The Inevitability of English: Benefits with caveats

Originally published on The World View on

So, the University of Tokyo has announced a new program that makes it possible for students to take all of their classes in English. Degree programs taught entirely in English are not a new phenomenon but the trend is growing. In many countries, including Italy, Brazil, Spain, China, and Mexico, there have been MBA programs taught entirely in English for some time. This didn’t attract a lot of attention since no one disputes the importance of English to the business world. But there are more undergraduate programs being taught in English, particularly in Europe and increasingly in Asia. Is this a good thing?

This is a good thing in the sense that English, like US dollars and Euros, is a kind of common currency that facilitates movement across borders. English-language instruction allows universities to increase international participation in classrooms throughout the world. After all, more potentially mobile students are likely to speak English than Arabic or Chinese. So if you are a university in Qatar and you want to increase international enrollment to create a more global environment, you increase your likely applicant pool by offering degree programs taught in English rather than Arabic. If you are the University of Tokyo, teaching in English significantly expands the potential to recruit internationally as there are many more qualified candidates who are fluent in their first language plus English than their first language and Japanese.

But is this trend ultimately a good thing? Although I believe that anything that improves global communication is an important advance towards a more promising future, there are caveats.

It is too easy to forget that communicating is much more than words and that language is anchored in culture. There are many words and phrases that simply do not translate and when people attempt to convey cultural concepts in a foreign language, meaning is often lost, or at least changed. I find I communicate best with people who speak Spanish and English. That way I can pull from both languages to make my intentions much clearer than when I am limited to one language. This is why I favor bilingual programs that develop both languages in all students as opposed to language programs developed to integrate students into the language of the host country. And why I am concerned about teaching everyone in English.

Furthermore, English-only instruction generally uses books and articles published in English that unavoidably skew the syllabus and limit the perspectives included. Attention to local/national history, culture, social issues, and arguments may then be diminished.

My other concern about teaching university courses everywhere in English is the potential impact on intellectual development. Although this is not my research area, I do know that how we think and reason is tied to culture and language. We also know that the university years are a critical period of intellectual development that will shape the way individuals function as adults. Academic publications already reflect the degree to which research is conducted in English today. If more and more learning is also done in English will that limit the way ideas are explored and discussed in the future? If we depend more and more on English-language scholarship could this hinder the development of different kinds of intellectual thought and reasoning? I don’t know the answer but I think it is a question worth posing. I recognize the expediency (and inevitability) of the growing dominance of English in a globalized world, but I hope that as we move towards more teaching in English that we will insure that communication in other languages is also cultivated along the way.

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