Unbalanced Diet in Foreign Languages

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Unbalanced Diet in Foreign Languages

There was a time when French was the lingua franca - the international language of diplomacy and commerce. In the 20th century English succeeded French as the lingua franca, particularly in the later part of the century with the advent of the World Wide Web. Yet the future of the French language, fiercely protected and promoted by the French, is in doubt. There is some concern among academics that because of the prevalence of English, the study of other European languages will suffer.

In Asia, there is a marked preference for the study of English. This is a pragmatic response to an era of globalization in which English has assumed great importance in terms of employment potential and academic opportunities. As a teacher at a university in Korea, I have witnessed this shift in the focus of foreign language education. Due in part to the character of the Korean higher education system, students who received excellent grades in their freshmen year overwhelmingly opt for English as a major when they become sophomores.

Not long ago, I heard that the government and universities were planning to integrate foreign language departments into humanities and social sciences departments, which would, for all intents and purposes, prevent students from majoring in foreign languages. It was my understanding that under the plan, English Literature departments, favored by students who scored high on the national college entrance examination, would be maintained. It is also interesting to note that more and more students are studying Japanese and Chinese, as opposed to French or German. It is a practical decision in light of Korea''s proximity to China and Japan.

The study of French in Korea, however, endures. A few years ago, the majority of those attending French language institutes were university students who wanted to acquire knowledge of the French language and culture. These classes are now populated not only by students, but by professionals, such as lawyers and journalists, as well as academics. French has become a practical language playing an important role in Korea. Since university students are increasingly choosing a second language major in addition to their original major, universities need to pay more attention to their French programs.

There is some concern among those studying French literature, linguistics and education that the number of university professor positions will decrease in the future. Those who are studying French in the hopes of landing a job in a company related to France might be surprised to discover that many French companies operating outside France require English fluency - though the ability to speak French is a plus.

That English has emerged as the preferred language in the humanities and social science departments is confounding. Universities feel compelled to conform to the status quo in which English is the international language. The study of other foreign languages, however, should not be sacrificed at the altar of globalization. Universities need to understand that languages can open up the world for students - and not just the English-speaking world. Learning a new language is learning a new culture.

Language helps us understand different ways of thinking and gives us a new perception of the world. Opening the door to foreign language study is opening up new worlds. A door leading to only one foreign language limits the opportunity to view the world from different perspectives. In my view, the fact that the majority of Koreans choose English as their second language is not evidence of diversity, modernization and globalization.

On the contrary, it is an indication that they have imposed on themselves a restriction that will narrow their cultural experience and world view. If Koreans continue in this direction, they will find that their thinking and cultural outlook will become intertwined with that of the Anglophones.
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