Linguistic battle sparks revolt against globalisation

A recent decision from the Italian Constitutional Court affirms the primacy of the Italian language in the nation’s education institutions. Though grounded in Italian law, the ruling and its surrounding facts offer useful insights to universities across the globe as they ride the wave of English in the name of internationalisation.

The controversy goes back to 2012 when the faculty senate of the prestigious Polytechnic Institute of Milan, by a vote of 28 to one, approved a plan to offer all graduate programmes solely in English within two years. For the university the move was essential to enhance its reputation, attract foreign students and faculty and prepare young Italians for the global job market.

A group of 100 faculty members thought otherwise and mounted a legal challenge to the plan’s sweeping scope.

In May 2013 the regional administrative court struck the plan down in a richly textured opinion upholding constitutional principles of equality, the right of students to learn and the right of faculty members to teach.

A key part of the decision was a statute adopted in 2010 that allowed university courses in a foreign language to promote international careers. The judges interpreted the law narrowly, requiring that new courses in a foreign language supplement and not supplant existing courses in Italian.

The university appealed to the Consiglio di Stato, the national administrative court. Here the court held that the university had legitimately exercised its autonomy within the meaning of the 2010 law. But it questioned whether the law was “manifestly congruent” with Article 3 of the Italian Constitution granting equality based on language, Article 6 safeguarding the rights of Italy’s linguistic minorities and Article 33 protecting the freedom to teach.

The judges suspended the decision and transferred the case to Italy’s Constitutional Court to address these concerns.

Equal access

That brings us back to the recent decision, five years after this all began. In a well-reasoned opinion, the Constitutional Court upheld the constitutionality of the 2010 law in general, but set constitutional constraints on how universities might apply it.

First, the court placed the Italian language front and centre. Italian is important, the court said, not just to transmit the country’s heritage but as a modern-day cultural asset in itself.

From there the opinion raises Article 34’s guarantee of equal access to the highest levels of education, noting that not all capable students have equal opportunities to learn English or the means to enrol elsewhere. It suggests that universities have the obligation to provide adequate (language) supports.

It affirms the freedom of professors to teach in Italian if they so choose and disagrees with assigning them courses on the basis of language skills rather than competence in their discipline. The opinion counsels that institutional autonomy in Article 33 also implicates rights of access to services.

Within that framework the court laid the ground rules for using languages other than Italian as the medium of instruction. Universities cannot offer entire programmes in another language, the court warned, unless they offer parallel programmes in Italian. But they can offer individual course units entirely in other languages provided the choices are reasonable, proportionate and appropriate and do not reduce Italian to a subordinate position.

It now rests with the Consiglio di Stato to apply these constitutional limits to the facts at hand. The decision does not allow the court much discretion on remand.

The Polytechnic Institute’s plan to offer all graduate programmes only in English is extreme especially in Italy. Since 2012, the university has moved resolutely towards its goal, tempered only by the ongoing litigation. As of this year, it offers 26 programmes only in English, six programmes only in Italian and seven programmes in both Italian and English.

The prospect of offering parallel programmes in Italian and English across the board could prove financially unfeasible as the administration argued when the court raised that possibility in 2014.

The approach taken by the court is measured and pragmatic. The judges undoubtedly understood the institutional turmoil and political resistance that striking down the 2010 law could have created. They could not ignore the realities of English language courses in universities nationwide and the need for Italy and its universities to maintain a competitive position in the global economy.

At the same time, however, they had to convey a clear message that universities cannot lose sight of constitutional principles or of the Italian language and what it represents to the nation and its people.

Support for Italian

Exactly how this drawn-out dispute will end remains to be seen, though the changes in the Polytechnic Institute programme could be seismic. Yet one thing is for sure. The decision has sparked a groundswell of support for the vital role of Italian in the life of the country.

A week following the pronouncement, the Accademia della Crusca, the Florentine society dating back to the 1500s and dedicated to preserving the Italian language, issued a press release affirming the importance of the court’s ruling.

Meanwhile, an ongoing petition posted on the internet and directed to the president of the Republic and other high level officials, gathered more than 1,000 signatures in just four days. The numbers continue to grow. Entitled “L’italiano siamo noi”, it calls for a “new, diverse and active Italian language policy”.

On its face are the images of Dante, the father of modern Italian, and Galileo, the father of modern science: icons from Italy’s storied past and symbols of what some fear may be forgotten in the race towards English instruction.

The Constitutional Court’s decision is significant for Italian universities and especially for the Polytechnic Institute. Yet the public response it has elicited raises equally important questions.

Will the passions unleashed in preserving the national language sweep beyond academia and beyond Italy? Will the decision’s legal weight give momentum to a backlash against English and globalisation eroding national identities?

The Italian Constitution is not unique in protecting language rights and education access. So will forces in other countries follow Italy’s lead and draw the courts into the debate over global English? Or will the initial fervour soon evaporate in the air of academic “business as usual”?

In these uncertain times, it’s hard to predict how the political winds might blow. For that reason and others, this is a case worth carefully watching.

Rosemary Salomone is the Kenneth Wang Professor of Law at St John’s University School of Law, USA. She is the author of True American: Language, identity, and the education of immigrant children (Harvard University Press) and is currently writing a book on global English and linguistic justice for Oxford University Press.