The University Record, January 28, 1997

English as universal academic language: good or bad?

By Dean Bakopoulos
News and Information Service


"Is the increasing dominance of academic English a threat to academic cultures?" That's the question a multi-national panel tried to answer Jan. 20 as part of the University's MLK Day activities. The panel discussion in the Frieze Bldg., titled "English Triumphant: A Problem as Much as a Solution?," was moderated by John M. Swales, professor of linguistics and director of the sponsoring English Language Institute.

Panelists included graduate students from six countries: Ummul Ahmad (Malaysia), Daniel Chavez (Mexico), Hong-jiao Ouyang (China), Claudio Simon (Brazil), Izumi Sakamoto (Japan), and Jens Treup (Germany).

Swales introduced the discussion by stating that English has become the language of choice for many international scholarly journals, and the trend is continuing to rise. Swales also noted that an increasing number of international universities require professors to publish scholarly work in English; those that are unable or unwilling to do so face an uphill battle in securing tenure and promotions.

"Anglophone America is the global academic gatekeeper," Swales said.

But as the title of the panel indicates, this spread of anglophone America into academic circles is viewed by many as both a problem and a solution. And the multi-national panel echoed that view.

Ahmad said that in her native Malaysia, a movement exists to keep Malay, the language protected by the country's constitution, as the language of choice in academic circles. Still, the rapidly changing worlds of science and technology seem to be pushing Malaysian academics more and more toward English. She said young people know that if they want to be successful in the business, legal or academic professions, they need to learn English.

Most of the panelists agreed with many of the sentiments expressed by Ahmad. All acknowledged the importance of the English language for one's career in the world of international academics. And most agreed that having such a widely-spoken language was at least somewhat beneficial to the academic world.

Ouyang said that it took a long time for Chinese academics to warm up to the idea of using English. "But we came to realize the importance of using academic English as a tunnel, a bridge, a tool to communicate with the outside world," Ouyang said.

Simon asserted that in engineering, it is very helpful to have one language that is spoken in academic circles throughout the world. While an undergraduate in Brazil, Simon did most of his work in Portugese. But once he reached the graduate level, everything was done in English. He believes a common academic language simplifies the international communication of ideas in his field.

Still, many of the panelists agreed that there is a threatening element to academia's rapid turn toward English. Perhaps most vocal about the threat was Tuerp, who said that many great minds in his native Germany and other European nations are largely unknown and ignored since they do not publish research in English. He called academic English "both an opportunity and a threat."

"As a non-native speaker you are always an outsider," Tuerp said. "If you want to get noticed in your field, you absolutely have to publish in English."

Tuerp illustrated his point by referring to the prestigious German science publication, Journal of Anatomy and Embryology. Established in 1876, it was then known only by its German name and published only in German. In 1974, an English subtitle was added. Today, the magazine is known only by its English name and will only publish work written in English.

A potential concern for many of the panelists was that the trend in academic language will spread into their nation's cultures, rendering English as the preferred method of communication in all aspects of everyday life across the globe.

Chavez was perhaps the most optimistic regarding the state of his own native language---Spanish. "We are specialists in cultural resistance," he said. While academics definitely are making English their language of choice, Chavez said more and more young people in Mexico are embracing Spanish, especially in the realm of popular culture, and they seem largely uninfluenced by English's dominance in the academic arena.

"Spanish is now the language of rock and roll in the Americas," he quipped. He sees that as proof that the anglophone trend in academia will not seep into the rich and diverse cultures of the global community.