Hold the anglophone

June 20, 2013

The French for “les derivatives vendus par les hedge funds” is “les produits dérivés vendus par les fonds spéculatifs” (“Ce n’est plus la guerre: a global academy vs summarising Proust”, Opinion, 13 June).

As always in policymaking, the headlines tend to oversimplify the realities of legislative choices. While teaching in English is valid for Sciences Po, which as the article says trains young people who are likely to work globally and in English, it is a different matter for many others, and there is as much irrationality among those who favour English in French and German universities as there is among those who oppose it.

Consider the few prestigious centres that exist in France and attract an international crowd. Some, like Sciences Po, are in direct competition with English-speaking institutions. But given the choice between Sciences Po and the London School of Economics, to choose the former you would have to have reasons to be interested in France: would anyone choose to go there for its English education alone? Others offer a highly technical scientific education – there the language is immaterial, as it was for my mathematics courses as a student. And in some, such as the Museum of Man, a shift to English would disrupt a highly successful French-language model.

A key risk of the policy is that English becomes the only way to access the best higher education. While allowing the use of English in French higher education is in itself reasonable, the legislator has not reflected on the effect this will have on access and on the continued capability of the many to handle, in a language they understand fully, concepts that matter to their collective future. Democracy in a sense is in danger when voters do not remember the word in their language for “hedge fund” and fantasise on its possible meaning instead.

In many cases, to substitute high-quality speech in German, French and others with poor English by non-native speakers is not an improvement: the inclusion of English papers and the discussion of language as part of study is a better alternative. Allowing English does not forbid good judgement, of course, but too many non-English speakers (and English-only speakers) believe in the language’s quasi-magical effect on scholarship. The use of study in English as an alternative to improving tuition is inevitable – and disastrous.

I have no doubt that allowing two English speakers who visit a French institution with an international intake to teach in English is an improvement for all and a relief to them. However, the change is neither self-evident nor entirely positive.

As always, the devil is in the detail, and there are reasons to doubt the universal wisdom of that choice.

Charles Boisvert
Via timeshighereducation.co.uk

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