Paradigm shift in foreign language education in South Korea

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Paradigm shift in foreign language education in South Korea

By Dr In Chul Kim
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, South Korea

Foreign language education played a pivotal role in the remarkable economic development of South Korea, often referred to as the “Miracle on the Han River” – transforming South Korea from crushing poverty to one of the world’s most dynamic economies; from a country focused inward to a leader for security and prosperity, in the Asia Pacific region and around the world.

However, the main educational focus has been on English and a large portion of investment in foreign language education has flowed to English. Recently, the Korean government is set to diversify its foreign language education under a new law on special language education promotion. This law was enacted on 31 December 2015, and came into effect on 4 August 2016.

As the Korean Education Ministry has stated, the nation is seeking to alter the current approach in which Koreans have been pushed to learn English over the past several decades. The second most popular foreign language at colleges and private institutes was previously Japanese, but it is currently Chinese.

The ministry will provide universities with financial support for teaching foreign languages other than English to enhance curriculum diversity. It has already selected 53 languages as special foreign languages, clarifying that it would shoulder the cost of training programmes and internships for students learning these languages at universities designated as special foreign language education institutions, starting from August 2016. Languages such as Arabic, Turkish, Farsi, Kazakh, Hungarian, Greek, Italian, Vietnamese, Thai, Hindi, and Portuguese are included on the list of 53 special foreign languages.

With the enactment of the new law on special language education promotion, expectations for Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS) to play a key role are high. HUFS is the leading university in the field of foreign studies in South Korea. The university has played a decisive role in Korea’s economic development by cultivating an advanced workforce specialising in foreign languages since its establishment in 1954. This has helped the university become a leading private educational institution within a short period of time. In addition, many graduates from HUFS went out into the world and formed a large global human network.

In March 2012, US President Barack Obama delivered his speech toward global society at HUFS and remarked: “For decades, this school has produced leaders – public servants, diplomats, business people – who’ve helped propel the modern miracle that is Korea. This school has one of the world’s finest language programmes.” As he noted, HUFS offers courses in 45 major languages from Asia, Europe, the Middle East and other regions of the world, combined with programmes in the humanities, social sciences, business, law, natural and computer sciences. It is no exaggeration to say that the history of growth at HUFS is the history of the advancement and globalisation of Korea.

In line with the recent emphasis on the diversity in language education, 11 Asia-based universities from six countries kicked off an inaugural forum of leaders from foreign language educational institutions in Seoul on 9 March 2016. As host, HUFS organised this Presidential Forum for Universities of Foreign Studies in Asia. Based on the forum, HUFS and 10 other foreign studies universities in the Asian region will establish a close-knit network, and share their experience and know-how, with the ultimate goal of upgrading the quality of foreign language education in Asia. The launch of this forum will lend support to the joint vision of the South Korean Government and HUFS to educate human resources ready for the global era and seek opportunities to diversify foreign languages education.

HUFS has always been at the forefront of linguistic, cultural and economic exchanges across national borders. The recent launch of the Silk Road Universities Network (SUN) is another prime example of the school’s leadership. “Silk Road” and “Eurasia” are now the hot buzzwords in South Korea, with the government promoting national projects to restore the ancient trade and cultural route that linked Europe to East Asia.

To reinforce the SUN movement, South Korean President Park Geun-hye has announced the “Eurasia Initiative” – a proposal to link the countries on the Silk Road through transport and energy networks, such as railroads and gas pipelines. The Eurasia Initiative is spawning a lot of events and proposals in South Korea and China. The idea of linking universities on the Silk Road route, however, was initiated by HUFS. In 2009, Hwang Sung-don, a professor at HUFS, served as a member of an advisory panel for the mayor of Pyeongtaek, where the 4th UN Silk-road Mayoral Forum was hosted. HUFS championed Professor Hwang’s idea for the university network along the Silk Road, and the consequent years of collaborative work with the Gyeongsangbuk-do Provincial Government bore fruit in 2015 in Gyeongju: 34 universities from 22 countries gathered to mark the beginning of an alliance – the Silk Road Universities Network (SUN). HUFS has been appointed as the first chair university of SUN.

The 300 participants – university presidents, professors and students – in the inaugural assembly included those from the University of Coimbra in Portugal, the western departure point of the Maritime Silk Road, and Ca Foscari University of Venice in Italy, where Marco Polo started his journey to China. Also represented were universities from Greece, Turkey, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Oman and China.

The Asian Community of Foreign Language Universities and the Silk Road Universities Network will serve as an important roadmap to promote much needed cultural and academic collaboration among nations and universities in this new global era. These networks provide the impetus for a strong driving force in spreading momentum for diverse foreign language education and cultural exchanges around the globe. Also, they promise to shed new light on the meaning of foreign languages and studies in the era of neo-globalisation. Facing the complex challenges of today and tomorrow, HUFS will continue in its efforts to cultivate more diversified programmes in foreign studies and thereby contribute to the preservation of inherent cultural heritage throughout the world.

Dr In Chul Kim is the 10th president of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS). In the academic area, he has been a professor at the Department of Public Administration at HUFS since 1988. He also served as the dean of planning and coordination (2002–2004) and vice president of external affairs and development (2010–2011) at HUFS. He is also the president of Fulbright Alumni Association of Korea (2013–present). In his governmental roles, he was the president of Korean Association of Policy Studies in 2010, a committee member of the Presidential Committee on Education Innovation at Prime Minister’s Office of Korea in 2011, and the commissioner of the board of Audit and Inspection of Korea from 2011–2013.

The author would like to acknowledge Prof Yunna Rhee, dean of public affairs at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, for her great support and contribution.