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Friday, October 28, 2011

Is English Hegemony in Academia Stunting Innovation?

By guest blogger Elaine Hirsch

It shouldn't come as a surprise that English is an established hegemon in today's political and academic spheres. English is one of the official languages of the United Nations. It is also the premiere language spoken at the most prestigious PhD programs around the world. While cultural biases can be attributed to the favoritism shown towards English, globalization and the economic advantages of learning English has magnified the effect in recent years. With Wall Street and Silicon Valley as beacons of hope for anyone looking for a lucrative career, excelling in English has become a barrier of entry for bright students from non-English speaking countries (which unfortunately is highly correlated with developing areas).

In order to attend one of the prestigious universities, students from these areas much pass English proficiency tests such as the TOEFL, IELTS, or TOEIC, depending on country. In Patricia Ryan's talk on the topic, she points out that English proficiency tests have become gatekeepers of higher education; they prevent non-English speaking, poorly-represented students from displaying their rich acumen to the field of higher education. For example, a bright computer scientist from India must exert extra efforts compared to his/her American counterparts if he/she were to apply to an Ivy-League program.

Today, there are 6,000 languages to fumble with. 90 years from now, there will only be 600. For sure, there are efficiencies that are created with a consolidation of languages. A world with only a few languages will reduce the inefficiencies created when ideas are, literally, lost in translation. Furthermore, many languages are lost voluntarily; indigenous speakers relinquish their languages in lieu of more practical languages while maintaining their culture.

When considering efficiencies, however, it is important to consider the externalities and costs created with extinct languages. Although pinning a value of a lost language is much more difficult than valuing a company (financial experts have yet to figure that one out either, mind you), linguists often cite the loss of language as a irrecoverable loss of unique cultural, historical, and ecological knowledge.

Regardless of the values people peg to languages, reality remains that languages are continuing to consolidate in a fast pace. While much of the loss of language remains a voluntary phenomenon, it has indeed erected unnecessary barriers to the higher education sector. English requirements seemingly equate language proficiency to intelligence, as the best universities in the world use English as their language of choice. Instead, removing language barriers would allow universities to attract bright students who otherwise wouldn't have had the opportunity to attend a prestigious university. Perhaps shifting higher education to focus on bringing in teachers from different linguistic backgrounds will end this self-sustaining cycle of English hegemony in higher education.

Elaine Hirsch is kind of a jack-of-all-interests, from education and history to medicine and videogames. This makes it difficult to choose just one life path, so she is currently working as a writer for various education-related sites and writing about all these things instead.

1 comment:

Carmina said...

Great stuff! I'm enjoying reading your blog here.