English language in academia

It is a common perception that English is becoming increasingly present in academia. In fact, research confirms this trend. However, whilst small studies display a proportion of 80% of all papers, more accurate examinations find these figures to be an overestimation. Moreover, these studies take into consideration other factors. For instance, the strong process of Anglicization of doctoral dissertations that is taking place; the new editorial policies adopted by some leading European, as well as Japanese journals, which require exclusively English-written publications (Genç, Bada, 2010); in addition, the corpus provided by minor journals, which opt for local-languages submissions, as a form of counterreaction (Rey Rocha, Martín Sempere, 1999). In spite of that, the dominance of English in publication has been confirmed by many studies.

The reason for this is that the English language is given growing importance in the academic field, including not only publications, but also teaching. Here, English is a subject but it is equally utilised as a tool for teaching, with fully English-taught university programmes increasing sharply during the last years (Wächter, Maiworm, 2014). Indeed, this is due more to political and economic reasons, than to linguistic ones.

Nowadays, universities are subjected to the evaluation of sophisticated bench-marking systems, positioning them higher or lower in a ranking system. In particular, they are measured in terms of their performance, which depends primarily on their degree of internationalisation. Considering the leading role attributed to English, this feature translates into universities’ ability to train domestic students for studying abroad, thus being ready for an international English-oriented marketplace; more than that, universities are tested on their ability to attract foreign students and, in other words, obtain higher tuition fees. The fundamental condition to promote such exchanges is providing all the participants with a shared language which has to be prioritized, over the local ones. Moreover, universities are involved in a competition where education turns into a commodity (Hultgren, Erling, 2017). The active use of a language of sure hegemony has some advantages for universities: firstly, it helps to better sell their merchandise; more importantly though, they can gain worldwide recognition.

The same is true for scientific journals. As a matter of fact, prestigious journals have publications in English and they are equally ranked in internationally-known lists. Articles which are published here can reach a wider public and receive more echo, compared to those which appear in minor journals. Such consequences reflect not only in subsequent research, but also in the author’s career and reputation. Conversely, submissions written in local languages or which appear in minor journals are given less importance and treated as smaller studies.

That is why there are concerns within the scholar community about the switch to English language in academia, reducing the power of local languages. In other words, they feel threatened by the English hegemony. However, such worries are justified in that the presence of a dominant language implies a certain degree of its knowledge on the part of a community. This can be seen as compulsory by some scholars (for some journals, it is), especially for those with low levels of English proficiency. Among them, there are mounting fears about a gap between those who can handle the language skillfully and those who don’t, which translates into job opportunities. Another related issue is that they can easily experience a loss of confidence, not being able to express their findings in a language which is not natural for them. In this case, a negative impact may affect both research and scholars. Then, according to others, the preference for the English language may impoverish local languages, along with their users, not being able to effectively communicate in their mother tongue about specific subjects.

Considering such a situation, the problem with the dominance of English in academia could be handled in different ways. A good starting point could be to accord equal status to both English and the local language. More than that, scholars and universities themselves should put stress on the importance of delivering research in local languages as well, so that it can effectively reach an apparently marginal audience too. This proves to be crucial especially when dealing with studies in hard sciences, which are characterized, more than social ones, by technical terminology. Beyond this, non-native English speakers should be encouraged to publish in their own language, in order for their findings to be clearly displayed; this would also permit the authors to handle the subject with confidence in their communication. Lastly, the academic field should promote even local and apparently marginal studies, in the language of the social context to which they refer. The reason is that they can be emblematic of wider phenomenons or just encourage further research. Moreover, maintaining the linguistic relationship is fundamental as well, as it contributes to providing a genuine article, thanks to the culture-specific lexicon.

Such suggestions may not be able to provide exhaustive solutions to a phenomenon which is seen as a problem by many. However, it should be touched by handling its causes first, which are not highly correlated to the linguistic field. Although hardly viable, a huge change in our perspective is thus advisable.

4 min read

Pubblicato da Vanessa Bruno

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