Speaking the English

Sep 23, 2015 1:30:00 PM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Dr Michael Woolf CAPA International Education

Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

This month, Dr. Woolf writes about the English language and addresses the debate of whether linguistic immersion makes sense as a requirement in study abroad programs that take place in countries where minority languages are spoken.

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I have been going to the European Association for International Education (a sort of European NAFSA) annual conference for many years. The preoccupations expressed in that forum complement and contrast with our concerns in US study abroad. Most strikingly, a key difference is that in Europe student mobility is predominantly a government driven, centralized endeavor. The education of undergraduate students, while important, is also not necessarily the primary objective. The idea of a European Higher Education space marked by transparency and academic exchange at many levels is an explicit aspiration. An implicit objective is the development of a sense of European identity among the young: a response to the historical conflicts that tore Europe apart in the Twentieth Century. The key factor is that international education is the business of government and trans-national governmental agencies.

In contrast, in the American context, individual universities and organizations use their energies to develop trans-national initiatives that enhance their various and varying agendas. European international education is a matter of political policy; the American model is more a matter of creative entrepreneurship at relatively local levels.

172/365  I Want to See the World

Dreams of travel by martinak15

Europeans also endlessly fret over the role of English language in student mobility. In the US there is a relatively untroubled assumption that students studying abroad will be able to do so in their own language. If that were not the case the numbers studying abroad from the US would certainly decline below even the extremely low numbers that currently exist.

Things are different in Europe and the view expressed by Stephane Lopez, a French European Union official, is an extreme version of a common enough sentiment: “The English language is a predator which destroys other languages. When people use English, other languages get crushed”.

In this perception the predominance of English is a form of linguistic imperialism. The mistake that Lopez makes is to see nation and language as inextricably connected.

English, like Latin in medieval Europe, does not belong to any single nation: it is the official tongue of the British, the Americans, the Australians, many Africans, much of the Caribbean and so on. It clearly takes a variety of forms. We are all familiar with the argument that language expresses and inhabits a particular environment, and that it is necessary to study that context in addition to the mechanics of the language.

What context matters in these circumstances? The answer to this question can be expressed as, a kind of linguistic nationalist myth; manifest, for example, in the common enough view (in the UK anyway) that British English is somehow or other a “better” form than African or American English. The argument asserts that British English is less corrupted, closer to some form of original Edenic ideal. A perverse form of linguistic patriotism inhabits this notion. Rules of grammar and spelling, for example, are seen as matters not of evolutionary practice and usage but as expressions of some kind of linguistic sophistication.

British Airways 787 G-ZBJA
Photo: British and American by David Kernan

It is tempting to defend this position on the grounds that the English we use in the United Kingdom is, inevitably, correct. This is, of course, a convenient way to transmit conventions of usage to our students. That is a pragmatic approach to the need for clarity. The conventions become “rules”: structures against which linguistic and academic sophistication is measured. The idea that British English is somehow superior is, however, based on a profound misconception of language and misplaced nationalist mythology. Language is, of course, evolutionary and changes over time.

International education has taught us that values that we assume are universal are rarely so. We also learn that there are forms of language disconnected from national identity. A Chinese pilot landing in Saudi Arabia will converse with the air traffic control personnel in English. The French engineer and the German industrialist will, in all probability, speak in an English that belongs to no national context. This form of English is probably the most widely used and is as neutral as the language of mathematical symbols. This reality challenges the fondly held belief that British English represents the apex of sophisticated communication and that all other forms of the language are degenerate sub-forms of the “Queen’s English” (which she does not really speak by the way). English is, in many environments, a communication tool not an expression of national identity.

Language is simultaneously a key factor in international education. As well as encouraging the acquisition of foreign language, we have an obligation to demonstrate that there are alternative ways of naming the world. A study of the Vietnam War, for example, implicitly assumes a western perspective. A genuinely international curriculum would also consider “The War of Franco-American Aggression” from a Vietnamese perspective. There are numerous examples that reflect crucial historical schisms and alterations, profound issues of perspective: the Falkland Islands are also known as the Malvinas. Derry is also known as Londonderry. Bombay became Mumbai. Madras became Chennai. The names we give to the world shape our conceptions of reality. We need to teach students that reality is not an objective condition but a subjective construct built around the words we use.

Modern Languages at Finger Lakes Community College - Costa Rica 2013
Photo: Learning languages by The LEAF Project

Language is also significant in the context of "quality" in study abroad. Traditional assumptions derive largely from an ideal of integration; students will have the facility to study in a university abroad in the language native to that country and become part of the host university’s linguistic community. Quality is measured by the degree of integration that the program offers. A student who does not know French and who wants to study aspects of France is, by this measure, part of an inferior academic experience. The fact that they may be discussing content at a much higher level than they would be able to do in the native language is not, by this criterion, relevant.

Another consequence of this ideal is that it serves only a linguistically elite segment of the student body and, more significantly, it reduces the range of locations where this ideal can realistically be achieved. It also denies the validity of study abroad to non-language majors. Very clearly, a student of art history should be encouraged to study abroad in Italy even if they have no Italian language ability. That experience should not be characterized as sub-standard or below some kind of idealized (and unrealistic) quality criterion.

It is clearly unrealistic, for example, to expect a non-specialist student to gain the linguistic skills in, say Czech or Hungarian to enable them to study as a fully integrated participant in either of those national systems. I would go further and argue that the non-specialist would be ill advised to spend a great deal of time and effort to learn more than necessary survival skills in those languages especially if their objective is to study the national histories of a number of European countries: an academically credible objective. However, if we retain the fallacious notion that we measure quality in relation to the level of student integration, the logical options are either not to encourage study in minority-language locations and/or to consider courses offered in English in those locations as somehow of an inferior quality. Such a view would denigrate study in, for example, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Scandinavia, much of Asia and the Arab world.

A key issue is whether a history major may legitimately study German history in Germany, for example, without studying German language. That entirely legitimate aspiration can only be met by developing high quality programs in English in Germany. The fact that many European universities are doing precisely that reflects both recognition of the legitimacy of the aspiration and a strategic intention to compete for students with universities in the Anglophone world.

thank you note for every languagePhoto: Thank you by woodleywonderworks

Why should as US study abroad student, who is not a language major, be discouraged from studying history, art, business or sociology in Europe or Asia if they are not a language major? Why should that experience be considered sub-standard? There is no academic rationale to consider study abroad in these circumstances as intrinsically of a lower quality than language integration into a host university.

We tend to live with a myth of permanent decline. There was, we imagine, a golden age -- some lost Eden -- where the sun was always shining and dedicated students could speak many languages. Then (whenever then was) was better than now. This myth permeates the educational profession. It denies fundamental facts: in an increasingly globalized environment, language is not necessarily connected to national identity; the tool of English is needed to open other diverse and valid areas of study beyond language acquisition.

There is no fathomable reason to consider a study abroad experience as second rate because it does not have a pre-requisite knowledge of the host countries’ language. The objective may also be to explore a region in which a number of diverse languages are used. An introductory course in the host language so as to be able to survive and even socialize in that environment is advisable but that is far from the level of linguistic immersion needed to empower the student to perform as a learner in the classroom.

The LEAF Project: Professor Barbara Kruger @ France
Photo: Librairie by The LEAF Project

In another context, in an international classroom, students coming from many different language communities will inevitably need to communicate in English. The reasons are clear: that is likely to be the only language that they will all share; competence in English is a necessary pre-requisite for career development in any transnational context; in the academic context, significant studies are now either written in English or speedily translated. If we insist that students learn the language of a host country to a sufficient level to integrate with native students, we are consigning study abroad in the non-Anglophone world to a marginal and specialist activity. Study abroad would become even more of a peripheral luxury. Such elitism would limit the capacity to democratize study abroad and undermine the possibility of diversifying locations, would impoverish the field of international education.

Ultimately, like it or not, the language of study abroad for the mass of students will be English. They will not however necessarily study English as an expression of a national identity but will use the language as a tool for analysis and exploration of a world elsewhere. We have an obligation to examine critically tired assumptions about language and quality. Unless we can get beyond that tired thinking we are condemned to atrophy.

Thanks Mike! 

Read More From Dr. Michael Woolf

Topics: International Education, Study Abroad