• The World View

    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education


Teaching in English: A Contentious Debate

One of the more controversial issues in internationalization is the dominance of English as language of instruction and the dissemination of scholarship.

July 8, 2015

One of the more controversial issues in internationalization is the dominance of English as language of instruction and the dissemination of scholarship.

Recently, two countries seem to be at the forefront of the debate. In Europe, The Netherlands has been implementing courses and degree programs in English since the mid-1990s. In Asia, South Korea leads other countries in developing English taught courses, a trend provoking considerable debate; In the Netherlands attitudes are shifting from rather positive to more critical assessments, resulting in a national discussion led by key scholars to abandon the unconditional use of English in the classroom.

Clearly the use of English dominates research and scholarly publications. The ranking of academic journals, their impact and their ownership is dictated by the Anglo-Saxon world. More and more academic journals, books and articles as well as doctoral theses are written in English, as this is perceived to be the only way to merit international recognition. The use of English in doctoral studies—in particular in the sciences—has become accepted as the international norm.

In teaching and learning though, the importance of English has been more gradual. Beginning in the 1990s, English-language instruction expanded in Scandinavia and the Netherlands to stimulate participation in European exchange programs such as ERASMUS. The only way to create a balanced exchange within Europe where French, German, English and Spanish dominate, was to use a language that was (and still is) the first or second language of communication—English. Gradually, complete courses and degree programs were taught in English, in the face of protests from the political sphere and the media asserting that the trend could subjugate national language and culture.

By the 21st century opposition began to disappear and other European countries like Germany, France, Spain and Central and Eastern Europe started to develop courses in English as well, followed by countries like South Korea and China. This trend was so powerful that in 2011, I felt compelled to point out that teaching in English was not synonymous with internationalization. Still, the trend continues and national and international leaders in higher education around the world strive for more English-language instruction, justifying this policy with the need to compete for international students and talent and creating an international classroom environment for domestic students. English is becoming a key factor at all levels with an increase of bilingual and English language programs in primary and secondary schools.

Opposition tends to come from older professors who are not capable of teaching in English and defend their opposition as preserving national language and culture against foreign influences. A recent article by Ursula Lindsey in the Chronicle of Higher Education illustrates this: The enthusiasm for English isn’t universal. Skeptics note that switching to English does not solve all the underlying problems of troubled educational systems. Some see the turn away from their native language as a threat to Arab identity. Others worry that English-language education exacerbates the divide between the haves and have-nots.” Ignoring such sentiments is a mistake.

In South Korea, as a recent article by William Patrick Leonard notes that, one third of the courses are taught in English and some new universities teach completely in that language. On the one hand, this is intended to prepare Korean students for a global workforce; on the other hand it is designed to attract more international students in a competitive global market. It also makes Korean higher education an interesting work place for international faculty, as there are too few Korean academics capable of teaching in English.  

In The Netherlands, research universities now teach predominantly in English at the graduate level, while undergraduate education is still mainly in Dutch. But at the primarily vocational universities of applied sciences, English is also becoming a standard. There are over 200 bachelor programs in English at Dutch Universities of Applied Sciences. Following the lead of important research universities— Maastricht, Groningen and Wageningen—several institutions of applied sciences— Stenden, Hanze Groningen —are advocating bilingual instruction.  NHTV Breda University of Applied Science has decided to teach completely English.

Opposition to this trend is growing, not so much from the conservative nationalists as in the 1990s, but from academics. They understand and recognise the importance of globalisation and the implications of an English-dominated global workplace, but they question the enthusiasm with which university leadership promotes English instruction, even when the quality of delivery not guaranteed. In a recent statement, titled ‘The great manifesto of the Dutch Language’ a group of eminent academics— ironically some affiliated with English-named research centers —defined ten actions needed to limit the unqualified advance of English in Dutch higher education.

The manifesto asks for compliance with the law of higher education, that states that teaching and examinations should be in Dutch unless there are good reasons not to do so. They ask for open debate within the universities with all stakeholders about the compliance with the law and more attention to languages in general—the Dutch language as well as foreign languages. They make an appeal to base decisions on English instruction on content-based arguments and not on economic or ideological grounds, such as the recruitment of international students or progress in international rankings. They also call for a better preparation of students for a career in Dutch society and for a stronger link between higher education and society. They demand more attention to educating students in speaking, reading and writing in their own language.

Several of these actions make absolute sense, even for doctoral theses. Reading an interesting Dutch thesis as member of the reading committee recently, I wondered if the thesis would have been more relevant and interesting if it had been written in Dutch. There has to be a stop to the automatic move to English in Dutch higher education and elsewhere.

Still, while I agree with the need to connect higher education and learning to Dutch society, at the same time I recognize the importance of preparing students for a global workforce and global citizenship, and that requires foreign language proficiency. Arguments that attention to foreign languages in higher education threatens the level of Dutch are not sustained by research. In other words, the manifesto is a strange mix of solid arguments and too much nationalistic and inward looking sentiment. Regardless, the manifest is an important wakeup call.


What lessons can other countries learn from the debate in the Netherlands?

  • Internationalization of higher education does not necessarily imply the need to teaching in English
  • There has to be academic rationale for teaching in English rather than economic and ideological motivations
  • Decisions about teaching in English have to be considered in an open debate between internal and external stakeholders
  • Teaching in English is more than simply translating a course or program from one language to the other but must consider implications for content, teaching strategy and learning outcomes
  • Foreign language education should not focus exclusively on English and should find a stronger base in primary and secondary education
  • Teaching in English should not replace the importance of providing national and international students with opportunities to learn and use the local language and culture.

These arguments apply to countries where the national language has limited global presence but also in countries where the primary language is Spanish, Mandarin, French, German, and even English. The fact that half of the UK universities allow foreign students to use dictionaries during exams but not local students is an illustration of how absurd we are in addressing language issues in higher education.




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