Drive to adopt English in academia ‘short-sighted’

Emergence of lingua franca in science should not lead to other languages being neglected in teaching, conference hears

November 9, 2018
Learning English

The drive to adopt English as the lingua franca of academia is “short-sighted” and “neglects other languages”, according to a senior academic.

Speaking at Times Higher Education’s Research Excellence Summit in Moscow, Maria Alm, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Stout’s College of Arts, Communication, Humanities and Social Sciences, said that Western academics who have English as a first language “shouldn’t be so proud as to think there won’t be another dominant language overtaking English in the near future”.

Increasing levels of international collaboration and the growing influence of global rankings – which lean heavily on publication in high-impact, predominantly English-language journals – have driven the development of English as the main language of scientific communication.

Meanwhile, competition to recruit international students has led increasing numbers of universities in non-anglophone countries to offer courses in English.

But Professor Alm warned that universities were “failing to prepare their students [for the future] by neglecting the importance of other languages”.

Last year Wisconsin-Stout set up a “language road map” initiative, which aims to equip all its students with one or more languages in addition to English. In this way, the university says that it hopes to prepare students to “effectively compete in interconnected global markets” and “cross linguistic and cultural boundaries”.

Echoing Professor Alm’s point, Irene Clark, a professor of English at California State University, Northridge, said: “A third of our students speak a language other than English at home…I believe, as we become more international, one day there will be no monolingual English speakers in our university”.

Karen Ottewell, director of academic development and training for international students at the University of Cambridge, said that while English-language institutions have an “unfair advantage” in terms of research output and global rankings, international students are not necessarily at a disadvantage. “Academic writing is something all novice writers have to grapple with – in any language,” she said.

Foreign-language students at Cambridge “actually have an advantage over the home students – because they can already work at a very high level in two different thought systems…[and] very few first-language English speakers have that ability”, Dr Ottewell said.

On academic publishing, Magnus Gustaffson, head of language and communication at Chalmers University of Technology, said that some disciplines are more sensitive to the dominance of English in international journals than others. “There is no computer terminology in Swedish,” he said. “We use English all the time – and when words are developed to describe a term in Swedish, I don’t know what it means.”

However, Dr Chalmers said that countries such as Sweden are increasingly aware of the consequences of publishing in English. “Precious little is published in Swedish anymore,” he said. “It’s something we are having to take into consideration and really think about what that means for the future of our research”.

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Dean: English should not be HE lingua franca

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