When will most universities teach in English?

Higher Education Minister Genevieve Fioraso this past week introduced a bill that would allow French universities to teach more courses in English, even when English is not the subject. The goal, she explained, is to attract more students from such countries as Brazil, China and India, where English is widely taught, but French is reserved largely for literature lovers.

“Ten years ago, we were third in welcoming foreign students, but today we are fifth,” she said in a Q&A in the magazine Nouvel Observateur. “Why have we lost so much attraction? Because Germany has put in place an English program that has passed us by. We must make up the gap.”

The reaction?

Yet it has sparked cultural and nationalist outrage — not only from Paris intellectuals but also from several dozen members of Parliament, opposition as well as Socialist, who insist that learning French should be part of any foreign student’s experience in France.

From Jacques Attali:

“Not only would such a reform be contrary to the Constitution (which provides in its Article 2 ‘the language of the Republic is French’), but you cannot image an idea that is stupider, more counterproductive, more dangerous and more contrary to the interest of France,” he intoned in a blog.

There is more here.  On one hand, on-line education makes fluency in English more important for plugging into dominant networks.  On the other hand, technologies of easier subtitling and dubbing may keep other languages in contention.  Still, I predict the former effect will win out, just as the internet has boosted English more generally, with or without Google Translate.  The internet has indeed done a good deal to preserve, record, and ultimately transmit true minority languages, Nahuatl being one example of many, but it has not elevated them into general media of instruction.


Back in the 1970s, Freeman Dyson worried about the coming dominance of English creating a global intellectual monoculture that would lack resistance to viral bad ideas.

Which is an irony if you think how many Stalinist or Maoist mass murderers were educated in Paris.

Care to list those, other than Pol Pot?

But yeah, attracting "more students from such countries as Brazil, China and India" while teaching in English seems like a recipe to make France less Frenchy.

What have the French ever done for the world?

I was a university student in a non-English speaking country. Most of my undergraduate classes were in my native language but most of the graduate courses were in English. The custom was that if even one of the participants of the lectures were foreign, the class would be taught in English. Since then, the university has changed the official language of their master's and phD degrees to English. According to the press, most of the students were very happy with this since in the fields of engineering and science, the universal language is de facto English.

My own feeling is that multiple languages in the intellectual discourse just create unnecessary barriers between people. I even wish that I had grown up with English as my native language since today, both in my work and on the internet, I use English more than I use my native language.

In a global world in the age of the internet, having multiple different languages is an inconvenience that we can do without.


And not only am I French but I am not even an engineer... ;)


At another level, I think The Economist had an article about what they called "Globish," which was the subset of English spoken when say an Korean business man interacts with a Brazilian one. The idea was that Globish, a smaller English, is the working Esperanto. Given the flexibility of English, I think we should expect a Globish that will continue to evolve, as ex-colonial English evolved from the source.

It's funny how often these objections against English come from academics in fields like philosophy, literature, history, politics etc. whereas a very small fraction of those foreign students coming to France are going to be for these fields.

I bet a majority of that chunk from " Brazil, China and India" comes for STEM and professors in those areas never care much for these language-wars.

But of course for French literature and a considerable body of history, not just French, it is awkward to teach in English when all the texts are in French. I spent 8 years of my life learning French, so I am biased.

My experience with Chinese universities is that the level of English is terrible in the classroom setting. In dealing with Chinese scientific and technical personnel, I am always grateful when I am alone with them and can switch to my rather poor chinese.

"It’s funny how often these objections against English come from academics in fields like philosophy, literature, history, politics etc. whereas a very small fraction of those foreign students coming to France are going to be for these fields. "

This is not strictly speaking true. There are indeed a lot of foreign students go to France to study literature, arts, or even French language itself. Also, if an international student wishes to pursue employment in France upon graduation, he or she will have to work hard on learning French because few serious French companies will hire someone who can only speak English to their customers.

The same argument against "press 1 for English" also applies here. Imposing a non-dominance language in any culture will naturally run against the demands of the market and hence fail.

"Imposing a non-dominance language in any culture will naturally run against the demands of the market and hence fail."

There is no imposition in this bill; it is merely permissive, allowing universities to teach courses in English if they want to. The imposition is (presumably) in the existing law that mandates French.

The bill, further, is clearly a response to market demands: the French universities are losing customers to German universities that have English instruction.

There's a difference between the level of French you need to learn to get around, talk to customers etc. as opposed to what you'd need to absorb a complicated technical lecture in French.

I guess there'd be a lot of students who'd want to learn enough French for employment, leisure etc. but not to the level that lets them understand "Advanced Thermodynamics" in French.

I've noticed the opposite. NE Asian students find it easier to learn enough French to follow advanced thermodynamics or particle theory while having a difficult time struggling with leisure french or french beyond buying stuff in a supermarket. It also seems to be true for those students learning English and studying science in the USA.

They're trying to do the same thing here in Italy. Long term, Tyler may well be right, but I predict that one of the main short and medium term consequences of universities in France and Italy switching to teaching through English will be a lot of institutions teaching in really, really bad English. Teaching and studying in English only makes sense if people know the language. In France and Italy, they don't. I pity the essay markers.

From the quote above it seems like this is aimed at foreign students. If you can't find many Italians who speak decent English, then there might be an Italian stream and and English stream. The latter can be taught in *good* English, but the real advantage is that it can quietly be made very mickey-mouse (always tempting when the students pay fees) while trading on the reputation of the university as a whole.

The true language of international communication being Broken English anyway, I guess that's fine.

Here's what physicist Freeman Dyson had to say on the subject in "Disturbing the Universe" in 1979:

"In the future as in the past we shall be healthier if we speak many languages and are quick to invent new ones as opportunities for cultural differentiation arise. We now have laws for the protection of endangered species. Why do we not have equally strong laws for the protection of endangered languages?"

For example, you can see the danger of the global spread of stupid memes in, for example, the bizarre reverence that the New York-centered media give to Emma Lazarus's dumb poem about immigration. Fortunately, the Japanese don't read English and thus take a more rational, less schmaltzy-approach to thinking about the pros and cons of immigration than do English-readers. The Italians are somewhat similar in their lack of mind-colonization by kitschy English language memes.

Steve, interesting to see you speak up about the dangers of a lack of diversity!

Actually this is probably only a temporary thing (move to English) as realtime audible rapid accurate translation software becomes more and more prevalent, there will be less and less need to actually force people to learn another language other than their native one. Learning other languages is hard and also takes up time that you could be learning other stuff. Right now the incentive equation is the other way (better learn English or you will have much lower income) but quickly it will switch. Maybe not next year, but certainly in 30 years.

I speak English, and I have no idea about what poem you are talking about.

Although now, I am going to look it up.

Sailer praising diversity! What a pleasant surprise!

I thought Sailer's arguments are generally that "diversity" as practiced by immigration supporters is a fraud foisted on us by elites who have no real interest in variety or true cultural diversity. The point of "diversity" is to undermine the dominant culture of middle-class America (or middle-class Europe) in order to eliminate competition.

There is a big difference between everyone adding English (or Globish) to their language set, and everyone making English their only language. And that is certainly different again than trying to preserve countries as language parks.

I'd love to see English consolidated as the international language, but I would certainly advise no one to abandon their heritage language. One reason would be that those heritage languages do stimulate other perspectives.

The Japanese may be changing.


Little Communauty Colleges with local vocation like most French Universities shouldn't use English.

English should not be the main question in this topic. It is not stated on the article but I assume this reform is aimed at public higher education in France.

Why do they worry students go to Germany? Why do they want to attract students from Brazil, India and China? If it were private education I understand the goal of attracting more students, but public education in France? It is more complex, I think a few hypothesis behind the "government" and the "university system" worries.

For the government, as some people said, the High Education minister may be thinking about STEMs. After studying some of them may stay and add to France economic output, pay taxes to support the hungry government, etc. They ones that leave are more likely to do business with France (networking), also positive. Looking at how other STEM higher institutions in Europe have switched to English with no problem and good results, may give them ideas too.

For the university system, Demographics may be the answer. French fertility rates have been under replacement levels since mid 70s. The slow population increase is due to immigration, but immigrants live in banlieues and don't go to college that much. Meanwhile, universities have been getting endorsements, getting bigger. Maybe there is overcapacity of higher education in France. That's why they worry about not having enough foreign students. If they don't get students soon, they won't be able to justify government expenditure in higher education. They'll have to close faculties and fire teachers.

For the "hate", it can be really simple for the average French politician or taxpayer. French public higher education teaching in English is just like University of California charging in-state tuition to Mexicans for degrees in Spanish just to attract "talent".Kind of difficult to sell this story to voters.

So, what's really going on here? Statistics are needed to know what drives the "courses in English" proposal.

I was going to make the same objection.

What exactly is the point of having a school physically located in France teach courses in English to students from Brazil?

The equation doesn't add up. Now the following scenarios do work:

a) A school in Brazil teaches Brazilian students, using English as the languageof instruction, English being the top language.

b) A school in France uses English as the language of instruction to French students.

c) A school in France teaches Brazilian students using French as the langauge of insruction. The students may want to settle in France afterwards or improve their French for other reasons..

d) A school in France teaches Brazilian students using Portuguese as the language of instruction.

The point being that if English is really that dominant that all students at the university level want instruction in English, there is no reason from the students' perspective to go to a school in a non-English speaking country to be taught in English. If English is really that dominant, universities in Brazil as well as France would be teaching in English. For convenience for Brazilian students, a school in France and a school in the U.S. should be even. For access to English, a school in France and a school in Brazil is even. The entire comparative advantage of the school in France is really tied to its ability to offer instruction in France.

From the point of view of the people running the university, the only purpose of offernig instruction in a non-native language would be to attract foreign students who are native speakers of that language. Again, if you have a situation where a third language has total dominance of all professions, then you would expect schools everywhere to teach in that language. I'm also sceptical of the drive to cultivate foreign sources for tuition fees for other reasons.

So I have a hard time coming up with a situation where this makes sense. Maybe Brazilians are unable to go to the U.S. or some other Englsih speaking country for education but can legally go to France. And the U.S. dominates France to such an extent that schools in France will teach in English, but doesn't have the same dominance over Brazil. But this situation implies that the students are fine with Portuguese language instruction precisely because English isn't as dominant in Brazil. You really have to go back to the situation before independence when there was no higher education in Brazil at all for this to make sense (and even then the elite went to schools in Portugal).

I assume there are lots of good schools in France which are genuinely good and whose comparative advantage is not that they merely teach in French. In which case, they might want to attract foreign students who seem more willing to go to places that will teach them in English.

The fact that you have a competitor that already teaches in English (USA) is not an argument against France entering the competition. As to why they might want foreign students (1) money from fees (2) researchers to do research (3) smart people to feed the French economy.

Considering most of public universities in France have yearly tuition around 800-1000 euros for graduate level. Money is not coming from students, it's coming from direct transfers from government and research grants. So, let's take they need more proficient workers for doing research.

Universities used to teach in Latin; after their brief spell using local dialects, they are swapping to teaching in English. No big deal.

Fun fact (or meme): a person once had her UK visa application delayed because they were not satisfied that her degree really came from an English-language university. That University was Princeton (or Harvard or some such); the problem was that the degree certificate was written in Latin.

BTW: For a long time French was the common language of European elites. Did that ever penetrate into university class rooms?

Of course. Where do you think the elites were going back then?

NB: Someone was saying that, in Brussels, it was possible to have meeting where most of the people attending were more comfortable in French but the meeting would be in English because there'd be at least attendant who had no French whatsoever while everyone had at least some English.

Some would say that this is how we're losing the battle of languages but, honestly, this battle was lost by Louis the XVth and all we're doing since then is fighting a rearguard action.

New software making translation instant may preserve a variety of language but, honestly, what's the point? The purpose of language is to communicate. One people, one planet, one language...

Someone was saying that, in Brussels, it was possible to have meeting where most of the people attending were more comfortable in French but the meeting would be in English because there’d be at least attendant who had no French whatsoever while everyone had at least some English

I'm related to someone who is American, and would have meetings switch to English for his sake.

He was personally embarrassed by it, but it happened nonetheless.

That European joke is at least 30 years old.

I'm so old that I had to learn to read German because so much of the best chemical literature had been in German. Stuff happens and things change; somewhere there's probably even a fool claiming that the change to English is justified because it's a particularly wunnerful language, or because it's the language of Shakespeare.

Then again, I'm so old that when my main interest was mathematical modelling, and I needed to read some of the chemical literature, German it was. We had real universities in those days, oh yes.

The meme seems unlikely to be true: many British universities issue, or issued, their degree certificates in Latin (two of mine are in Latin). But I was once obliged to write a pseudo-"official translation" of a British degree certificate for a student who needed one to get a US visa, the American authorities having been unpersuaded by my initial letter explaining that Latin was the language of scholarship and that there existed no such thing as an "official translation". I even had to translate one of my own to satisfy the NZ authorities. Aren't bureaucracies funny?

I have always assumed that the British universities swapped straight from Latin to English: I have never heard of a period of using French in teaching. (I assume we're not discussing whether some medieval students spoke Norman French outside the classroom?)

For many countries with a large stock of young English speakers and fluent professors (mainly in Europe, I would guess) this probably does make sense. I worry about this kind of policy locking out some students due to lack of English ability or, as someone pointed out above, instruction in bad English. Many countries still teach their students a first foreign language that is not English. In much of Africa this is French and in many former Soviet republics it is Russian. These second languages give them opportunities to go abroad for higher education or work. Mostly these on-English languages are preferable because few people are fluent enough in their home countries to make English all that useful for jobs. Learning English is still useful of course, but learning it just to be able to go college abroad takes a lot of investment, especially when there aren't many good English teachers in your hometown. There could be tough TOEFL or entrance exams they aren't prepared for.

TOEFL? Tough? TOEFL is a laughably easy English test. I think I scored 119/120 without even really trying. And did so in half the time allowed.

The world seems to have survived the cultural and diplomatic elites in the world relating to each other in French for decades.

That our more interconnected world today would have a lingua franca with an even greater reach (commerce, science, diplomacy, pop culture) doesn't seem particularly surprising or worrisome.

If this coalescence around English is creeping into the upper reaches of some aspects of pedagogy, and if the French take umbrage at that....ok.

This is not about France preserving its heritage as about the French resenting that theirs is not the language of elites anymore. They never seemed to mind it when elites used French and expected everyone else to know it as well.

I only have American English and a few words of Spanish and German. If my people had not immigrated I'd be speaking Icelandic and English, or Danish and English, which I think would be fine.

Or, you might envision a world in which

Google Translates whatever language you hear

Or read into your native language.

How far away are we from that, and will that be a counter storey to universal English in the future.

Google glasses will provide subtitles.

Google Hearing Aid will do the audio, and Google glasses the video.

"[the French Constitution] provides in its Article 2 ‘the language of the Republic is French’"

Let's just reflect for a minute on how insane it is to put this in your CONSTITUTION. Let's also take a moment to reflect on the bitter irony of the Parisian elites bleating about the horrors of a linguistic monoculture. Ask the Breton or Provencal speakers (if you can find any) how they feel about that.

Not untrue. On, the other hand, on the topic of crazy things going into constitutions, I hope you're not from the USA, because we might have a pot/kettle story here.

The US federal Constitution is actually one of the better ones in terms of brevity. Not a lot of fluff, and mostly its provisions deal with fundamental questions of governance (the makeup and powers of the legislature, executive, and judiciary; fundamental rights of individuals; division of powers between feds and state). The only weird parts are some of the specific grants of powers (postal roads, privateers - both of which probably seemed more important in 1790), and the 3/5 compromise, which is long since superceded.

Many state constitutions are admittedly ridiculous, however.


The US constitution's brevity is probably a good thing given the difficulty in amending it. Other countries may have found different balance points.

Since American politicians are happy to ignore the Constitution when the pressure is on, its contents are only of second order interest.

FWIW, the controversial article was just passed with a large majority.

Universities will teach in English indirectly proportionate to the use of English by bus and train operators, postal workers, nannies, convenience store clerks, and other service workers.

My daily commute sounds like a UN General Assembly meeting about the Israel-Palestinian problem.

If people wish to consider whether universal English will create a monoculture, they need only look at predominantly English speaking countries as a counterexample (with Australia and New Zealand being the countercounterexamples)

Being an English speaker in Germany (I also speak German, but prefer to avoid it in a professional context), these dynamics are noticeable. If the official language of the institute is English, you can hire people from anywhere. If the official language is German, you can hire only Germans and foreigners who have good command of German.

In my time in Germany, I've worked alongside a Russian, a Byelorussian, an Englishman, a Spaniard, an Egyptian, a Tunisian, Croations, etc. And, of course, many Germans. The Germans are very good, but the talent pool of people who speak English is just larger.

At some point this is going to be an issue for Americans, too. A Western democracy that offers human rights, decent wages, and allows you to speak English on the job is hiring from the same pool as the Americans are. Right now, people still see America as best, but Europe is a perfectly acceptable alternative. If we get too nasty with the visa process, we're going to lose out on a lot of good people.

I am one of many people who for decades have argued quietly that institutional support for Esperanto could bring many benefits to the world. If we really want to take steps towards a better world, we would learn, use and teach Esperanto.

I mention "Globish" above. I see that it has a homepage, with the tag "Communicate in English, using only 1500 words." Globish is already the Esperanto, as I say above.

B.A.S.I.C. English has only 850 words.

And 729 of them have four letters.

While this seems all good it will mean that in the long run the academical elites of non-english speaking countries will be less and less able to converse with the "common" people of their countries.
It has already started with the sciences, will follow in the more intelligent media and will finally arrive in policy discussion.

What looks a like a big "now we can all talk with each other"-moment will become one of the biggest social divides in modern times. The english speakers will dominate the peasants as much as the latin speaking elites dominated their societies in the middle ages.

There are pretty few things in which I consider the French to be particularily wise in, but when it comes to protecting their language, they are a fine model for the rest of us.

The comparison th Germany is also somewhat lacking sice German and English are so strongly related, that, for example in the field of philosophy, you very seldom need to look at the untranslated words to get fine differences in meaning. Whereas in African or Asian languages it is often very hard to even translate broad concepts.

Esperanto is insofar not a solution since it is deeply rooted in our - read: western - language family.

Isn't there a contradiction between "multilingualism is good" and "oh noes, we'll only have English?" If multilingualism is good, English can just be the common denominator.

Let me give you a real world example:

When I have a 'computer problem' I will search google, find the appropriate forum, read the instructions there, ask follow up questions, read and ask more until I find a solution which then I post. In English. It makes sense for since there is a wider community to help me if I do this research in English.

Only by using English I remove myself from from the helping community in my native language. Most younger academics do this as I do.

Now if my father, or some of my unstudied cousins have the same computer problem they will be limited not only to their native language community but that part of said community that isn't able to look things up in English.

Basically they have a serious disadvantage.

Promoting English as a universal language in academics is promoting this disadvantage.

(And now someone will tell me that than the other nations will have to give up their languages [and with it cultures] so that this will not happen inthe fine brave new world.)

I see, I misunderstood. You worry that less technical knowledge will be recorded in heritage languages. For languages below some critical mass, I could see that becoming an issue.

The elite of the middle ages was an aristocratic warrior class that ruled by the sword. The priests drew power from latin. But only because it allowed them to conceil the absurdity of religion.

I would be more concerned about "denglish" speaking elites being left in the dust.

I.) English is unnecessary. There is nothing that you couldn't convey or think in German or any other significant european language. So the anglophile elites don't have access to much special knowledge. It just takes one translation and native speakers are in the know. And translation is easy thanks to Google Translate and helpful translators on the internet.
II.) Native english speakers are always prefered in citations, invitations, job offers, etc., in academia, politics and business.
III.) Many can't keep the languages seperate and end up being less comprehensible even in their native tongue.

Seems to be a comparative disadvantage on all fronts. In fact, the "intelligent media" laments readership decline and the internationalist, pro-EU, post-national political establishments in europe are deracinated and are currently being brushed aside by new populist movements in various countries.

Anglophilia by continental european elites is in my opinion a form of maladaptive mimicry, or a sort of cargo-cult.

I can write in German and target some 100mio people or write in English and target some 2 or so billions with it. Seems like an easy enough decision to me. It's also likely to be shorter as English has shorter words than German, on average. As for the non=English speaking people being left behind, nobody really stops them from learning English.

And that this issue will hurt some people a lot more than others.

And it is not only technical knowledge although it starts there. It is also a discussion kust like this one...

I don't know, in countries like Denmark are people switching to English-first homes? Or do children continue to learn Danish first, and English only second?

I don't know that, but my guess would be it's still Danish first.

But I would also guess the intensity and quality of English second varies widely. And I would guess that this correlates strongly with the parent's educational and economical background.

I once watched a quiz show in Flemish (or Dutch as we now call it) on the ferry from Zeebrugge. It turned out that the Flemish of the sort of dim people for whom quiz shows are made was reasonably comprehensible to an English-speaker with a reading knowledge of German.

The issue of English as a technical language vs English as a common language is worth paying attention to. In my experience, foreigners prefer to use English as a common language in which you can speak expressively rather than a technical language in which you can speak mechanically. Strong and simple English prose is admired, and native English speakers will often be asked to give a document a once over in order to make it sound better. Good English looks and sounds classy, and gives a paper higher value. It will get placed in a better journal and read by more people.

In contrast, I've never really seen any movement toward "globish" or Esperanto. A neutral language that everyone speaks equally badly doesn't satisfy any real needs or desires of actual speakers, and the language in magazines with polyglot audiences like Nature, Science, the Wall Street Journal, etc, tends to have a fairly high reading level.

"Good English looks and sounds classy"

Precisely. French academics don't want to be required to speak and write a language they don't know as well as their own, except as they choose. It's a question of personal and community status. And there's nothing wrong with that, mes amis.

"native English speakers will often be asked to give a document a once over in order to make it sound better"

Wrong. I'm one of those native speakers who gets asked (a lot) and the reason is that non-native English is not accepted in most journals. The people I read for don't necessarily admire "strong and simple English prose" and often resent that grammatical and understandable English isn't accepted for publication (because it's not in line with native usage).

"on-line education makes fluency in English more important for plugging into dominant networks. "

No, on-line education is only for the people who are being excluded from the dominant networks and are being conned into believing they are getting an education any employer actually values. Speaking as an employer. This may change decades hence, but it will take a long time.

Recently I spoke with someone employed at a Danish university, they're having trouble with implementing more English classes. One reason is that these are top down initiatives by administrators who push it through without getting support at ground level and it falls apart in practice. I've heard of similar things from the Netherlands. If Danes and the Dutch have trouble with it then imagine what problems the French will have.

Another problem is that it will drastically increase internal stratification in many countries if that's a concern for Tyler (I assume it's not).

Isn't the real lede of this story that they have to pass a law to allow this?

This is a subject of a law?

France in a nutshell...

I have been a university student in Germany, and nearly all of my courses have been held in German (only two exceptions). The result was, that I was excellently educated, and understood easily what my professors tried to teach me - from a language perspective. I felt, as if I had understood the topic. But when I came close to my final thesis I realized, that most information - besides textbooks - was in english, as apparently all important scientific publications are in Egnlish only. It meant a lot of work for me to cope with that issue and handle the "foreign langauge" material as sources for my work.
Now, I am a docent at university, teaching all my courses in English as well - as it is requested from the study programs - although still in Germany. And I am convinced, that at universities and in programms, which main domain for publication are English journals, it is unavoidable to teach in English. Without a proper understaning of English, students will have a hard time to overcome this lack of experience - which can be managed easily during the years of studying - at a possible beginning of scientifc carrer. If all of your "classmates" are talking English in your field of interest, you will be an outsider, when you are not able to keep track because of language issues.

So, "all thumbs up" for English teaching, even at non-Enlish universities!

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