[Viewpoint] The truth about teaching in English

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[Viewpoint] The truth about teaching in English

At this rate, English lectures in colleges and universities are not just a fad but something here to stay. Some expect that colleges will offer about half of all classes in English in ten years. The goal to produce students with English proficiency in order to respond to the challenge of globalization by providing comprehensive English education is certainly meaningful. Schools can keep talented students in Korea instead of going abroad for education while attracting students from other countries. Competitive global universities may be able to resolve the chronic trade deficit in the educational field.

However, every light creates a shadow, and reckless expansions of English classes at some schools defeat the original purpose. Offering engineering and science classes in English is desirable, considering the nature of the studies. Fields of study that involve metric methods such as economics and management may also benefit from English lectures. However, requiring English lectures in liberal arts and social studies may bring more harm than good.

The biggest blind spot of a lecture in English is that it could make the professors and the students “ignorant accomplices.” I received my PhD in the United States and have taught for more than 10 years. But I have to admit that I can convey only 70 to 80 percent of my knowledge when I lecture in English. If the professors who earned degrees in Korea or other non-English speaking countries are required to lecture in English, serious problems are bound to arise in the course of delivering knowledge and information. Students are in a more awkward position. No matter how hard they study, students who complete their secondary education in Korea will not be able to understand more than half of the lecture. Taking the limits of the teachers and the students into account, no more than half of the study material will be properly delivered with this structure.

Will the students be able to learn accurate material and have in-depth discussion? I call them “ignorant accomplices” because of the entropic phenomenon in the course of delivering knowledge. Some professors use an extreme method of “Korea-English bilingual teaching” to prevent unintended loss in translation. I have to ask if “English proficiency,” which is a mere communication tool, is so important that it may harm the systematic and effective conveyance of knowledge, the original purpose of higher education.

Knowledge delivery is not the only problem. English lectures are bound to limit the scope of thinking. Humanities and social sciences are built on open thinking and intense discussion. However, students’ brain activities and responses are considerably slower when they are using a second language compared to thinking in the mother tongue. You cannot do profound and insightful thinking in a language in which you are not completely proficient.

Moreover, it is simply absurd to use English textbooks to learn and discuss Korean history, politics, culture, society and literature. Will it be possible to produce talented elites armed with imagination, logic, experience and discussion skills? Will the students who learn academic materials in English be able to analyze Korea’s current issues and provide solutions that can convince the citizens? Martin Heidegger had a point when he said, “Language is the house of being, which is propriated by being and pervaded by being.”

Also, fairness should not be overlooked. The children of diplomats and expatriates who have been educated abroad and the graduates of specialized high schools will benefit most from the required English lecture. While average students struggle to study in Korea, those who had access to English education thanks to their parents will excel in discussion and tasks and receive higher grades. Proficiency in foreign languages cannot be acquired so easily. Mandatory English lectures would aggravate the structural inequality of letting the majority of the students fall behind from the beginning.

I am not trying to deny the importance of English lectures, but we need to look at the inconvenient truth accompanying the method. We must not neglect our own language while prioritizing English education. Once the students are sufficiently trained to think in their primary language, they should be encouraged to express themselves in English. Instead of making English lectures a requirement, colleges should allow the students to choose. Schools, educational authorities and other assessment agencies need to analyze the adverse effects of universally requiring English lectures even in humanities and social sciences and counting English lectures as a major standard in evaluating colleges.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

* The author is a political science professor at Yonsei University.

by Moon Chung-in
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