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Address the Malady, Not the Symptoms
[Debate] Language Barrier - A means to Information Segregation
[ Issue 141 Page 7 ] Monday, November 09, 2015, 08:01:33 Agar Omondi International Reporter agar@kaist.ac.kr

In spite of KAIST’s notable effort to become a more global university, its on-campus bulletin and internal social platforms remain dominated by the Korean language. This is creating a challenge for the international community not only in accessing information but also in absorbing and becoming part of the campus culture. What could be a solution to this and who should be responsible for taking initiative?

We’ve all seen the notices on KAIST Portal labelled “Korean students only”. We’ve all had to occasionally resort to the dubious translations offered by Google Translate to access information on websites such as ARA. We’ve all had to listen in to what we hoped looked like dignified silence as the conversations in our clubs and societies switched to Korean. We’ve all scanned the notice boards looking for English posters and upon finding none, walked away assuming that the notices in Korean were not meant for us. The list goes on and on.

Under such circumstances, it is rather tempting to come to the conclusion that language is, deliberately or otherwise, being used as a means to exclude members of the international community. It would prove be more pertinent, however, to look at what we perceive as “schism via information” as a symptom of something much more perverse that has infected the collective conscious of KAIST’s international community.

There is always an air of complacency that hangs like a dark cloud whenever the issue of proficiency in Korean language crops up in any discussion among international students at KAIST. Most international students view their time at KAIST as a mere stop in a bigger odyssey; an odyssey whose destination lies somewhere outside Korea - most likely the English speaking countries of the West. Admittedly, one can argue that the circumstances around which international students gain admission to KAIST create the impression that proficiency in Korean is not necessary to fully take advantage of the opportunities KAIST has to offer. However, most of us are sane enough to realize that universities do not exist in vacuums. KAIST is linked to its surroundings – surroundings in which lack of proficiency in Korean is a handicap. Still, many of us do not see learning Korean language as an issue that ought to be addressed with the sort of urgency with which we address other issues. The result of this is comical if it wasn’t sad – it is common for students to study at KAIST for four years, only to treat anyone who wants to converse with them in Korean with the same “pantomime-with-a-pinch-of-badly-pronounced-Korean” show that they used to communicate via in their freshman year.

Full access to information we interact with on a daily basis, whether in print or otherwise at KAIST, is just a whiff of the pie hidden in plain sight that will only become available if we gain proficiency in Korean. We all have that one friend who has managed to learn the language. We know just how drastic the shift would be if we woke up one day with the ability to have a meaningful conversation with the taxi driver, the cleaning lady, or any Korean within this community.

That said, if the current information couloir is ever going to be bridged, the bulk of the hard work needs to come from us, the students. Studying at a university in a foreign country was always going to be hard - we knew that from the get-go. The situation will not improve if we peg all our hopes on a one-sided approach where the university is doing all of the grunt work while we rest on our laurels grumbling about the slow pace at which things are happening.

Instead of “How can KAIST adapt to accommodate its international population?”, the more apposite question ought to be “How can international students better adapt to fit into KAIST?”. If anything, the only magic wand that KAIST can wave to tackle the current two-demographics-in-one-university state of affairs would be to roll out policies that coordinate international students’ efforts to increase their Korean proficiency to at least TOPIK Level 3 - the norm in other Korean universities. Such would be akin to the proverbial killing of multiple birds with a single stone.

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