Lost in AI translation: The end of language and literature majors

lost in ai translation: the end of language and literature majors

Illustrated by Kim Sung-kyu

On the campus of Duksung Women’s University in Jongno-gu, central Seoul, on Feb. 20., professors and alumni of German and French Language and Literature departments held a protest with signs that read, “Defend our departments” and “Illegal abolishment of departments.” The demonstration was a direct response to the university’s recent announcement regarding a revision to the university regulations, signaling the cessation of new student recruitment for German and French language departments beginning next year. While the discontinuation of two language departments has been a trend in many private universities in the region, the decision by a major Seoul-based university is considered unusual. “We had no choice but to align the number of seats with shifting student demand and societal dynamic,” said Duksung Women’s University.” According to the university, the annual selection of majors by 583 freshmen in the College of Global Convergence Studies revealed that fewer than ten students each opted for German or French language departments. The discontinuation of German and French Language and Literature majors and shift towards more seats for widely favored majors, like business administration, was unavoidable.

Amidst the challenges faced by universities grappling with a declining student population, foreign language-related departments are significantly affected. With the advancement of AI (Artificial Intelligence) technology leading to a decrease in demand for “language experts,” many institutions either eliminate language departments or integrate them with other disciplines. A growing number of universities, including those in Seoul, are opting to replace traditional foreign language majors with departments related to cutting-edge technology with promising employment prospects.

Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS), known for having the highest number (45) of foreign language departments in Korea, ceased the admission of new students for 13 majors at its Yongin campus last year and this year. This includes interpreting and translation majors in English, Chinese, Japanese, and Thai, as similar programs are available at the Seoul campus. In response, the university introduced a new AI major integrating foreign languages with artificial intelligence and big data. Despite being Korea’s prominent foreign language university, there is a prevailing concern in the education sector about the diminishing student demand for foreign languages. In a similar move, Dongduk Women’s University underwent changes by merging its German and French departments into the “European Studies” department in 2022. Additionally, the university reduced enrollment by 12 students and introduced new majors like “HCI (Human Computer Interaction).” Meanwhile, Sahmyook University in Seoul merged its Chinese and Japanese language and literature departments into the Division of Aviation Tourism & Foreign Languages in 2021.

Across the nation, there has been a significant decline in the number of foreign language majors. The count of language majors, encompassing literature, at four-year colleges and universities dropped from 920 in 2018 to 750 in 2023, marking a notable 18% decrease in just five years. Concurrently, the enrollment quota witnessed an 18% decline (3,000 students), with student numbers decreasing from 18,451 to 15,000 during the same period. English language majors, historically one of the most popular choices, reduced from 222 to 196, while Chinese language majors decreased from 138 to 118. Notably, German and French language majors are now offered at only 52 and 27 universities nationwide, respectively. In contrast, majors falling under the umbrella of “Human Science,” such as library and information science and psychology, have experienced an increase from 742 to 864 over the past five years.

lost in ai translation: the end of language and literature majors

Graphics by Kim Sung-kyu

The trend is shifting toward eliminating departments that train German and French language teachers. Kyungpook National University recently decided to abolish its French Language Education department, which had an enrollment quota of eight students, starting from the 2025 academic year. In its place, the university plans to establish a new department focused on training “information teachers” in Information Education due to the decreasing demand for French language teachers and the rapidly increasing demand for computer science teachers. The number of students taking “second foreign languages” in high schools is decreasing, leading educational offices to hardly hire any German or French language teachers for decades. The number of German language teachers nationwide has halved from 194 to 80 in just the past five years. Faculty members from Colleges of Education, including those in French Education, have agreed that “it is difficult to maintain departments when French teachers haven’t been hired for over 10 years.” Pusan National University also merged its German Education and French Education departments into German and French Literature departments for new students starting this year.

lost in ai translation: the end of language and literature majors

Graphics by Kim Sung-kyu

Professor Lim Dae-geun from the Division of Digital Contents at HUFS said, “In an era where real-time AI translation programs are used, there is a fundamental question of whether humans need to learn and translate languages themselves,” adding, “The number of students majoring in foreign languages is bound to plummet as the demand for language experts capable of translation and interpretation is decreasing.”

There has been pushback from members of departments that have been eliminated. Students from the French Language Education major at Kyungpook National University have decided to file a constitutional appeal on Feb. 27, arguing that the university’s criteria for discontinuing departments are unclear. Their lawyer said, “Due to the lack of proper regulations regarding department discontinuation in the Higher Education Act, students in those departments are having their right to education infringed upon.”

A proposed amendment to stop recruiting new students for the German and French Language and Literature departments at Duksung Women’s University for the 2025 academic year was rejected by the university’s council. A council member said, “Departments of language and literature go beyond simply teaching a language to teach the culture and philosophy of that nation, serving as both foundational and pure academic disciplines. For Duksung Women’s University to overlook such foundational disciplines neglects the duty of a comprehensive university.”

A private university president said, “While national universities might need to maintain a variety of departments to protect academic disciplines, even if student demand for certain languages is low, private universities are facing imminent failure if they do not restructure their departments to match societal demand as student numbers rapidly decline.”

This article was originally published on Feb. 24, 2024.

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