[VIEWPOINT]Tide of English Threatens to Drown Us

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[VIEWPOINT]Tide of English Threatens to Drown Us

Korea is being swept by the wind of globalization, and the compulsion to learn English is spreading through our society like a virus. And it's not confined to college students or corporate employees. Even kindergarten kids are struggling to learn English. Families are enduring lives apart so their teenage children can study in English-speaking countries. It seems that learning English has become the sole motivation of the Korean people.

College life is changing. Professors are required to teach in English. Graduate schools for "international studies" are mushrooming in Korea without plainly evident goals or visions. Some universities require their students to record certain grades in the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) to graduate, only to fatten the wallet of a U.S. firm called the Educational Testing Service which collects a handsome fee for every test. As if this were not enough, some colleges are making a big fuss about trying to entice foreign professors and students to their schools and are talking about designating English as the second official language on campus. While national universities warn of steep increases in tuition fees for Koreans, they are rolling out the red carpet for foreign students. They say these are all part of the effort to become "globalized."

Crazes do occasionally sweep nations, but this is out of the bounds of normality. If it continues, someone is eventually likely to propose that advanced countries should administer our colleges as our companies are managed by them today. Do we deserve to be called Korean, when the erosion of our own language and culture goes on unimpeded in the stampede to learn English? Colleges in Korea are already toppling because of the reinstatement of a system - which miserably failed when first introduced in the 1970s - in which college students choose their majors in their second or third year.

Other flawed education initiatives - such as "BK21" (Brain Korea 21), by which the government gives subsidies to college departments considered competitive despite doubtful standards and feverish support for information technology-related science - add to the difficulty of balancing the development of our colleges.

And the colleges themselves are ostentatiously "globalizing" while overlooking what is really needed: expanding educational facilities, bolstering faculty staff and enhancing the education offered. The reason that we cannot lead negotiations with foreigners to our advantage is not that we are not good at English but because we lack expertise. "Globalizing" education does not mean mastering English, but rather strengthening the fundamentals of schooling.

We have to learn from the United States or Japan. In the United States, entire major academic magazines from Russia are translated into English. That way they are accessible to, and intelligible by, all. In Japan, there are professionals who correct academic papers written in English by Japanese. It is far more efficient to offer interpretation services to foreign passengers via car phone than trying to teach taxi drivers English.

To benefit from world wisdom and knowledge, we need first to understand it and then to help students understand it. But in reality, colleges often lack even the terminology or textbooks necessary to educate in Korean.

What is most quintessentially Korean is what Korea really has to offer the world. What we really need in the era of globalization is our own culture and technology, which are based on advanced world theories and sciences but are adjusted to the unique culture and situation of Korea.

It is irrational to mimic Hong Kong or Singapore just because they use English as their official language. Let's learn a lesson from India. It boasts English as a semi-official language and produced Nobel Prize-winning scientists, but these facts benefit the ordinary people little. We cannot put our future in the hands of foreign professors or students as if recruiting foreign players for a sports team.


The writer is professor of chemistry at Sogang University.

by Lee Duck-hwan

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