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Switzerland

English In All The World's Classrooms? Just Say 'Non!'

European universities are a bastion of original thinking, but as more and more gets taught and learned in the English-language, conformism is bound to spread.

Look, silence, wink, salute
Look, silence, wink, salute
Marc Chesney

-OpEd-

ZURICH — The ongoing debate about the heavy influence of the English language in our education system is mostly focused on primary and high schools. But within many Swiss universities — in economics, finance and management — the utter domination of English has in fact become the norm in master's degree and PhD courses. The same goes for publications and faculty reunions.

There is a process of excluding national languages at the higher education level. And it's not limited to Switzerland. It affects the whole of continental Europe. It's a choice that doesn't make the headlines, and yet it's not a neutral one. It's a strategic one, and it will have serious consequences.

The first is homogenization of teaching and thinking. Having a single unique teaching language goes hand in hand with pensée unique, or mainstream, comformist thinking. And as the last financial crisis demonstrated, one-track deliberation is dangerous.

What's more, the argument that suggests this intensive use of English boosts student exchanges is a double-edged one. Student interest in spending a semester abroad will indeed be limited if the language and the books the students use are the same everywhere. The global challenges we face today should, on the contrary, encourage students to adapt to various environments, to understand them and to be able to communicate with the local actors.

The second consequence has to do with the waning influence of national languages. Foreign students who come to Switzerland to study for their master’s degrees or PhDs are not encouraged to learn our languages — French, in this case. In fact, they are rather dissuaded from doing so, the priority being to focus on their studies and perhaps then go to an English-speaking country to polish their knowledge, rarely of Shakespeare's language but rather of a tasteless technical idiom.

This policy is wrong. First of all, it would be useful for these students to better understand the country in which they are staying, and second, it translates into a loss of income for language schools and local businesses — and, ultimately, for the Swiss economy.

The third consequence of this linguistic choice is the resulting follower strategy adopted by continental Europe's universities. This homogenization encourages students going abroad to continue their studies in the United States or in Britain, instead of going to a non-English-speaking country.

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