University Study Programmes in English Yes or No?

Audience of the RheinMoselCampus

At universities all over the world English is becoming more and more important as the language of instruction. It is however still a moot point whether this is of real benefit to the international academic community.

A few months ago a linguistic dispute hit the headlines, namely the question whether scientists and academics should be allowed to hold lectures in English at universities in France? The Minister for Economic Affairs, Geneviève Fioraso, wanted to adapt a ban from the year 1994 that had been stipulated in what was called the Toubon Law and make it fit in with the modern-day world. Her plan however came up against fierce protest from language preservationists and opposition politicians. In the end the law went though, but only in very watered down form. A few weeks before there had also been similar discussions in Italy.

“English has become at least one of the languages of instruction in almost every country in the world and in the English-speaking countries themselves it is the only one. Even in France, ‘la grande nation’ that is so proud of its language, several hundred courses held in English have been available for over ten years; in Germany English is being introduced as the language of instruction in more and more subjects,” explains Ulrich Ammon, linguistics professor at the University of Duisburg-Essen. According to Stefan Hase-Bergen from DAAD (the German Academic Exchange Service) the number of international study programmes, i.e. mainly English-language programmes, has increased substantially over the last few years. In its series of publications, International Programmes in Germany, DAAD has already compiled a list of over 1,200, and there are over 7,000 courses available in Europe on the whole – and the trend is unbroken. This development, however, is not just being observed with growing unease in France and Italy, but also in Spain, The Netherlands, Scandinavia, Portugal, Russia, Poland and Germany. The critics, however, seem in general to be less able to assert themselves than those who support the idea of English as a language of instruction.

No English, no success?

Anybody who wants to make a name for him or herself on the international stage, has to speak English, as many advocates argue. The researchers of the future should be able to speak and understand the international language of science and the universities would like to become more attractive for foreign students. It is already a well-known fact, as Ammon emphasises, that any researcher today who does not have an excellent grasp of English won’t get very far. “In the realm of the natural sciences the overall opinion is that anybody who does not publish in English, is not one of the best in his field.” Other fields of science are also quite definitely affected as well, “In the meantime more academic and scientific literature is published in English than in all the other languages together. Many of my older colleagues, however, are not able to take part actively in international conferences, because their English is not good enough.”

The question whether more courses in English at German universities also attract more foreign students has also become somewhat debateable in the meantime. There has in fact been an increase in the number of foreign students attending English-language courses in Germany rather than other courses. As proof, however, that more and more foreign students are becoming more mobile can only be partly accepted. The fact is many students actually come to Germany to learn German.

Ralph Mocikat from the Arbeitskreis Deutsch als Wissenschaftssprache e.V. (Working Group for German as a Language of Science and Scholarship) suspects that courses held in English will sooner or later act as a deterrent for foreign students, “Various surveys have shown that these so-called international students are often not very happy in English-language courses.” One reason for this, he went on to say, was that if they do not speak German, they cannot participate fully in German society.

When the languages of science die out

There are however some other reasons why critics are against the dominance of English as the language of science, “The alleged international language of science just happens to be the national language of global superpower, USA; so it is after all then a question of dominance. Furthermore it is in contradiction to Germany’s foreign cultural and educational policy, when the DAAD organises and propagates English-language courses from taxpayers’ money,” says Helmut Glück, a German Studies professor from the University of Bamberg. He is afraid that too much English at universities will have an adverse effect on people’s capacity for innovation and on the overall diversity of languages, “There is possibly a connection between people’s academic cognitive abilities and the language they work in. Should German disappear from some subjects as the language of communication, then that would be problematic for the status of the language.” These theories however are also controversial.

Stefan Hase-Bergen from DAAD is of the opinion that courses can still be offered in English without German being neglected, “We are happy about every foreign student who comes to Germany with a good knowledge of German. The truth is, however, that many a bright mind would not come to Germany if there were no courses held in the English language. We need these people because as alumni, ambassadors for Germany or as information channels they maintain contact with Germany.” According to Hase-Bergen, although they study in English, they do in fact manage to gain a working knowledge, often a good knowledge, of German, “This is also one of the plus points of these courses.” The German Rectors' Conference (the HRK) in the meantime has also developed some comprehensive recommendations for language policy at German universities. They provide for both English being the international lingua franca, along with a specific knowledge from a range of other languages of science. A large number of both German and international experts were involved in the drawing up of these recommendations. What the universities are actually going to do with the recommendations, however, remains to be seen.