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English: It’s position in the global arena Essay

English occupies an important position in global education at the moment. It seems to be seen as a high status language with an inherent connection to capitalism and globalism. The example websites given, one from a university in the Netherlands and the other from Brazil. Both websites are presented in English as well as their national language, despite the fact that English is a secondary language in both nations. This status, rivalling even the official language of the country, seems to have sprung from a number of sources, not the least the general impression that English has become the new lingua franca. The prestige and encroaching ubiquity of English has contributed to it’s increasingly high position within academia. The history of colonialism, the status of English schools in the wider global community and the inexorable link most countries place between capitalism and English. It is also greatly affected by the various policies adopted by countries. Of course this all begs the question of whether the position of English in higher education is a beneficial one, or another form of English imperialism.

Politics plays a hefty role in the position of English and it has always been influenced by the relative prestige it enjoys when compared to other languages. The websites shown both exemplify this status. While both websites are based in countries where the official language is not English (Dutch and Spanish respectively), both either presented in English (the Maastricht website) or have a full English translation available (the San Paolo website)(The University of San Paolo, 2013)(Maastricht University, 2013). This shows the remarkable influence that the English language has a secondary education, especially considering they originate from countries that have no history of British colonialism. Other countries, such as India or Malaysia, have these ties to English through the colonial history of the British Empire. In particular, the legacy of colonialism has had a profound effect on the position of English, not just in higher education, but in the world.

During the occupation of the various countries that became part of the British empire, it tended to be the policy to educate the native populace in English, to better integrate them into the lower rungs of government. These countries tend to link English with a higher status of education, and, therefore, enact policies to try to capitalise on this perceived prestige (Hewings, 2012, p96-99). For example, Mahatma Gandhi was educated in an English university, before returning to lead his nation. Also contributing to this sense of the superiority of English is the fact that many of these countries do not share a common language to begin with (India, Malaysia and a variety of countries). Thus, the enforcement of English in education provided a common language for various regions to communicate. India, in particular, has a strong history of this. In turn, this makes higher education in English almost inevitable, as the high status of higher education is naturally paired with the high status of English within these countries.

However, this can be quite controversial in within the country, with the general feeling that the use of English for governance and education leads to a degrading of the native languages. It has also lead to questions of the usefulness of teaching in English, due to the very real possibility of students having a less than perfect grasp of the language(Martin, 2012, p125-129). This stems from the fact that being able to speak a language is different from being able to study academically in it(Hewings, 2012, p103-105). While these are valid concerns, the political and social backing of English means that the position of English within the higher education spheres of these ex-colonial territories is well-secured.

There are also practical reasons for the position of English in higher education. One reason is that many of the industries that are desirable to students in higher education have higher English language skill requirements. Fields such as science, engineering and programming all rely on a high level of English based technical speech and many higher education courses are offered in English(Hewings, 2012, p115-120). For example, if one wishes to study any of the sciences, one must become familiar with the technical terms and writing of various academic publications, a large proportion of which are published in English. These fields require a higher level of education to enter, and necessitate at least a passing knowledge of English to comprehend. English is also used at the highest levels of business, giving rise to the idea that English has become a global lingua franca for business and technology. Thus many will learn English as a means of appearing more business-like and professional, and to help them compete in the global market(Gray, 2012, p146-148). This gives rise to a feedback loop, wherein to enter these fields, one must speak English well enough to learn them, which in turn causes those fields to be even more locked in to English based higher education.

Additionally, a number of industries have sprung up around higher education, such as academic publishing or English language teacher training. These industries provide a sustained push for the position of English, with resources for higher education being produced by publishers based out of English language universities(Gray, 2012, p148-150, p158-161). These publishers have little economic incentive to publish in other languages, thus most high end resources for universities are published and sourced from English speaking countries. This is shown by the high amount of universities that offer their courses in English(Hewings, 2012, p113). This establishes that a large quantity of materials used in secondary education, and a lot of the more prestigious training for teachers of such, stem from English language universities.

Even European universities have begun to offer courses entirely in English, especially in the Eastern European countries such as Slovakia. In these countries, especially those that gained their independence with the fall of the Soviet Union, English is seen as the language of capitalism(Prendergast C., 2012, p33-35). As such, younger people, seeking ambitiously to carve a place for themselves, learn English to better place themselves in higher status jobs(Prendergast C., 2012, p35-38 ). In turn, this created a demand for higher education in English, to the point where the price of these courses skyrocketed (Prendergast C., 2012, p33). All of these factors have contributed to the seemingly dominant position of English in higher education.

Many people have argued for and against the position of English in higher education, with some claiming that the ubiquity of English allows for greater collaboration and dissemination of information (Prime Minister’s Office, 2008, Seargeant, 2012, p9-10) while others claim that this same ubiquity is pushing out other languages(Sutherland, 2002, Seargeant, 2012, p10) and the features of education that those languages have. This debate further solidifies the position of English within higher education, due to the simple acknowledgement such a debate infers. By the basic fact that such a debate is happening, the participants have agreed that English has a dominating presence within higher education. One such argument posited by those against the proliferation, is that other languages slide into decline and with them their own particular features within higher education, for example the French thesis-antithesis-synthesis essay(Coleman, 2006, Hewings, 2012, p114-115). If English becomes the sole language of higher education, then these features may simply cease to exist.

The counter argument to this is that the growing ubiquity of English allows for a much greater sharing of information due to providing a common point for many different countries. An additional argument against is that teaching in more than one language can be beneficial to the students ((Monaghan, p134 – 136). This argument ignores the difficulties of training teachers in the multitude of languages that they may encounter within the classroom from students of varied backgrounds. Equally, one must not forget that higher education is not only the stage for education but is also a great contributor to the development of science and a retainer of scientific knowledge. By setting the standard of higher education to one language, which did not necessarily have to be English, a much greater pool of knowledge can be made available than might otherwise be possible. Students from various background and cultures would be able to access the same sources of information and, thus have a greater chance of advancing and gaining knowledge.

In conclusion, the position of English within higher education can be thought of as a useful one. It came about due to the specific historical and political factors unique to English. It just so happened that most of the mathematical, scientific and technological notation is based largely in English (for example, the development of the internet was an American innovation). It also just so happened that the notion of capitalism and big business is also closely associated with English. Equally, the legacy of colonialism has meant that the English language is spread widely around the globe, and is linked to the upper rungs of these societies, due to the government of these colonies being run largely by Englishmen and the natives they taught English too. These factors all combine into a general view of English as being the language of professionalism and of globalism, making it attractive for those with skill sets derived from higher education(). In turn this created demand for English to be the language these courses were taught in. Whether or not this is a good thing is a matter for debate, but for good or ill, the fact remains. English enjoys a lofty position within the higher education system of the world.


Gray J. (2012), ‘English the industry’ in Hewings A. And Tagg C. (eds) The Politics of English Conflict, Competition, Co-existence, Abingdon, Routledge/Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 137 – 163

Hewings A. (2012), ‘Learning English, learning through English’ in Hewings A. And Tagg C. (eds) The Politics of English Conflict, Competition, Co-existence, Abingdon, Routledge/Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 93 – 120

Maastricht University (2013) Maastricht University, Leading in Learning [online], http://www.maastrichtuniversity.nl/ (accessed 11/04/2013)

Martin P. (2012), ‘Tensions between language policy and practice’ in Hewings A. And Tagg C. (eds) The Politics of English Conflict, Competition, Co-existence, Abingdon, Routledge/Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 121 – 128

Monaghan F. (2012), ‘English lessens’ in Hewings A. And Tagg C. (eds) The Politics of English Conflict, Competition, Co-existence, Abingdon, Routledge/Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 129 – 136

Open University (2012), U215, The Politics of English Conflict, Competition, Co-existence, Abingdon, Routledge/Milton Keynes, The Open University

Prendergast C.(2012), ‘English and ambivalence in a new capitalist state’ in Hewings A. And Tagg C. (eds) The Politics of English Conflict, Competition, Co-existence, Abingdon, Routledge/Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 33 – 39

Seargeant P. (2012), ‘The politics and policies of global English’ in Hewings
A. And Tagg C. (eds) The Politics of English Conflict, Competition, Co-existence, Abingdon, Routledge/Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 5 – 32

The University of San Paolo (2013) Universidade de Sao Paulo [online], http://www5.usp.br/en/ (accessed 11/04/2013)

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