The Korea Herald


[Robert J. Fouser] AI changes rationale for learning languages

By Korea Herald

Published : May 3, 2024 - 05:37

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As the AI boom spreads and puts down ever deeper roots, questions about the future of foreign language education have arisen. If AI can translate and interpret on demand, then why learn foreign languages in the first place? Is there some innate value in learning foreign languages that negates the convenience of AI? These questions are important for South Korea because foreign languages have an important place in the educational curriculum and in career development.

Foreign language learning on a mass scale began in the last half of the 19th century as public schools spread in Europe and North America. Foreign languages, also known as modern languages, began to replace Greek and then Latin in high schools and later at universities. Classical languages were considered essential to a well-rounded education aimed at a small elite. The spread of public schools changed this by bringing education to the masses. Increased travel in Europe and immigration in North America made modern languages more appealing, which stirred the shift away from classical languages.

Modern languages entered Korea with imperialism in the late 19th century, but the underlying situation was similar to Europe and North America. Like Latin and Greek, classical Chinese was essential to elite education, while modern languages were taught as a tool to interact with imperial powers. During the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945, the curriculum mirrored the Japanese curriculum in which modern languages were taught as part of the Meiji-period project of catching up with the West.

The teaching of modern languages thus came from two, sometimes competing, rationales. First, they were adopted for their practicality, either as an individual skill or in promoting national development. Second, they took the place of classical languages that were taught as an essential component of education for the elite. As modern languages replaced classical languages, learning a foreign language was increasingly viewed as part of a rigorous but well-rounded education imbued with cosmopolitan overtones.

Toward the end of the 20th century, the practical rationale won the day. The goal was to teach foreign languages for everyday use in an ever-shrinking world. Communicative language teaching, developed in the UK in the 1970s, spread rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s. In South Korea, in the 1990s, the adoption of a listening section on the College Scholastic Ability Test and the introduction of English education in elementary school was informed by the practical goals of CLT. As globalization became the motto of the day, other nations invested more in English education.

Which brings us back to today. Because of the CLT and the spread of “global English,” foreign language education is now viewed primarily as acquiring the ability to use the language for communication or other practical, usually career-related, purposes.

The problem for the practical rationale is that AI can now cover most of the practical purposes fairly well, leaving people wondering why they need to learn a foreign language. As AI continues to develop, instantaneous translation and interpretation among languages will become the norm, which will only intensify questions about the need to learn foreign languages.

The second rationale — rigorous but well-rounded education imbued with cosmopolitan overtones — offers a stronger reason for learning foreign languages. The argument focuses on how learning foreign languages has positive benefits for the mind, which may not be immediately apparent. Learning different linguistic structures, for example, raises cognitive awareness of language, which helps native language development as well. Foreign language learning also provides an opportunity to learn new and different world views, which fosters cross-cultural understanding.

The problem for educators is that the developmental benefits of foreign language learning are intangible and vary greatly among learners. The situation is similar to math, which is still taught primarily to stimulate thinking and cognitive development even though technology now takes care of processing numbers and churning out statistics at incredible speed.

As AI presses in, foreign language educators can take inspiration from history and the teaching of math to assert the intangible yet powerful benefits of learning foreign languages. In an age of increasing geopolitical tension and conflict amid pressing issues, such as climate change, cross-cultural understanding is critical to developing structures for peace and cooperation; foreign languages play an essential role in promoting cross-cultural understanding.

For South Korea, the shift from the practical to intangible benefits of foreign languages brings changes not just to how languages are taught but also to which languages are taught. Aside from English, expect European languages to fade as Asian languages attract more interest.

Robert J. Fouser

Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Providence, Rhode Island. He can be reached at The views expressed here are the writer’s own. -- Ed.