Lingua Not So Franca

While English is on the rise as language of instruction worldwide, experts consider whether it is as universal as some say -- and whether its expansion has downsides.

June 2, 2015
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LONDON -- The PowerPoint used here by Russell H. Kaschula at a discussion of English as an increasingly global language of instruction was different from those of the other presenters. Key words and phrases were both in English and in isiXhosa, a South African language.

Kaschula, a professor of African language studies at Rhodes University, in South Africa, said he wanted to challenge one of the “myths” about English instruction: “that one must choose one language of instruction.” Kaschula said he doesn't doubt that English is increasingly being used at universities all over the world by students and faculty members for whom it is not a first language -- and that the trend will continue. But he said that there is no reason that this must be at the expense of local languages.

His was among a number of comments at a panel here at Going Global, the annual international education meeting of the British Council, that suggested that many of the issues about the rise of global academic English have been oversimplified or ignored.

English is increasingly used for instruction in countries all over the world. A 2013 study by the Institute of International Education, for example, found 6,407 master's degree programs in English offered across Europe (excluding Britain) a 33 percent increase over 18 months, and 10 times higher than the total from 2002. Entire universities where instruction was once in a language other than English have converted programs. New colleges are sprouting up in Asia and the Middle East, teaching in English.

But is English really taking over? Should it?

Ernesto Macaro, professor of applied linguistics at the University of Oxford, studies second language learning strategies. He said that much research remains to be done, but that there are already indications that English may be less universal and more problematic than people realize.

For instance, he said that in much of the world, when people talk about “global English,” they are talking about English being taught in the private schools that prepare wealthy students to enroll at elite universities in their home country or abroad. So it's true that many more people plan to study in English at the higher education level, he said, but there are major issues of inequality at play.

Another inequity concerns who decides to switch the language of instruction to English. In many cases, this decision is being made by government officials or administrators, not rank and file faculty members. And that creates another inequity. And he said that surveys of instructors suggest that many agree that English language proficiency is going up, but question whether subject matter expertise is in fact growing as a result of English instruction.

He said he worries that many countries are adopting a “stick your head in the sand” approach and simply requiring more English, without considering what that means.

Anna Kristina Hultgren, a lecturer in English language and applied linguistics at Britain's Open University, agreed that English was gaining ground throughout Europe, but said the specifics vary. In Nordic nations, which Hultgren studies, 60 percent of higher education institutions offer courses in English (beyond those that teach the language) and 20 percent of full programs are in English. The Baltics follow in terms of English language adoption, but much of southern Europe is far behind, she said, creating a north-south national divide.

Even in Nordic nations, however, Hultgren said, the reality of English language instruction isn't always the full experience that policies describe. She has been tracking actual classroom experiences, and finds that even in a region where English instruction is of high quality, instructors say that when teaching in English they proceed more slowly than in native Nordic languages, or that students will periodically use non-English words and phrases in classes that are theoretically all English.

The actions are “coping strategies,” she said, and should be viewed as such even if “student and instructors are coping quite well.”

Macaro similarly said that people mean very different things when they talk about programs taught in English. Some mean “the ideal of the native speaker,” even thought that is an impossible level for many to achieve. Yet others consider global academic English instruction to mean anything where there is enough communication to transmit the knowledge -- a far lower bar to get over. That these are both considered the same thing can create all kinds of difficulties as students move from one standard to another.

Kaschula was the most critical of the way English is being adopted globally. He noted that in South Africa, the University of Cape Town recently removed a statue of Cecil Rhodes and that Kaschula's institution, Rhodes University, is considering whether it is appropriate to have a name associated with a key figure in creating apartheid and oppressing black South Africans.

Language, Kaschula said, is a much more powerful force against black students today than the statue or the name, issues he called “superficial.” He said that he regularly hears from black South African students who report encountering difficulty in academic subjects when they are taught in English. With instruction in English (and in the case of Stellenbosch University, also in Afrikaans), Kaschula said, “The young people who are from groups that were marginalized under apartheid are still marginalized and those who were privileged are still privileged.”

Kaschula did not suggest removing English, but rather adding more courses and programs that teach in both English and other South African languages. Citing his PowerPoint, he said it need not be either/or. “We need to keep the mother tongue, the language in which we think the best,” he said.

He noted with pride that his university now requires journalism students to pass an isiXhosa for journalism course.

Macaro also advocated for more bilingual approaches. He said that it's positive that so many European universities outside Britain are attracting students to English language programs. But why, he said, can't such students also be required to demonstrate some competence in the language of the country in which they go to study?

While there seemed to be broad support among attendees for the ideas discussed by the panel, the first question from the audience referred to an “elephant in the room” of international rankings. Because rankings tend to reward universities for international enrollments or scholars whose papers are highly cited, the questioner suggested, universities around the world will continue to push English. The panelists didn't disagree.


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