English is a language which is spoken by billions of people worldwide. The vast majority of people can speak, at very least, a smattering of the English language and as such, it has begun to gain a reputation for being the ‘lingua franca’ of the world of academia. The growth of the English language exploded during the prime years of the British Empire – at its height, the Empire consisted of almost a quarter of the planet and held control over millions of people (Luscombe). This was unavoidably likely to have an effect on the languages spoken around the globe and, indeed, English became one of the foremost primary lingual tongues in the modern world. Of course, in the world of academia, the most important factor is whether a piece of writing can be understood and in a world which is ever decreasing in size, (thanks largely to globalisation) academic writing is being shared internationally and the question of being understood is raised to a more prominent level. This can also be argued of the Internet – a worldwide resource which allows almost anyone to gain access to almost any piece of information. iTunes has even begun to provide an academic service entitled ‘iTunes U’ which provides access to thousands of lectures from eminent universities around the world to anyone with an iTunes account. However, the question that is raised is whether it is right to have English as a lingua franca. Despite its prominence in the linguistic world, is it fair to expect people from non-English speaking countries to converse academically in a non-native tongue? Although English is becoming the principle language of higher education and academia, the individual opinions concerning this can differ greatly depending on a number of factors, not least of which is the individual’s native language. It can either be seen as enabling a free exchange of knowledge or as an all-consuming language, dismissing other languages in its wake. The purpose of this essay is to explore both sides of this argument and to draw some form of conclusion.
It is important to first address how the English language came to be quite so prominent in academic circles. As already briefly discussed, the British Empire spanned an enormous area of the globe at its height and so the popularity of English grew exponentially across continents. As a result of this, when immigrants, from across the world, travelled to America, they took with them the English language and in a country of immigrants, English quickly became a means of communicating with one’s neighbours effectively. In the modern world, English and America are two of the globe’s super powers and since both, predominantly, speak English, it is clear to see how English has become such a major tool for people, globally, to communicate effectively – in both business, politics, their personal lives and increasingly, in academia: “The supremacy of English has also manifested itself in academic communication: research and teaching across all disciplines are becoming more and more Anglophone.” (Meyer & Niemeyer 27). The implications of this are clear: it is necessary to speak English or risk missing out on fully understanding some academic discussions. The real question behind this is a question of fairness: should non-Anglophones have to miss out or are they such a small minority that it simply doesn’t matter?
The major argument for English being the lingua franca of the academic world is that it unifies nations in the shared pursuit of knowledge, and in this light it is perceived as being a noble thing. Often, research is presented in English, regardless of the author’s nationality as it is seen as an effective way of ‘bringing together’ ideas from around the world. Not so long ago, the level of competition between nations was so immense that this would not have been desired, however, in today’s world of globalisation and ‘special relationships’ between international super powers, it is clear that the sharing of knowledge is now a fundamental part of civilisation and the forwarding of our species. In today’s world, it is quite possible that English can act as a “catalyst for international cooperation in research and teaching.” (Meyer & Niemeyer 27). As such, we could now be entering into a global age of sharing and understanding, where international borders are no longer limitations to academic progress. It can be argued that since English is already one of the most widely spoken languages globally, it makes sense to utilise it as a lingua franca to help remove the barriers that are often an issue because of language – it makes sense for it to be used as a “common medium of communication amongst multi-linguals.” (Smit 2).
However, the opposing argument is one based in the discussion of cultural ethics: why should one language override the hundreds of other languages that are also spoken throughout the world of academia? Equally, the question has been raised concerning quite how English can transcend language barriers when even those who speak it well, may still struggle to fully understand the complete meaning behind an academic text written solely in English. In other words, even those who speak English as a second language may still struggle to comprehend it when it is not written in their own language. And also, the non-Anglophone may struggle to convey the complete meaning of their research in turn. One linguistic theorist, Alan Firth, discusses this at length and questions whether an ‘English lingua franca’ interaction is as full as an interaction between two people speaking their native tongue: “It seems more vital to pay more attention to the nature of ‘ELF’ interactions with native speakers and non-native speakers. An answer to this question would bring us closer to finding out whether and in what ways ELF interactions are actually sui generis.” (Firth 3). By this, Firth means to question whether these ‘ELF’ interactions allow the two speakers to communicate fully, or whether they are actually hampered by their being from two different lingual spheres, or even if the nature of an ELF interaction is entirely different from a non-ELF interaction.
The idea of English lingua franca interactions as being different from the average conversational interaction is prevalent when discussing the nature of academia: “Academic ways of using language exert a strong normative influence on any standard language and other prestige varieties” (Mauranen 201). The implication of this is that academia exerts an influence over any language and that, as such, it should be no great issue to implement English as the academic lingua franca as even non-Anglophones are likely to be able to follow the discussion. However, the point remains that following a discussion and fully engaging with it and comprehending its meaning are two entirely different matters, and in the instance of academia, this is a crucial point. It is a difference which can really make or break an academic discussion, where comprehension is everything. However, the fact remains that if English is the lingua franca then slowly but surely, there will be a total loss of linguistic diversity which, from a cultural point of view, could be quite a devastating loss to the world. Although it is a matter of priorities: do we wish to further the unification of our shared knowledge, research and teaching or do we want to stay shut away in our tidy linguistic compartments? Language was invented to share knowledge and so, it does seem to naturally follow that a lingua franca (of any language – English or otherwise), would be a step forward in human development. Logically thinking, it does some quite backwards that we all speak different languages anyway but since we do, our individual languages have come to be a defining aspect of our individual cultures and still require a certain amount of respect as such.
So, it is clear that there are two vastly differing arguments concerning English as the lingua franca of academia. Whilst, on the one hand, it provides a global language with which to share ideas, insight and knowledge; it also offers an opportunity to improve upon our civilisation by unifying rather than dividing. However, on the other hand, it presents a question of culture: why should non-native English speakers have to conform simply so that academic Anglophones can converse more easily? Then, of course, there is the added issue of whether an academic lingua franca will enable greater understanding or hinder it: it does not naturally follow that non-native English speakers will be able to fully and wholly comprehend a discussion if it is in English rather than translated into their own language. Academia is a world which requires involvement and devotion to a subject – it is not the correct forum for simply just ‘getting the gist’ of something; it involves much more than just that. However, if English becomes the official lingua franca of the academic world then who’s to say that in a decade’s time, English won’t be taught as standard internationally which would then enable it to be a lingua franca to the fullest degree. But, as things stand, it is more likely to be a long-standing debate for some time to come.
“The British Empire.” BritishEmpire.com. Stephen Luscombe. N.d. Web. 1 June 2011.
Firth, Alan. The Lingua Franca Factor. March 2008. PDF File.
Mauranen, Anna. “Spoken rhetoric: how do natives and non-natives fare?” Cross-linguistic and cross-cultural perspectives on academic discourse. Eds. Eija Suomela-Salmi, Fred Dervin. Philadelphia: John Benjamins North America, 2009. 199-218. Print.
Meyer, Paul Georg and Niemeyer, Verlag Max. English and American Studies 2008. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009. Print.
Smit, Ute. English as a Lingua Franca in Higher Education: A Longitudinal Study of Classroom Discourse. New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2010. Print.