The spread of English as the global lingua franca has been as pronounced in academia as anywhere else. On the worldwide conference circuit, presentations are invariably in English. So are white papers, as well as the all-important bar conversations – often between multiple non-English-speakers – that are the main draw for these gatherings. Publishing in English is de rigueur in many fields. And universities in non-Anglophone countries are increasingly offering English-language programs aimed not just at English-speakers but at a range of international students.
As the New York Times explained a couple of years ago:
With more than 2,400 programs in English just in the non-English speaking parts of Europe, students can choose to study medicine at San Raffaele University in Milan; economics at Aarhus University in Denmark; law at Leiden in the Netherlands; or business at the IE Business School in Madrid. International Students at Beijing University can take a full course load in English – and also sign up for free courses in Mandarin.
None of this much bothers me. The ubiquity of English, like Latin before it, makes the spread of ideas – and the mobility of individuals – vastly easier. There’s a strong case for viewing a linguistic common currency as empowering, whether to native speakers or to non-English-speaking teachers or students who want to participate in the global academic marketplace.
Of course there are downsides to the dominance of English, as I was reminded the other day when I took part in a web chat hosted by the Guardian. We covered a lot of ground, from worries about “linguistic homogeneity” (namely, a devaluing of non-English-language cultural traditions) to the quality of English language work done by academics who are required for the sake of professional advancement to write, and sometimes teach, in a language that is not their own.
Some concerns seemed prosaic but have broader resonance: a Lithuanian participant fretted about the risk to linguistic diversity and national pride posed by the scramble to do something as basic as creating computer terminology in Lithuanian at a time when computer scientists are all publishing in English.
Others struck me as overtly ideological. One of my co-panelists told the story of a Central European scholar who, she said, was pressured to reverse a paper’s key argument during an English-language journal’s editing process in order to conform to the “dominant understandings.” Another participant referred to the “knowledge making practices of traditions outside of the ‘Anglophone universe,’” which seemed to me an implicit, and dubious, claim that knowledge is culturally determined rather than universal.
Perhaps language is partly about power relations. But you don’t have to be what one scholar calls a “linguistic imperialist” to see the rise of English in much more practical terms. Richard Descoings, the late president of the elite French institution Sciences Po, made this point very bluntly when I interviewed him in 2008: “We have to stop saying that English is one of the languages. It is the language of international exchange: commercial, military, and also intellectual and scientific. How can an economist not speak English? That’s it. It is no longer an object of debate.”
He was right. This does not mean Anglophones shouldn’t learn foreign languages, or that other nations need to give up their linguistic and cultural traditions. A lingua franca is a useful common language, but nobody is suggesting it need be the only language. For that matter, we don’t even know whether English will survive as the dominant world language: Nicholas Ostler, author of The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel argues that it won’t. Until that day, however, English will be the language that makes it possible for physicists from Beijing, Rio de Janeiro, and Rome to collaborate on a research project and schmooze at a conference bar. That’s good for those physicists – and good for the rest of us, too.
Photo Credit: Move One