The Future of the University
English language tightening its hold as the academic lingua franca
By Michael Skapinker. THE FINANCIAL TIMES October 7, 2014
When Darja Stoeva was finishing high school in Macedonia, she had two ambitions: to study mathematics and to do it in English. She looked around. The UK would have been the obvious destination, but rising tuition fees meant she could not afford a British university degree.
She extended her search to continental Europe, where she found the combination of maths and English, or rather maths in English, she was looking for – in the Netherlands. She has just begun her final year at Maastricht University’s Science Programme.
All her courses have been in English. And as she hasn’t met any other Macedonian students at Maastricht, all her social interactions have been in English too. Has she learnt any Dutch? “Not really. Just ‘thank you’,” she says.
Stoeva, and Maastricht, are not alone. Starting primarily in the Netherlands and the Nordic countries, university courses in English have spread around the globe. The Bologna Process, launched in 1999, was intended to allow mobility and exchange between European universities – for example, by creating a common structure of bachelor’s and master’s degrees and ensuring that students could get credit for time spent studying outside their own country.
This drive to create an open market in European higher education has encouraged more and more universities to offer at least some of their degrees in English. Of 17 bachelor’s programmes at Maastricht, eight are only in English and three in either English or Dutch. At master’s level, Maastricht offers 55 programmes in English and only eight exclusively in Dutch. Many other European universities offer programmes in English, but the phenomenon extends far beyond Europe: there are universities in Japan and China, for example, offering courses in English.
Why has it happened? English has become the language of international communication. It is the language people need to write in if they want their papers published in the world’s most prestigious journals. At international academic conferences, a Korean professor who wants to talk to a Colombian counterpart will almost certainly do it in English.
It has not always been this way. Two generations ago, academics might just as easily have addressed each other in German or French. As Jim Coleman, a professor at the UK’s Open University pointed out in a 2006 paper, a century ago, English, French and German enjoyed near parity in global academic literature
The destruction of Germany’s universities by the Nazis in the 1930s, and the exiling of Jewish professors and political opponents, primarily to English-language institutions in the US and UK, badly eroded German’s long and distinguished academic position. The economic supremacy of the US after the second world war cemented the dominance of English over French.
As Prof Coleman points out, it is not the first time that Europe’s universities have had a common language. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the common language was Latin. But back then, he says, “higher education was the reserve of a small elite”. Today, higher education “belongs to a globalised market”. And that market speaks English. The world has never had a world language. It does now.
It is not just university academics, eager to see their work published in the most respected journals, who insist on English. Students, like Stoeva, do too. They are prepared to move to another country to study, and universities worldwide that are competing to attract them have to offer courses in the language that most of them have learnt. “The student has become the customer. Universities are no longer institutions but brands,” says Prof Coleman.
But what is it like to study in a language that is not your native tongue? And what is it like to teach in it? Do non-native English-speakers learn as much when they are studying in English? And do their teachers teach as effectively?
In a 2011 survey of the research, John Airey of Uppsala University and Linnaeus University in Sweden said some studies had shown that non-English-speaking students reading in English acquired only a surface understanding of the text. However, another study he cited found that Swedish students read an English biology textbook as well as their British counterparts – they just needed more time.
Studies into listening to lectures in English found that non-English-speaking students had trouble taking notes. They also asked fewer questions in classes. Some lecturers in Sweden said that, when teaching in English, they improvised less and stuck more closely to their script.
Teun Dekker, who teaches political philosophy at Maastricht, accepts that teaching and learning in another language has its problems. It is not just about speaking in and listening to another language; it is about taking on the baggage that this language carries.
“It is challenging, because language shapes your framework. Language brings with it a host of assumptions and ways of looking at the world. That’s very difficult. The students are not just translating; they are bringing a sense of what values are important,” he says.
But that doesn’t mean native English speakers – students from the US, Australia, the UK or the English-speaking Caribbean – have a natural advantage when they arrive at university. “Just because one is a native speaker of English doesn’t mean one is a native speaker of academic English,” Prof Dekker says. A German student, for example, who learnt to read academic texts at school might have an advantage over a native English-speaking student who did not.
Prof Dekker says he recognises some of the problems mentioned in the research – that non-native speakers might hesitate to ask questions or participate in discussions and that it can be difficult for them to take notes during lectures. But he insists there are ways of dealing with this. If you put them in small groups for tutorials, students who do not have English as their first language can be encouraged to speak up. “Within three months, in a system like that, students improve very quickly,” he says. “They learn. It’s wonderful to see the transformation.”
Lectures, he concedes, are more difficult for non-native speaker students to understand. But technology offers a way around that. Many students at Maastricht ask for permission to record lectures on their phones, which is granted. Prof Dekker says his faculty does not put lectures online for fear that it would stop students coming to them, but says that some other parts of the university do.
Stoeva says that matches her experience. Her English was good when she arrived at university. She had studied it at primary and secondary school and had had private English classes from the age of seven. But participating in class discussions at Maastricht was hard in the beginning. “I needed some time at first because I was shy,” she says. But, she adds, “I learnt to get into the zone, to be able to communicate freely”.
As to what she will do when she graduates, Stoeva says: “I still don’t know. I will continue with something in maths or maybe programming.” Back home in Skopje or somewhere else? “I might go to Spain,” she says. She has enjoyed her time in the Netherlands, but the weather can be grey. “I’d like to live in a city where it’s warm.” And the language? “I’d have to learn Spanish.”