Language Policy in Higher Education

English is becoming more and more common as the language of instruction in universities all over the world. However, in many countries efforts are being made to preserve indigenous languages. In this post, F. Xavier Vila and Vanessa Bretxa, the editors of our recent book Language Policy in Higher Education outline the recent debates within language policy that form the basis of their book.

In 2012, the leading Italian public university Politecnico di Milano attracted headlines from all over the world when it announced it would move to all-English instruction. The announcement stirred the growing debate going on all over Europe about the convenience of increasing the role of English as the vehicular language in non-English-speaking countries. One year later, it was France’s turn to discuss the issue of the Franglais row: Is the English language conquering France?, to the extent that the national government had to make a decision about the role of English in French universities. Simultaneously, on the other side of the ocean, in the now economically booming Bolivia, the first promotion of students from the three recently created indigenous universities were preparing their graduation theses neither in Spanish or English, but rather in the indigenous Aymara, Quechua and Guarani languages. Their graduation in August 2014 was welcome as a crucial step in order to promote social cohesion and wealth redistribution and overcome centuries of external and internal colonialism.

What’s going on in the field of language policies in higher education? Once the realm of Latin, in the 19th and 20th centuries universities adopted massively the national and colonial languages following the heyday of the Western nation states. Universities formed the intellectual elites that led the cultural and scientific progress of the last century, and produced the leaders and the cadres that ruled the world. But globalization and the commodification of knowledge are transforming the environment for higher education also in its linguistic dimension. English-medium courses are proliferating all over the world, sometimes due to the genuine desire to attract international talent, partly also as a strategy to obtain resources from abroad. But is the development of English-medium education just part of a more complex story?

Language Policy in Higher EducationIn a context where the major languages are said to be succumbing to the urge of English, what are the prospects of medium-sized languages that have achieved the status of lingua academica to retain it? Will they find a place in the new world of higher education, or will they rather be reduced to the status of mere vernaculars in a near future? And what about those that have still not made it? Is it still sound to spend time and money to raise their status or would it be more adequate to try to content their speakers with a reasonably stable functional distribution of languages? Is it still worth increasing the number of linguae academicae?

These and other related questions are tackled in the volume Language Policy in Higher Education: The Case of Medium-Sized Languages by a team of well-renowned specialists in language policy. Based on the close examination of a number of medium-sized languages from Finland to South Africa and from Israel to Catalonia, the volume compares the trajectories of languages that have made it in higher education and others that didn’t, analyses their current state, and seeks to extract lessons of general applicability. And while their results may be read from different perspectives, one of them seems to be clear: in the era of globalization, there seems to be ample room for multilingualism in academia, but it will probably never be the way it used to be.

Survival and Development of Language CommunitiesFor more information on this book please see our website. You might also be interested in Survival and Development of Language Communities edited by F. Xavier Vila.

Survival and Development of Language Communities

By F. Xavier Vila, editor of our recent title Survival and Development of Language Communities

The idea for this book began with the feeling of uneasiness felt by many researchers, who frequently felt that the widespread dichotomy between majority and minority was excessively simplistic as a tool to analyse the prospects of survival for many language communities. To put it briefly, so many languages did not fit in this apparently neat dichotomy that alternative approaches had to be found and this was how the ‘medium-sized language communities’ project began.

The goal of this project was in no way that of replacing a dichotomist model with another, equally simplistic, three-tier one. Rather, the goal was to improve our understanding of the sociolinguistic dynamics affecting those languages ‘inbetween’ by comparing the situation and evolution of a number of them, especially those that were doing relatively well at the beginning of the 21st century. And this is precisely what this book is about.

Survival and Development of Language Communities reviews the major challenges being faced by a number of societies which have as their basic means of communication a language with a few million speakers – in this case, between 1 and 25 – and analyses how these problems are being dealt with in each case. Some of these challenges are obviously extremely local, but the reader will realise that many others are shared across borders, sometimes to an astonishing level. The book leads us to discover, for instance, that even within a presumably united Europe and in the midst of globalization, administrative and political borders constitute strong barriers for linguistic and cultural exchange, between closely related neighbours and even within the same linguistic communities. The reader will discover that speakers of these languages still feel that it’s up to them to converge towards speakers of big languages, even when political dominations evaporated decades ago. The volume also confirms that most, if not all, of these communities are clearly established in a bilingual and even multilingual paradigm, and it shows some of the contradictory ways this reality is dealt with in every case.

Probably the most important contribution of this book is that it furnishes the readers with clear evidence for the existence of linguistic life beyond the global languages. From a demographic point of view, none of the communities analysed here constitutes even 0.005% of mankind. But in spite of this, all of these languages constitute effective means of communication in prosperous, globalised societies, and are used in virtually all spheres of life, from governmental activities to the private sector, and from kindergarten to higher education. For those who claim that a stampede away from diversity is inevitable, Survival and Development of Language Communities makes it evident that linguistic diversity can be sustained, provided that the conditions are met.

For more information about Xavier’s research please go to his website on medium-sized language communities.