English: The Anti-Passion Major

Last semester, I had the good fortune to teach mostly third and fourth year students in my English conversation classes.  While some of them were pretty low-level students, most of them had a really good grasp of vocabulary and syntax and spoke with ease and confidence.  Some of them had studied or lived abroad, and they all enjoyed learning about the cultures of various English-speaking countries. 

This semester isn’t so easy.  One of my coworkers had a class of sixty students (a conversation-based class, mind you, not a lecture), so he asked if I’d split the class with him.  Gladly, I said.  He kept the third and fourth year students (various majors) and gave me the first and second year students, who were all English majors.  English majors! I thought.  Piece of cake.  Imagine my surprise on the first day of class when I find that at least 50% of my students don’t understand most of what I’m saying (I speak slowly and clearly in class) and have a really difficult time producing a sentence.  Furthermore, they seem pretty apathetic toward participating in discussion. 

Curious as to why someone would major in English when (s)he doesn’t really seem to care about the subject, I pulled a couple of students aside last week and asked them: “Why are you majoring in English?”  One student told me that the other majors had program requirements, and English had none.  It was where students were put if they didn’t fit anywhere else.  One student told me that he was interested in American culture.  One student told me that she just really liked the sounds and the structure of the language. 

“So…” I continued.  “What are you planning to do after graduation?  How will your job connect to English?”  “It won’t,” one student said.  He continued: “I can just get any job.  Even a hard job.”  I realized at that point that maybe a lot of my students don’t want to be in university at all — they’re there because their parents are paying for them to be there, and it’s expected of them. 

In the US, we have fields of study that are built on passion, but don’t often result in an actual career for most people who major in them — art history, philosophy, and yes, English.  Maybe in Korea, English is the anti-passion major. 


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