Is English the new Latin?

Is English a new Latin? So say some scholars, referring to the scale and scope of the use of English in research and higher education. Politicians and public officials have also become part of the race to promote and enforce English.

Indonesian leaders have demanded a dual language system. The Minister of Research, Technology and Higher Education, Muhammad Nasir, says that a bilingual curriculum with English as one of the two languages of instruction will be gradually implemented in all universities.

The government encourages students and faculty to communicate in English in order to achieve fluency. Is this something new? In order to answer this question, we will turn to the roots of teaching and learning in medieval times.

Latin in medieval universities

In medieval universities students were taught in Latin not due to international ambitions, but because Latin was a neutral language for students from different countries. There were certain prerequisites for university entrants, but they were not imposed by the faculty. If a prospective student could not read and write in Latin, it would be of no benefit to him to attend a university.

But Latin reached far beyond the classroom. “Latin, it must be remembered, was not merely the language of the ordinary lecture room, but theoretically at least of ordinary student life,” noted the philosopher Hastings Rashdall back in the 1930s. Latin was a common language that not only united students, but was necessary for students from different countries to communicate.

Today, the suggestion is that English should be imposed externally, even if there are no international students enrolled at the university. Such orders reinforce the elite status of English, but do they strengthen the competitiveness of graduates in the international labour market? Will there be sanctions or disciplinary measures for those who don’t conform?

In medieval universities, there were fines imposed on students who spoke languages other than Latin within a university’s walls, not just in class, but also outside the classroom.

For instance, in the Sorbonne a student caught speaking French instead of Latin in the hallway had to pay a fine of four gallons of wine. (According to the university statutes, similar fines were imposed for assaulting a servant or being late for dinner.) The wine had to be delivered to the student’s peers and so there was an incentive for students to report such incidents.

Ukraine’s declarations

Indonesia’s Minister of Research, Technology and Higher Education is not alone in his quest for bilingual universities. The vision of students speaking English in university hallways haunts Ukraine’s Minister of Education and Science as well. Serhiy Kvit wants to popularise English and have college faculty deliver classes in that language, which is in keeping with the country’s aspirations to join the European Union.

This might not come as a surprise since Indonesia and Ukraine have a lot in common. Both are extremely poor countries, with a gross domestic product per capita of just above US$3,000 in 2014, as compared to the US’s US$55,000.

Both have a troubled socialist and dictatorial past and violent clashes mark their modern history. A significant portion of the population in both countries works abroad as day labourers, performing unskilled work. Both countries also face rampant corruption, including in the education sector.

Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko, declared 2016 the Year of English Language. Both Indonesia and Ukraine are holding a big push on English in 2016, which might be a coincidence.

Poroshenko is Ukraine’s first English-speaking president, but he is certainly not the first president to encourage greater use of English in education and public administration. Poroshenko has called for English to become the second working language of the entire country, as it is in Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, a national university and poster child of independent Ukraine.

Ukraine’s realities

Being an associate professor of economics at Bukovyna State University of Finance and Economics, a reputable higher education institution in one of Ukraine’s regions, I staged an experiment: on 1 September, the first day of classes, I started macro-economics classes in English for students majoring in accounting and audit, public administration and computer science.

I identified computer science majors as the most promising in terms of their ability to absorb information in English, but even they were very weak.

A few days later the chair of the department told me that he had a talk with the dean and the dean said that there should be no more lectures in English. He said: “We understand that this is our future, but for now it has to stop.”

Of around two dozen departments in different universities around the city, which were contacted about the possibility of teaching social science subjects in English, not one indicated any interest.

I collected information about other universities, including the top-ranked ones in some of Ukraine’s largest cities. Some departments claimed that they taught a few subjects in English, while others were rumoured to teach in English at masters level.

All of these claims turned out not to be true on closer inspection. Sometimes it is enough to stroll down the hallway to listen to the actual language of the lecture halls. Publishing something on the departmental web page does not necessarily mean that is the reality.

The ‘wannabe’ approach

Universities in different parts of the world are obsessed with internationalisation and this phenomenon is closely linked with English. If they can’t be international, at least they want to appear to be.

The use of a unifying language – be it English or Latin – is not so simple, though. In Rashdall’s words: “The want of proper grounding in the Latin language constituted one of the most glaring defects of the medieval system.” One thing is obvious: the issue raises more questions than it provides answers or guidelines regarding specific policies and approaches.

Universities think this is our future, but is it really? Twenty-five years ago the same people were telling students that communism was unavoidable. Making unrealistic promises may be the safe option because in corrupt societies ruling regimes are not accountable to the public and thus carry no responsibility for their failures.

Are universities in Indonesia, Ukraine and other countries destined to become bilingual, with English becoming their second working language? The reality on the ground, as the Ukrainian experience shows, may suggest the opposite: an outright rejection of English as a language of instruction.

In an ideal world, in the context of a globalising world, the benefits of introducing courses taught in English into the curriculum would be beyond doubt. The doubts come when politicians make claims and set deadlines on something without putting any resources in place.

So, what is this call for more English in academia, after all? Is this just an attempt to follow modern trends? Or maybe it is the same old ‘wannabe’ approach taken to a whole new level of paranoia?

Ararat L Osipian has a PhD from Peabody College at Vanderbilt University, USA. He is author of several books, including Raiderstvo: Corrupt Raiding and Hostile Takeovers.