[Letter to the editor]Move to English instruction laudableCarsten Haertl’s criticism (Letters to the Editor, March 14) of recent moves by Korean universities to introduce instruction in English for various academic courses is laudable.
However, this issue is far more complicated than Mr. Haertl admits. It’s not simply a matter of linguistic and cognitive overload for students and faculty, which may or may not lead to a diminished quality of learning and research. There is in fact a wider spectrum of competing demands which Korean decision-makers must attempt to balance here. It would be impossible to properly address all of these in the space available, but I would like to mention a few which I see as most evident.
Perhaps one of the most compelling reasons why some Korean universities are beginning to deliver academic courses and programs in English is that they see a lucrative opportunity to recruit non-Korean students from Asia and other regions of the world. With local demographics suggesting a shrinking college-bound population, this seems like a very prudent response.
A second important reason that Korean universities might want to use English as the medium of instruction is to improve the diversity of teaching and research faculties operating on their campuses. I wonder if Mr. Haertl has had the opportunity to visit any large research universities in Canada, the United States or Britain. In these places you will find precisely this diversity. Academics from across the globe, and from different language backgrounds, are attracted to these research powerhouses. I believe Korean university administrators see the value in such diversity, and are taking action to benefit from it.
There is also little doubt that the English language is the primary communication tool for a vast array of scientific and business discourse communities around the world. Furthermore, because language is the essential instrument of reason and thinking, a second language can offer its user additional perspectives on old (or new) problems, and therefore actually increase cognitive flexibility.
Finally, I’m not sure how productive it is to criticize the current standards of Korean universities. Frankly, there is such a wide spectrum of quality among universities here that it makes little sense to generalize.
Furthermore, while I am sure that Heidelberg University mostly deserves its good reputation, attempting to compare this 600 year-old school with 50 year-old Korean institutions is unhelpful. Korea and its universities face a different set of challenges from Germany and its schools. As long as policies which support English as a medium of instruction in some academic programs are executed cautiously, and with proper concern for the backwash effect on the secondary education system, I believe this is the most responsible way forward for some Korean universities.
Gavin Johnson, a public secondary school teacher in Seoul
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