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Great demand for English, short supply

POSTECH professor discusses the need for English lectures

In the wake of the tragic suicides of four KAIST students in recent months, some suggested that study in English at KAIST puts undue stress on students, contributes to academic underperformance, creates communication barriers between students and professors, and encouraged the suicides. 
Daniel E. Suh
Daniel E. Suh

In the past several weeks, I reflected on my English-only teaching experience at POSTECH. I asked what would happen if Caltech or MIT set up a Korean branch and offered courses in English only, except for language-specific courses? I predict there would be cut-throat competition to study at the school.

Everyone recognizes the importance of English in the global market. A KAIST professor who declared this month that he would teach in Korean also recognized that “world-class research is impossible” without English proficiency. I found that all opponents of English lectures also state the importance of English.

The speaker at POSTECH’s matriculation ceremony last month, now in his 70s after a successful career, said he looked back with regret. He said English was not just a foreign language, but the international one. He implored freshmen to become proficient in English.

An executive of a Korean conglomerate, in a speech to POSTECH students, said that more than 80 percent of his company’s products ― tens of billions of dollars worth ― are sold in the global market. He asked what is required of a global businessman. “English,” one student answered. He quickly responded, “No. That is (just) a basic requirement ... A global businessman must understand the global culture, global customers and their psychology.”

Some critics argue that English-language lectures cause a loss of the national identity and culture. This does not seem to hold. I worked for my undergraduate degree under a professor who studied at one of the top American universities. After 10 years in the U.S., he became one of the most respected and best known economics professors in Korea. He also served as a vice prime minister and minister of economic planning. No one doubts his Korean identity and culture. Is he an exception?

In Korea, we have tens of thousands of people who have lived and studied in foreign countries. We never raise concerns about a loss of their Korean identity or culture because of their years in a foreign-language environment. Why then are we concerned about a loss of national identity or culture among students living in Korea, simply because they study in English?

Many courses, such as science and engineering, are universally applicable, and have little to do with Korean identity or culture. So is a great part of the humanities and social sciences. Our global leaders use universal terminologies and fundamental concepts in the workplace and in communication with domestic and international leaders. Their education in English helps enhance Korea’s global competitiveness, which in turn contributes to preservation and strengthening of Korea’s identity and culture.

At any moment in the last several decades, tens of thousands of Korean students studied abroad. Foreign education has helped Korea develop a strong and advanced economy. No one should equate study in English or in foreign countries with a lack of appreciation for national identity and culture.

Other opponents address challenges to providing lectures in English. They argue that English lectures increase the workload for professors and students. They say English lectures are burdensome and ineffective.

But they are not more burdensome than learning and teaching at U.S. schools. If studies in foreign countries are effective, what reasons are there for English-language study in Korea being ineffective?

The KAIST professor mentioned above recognized the effectiveness of lectures in English taught by foreign professors. He suggested that the choice be made by each professor. He did not reject lectures in English per se, but said such classes should be of good quality and in good quality English.

Professors’ English proficiency should be lifted up to par. If a good system is in place, quality hopefuls will come in droves. Let a virtuous circle begin with quality English lectures. It’s Say’s law in economics: “Supply creates demand.”

Recognizing the importance of English fluency, opponents argue for English study separate from academic study. But when a Korean medical textbook or paper is translated, who is better ― a medical professional with good English, or someone with a Ph.D. in the language?

We do not need English specialists, but professionals who can effectively communicate. The training is best done when students learn in ways similar to our Korean students studying in foreign countries.

Without four years of college study in English at such schools as KAIST, would Korea be able to train enough experts with professional language competency in each expertise? Ask people who studied and lived in the U.S. whether studying for years in an English-speaking environment was enough for them to be truly proficient in their profession. Most would say no.

No wonder some professors oppose English lectures even though some of them studied for their doctorates in English, sent their children overseas for higher education, and recognize the importance of English. Demand is great, supply is short.

A case in point is the detection of hundreds of translation errors in FTA documents this month. The National Assembly has dismissed the trade motion three times because of language errors. The officials in charge of the documents represented Korea without sufficient language proficiency in the area of their expertise.

I have observed professors and doctoral candidates crippled by language difficulties in presentations, discussions and conferences. Poor English is probably the most common reason academic papers are returned for revision or rejection.

Korea spends trillions a year on English education at private institutions in addition to regular English education at public schools. My teaching of economics and finance at POSTECH has convinced me that a large number of college students are willing and proficient enough to effectively learn in English, although many struggle in writing and speaking.

Although each school needs to take a practical and realistic strategy, KAIST and other universities must move forward as vanguards, pushing the envelope to build a stronger Korea which would supply the world with leaders in all disciplines with professional competency in the international language.

By Daniel E. Suh