English lectures: a must or an obstacle? – Good to see a critical eye on this topic again

South Korea’s top universities have been hell bent on expanding classes that are conducted all in English in recent years amid ever-increasing competition to globalize both their students and professors. At the forefront of this movement is the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST).

It’s true that English lectures at universities started so students could develop their English skills and advance them to an international level. But how effective are such classes?

The controversy was reignited after students and professors at KAIST pointed out the ineffectiveness and impracticality of teaching various subjects in English, followed by the five recent suicides and mounting criticism of the school’s president Suh Nam-pyo and his hardcore policies.

“Teaching English lectures is downright crazy,” said Prof. Choi Gwang-mu from the department of computer science at KAIST.

There are plenty of arguments on both sides of the discussion here, but the reality is that learners do not perform as well when taking classes in their second language, particularly at lower proficiency levels. It is silly to insist on lectures in English for all courses.

I’m all for particular programs that require English lectures, particularly in business. However, these should be done for a reason. In business, it is an absolute requirement to not only read English, but communicate and participate in English. Top-level business programs should be in English or, at least, have significant portions of their courses in English.

With this said, if courses are to be taught in English, for goodness sakes, offer support materials in Korean: class/lecture notes, study guides, readings, and so forth. And, how about this, maybe you should train your lecturers to with with language learners. Many professors in these universities did their graduate work in English-speaking countries and, while they may not want to, certainly can conduct classes in English. However, most have no clue what is necessary when working with these same students in that second language. The straight up PPT lecture won’t cut it. Interaction, questioning, and ongoing assessment are all necessary lecture skills, in combination with a focus on scaffolding both the content and the language for learners. If you’re not going to do this, don’t both offering lectures in English.

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