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Reluctance to Teach in English

European universities are adding English-language programs, especially at the master’s level, but many faculty members object.

August 4, 2017
 

New research has revealed deep ambivalence among academics told by European universities to teach and publish in English, with one even threatening to sue his department rather than switch language.

As European continental universities increasingly switch to English for master’s programs, interviews conducted at the University of Hamburg in Germany show that there is resistance to the shift, even though German students are demanding to be taught in English to improve their future job prospects.

One faculty member told Roger Geertz Gonzalez, a researcher into German higher education at Walden University in the U.S., that “Germany is Germany and not Britain or America” and refused to teach in English. Another said that he would sue his department for using English, but instead decided to leave.

These are extreme cases, and many faculty members were more comfortable with English, but they highlight the language dilemmas facing continental European universities.

“On the one hand, they know that it’s the language of business and science, and want to attract international students,” said Gonzalez. On the other hand, the rise of English in teaching and research “means that scholarship in the German language will decline.”

Two forces are pushing continental European universities toward English. The first is demand from students: one faculty member had been badgered by his German students to teach in English. “They see it as an opportunity to kind of practice that and use it, especially when applying for international job positions inside and outside Germany,” one faculty member told Gonzalez. “And students increasingly appreciate that.”

The second driver is that faculty can now “forget tenure” unless they publish in English, according to Gonzalez, as German universities need English-language publications to help them climb the international university rankings.

One interviewee remarked that his early-career work was “senseless” because it had not been published in international journals that affected rankings, according to “Internationalization at a German University: The Purpose and Paradoxes of English Language,” published in the International Education Journal: Comparative Perspectives.

Susanne Rupp, Hamburg’s vice president, said that physical science departments at Hamburg were now considering teaching all their master’s programs in English. “The working language in the labs is English,” she said.

At the undergraduate level, however, the university used a mixture of English and German. “You have to learn academic discourse in your mother language first,” and then move to English, Rupp said.

Even in the humanities, the language of research is shifting to English, Rupp said. Thirty years ago musicologists, for example, would have to have read German to understand all the work in their field, but no longer. With the shift to English, preserving German’s distinctive style of academic writing was “problematic,” she said.

Just over 44 percent of higher education institutions in Germany offered courses taught in English, according to a 2014 survey, “English-Taught Programs in European Higher Education.” The European average is just over a quarter. In the Netherlands, the proportion is over two-thirds, and in Sweden four-fifths.

But the proportion of students in Europe being taught in English remains small, however, at just 1.3 percent, although this is nearly double what it was in 2007. In Germany, the figure is 1 percent. Denmark has the biggest slice, at 12.4 percent.

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