There Was No Committee


British empire, 1919. Image courtesy Historic UK

English is becoming a global lingua franca not just for trade, industry, aviation, research, and entertainment, but also for higher education. We scarcely needed the conclusions of a new research report by the department of education at the University of Oxford in collaboration with the British Council, released Wednesday, to tell us that.

Ph.D. students in countries like Finland or the Netherlands have (at least in my field) long been writing their dissertations in English rather than in Finnish or Dutch. But at undergraduate as well as graduate and professional levels, more and more non-English-speaking countries are making the decision to use what they are calling English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI).

Idealistic faculty members suggest this could lead to enhanced understanding between peoples of different countries. Canny administrators with an eye on the bottom line observe that they are far more likely to be able to attract tuition-paying international students if their courses are in English rather than Urdu or Uzbek.

Interestingly, some countries are resisting the trend: At least some institutions in countries ranging from Israel to Senegal and from Italy to Venezuela are reportedly holding out against EMI in public education.

One can sympathize: It seems unconscionable that languages with scholarly histories as broad and deep as Hebrew, French, Italian, or Spanish should cease to be thought appropriate for modern university instruction. Yet when you look at the figures for research publications in Hebrew rather than English, or the numbers of employment opportunities for graduates that call for facility in Italian rather than English, you can begin to see the compelling case that can be made for EMI.

Nothing about the dialect of the southern region of the island of Great Britain makes it especially suited to a global role. In fact, choosing English, with its maddeningly stupid spelling quirks (Finnish has none), and its nearly 200 irregular verbs (Swahili has none), and its phonology replete with brutally complex consonant clusters (Hawaiian has none), looks like a choice made by a committee of idiots.

But it was not. Accidents of history conspired to determine the present status of English.

Which language was spoken by the people who managed to gain lasting political control in North America and Australasia, and had temporary political dominance in all of southern Asia and most of eastern, western, and southern Africa?

Which language is spoken in the one place on earth where blockbuster movies for worldwide release are made on budgets running into the hundreds of millions of dollars?

Which is the main language used by the closest to approach Radio Earth, namely the BBC World Service?

Which is the only language used officially for government purposes in more than 60 countries?

Which has been chosen as the norm for all air-traffic control conversations?

A long succession of such accidents has put English so far in the race for dominance in global communication that it can hardly even be called a race now.

Some people talk as if Mandarin Chinese was gaining on English. It is not, and it never will. A Tamil-speaking computer scientist explaining an algorithm to a Hungarian scientist at a Japanese-organized scientific meeting in Thailand calls on English, not Chinese. Nowhere in the world do we find significant numbers of non-Chinese speakers choosing Mandarin as the medium for bridging language gaps. There are no signs of that changing.

The burgeoning of English is pushing ever-larger numbers of small minority languages into extinction, and many linguists lament that. There are two sides to the issue, though. It saddens us linguists that so many grammatically fascinating and diverse languages in so many language families should be dying out, yet who are we to tell an African father, proud of raising his children to speak a multinational lingua franca like Swahili or English, rather than the local dialect of his traditional village, that he is wrong?

We cannot insist that children should be raised speaking some dying minority language (be it Walbiri or Irish or Inuktitut or Mohawk) unless we have jobs to offer them that they can do using those languages.

People must make their language choices for themselves. If they are increasingly choosing to be educated in English, neither fans of linguistic diversity nor politicians taking pride in the national language have a right to overrule them.

Personally, I would never have proposed making English a global language for education or anything else, and I think my life has been rendered poorer by the fact that because I speak English natively I have never been forced by circumstances to develop real fluency in a foreign language. But nobody placed me on the committee to decide on the global language for education. There was no committee.

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