The rise of English in academe – A cautionary tale

The rise of English as the global academic language is picking up legal steam in Europe. In late May, amid much controversy, the French National Assembly approved changes to the 1994 Toubon law. Those changes would ease restrictions on courses taught in English at French universities.

The following day, a regional court in Italy went in the opposite direction, striking down plans at the elite Polytechnic University of Milan to offer all masters- and doctoral-level courses in English beginning with the 2014 academic year.

Both developments have unleashed passionate arguments supporting or contesting the move towards English instruction. Percolating beneath this discourse is an inherent tension reflected in separate European Commission calls, over the past month, for internationalising higher education and maintaining instructional quality.

Driving the debate over English are three related forces: the articulated need among European universities to remain competitive in recruiting students; the expressed concern among faculty members to remain relevant in the growing stream of scholarship conducted in English; and the increasing interest among students in expanding their options in a flagging job market where English proficiency carries considerable weight.


For all three groups and their supporters, English is uniformly no longer the wave of the future. It is the imperative of the present. The opposition as filtered through the press is more diverse, varying somewhat by country in tone and emphasis.

In France, resistance to English is largely a matter of national pride. Opponents repeatedly invoke the giants of French intellectual life and literature and the historical role of French as the language of international affairs.

For many of them, yielding to English means nothing less than conceding political defeat to the forces of Anglo-Saxon culture. How could the French replace the language of Molière with that of Shakespeare? As the French philosopher Michel Serres put it, once French can no longer “say everything”, it will be “virtually dead”.

In Italy, disapproval reflects less a heartfelt desire to preserve the language of Dante or belief in the deserved universal power of Italian or hostility towards Anglo-Saxon ‘imperialism’.

Rather it more firmly suggests a cultural attachment to the ‘maternal language’, a fear of losing a distinct Italian identity as a social community and a pragmatic concern for the integrity of the educational programme and for those in the university who lack English proficiency.

The French proposal has now definitively been adopted by parliament as part of a broad set of higher education reforms. The result may not be as significant as generally thought.

Many of the elite grandes écoles and business schools already offer a quarter to a third of their courses and even entire graduate programmes in English, despite almost two decades of constraints under the Toubon law.

In the meantime, the French government has loosened visa requirements, with an eye towards attracting more Indian students, presumably English speaking, to French universities.

Italy – A cautionary tale

The events in France undoubtedly have received wider media coverage. Yet the Italian case, raising questions that reach beyond national borders, is the one that universities, faculty and students should especially watch for its cautionary tale of ‘too little too late’ and ‘too much too soon’.

The Polytechnic University of Milan’s academic senate and board of directors have jointly decided to appeal the decision. In a public statement on Facebook, the university affirmed both its duty to guarantee its students the “right to the best possible education and training” and the institution’s autonomy in defining the instructional programme.

The regional court decision is especially noteworthy for its nuanced understanding of the competing interests at stake. Drawing on universal principles of fairness, freedom of expression and equality, the decision captures the essence of university life.

Its sweeping narrative mines the depths of institutional self-governance, the rights of faculty members to teach, the rights of students to learn, the role of language in teaching and learning and the connection between language, on the one hand, and thought and culture on the other.

The university maintains that it is simply trying to internationalise its graduate programme. Although the court recognised that value in the abstract, it disputed whether the plan would actually achieve that end or merely direct instruction towards a particular language and culture (English) at the expense of Italian.

In any case, in the court’s view, it would undermine the Italian language both as a means of communication and as a vehicle for transmitting understandings and cultural values important to the identity of the Italian people and the Italian state.


But even accepting the university’s argument at face value, the court found that the plan goes beyond what is necessary, indiscriminately covering all graduate courses and all who teach them while failing to minimise the burdens on some of the stakeholders.

The ultimate effect would be to relegate the Italian language, and those faculty members not proficient in English, to basic courses in the undergraduate programme without considering which subjects might lend themselves better to one language or the other.

In the eyes of the judges, the plan lacks “proportionality”.

Some faculty would have to forego teaching advanced courses that would better utilise their expertise and inform their scholarship. Others, agreeing to teach in the programme, would have to totally revamp their course materials based on English. And while some graduate students would eagerly learn in English, others would reluctantly abandon their native language in their area of specialisation.

In zeroing in on the language question, the court opened the discussion to the nature of language learning, the role of language in the university classroom and the potential effect on instructional quality. Mere proficiency in a language, the court noted, does not necessarily imply competency to teach effectively in the language.

That observation merits serious attention. Teaching in a university calls for the ability to formulate and explain complex concepts at a high level of abstraction.

While many professors may publish in English, especially in the sciences, and may be familiar with the technical terms of their disciplines, they are not necessarily equipped to convey fluid thoughts in an academic lecture or in an unscripted class discussion. Of course, that does not mean that such skills cannot be acquired with time, practice and exposure.


Students would face similar challenges. Learning through the medium of a foreign language requires more than conversational skills conventionally taught in foreign language courses.

It demands the capacity to comprehend the spoken word within a broad academic vocabulary and to reformulate, apply and critique those thoughts in writing at times under pressure of testing conditions. For students lacking that capacity in English, the quality of learning would likewise diminish.

Given these foreseeable consequences, the polytechnic plan runs counter to the university’s duty, as claimed in its Facebook posting, to guarantee students “the best possible education and training”. It also runs in part at cross-currents with a recent European Commission report calling for universities to improve the quality of teaching and learning, thereby producing “critically-thinking, creative, adaptable graduates”.

The university has tried to act responsibly in preparing for the changes. It anticipates that visiting professors initially will teach many graduate courses. It has started to appoint native English speakers to its permanent faculty, which it hopes will eventually reach 20% non-Italian.

It has planned extensive English language courses for faculty and students. Yet all these measures, while commendable, do not fully resolve the immediate problem of faculty and students who lack sufficient competency in English.

In the end, the Italian court decision, while admittedly addressing an extreme proposal, underscores the need for caution and planning as universities struggle to address the demands of the global market.

Some countries, like Germany and The Netherlands, have developed the linguistic capital to meet those demands. Italy and France, ranking 19th and 23rd among the 27 European Union members on the Test of English as a Foreign Language, apparently have not.

The day of reckoning has now arrived as both countries race to play catch-up in the competition to draw talented foreign students, and to keep their own English-oriented youth from studying elsewhere.


For countries that have been slow in preparing for the ‘rise of English’, the polytechnic case should prove sobering and instructive.

The issues aired in the court give universities much to consider in balancing their own interests against the equally valid concerns of faculty and students on both sides of this debate.

The case also alerts nations to the critical importance of offering intense English instruction, beginning in the primary grades and preferably from native-English speakers, before claiming educational merit to a dramatic shift towards English at the far end of schooling.

Just as importantly, it informs English-speaking students and faculty of possible weaknesses to look for as universities actively recruit them to participate in such programmes.

No one can dispute that Polytechnic University of Milan, like many of its European counterparts, is on the right track in aiming to internationalise its graduate offerings.

As a recent European Commission ‘communication’ points out, internationalising higher education must be a high priority if Europe is to maintain its 45% share of mobile learners against mounting competition from Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. And as the commission further notes, a de facto part of that strategy is preparing students for a world where English is now the common vehicle of communication across sectors.

That being said, as universities transition to this ‘new normal’, they are well advised to temper their eagerness to increase enrolments and revenue and not to lose sight of preserving the integrity of the academic programme.

As the Italian court makes clear, it demands a sense of balance and good judgment.

* Rosemary Salomone is the Kenneth Wang professor of law at St John’s University School of Law in the United States. Her most recent book is True American: Language, identity, and the education of immigrant children. Harvard University Press.