English is now the acknowledged lingua franca of higher education. What started as a gradual process in the sciences has spread to higher education in general. With the internationalisation of higher education, it was only a matter of time before one language emerged as the dominant language of research and instruction.

We have, of course, been down this road before; in the Middle Ages Latin was the universal language of learning, except that in the age of the internet and globalisation this has translated first into the lingua franca of Europe and increasingly of the world.

The 4,000 to 5,000 ‘hard core’ scientific publications, which serve as references, are in English.

The main language for access to scientific information is English, which has become the dominant, even the sole language, in international scientific symposiums.

The US is where much of today’s research and development is concentrated as well as being the birthplace of the internet, initially developed exclusively in English and through which information of any kind is disseminated. Whether they like it or not, researchers are far more likely to have their work published if it is in English.

The teaching of English as a second language is now universal. The Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands were the first to recognise the dominant roll English would play; other European countries followed, including, with the fall of Communism, eastern European countries.

In the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Germany, the teaching of English is compulsory, with the language attaining a quasi-compulsory status in an even larger number of countries. In the subcontinent of India English is more than a second language and the language of instruction. The British Council estimates that by 2015, two billion people will be learning English worldwide and three billion people, half the population of the planet, will be speaking it.

The Bologna Process, comprising 46 countries, which established a European Higher Education Area has, mainly by promoting the mobility of students and academic staff, contributed significantly to promoting English as the lingua franca of education. The Hokkaido University, Japan, has long recognised that for a country whose language is used only within its boundaries, using English as the language of instruction is the only way to attract foreign students of calibre.

There are currently over 4,500 university courses being taught in English in continental Europe,the largest number in the Netherlands followed by Germany, Sweden and France.

The prestigious Politecnico di Milano, a world leading school of engineering, announced in April 2012 that with effect from 2014 all postgraduate courses and a large number of undergraduate courses will be taught and assessed entirely in English. According to the university’s rector: “We strongly believe our classes should be international classes – and the only way to have international classes is to use the English language.” He asserts that other Italian universities will follow.

In an age of globalisation and internationalisation of higher education, the only way to attract overseas students from the emerging economies of India, China and Asia, and fund ongoing research, is to have courses in English. As the Politecnico put it, there is “no other choice”.

At the end of the day, the market place dictates. English is the lingua franca of commerce; a number of non-English companies adopt English as their company language; transnational companies and companies with international brands do likewise.

Globalisation has witnessed an increasing number of mergers between companies domicile in different countries, these too, in large measure, have adopted English as the language of communication and as a global marketing tool. English gives them a global perspective, they no longer belong to or are associated with a particular nation or culture, they belong instead to the world; modernity is associated with English.

Contracts between companies that do not share a common language are, more often than not, drafted in English. Furthermore, international tenders require applicants to submit their offer in English or to submit an English version.

English is gradually becoming the language of diplomacy, with a new generation of diplomats being trained in British and American universities. Nowhere is this more obvious than in EU institutions and affiliated agencies which, while promoting plurlingualism, has established English as the supranational language of these institutions.

The world is a village and English is the lingua franca; institutes of higher education have come to recognise this. Italy’s most prestigious business school, Bocconi University, has been offering courses in English for over a decade. Their reasoning: “The lingua franca of business is English and you need to know it. Our students are very active on the international market and demand an international environment.”

The aim is to give students “important tools to do work in a globalised world.” A command of English is a prerequisite for employment in a globalised world.

With the exception of Spanish and French in their former colonies, the other European languages are now ‘parochial’ languages; what is to become of them?

Clearly, they must be preserved for reasons of national identity and preservation of culture. In this regard a pass rate of 56.6 per cent in the Maltese Sec is inadequate for a national language; is it perhaps time for a radical unemotional rethink, considering the current formula does not appear to be the right one for a globalised world with a dominant language.


John Portelli is chairman of St Edward’s College Board of Governors.

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