. in sciences) are in English, hence it makes sense to keep be fluent in English, although the same proponents fail to explain the technological advances Japan made in the past 2 decades given that most Japanese do not speak English fluently.

  3. 3 dailytransit March 6, 2007 at 11:53 am

    Iain – recognizing that English is becoming the global language is no reason to forsake education in one’s own tongue. Are you suggesting that because English is becoming dominant that other languages are not worthwhile?

    enriched – solid points, which other countries are you thinking of?

  4. 4 Iain March 7, 2007 at 12:30 am

    Are you suggesting that because English is becoming dominant that other languages are not worthwhile?
    I am in no position to make such a call but it is not really a mater of which is more worthwhile is it?
    If you were a student from Korea with a desire to be an international high flyer (in any field you care to mention) would you choose a deeper study of your own language or study of, and in, the world language in which you wish to excel? That is a no brainer which does not make any value judgments about what is undoubtedly a fine cultural heritage…

  5. 5 dailytransit March 7, 2007 at 1:51 pm

    Iain – fair enough point, but with overwhelming societal pressures to learn English and universities moving towards only offering classes in English, is the Korean educational system even allowing students this choice?

  6. 6 enriched March 12, 2007 at 7:29 am

    Singapore for sure, Malaysia, & maybe the Philippines

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