Why the supremacy of English threatens research-led teaching

Outside the anglophone world, universities are under pressure to conduct research in English – but teach in their local language, says David Matthews

August 6, 2018
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It is inescapable: the language of global business, the internet, science, diplomacy, stellar navigation, avian pathology,” warned a recent long read in The Guardian about the unstoppable spread of English. “Everywhere it goes, it leaves behind a trail of dead: dialects crushed, languages forgotten, literatures mangled.”

This is something that any academic with a non-English native tongue has long known (and perhaps grudgingly accepted). Ninety-nine per cent of world publication in the natural sciences is in English; the language dominates “in print and at conferences, in emails and in Skype-mediated collaborations” and is heard in “the halls of any scientific research facility in Kuala Lumpur or Montevideo or Haifa”, the science historian Michael Gordin has written.

But for universities outside the anglophone world, the language of teaching – as opposed to research – looks like it will remain predominantly local for the foreseeable future.

Across Europe, English-language degree programmes are on the rise. But in the country that took this trend to the extreme – the Netherlands, which offers three-quarters of its master’s degrees in English – there has been a backlash, forcing the universities to propose quotas for English-speaking students.

Unless countries abandon their own languages for English in daily life, culture and business – highly unlikely, but especially so in a time of loudening nationalism – universities outside the anglophone world will always face intense political and social pressure to teach the bulk of their courses in the local language, at least before master’s level.

What this means for Dutch, Chinese, German, Korean or Brazilian universities is that even if their labs echo to the sound of English, their lecture halls will still hum with their local language.

And here lies their difficulty. Universities want to hire from all corners of the globe to attract the very best minds. But if the best mind happens to be a Chinese biologist who did a PhD in the US, the chances of their being able to deliver a lecture in Portuguese in their first term are slim.

Anglophone universities have much less of a problem, because any academic they recruit is quite likely to already have a decent knowledge of English from having been through the global academic system beyond PhD level.

Take some recently released figures from Germany. At the country’s biggest non-university research networks, one in five academic staff is international (at the basic research-focused Max Planck Society, the proportion is close to half).

Universities, however, remain much more German. Only 11 per cent of academic staff there are foreign, and the German professoriate is even less international: just 7 per cent are non-German and, of these, two-thirds are from western Europe.

Part of the reason is that professors are often required to teach in German, thinks Julia Hillmann of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which creates an immediate hurdle to foreigners.

These figures point to a future where countries such as Germany have to hive off their research efforts into internationalised, English-speaking organisations such as Max Planck, with universities recruiting from a local pool of academics still able to teach in German. Or alternatively, they relax teaching requirements on university academics.

The irony is that the unity of university research and teaching – the Humboldtian ideal, where the former informs the latter – is originally a German idea. The global supremacy of English means that this may become ever more difficult to achieve outside the anglophone world.

David Matthews is a Berlin-based reporter for Times Higher Education. 

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Print headline: OK or not OK? The supremacy of English threatens research-led teaching

Reader's comments (1)

This has been the case in academia in Dutch-speaking Belgium (Flanders) for years. Teaching and the admin remains overwhelmingly in Dutch (opposed to developments in the neighbouring Netherlands), and a there is lot of debate and both pros and cons to which way it should develop. However, publishing is entirely geared to the English-language market, much more than Germany even. For universities are publicly funded based on among others, journal citations in Web of Science, from the natural sciences to the humanities, which has paradoxically led to a situation that publicly funded research results are not available in the local languages, let alone accessible to a broader audience (for publishing 'locally' does not aid the individual scholar's CV on the academic job market). Teaching materials, readers, are often in English (next to French and German to a lesser extent and depending on the discipline) as key texts are usually not translated (opposed to eg German-speaking, Spanish, French, market, etc...) Hiring then again is more and more international, and there is the requirement to learn Dutch within 5 years with mixed success stories...

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