English has taken over academia: but the real culprit is not linguistic

Anna Kristina Hultgren, The Open University and Elizabeth J. Erling, The Open University

In academia, you’ll need to. Africa Studio/www.shutterstock.com

Not only is April 23 the anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, but the UN has chosen it as UN English Language Day in tribute to the Bard.

If growth in the number of speakers is a measure of success, then the English language certainly deserves to be celebrated. Since the end of World War I, it has risen to become the language with the highest number of non-native users in the world and is the most frequently used language among people who don’t share the same language in business, politics and academia.

In universities in countries where English is not the official language, English is increasingly used as a medium of instruction and is often the preferred language for academics in which to publish their research.

In Europe alone, the number of undergraduate and masters programmes fully taught in English grew from 2,389 in 2007 to 8,089 in 2014 – a 239% increase.

In academic publishing, the use of English has a longer history, especially in the sciences. In 1880, only 36% of publications were in English. It had risen to 50% in 1940-50, 75% in 1980 and 91% in 1996, with the numbers for social sciences and humanities slightly lower.

Today, the proportion of academic articles in the Nordic countries which are published in English is between 70% and 95%, and for doctoral dissertations it’s 80% to 90%.

Pros and cons of using English

One frequently cited advantage of publishing in English is that academics can reach a wider audience and also engage in work produced outside of their own language community. This facilitates international collaboration and, at least ideally, strengthens and validates research. In teaching, using English enables the mobility of staff and students and makes it possible for students to study abroad and get input from other cultures. It also helps develop language skills and intercultural awareness.

But some downsides have been identified. In the Nordic countries, for example, the national language councils have expressed concerns at the lack of use of national languages in academia. They’ve argued that this may impoverish these languages, making it impossible to communicate about scientific issues in Swedish, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Icelandic. There has also been fears that the quality of education taking place in English is lower because it may be harder to express oneself in a non-native language. And there are concerns about the creation of inequalities between those who speak English well and those who don’t – though this may begin to change.

Research suggests a more nuanced picture. National languages are still being used in academia and are no more threatened here than in other domains. Both teachers and students have been shown to adapt, drawing on strategies and resources that compensate for any perceived loss of learning. The ability to cope with education in a non-native language depends on a number of factors, such as level of English proficiency – which varies significantly across the world.

English built into the system

Some solutions to these problems have focused on devising language policies which are meant to safeguard local languages. For instance, many Nordic universities have adopted a “parallel language policy”, which accords equal status to English and to the national language (or languages, in the case of Finland, which has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish). While such initiatives may serve important symbolic functions, research suggests that they are unlikely to be effective in the long run.

 Learning in Oslo – but in what language? AstridWestvang/flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND

This is because the underlying causes of these dramatic changes that are happening in academia worldwide are not simply linguistic, but political and economic. A push for competition in higher education has increased the use of research performance indicators and international bench-marking systems that measure universities against each other.

This competitive marketplace means academics are encouraged to publish their articles in high-ranking journals – in effect this means English-language journals. Many ranking lists also measure universities on their degree of internationalisation, which tends to be interpreted rather simplistically as the ratio of international to domestic staff and students. Turning education into a commodity and charging higher tuition fees for overseas students also makes it more appealing for universities to attract international students. This all indirectly leads to a rise in the use of English: a shared language is necessary for such transnational activities to work.

The rise of English in academia is only a symptom of this competition. If the linguistic imbalance is to be redressed, then this must start with confronting the problem of a university system which has elevated competition and performance indicators to its key organising principle, in teaching as well as research.

The Conversation

Anna Kristina Hultgren, Lecturer in English Language and Applied Linguistics, The Open University and Elizabeth J. Erling, Lecturer of English Language Teaching , The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Applying theory to practice: a book review

Book review of ‘Focus on Grammar and Meaning’ (2015) by Luciana C. de Oliveria and Mary J. Schleppegrell.

By Diane Hall

Systemic Functional Linguistics is a key concept in the research and teaching of applied linguists working in the Open University. In this blog post, associate lecturer Diane Hall reflects on the strengths and weaknesses of a new book which aims to help teachers apply theory to practice. We welcome comments from anyone who has read or used the book.


The aim of this book in the Oxford Key Concepts series is to introduce teachers of English as a Second / Foreign Language to Systemic Functional Grammar (SFG) in order to assist them in teaching grammar in a more effective way. Its focus is on non-native speaking children and adolescents in the language or mainstream classroom. It aims to give readers enough insights into SFG to enable them to reflect upon grammar differently and to teach grammar differently.

The book consists of five chapters, the first two being the background to the book and the introduction to SFG. The ‘meat’ of the book is in Chapters 3 and 4, both of which look at the application of SFG in a number of different teaching situations, first with primary-level children and then with adolescents. The final chapter acts as both a summary and reflection by revisiting an activity from the first chapter on the reader’s perception of grammar and their attitude to it, and readdressing the questions in the activity in the light of what has since been covered.

The book is underpinned both by linguistic and pedagogical theories, e.g. SFG itself and Gibbons’ four ‘pedagogical moves’, as well as by reports of relevant classroom research (‘Spotlight studies’). The reader is led to a practical appreciation of SFG by tasks (‘Activities’) which takes them from description to noticing and working with the concepts. He/she is also shown short sections of classroom discourse (‘Classroom snapshots’), which exemplify the application of SFG. This structure is particularly effective in Chapters 3 and 4, where a concept is introduced to the reader, who then applies it by doing an Activity and reflects on it afterwards; the concept is then applied in a Classroom snapshot so the reader can see how it might work in a teaching situation, and finally the authors reflect on the pedagogy.

There are a lot of positive features about this book: it provides a basic introduction to SFG and its possible uses in the language learning classroom. The use of activities for the reader helps them to get to grips with a potentially new way of understanding and talking about grammar, and the exemplification of the concepts in practical classroom activities helps them to see how useful it might be in the teaching of grammar. The layer of theoretical underpinning is used to inform and reflect on the classroom activities. The style is accessible and the use of activities very engaging. The return in Chapter 5 to the first activity asking readers to assess their attitude to grammar and grammar teaching is particularly effective.

There were one or two points that concerned me, however. First, the book is very short (142 pages) and as such can give no more than a very superficial insight into SFG, when other books with similar aims may offer more. The coverage is thus unlikely to be enough to adequately prepare teachers who want to use it in their grammar teaching. Given that much of the grammar teaching described in the book is in many ways a reaction to situations and texts their students work with, the success of using this method is highly dependent on the skill of the teacher, and the teacher would need more grounding in SFG to feel confident using it. It does, nevertheless, provide a good ‘taster’ and the interested teacher can then explore SFG further in one of the books listed at the back.

My second point is whether the approach in this book is applicable in other situations and with different learning styles: the situations presented are mostly content classrooms with grammar teaching integrated, rather than dedicated language teaching classrooms (though to be fair this is acknowledged in the book), and the method is based on students noticing aspects of the language and working with them, which may not suit less analytical styles of learning.

Finally, the reader has to get through quite a lot of introductory material before being introduced to the detail of SFG – it comes in almost a third of the way through; while an introduction is necessary, I wonder whether the first two chapters could have been reduced a little to allow more practical activities in SFG, which may well be more useful to the reader.

In conclusion, this book provides a useful introduction to SFG and its use in grammar teaching, but teachers who might be interested in incorporating this type of grammar teaching into their lessons would have to delve deeper in order to gain confidence in using it.

What can you do with a degree in linguistics? Or, using language to turn the tide on Trump

by Caroline Tagg

Anna Marie Trester is on a one-woman mission to tell the world why linguistics matters.* Armed with a PhD in linguistics from Georgetown University, she now works for FrameWorks Institute, an American think tank which trains social change advocates and NGOs to communicate more effectively with the public. She talked to a group of interested staff and students at Aston University (Birmingham) about her work. I was particularly struck by three aspects of it: the kind of clients the think tank attracts; the rigour of the methodology used; and the power of language – specifically metaphor – to shape how we think and respond.

FrameWorks’ clients include a range of prominent policy and science organisations, such as the National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Noyce Foundation in the US; while, in the UK, they work in areas including early child development, child abuse and neglect, and criminal justice. The linguistic changes they effect are taken up by important players: for example, the American Academy of Pediatrics now uses their suggested term ‘toxic stress’ to convey to the public that while people need to put up with some levels of stress, others are intolerable.

FrameWorks’ assumption is that a change in discourse leads to a shift in thinking which in turn changes policy – a key indication of the power of language. To illustrate their methods, Anna Marie talked us through their work with immigration reform advocates to change the discourse around immigration in the US. The impetus for this reform came from ‘Come out of the shadows’, Obama’s 2014 campaign to entice undocumented immigrants to come forward. You don’t need a linguistics degree to know that this was a problematic way to frame the policy. FrameWorks started by analysing how immigration was being discussed by policy-makers and by the public in order to identify gaps between the professional and lay discourses: for example, policy-makers want to talk about fixing a ‘broken system’ while the public know little about the system and instead focus on immigrants as personal threats to their livelihoods and neighbourhoods. FrameWorks’ research mad it clear that addressing these gaps in understanding necessitated a change of metaphor.

Rather than talking about ‘floods’ of immigrants, FrameWorks suggested the metaphor of immigration as the ‘wind in the sails’ of the US economy. This ‘candidate metaphor’ then underwent extensive testing, which included members of the public explaining the metaphor to others in order to highlight where miscommunication occurred and how ‘sticky’ the metaphor was. Although the reform advocates initially disliked the metaphor – for its associations with being ‘fresh off the boat’, for example, and for making a largely economic argument – it was amazing to see how both members of the public and professionals took off with it, extending it conceptually as they discussed how unpredictable the wind was and how flexible their rigging would need to be in order to harness it – in other words, people not only began to talk about the ‘system’ but to reconceptualise and transform it. In the short video clips that Anna Marie played, you could see people beginning to change how they perceived and responded to immigration – simply because the metaphor had shifted.

There is certainly much more to linguistics than the example of FrameWorks Institute suggests, and many linguists may object to its somewhat prescriptive approach (as Anna Marie herself acknowledges) and its Orwellian undertones: if language can be used to manipulate thought, might it be used for bad as well as for good, and who decides what constitutes ‘good’? But FrameWorks is nonetheless a compelling illustration both of the role of language in matters of social and political importance, and of the power of language awareness to reframe the debate. By being aware of the language we and others use, and knowing how to effect change, we can trump those who deliberately or inadvertently spread hatred and fear through their words.

For more on Anna Marie’s work, pre-order her new book: Bringing Linguistics to Work: story listening, finding and telling for your career (summer 2016).

*It may be a two-woman career: a recent book by Erika Darics (who organised the talk) attempts to improve business communication skills by raising professionals’ language awareness: Writing Online: a guide to effective digital communication at work (2015, Business Expert Press).

English as a medium of instruction in non-English-dominant contexts: insights from Catalan universities

By Anna Kristina Hultgren

The fifth and penultimate seminar in the ESRC-funded series titled The Multilingual University took place 28-29 January 2016 at the University of Lleida, a one-hour high-speed train ride west of Barcelona, Spain. The seminar series, led by Dr. Siân Preece at the Institute of Education, University College London, “encourages collaboration and interaction among academic staff and user groups” and this mutual engagement of stakeholders (academics, policy makers and practitioners) was a key feature of the fifth seminar too. (You can read about the fourth seminar here.)

Aptly, given the location of the seminar, the regional focus was Catalonia. Unlike most European nation states where English is not the dominant language, Catalonian universities are faced with having to manage not only the rise of English vis-à-vis one national language, but two. Catalan universities are de facto trilingual, using Catalan and Spanish as their main means of communication, and with an increasing presence of English.

The seminar featured three keynote presentations and three panel discussions.


Key note presentations


Keynote speaker 1: Maria Pilar Safont-Jordà

The first keynote talk was delivered by Maria Pilar Safont-Jordà (University of Jaume I). Safont-Jordà showed that over the past ten years, attitudes to Catalan in Valencia have grown increasingly negative whereas attitudes to Spanish and English have become increasingly favourable. Safont-Jordà attributed this to the rise of English and Spanish as a medium of instruction as well as to the limited use of Catalan in society in general. On the basis of these observations, Safont-Jordà argued that language attitudes, policies and practices mutually influence one another. This may give promoters of linguistic diversity some hope as it suggests that by devising language policies, it may be possible to steer linguistic practice.


Keynote speaker 2: F. Xavier Vila Moreno

The second keynote by F. Xavier Vila Moreno (University of Barcelona) placed multilingualism in an illumining historical context, reminding us that the tension between global and local languages (currently English vs Catalan and Spanish) is not new but can be tracked down to the dawn of universities in the 13th century. Since then, the global language co-existing with a local language has shifted from being Latin, French, German, and now English. Vila pointed out that universities are complex institutions as are the linguistic practices within them. For this reason, the terms “lingua academica” and “academic lingua franca” may be more appropriate than “English as a medium of instruction” (EMI) as it covers the range of activities that take place at universities – teaching, research and administration. Vila argued that it is not necessarily the case that the global language will outcompete the local language(s) – they may serve different purposes and co-exist in a complementary fashion.


Keynote speaker 3: Hartmut Haberland

Hartmut Haberland (Roskilde University) closed the conference with the third and final keynote in which he compared the Catalan setting with the Danish one, as representing, respectively, the south and the north of Europe. Northern European universities are comparatively more pervaded by English and speakers typically have higher English proficiency. Haberland argued that there is an “inbuilt monolingual bias” and an “erasure of mutual intercomprehensibility” in that English is promoted as the only language of internationalization despite speakers of say Swedish, Danish and Norwegian on the one hand and Italian, Spanish and Catalan on the other being able to communicate amongst one another. Haberland also reiterated Vila Moreno’s point that universities are made up of several activities and that one often invisibilised group affected by EMI are admin people who are tasked with having to translate high stake semi-legal documents – for instance plagiarism cases in which students may be expelled from university – from Danish to English without any training.


Panel discussions

In the first panel discussion, Sònia Mas and Vasilica Mocanu presented their PhD research in progress, which explored students’ motivations for studying abroad. An interesting finding that emerged from both Mas’ and Mocanu’s studies was that students who went to study abroad in countries where the dominant language is not widely spoken on a global scale, for instance, Danish in Denmark, Finnish in Finland and Romanian in Romania, did so to learn English. And on arrival in their host country, some of them were surprised to find that the local language was so prevalent in society. In contrast, students who went to study in the UK, Spain and Italy went there because they wanted to learn, respectively, English, Spanish and Italian. This could be analysed as corroborating de Swaan’s (2002) theory that the greater the number of speakers of any given language, the more attractive it is to learn, and in turn, the greater number of speakers it will acquire. In other words, already “big” languages become “bigger” in a sort of self-perpetuating dynamic.

PhD student Helena Torres undertakes a linguistic ethnography of members of research groups in Agriculture and Medicine faculties at a Catalan university, highlighting a disconnect between policy and practice. Where the former is linguistically compartmentalized, promoting Catalan and English as discrete languages, the latter is more complex, exhibiting translanguaging and code-switching. Torres concluded that policies need to acknowledge this complexity.


Engaging different stakeholders

A unique and attractive feature of the seminar was its involvement of those who are directly responsible for and affected by EMI. We heard from the policy maker in the international relations office who recommended using incentives to encourage lecturers to deliver their courses in English. And we heard from the lecturers themselves, two in the veterinary sciences, and one in engineering, how they had adapted their teaching strategies to suit delivery in English. One had adopted technologies, for instance getting students to vote on their mobile phones, to enhance interactivity and another had adopted more pair work to accommodate those students who might feel intimidated about speaking English in front of the whole class.

While the lecturers agreed that they needed longer time to prepare for classes delivered in English and to adapt their materials, they and their students got on very well with EMI and saw few problems, a sentiment that was echoed by the two exchange students from Germany and Bulgaria, who took part in the third panel discussion. There was a sense that pedagogy mattered more than medium of instruction for successful learning.

The predominantly positive experiences that emerge from administrators, lecturers and students stand in stark contrast to some of the more dire portrayals that have emerged from research and highlight the importance of involving a wide range of stakeholders in discussions about EMI.



De Swaan, Abram. 2002. Words of the World: The Global Language System. Wiley.

Living on the edge: a research trip to Finland

A version of this blog has also appeared on the TLANG project blog: https://tlangblog.wordpress.com/

Caroline Tagg

In early December, I spent a week in the Finnish city of Jyväskylä discussing social media, superdiversity and processes of (dis)identification with Sirpa Leppänen and her team: Samu Kytölä, Elina Westinen, Saija Peuronen and others. This involved living on the edge in three ways: firstly, my hotel sat on the edge of Lake Jyväsjärvi and the view greeted me each morning; secondly, much of the Jyväskylä team’s research looks at immigrants at the margins of society, a topic currently polarising Finnish society; and thirdly, their investigations into social media can only be described as being on the cutting edge. Their research resonates in many ways with my own work. Continue reading

New ‘WiSP’ research project – Exploring the demands, support and constraints of social workers’ everyday writing practices

We are pleased to announce that the ‘WiSP’ project – Writing in professional Social work Practice – has started, as of 19th October 2015. The project is funded for two years by the ESRC (£270,000). Social workers are busy people with heavy caseloads. For every action and decision within each case, they are required to make detailed, traceable records. For instance, a social worker may be involved in 15 active cases, each of which involves making visits to the service user, writing assessment reports, sending emails, and liaising with other agencies and professionals. Recording information, e.g. case notes from visits to service users, is therefore a key activity in social work, taking up a significant proportion of social workers’ time. What social workers do or don’t record can be minutely Continue reading

The Multilingual University: what it is and how we might realise it

On Friday 13th November, my colleague Ann Hewings and I attended the fourth seminar in an ESRC-funded series titled The Multilingual University which aims to explore linguistic diversity in Higher Education in order to create resources and inform policy. The seminar was held at the University of Birmingham and run by MOSAIC Centre for Research on Multilingualism and TLANG. It featured presentations from three projects funded by the AHRC under the Translating Cultures theme, as well as a panel of multilingual researchers from various university departments and two discussants, Marion Bowl (University of Birmingham) and Josep-Maria Cots (Universitat de Lleida). Continue reading

Computer-mediated Health Communication Workshop

On Monday 9th November 2015, the newly formed Health and Science Communication Special Interest Group (SIG) of the British Association of Applied Linguistics held its first workshop at Queen Mary, University of London. I attended as the Treasurer of the SIG and one of the organizers.

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Observing the mind through language*

People who experience mental disorders like depression are the foremost experts in what that feels like for them, which can determine what ways are most effective at alleviating their distress. This, perhaps deceptively simple, idea has been gaining recognition both in medicine and in the humanities recently, leading to the emergence of sub-disciplines such as medical and health humanities.

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