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Let’s Not Fret About the Dominance of English in Global Academe

Several articles in the past week have caused me to reflect anew on the role of English in globalization – more specifically, in the globalization of the academic enterprise. The first, by UCLA historian Peter Baldwin, is very much in sync with the views I express in The Great Brain Race. In a New York Times symposium about an important but somewhat controversial new report on brain drain from France to the United States, Baldwin highlights the decisive role English has played in global intellectual commerce. “…the role of English as the lingua franca – in both research and teaching – means that scholars can go anywhere without being burdened by the need to retool linguistically, or forever be Dr. Strangeloves professing in heavy accents.”

Once upon a time the scholarly linga franca was Latin, of course – the language of the Church, and thus of the earliest Western universities. It allowed students and professors from diverse nations to study together, just as English does today. English provides a linguistic common currency not just at international conferences but at many campuses around the globe. Writes Baldwin: “The Scandinavian universities – otherwise cursed by obscure languages – function in large measure in English at all levels, at least in those fields that are not wholly Scando-centric. British historians write books on German history that are best-sellers in the country of their focus.” Other examples abound – the creation of English-only mandates for undergraduates at elite South Korean universities, for instance, or the availability of English-language master’s degrees at certain French and German universities.

But is there a danger of unhealthy homogeneity, or even cultural imperalism, in such widespread reliance on English? Such criticisms, or variants on them, by no means come only from the non-English-speaking world. Many in Anglophone nations fret about the insularity that may come with monolinguism. Writing in the Chronicle last month, Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, condemned the recent announcement by the State University of New York at Albany that it would eliminate major, minor, and graduate programs in French, Italian, Russian, and the classics. “Until Americans see learning languages as an indispensable enterprise, we must argue, continuously and vigorously, for the centrality and indisputable relevance of this area of study.” Moving from an inward-looking to a cosmopolitan world view, Nigel Thrift of the University of Warwick argued in a post on this blog the other day, may require small but telling symbolic steps: his campus has posted signs in its main building that welcome visitors in 25 languages.

As a long-ago comparative lit major, I certainly applaud the study of foreign languages. I still believe that the ability to speak (and ideally read and write) another language or two is the mark of a well-educated person, not to mention a huge practical asset for anybody, whether businessperson or tourist, seeking to understand and engage with other nations and their citizens. At the same time, I have more than a little ambivalence on the subject because of the element of self-flagellation that so often accompanies laments about American monolingualism. When I give speeches on academic globalization, I am often asked whether the U.S. lead in higher education is threatened by our infamous shortcoming when it comes to learning foreign languages. I can’t credibly argue that it does. If there was ever a race for global linguistic dominance, it is over, and English is the clear winner. By one estimate, nonnative English speakers worldwise outnumber native ones by three to one. On the global academic scene, English is the key to university access and scholarly collaboration everywhere. Foreign students and professors learn English because they have to. If, thanks to shifting academic power centers, a knowledge of Chinese or Korean ever becomes essential to academic advancement, U.S. students who want to make a mark on the international research scene will be rushing to sign up for language classes.

That particular development seems unlikely in the near term, but who knows what the next 50 or 100 years will bring? English may not last forever as the world’s numero uno language. As I learned from a Wall Street Journal review of The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel, author Nicholas Ostler argues that English is likely to have far less staying power than once-ubiquitous world languages such as Latin and Greek. Ostler notes that English isn’t used by global religious institutions, as Latin was, and that its dominance as the world’s language of commerce could be significantly eroded by the rise of popular regional languages like Russian. He doesn’t predict that Chinese, or any other widely spoken language, will take its place, but rather that no one language is likely to again rule the world. I have not yet had a chance to read Ostler’s book, so I don’t know how he applies his analysis to the continued supremacy of English on the global university scene. For now, it seems to me that the possibilities for intellectual exchange opened up by the spread of English as a common tongue are so significant that a return to Babel would be a scholarly setback indeed.

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