They spend much more time studying the language than their peers in other OECD nations, and students learn English throughout the 12 years they spend in elementary, middle and high school, not to mention kindergarten.
And as English continues to be a priority even after they enter college ― with English considered a prerequisite for landing decent jobs after graduation ― most university students here take a general English course for one or two years alongside other major subjects.
|Students attend a lecture at Hanyang University. (Hanyang University.)|
Many undergraduates are now required to complete certain credits in English and to acquire high scores on English proficiency tests, such as TOEIC or TOEFL, in order to receive a degree from their respective universities.
The trend has spurred more and more public and private universities to offer courses conducted entirely in English.
“One key driver of this trend is that Korean universities are increasingly concerned about their roles in an increasingly globalized world,” Sohn Dong-young, an associate professor in the department of media and communication at Hanyang University, told The Korea Herald.
“I also teach my course in English with the aim of helping students better prepare for a globalized job market,” he added.
To foster the global competitiveness of their students, now several universities, including Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology, have started to offer all courses exclusively in English.
Kim Keon-woo, a 23-year-old computer engineering major, said he would be happy to attend more English-only lectures.
“For students like me, who want to go abroad to study or work, having the experience (of taking English-only classes) is highly useful,” he said.
Currently, English-only lectures account for about one-third of the total lectures in most universities. Yet more schools are now trying to increase that proportion not only to encourage students to go abroad, but also to attract overseas students, according an official from Hanyang University.
To introduce more English-only lectures, universities here have been recruiting professors who are English proficient and providing them with financial incentives. Students, on the other hand, get more scholarship opportunities by attending English-only lectures.
Nevertheless, some educators remain critical as to whether universities should teach more courses in English.
Linguists, in particular, argue that teaching in English is very different from teaching English. They insist that students’ learning efficiency may decline if they attend English-only classes, arguing that certain subjects, such as Korean history and literature, would be better taught in Korean.
A recent survey taken by 2,400 university students also raises questions about the effectiveness of English-only classes.
According to the survey, about 40 percent of students understand less than 60 percent of the content in such classes, while only 27 percent of the respondents said they were able to understand 80 percent or more of the class.
Nearly half of the respondents said they questioned the efficiency of such English-only courses, while 24 percent found them to be helpful.
“Lectures conducted in English are not properly operated due to the low level of students’ comprehension,” said Lee Kwang-hyun, a professor of education at Busan National University, who carried out the student survey. Sohn of Hanyang University also disagrees with the idea of teaching all subjects in English.
“We should be careful because the most important thing universities can do for their students is to provide the best possible learning experience,” he said. “It is up to these schools to try and make the learning experience more useful and enjoyable.”
By Oh Kyu-wook (firstname.lastname@example.org)