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The spread of English in global higher education is no secret. Even so, the recent decision by a leading Italian public university, Politecnico di Milano, to shift to all English language instruction at the graduate level is stark enough to have sparked a discussion. Given the dominance of English as an international language of science, how can universities compete on an international level while maintaining their national identities?

At Politecnico and elsewhere, “Englishization” is a key prong of “internationalization.” “If you want to have an international class at present, you need to have your classes in English,” says Giovanni Azzone, rector of the Politecnico. “If we are able to provide English-based courses we will be able to attract good-quality human capital from all over the world.”

Politecnico, an institution with more than 25,000 students and degree programs in architecture, design and engineering, now offers 30 percent of its graduate coursework in English; the plan is to transition exclusively to English language instruction at the master’s and Ph.D. levels by 2014. (Undergraduate coursework will remain in Italian.) Azzone says that in anticipation of the shift the university will offer English language training to professors -- many of whom already publish in English -- and will invest in hiring international faculty members, increasing their proportion to 15 percent.

Azzone acknowledges his main concern is the obvious one – whether the quality of instruction will suffer if professors use a second language in teaching. He says, however, that faculty and administrators on the institution’s governing board were satisfied that the quality of instruction did not decline in four English-only degree programs that the university established for international students nine years ago. “This is not a jump into the unknown,” he says. “It’s the result of a process.”

Stefano Della Torre, head of Politecnico’s Department of Building Environment Sciences and Technology, supports the switch to English. He is a professor of architectural restoration – a field in which Italian universities would seem to enjoy a clear competitive advantage. Yet he says that, in his experience, Italian-language scholarship is under-read and underrated by colleagues abroad.  “There is a risk to us that if we stay speaking only in Italian and teaching only in Italian, we will be separated from global scholarship,” Della Torre says. “We think that teaching in English is a good way to attract students and to give our students important tools to do work in a globalized world.”

“It’s not that we want to give up our identity. But we have to play at an international level.”

Global Reach, Local Roots

The spread of English as a language of international higher education has been well-documented, its drivers well-understood: scholars face pressure to publish in English in order to reach the widest possible audience, and universities are increasingly competing to attract high-caliber international students and faculty. In Europe, where the Bologna Process aims to facilitate student mobility, the number of English-language master’s programs in non-English speaking countries has grown fourfold in five years, from 1,028 in 2007 to 4,644 in 2011, according to a recent report from the Institute of International Education. The Netherlands has the largest number of these programs (812), followed by Germany (632), Sweden (401), France (346) and Spain (327). Italy has 191.

“In general, I’m not against this development: the English-speaking world has a much greater capacity for scientific research, because all together it is much bigger and wealthier than the German-speaking world or the Italian-speaking world,” says Ulrich Ammon, a professor of language sociology and policy at Germany’s University of Duisburg-Essen and co-author of the 2002 book, English as an Academic Language in Europe: A Survey of its Use in Teaching.

“If you want to have an international class at present, you need to have your classes in English.”
--Giovanni Azzone, rector

“But there is of course the problem that national identity suffers,” Ammon says. “If Harvard had to switch over to Spanish, I think many Americans might see this as a national humiliation. This [humiliation] is a widespread feeling in European countries.”

Scholars have also asked whether the rise of English-medium education results in the disconnection of universities from the societies they serve. In a 2009 article, “English in Higher Education: Panacea or Pandemic?” Robert Phillipson quotes from a University of Hong Kong strategic document that states that the institution will offer “courses and degree programs in the English language” that “will enhance the graduates’ contributions to society.” As Phillipson, a linguist and professor emeritus at Copenhagen Business School, writes, “97 percent of the citizens of Hong Kong have Cantonese as their mother tongue. How then can an English-medium university ‘enhance the graduates’ contributions to society’ if most citizens function in Cantonese?”

Phillipson, whose books include Linguistic Imperialism Continued, has studied the various ways in which English has been “consolidated as a hegemonic language” -- such as in the case of European Union research grants, in which scholars who choose to submit applications in an EU language other than English are encouraged to include an English translation.“There are all these subtle ways in which the strength of English is being consolidated, and if you’re a victim of that, well, tough, but it may affect your career prospects,” he says.

Phillipson praises the Nordic universities for developing language policies that seek to maintain the vitality of national languages while also cultivating proficiency in an international language. (“Mainly this means English, but it should mean one of several,” he says.) Phillipson cites the language policies published by the University of Helsinki and Sweden’s Lund University as two fine examples. By contrast, Phillipson calls Politecnico’s approach “a neoliberal model. It’s elites serving the global economy rather than being anchored locally."

Tullio De Mauro, a professor emeritus of linguistics at Rome’s La Sapienza University, expresses similar sentiments, saying that while it is reasonable for universities and secondary schools to offer coursework in English, what he objects to is the exclusive use of English in teaching. “People graduating from university to work in engineering, trading, health, law, and teaching must have deep knowledge of the language in the country where they live, which is Italian for Italians,” he says. “They must have the opportunity to study not only in English, but also the other important international languages, such as Spanish, German, Japanese, Arabic, etc. The choice of Politecnico isolates its students from the country they live in."

However, Luisa Collina, a professor of design at Politecnico, emphasizes that students trained in English will be better-prepared for a global job market. “Students will have more opportunities available to them to find a job that meets their expectations, despite the current economic climate,” she says.

English in Israel

The forces driving the growth of English in global academe show no signs of reversing anytime soon. Even countries with strong language identities are experiencing growth in English language teaching. Take Israel, for example, where the revival of Hebrew was an essential component of the Zionist cause from the late 19th century onward.  “The renewal of Hebrew arrived at its full success at the time that Hebrew became the language of teaching in the universities,” says Moshe Bar-Asher, president of the Academy of the Hebrew Language and a professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Hebrew could not just be the spoken language of the street or the market. A real language is a language that exists in all fields of life."

Bar-Asher and other members of the Academy – Israel’s equivalent of the Académie Française – recently met with the minister of education to express their concerns about increases in English-language instruction at Israeli universities. The American newspaper, The Jewish Daily Forward, has reported that all seven of Israel’s universities offer courses taught in English -- most commonly at the graduate level in science, but the trend is also increasing at the undergraduate level and in the humanities.

“We don’t deny the fact that English has become the language of sciences all over the world,” Bar-Asher says. “We are not against the fact that Ph.D. or even master’s theses would in some fields be in English, but the language of teaching should be the Hebrew language.” Otherwise, he argues, English-medium instruction will trickle down from the university to the secondary and primary school levels. “And we become Singapore."

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