Removing the Language Barrier

As European universities continue moving toward standardizing their degree cycles, universities in the continent’s non-English speaking countries are increasingly offering master’s degree programs in which English is the language of instruction — in a bid to increase their competitiveness throughout Europe, and beyond.

“It’s taken off in the past 5 to 10 years, since the advent of the Bologna Process,” says Mariam Assefa, executive director of World Education Services, a non-profit organization specializing in foreign credential evaluation. The Bologna Process, named for the Italian city where the agreement for “harmonizing” European higher education was signed in 1999, aims in part to foster greater student mobility by creating a common structure for higher education in Europe.

“Basically when they decided to open their systems internationally, it was thought that English-language taught programs would make the programs more accessible, because the students don’t necessarily come equipped in German or Dutch or French – particularly if they wish to attract students from beyond Europe,” Assefa explains.

The English-language professional degree programs are primarily in business, the sciences and engineering, but as more and more pop up, more and more options are obviously available. A database of “international” master’s programs (which, by and large, are taught in English) maintained by Finland’s Centre for International Mobility yields 151 master’s degree programs in everything from radio frequency electronics to forest products technology to tourism. The number of master’s degree programs taught in English in Germany has risen to 362, with most of the programs less than a decade old. The University of Heidelberg, for instance, offers master’s degree programs in American Studies, international health and molecular and cellular biology, all in English.

Even France, a nation not known for its love of the English language, has jumped into the arena with a 206-page guide to programs taught in English. “Students no longer have to choose between coming to France and studying in a language they understand,” André Siganos, director-general of Agence CampusFrance wrote in a message to potential students in the front of the guide.

“That,” says Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president for the Institute of International Education, “was a big break-through in France over the past decade or so.”

The faculty composition for these programs can vary, with M.B.A. programs often taught by a mix of international and host country faculty, and engineering programs, on the other hand, mainly taught by host country faculty fluent in English, Blumenthal says. The cost of these programs for international students can also vary dramatically, from nothing at all (the old European price model) to 20,000 Euro or so, or about $27,000 (much more akin to the American model). Yet, by offering instruction in English, the international language of business, universities aren’t solely looking to attract American or British students in search of a cheap(er) or even free program — far from it.

In Germany, for instance, the majority of students are coming from China, India and Latin America, with a “considerable” number also hailing from Eastern Europe, says Ulrich Grothus, director of the German Academic Exchange Service’s New York office. “There’s a much smaller number of students coming from developed countries like the United States or Western Europe – in these particular programs,” says Grothus. “It is true that the majority of American students coming to Germany do so not in spite of the fact that we speak German but because we speak German.”

Hat tip: Edward J. Cunningham


Snake Oil Baron said...

It is fascinating that many decisions that are taken because of the importance of English as a world language end up expanding that importance. Non-English nations offering English educational instruction in order to appeal to students from other non-English nations is evidence of a powerful trend.

Brian Barker said...

I live in London and if anyone says to me “everyone speaks English” my answer is “Listen and look around you”. If people in London do not speak English then the whole question of a global language is completely open.

The promulgation of English as the world’s “lingua franca” is impractical and linguistically undemocratic. I feel I am entitled to say this as a native English speaker!

Impractical because communication should be for all and not only for an educational or political elite. That is how English is used internationally at the moment.

Undemocratic because minority languages are under attack worldwide due to the encroachment of majority ethnic languages. Even Mandarin Chinese is attempting to dominate as well. The long-term solution must be found and a non-national language, which places all ethnic languages on an equal footing is essential.

An interesting video can be seen at http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU Professor Piron was a former translator with the United Nations

A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

Edward J. Cunningham said...

Brian, it may be wishful thinking to hope or imagine that every person on Earth will become fluent in one common language. That being said, I think English may come very close, and I would not be surprised if within my lifetime a majority of people on this planet will be at least partly fluent in English.

Mandarin may become a rival of English, however. Within China--a land bigger than Europe and more populous, it is already a lingua franca. (Not all Chinese speak Mandarin as their first language, but it is increasingly used as a bridge between language groups.) As China becomes more important, more foreigners will learn this language. I see it increasingly as a lingua franca in the Far East. During a business meeting with executives from China, Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore, I can easily see them decide to use Mandarin to communicate with each other rather than English.

Still, I don't see Mandarin overtaking English worldwide. The character-based system of writing will make it more difficult for Westerners to learn than English.

That being said, I may be wrong, and everybody may be speaking Mandarin in one or two generations. But if there is ever going to be an international lingua franca, it's far more likely to be an existing language like English or Mandarin than an artificial one like Esperanto.