Universities That Teach in English Should Aim for Linguistic Diversity Too

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

Diversity and inclusion are powerful current paradigms. Alongside excellence in research and teaching, these ideas are regularly invoked by leaders of universities in the United States and other countries. The kind of plurality that is being demanded differs from place to place. However, a common desire is for a broader range of faces among students, faculty members and administrators. Greater representation of women, people from ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities is being called for, particularly in positions of power and authority.

One of the aims, besides accessing the totality of talent available, is to achieve justice for previously marginalized groups. It is also hoped that members of underrepresented groups will progress further in their careers if they see role models who “look like them.” Yet, besides gender or racial equity, how committed are leaders of Anglophone institutions in particular to linguistic diversity and inclusion? In addition to seeking broader variety in visual identity markers, should we ask for greater plurality in speech (and thought)? Are we accepting and encouraging enough of all of humanity’s languages and idioms?

The dominance of English in contemporary higher education is understandable. The language that originated in northwestern Europe is the most widely used medium of communication in science and commerce globally. Students who want to pursue careers in the academy and in business alike can hardly do without English, even in many jurisdictions where the official language is another. In Qatar, for instance, where laws and other official texts are in Arabic, companies still want employees who are fluent in English. Therefore, numerous Qataris choose a British or American education, like the one offered by Virginia Commonwealth University, where I work.

If colleges reasonably cater to job markets that privilege English speakers, many of them are at risk of promoting a linguistic monoculture. While some subjects have a foreign language requirement, many others do not. In fact, it is possible at respected universities to get degrees ranging from bachelor’s to doctorates without being fluent

If colleges reasonably cater to job markets that privilege English speakers, many of them are at risk of promoting a linguistic monoculture.

in any language other than English. This is true even for some disciplines in the humanities. I have come across many syllabi of courses in Middle Eastern studies whose reading lists do not comprise any works in the original Arabic, Hebrew, Persian or Turkish. Textbooks, even those published by major university presses, are commonly monolingual. Unless colleges employ specialized librarians, books in non-Roman scripts are not systematically collected either. As a result, students’ perspectives on much of the world risk being severely impoverished. How can we even begin to understand the African continent, for example, without learning a few of its numerous native tongues?

If a strong move toward linguistic homogeneity potentially undermines advances in cultural diversity, what can individual instructors do? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Encourage students to submit course work in any language you are able to understand (and grade). I always applaud students who create an essay in Arabic, for instance. This also helps me keep up with a language I have previously learned.
  2. Appreciate when an otherwise English presentation incorporates at least a few lines or phrases in French or Spanish, for instance. A talk about Napoleon, for instance, could include some of his statements in the original to give a feel of the man and his time. Pourquoi pas?
  3. Give extra points when students cite sources in more than one language. Search engines like Google tend to show results primarily in the language and script of the keywords entered. If the bibliography of a paper contains materials in three or more languages, it is an indication that the author undertook greater effort to learn about various perspectives on the topic
  4. Add audio material to “reading” lists, as they help learners with pronunciation of foreign words. The Ottoman History Podcast has excellent episodes in Turkish, for instance.

While we should celebrate the countless words and worlds of humanity, we must be careful that linguistic diversity does indeed come with inclusion. Students should be enriched by various idioms and not feel left out by the use of any of them. If there is even one student who does not understand a given language used in formal classroom

While we should celebrate the countless words and worlds of humanity, we must be careful that linguistic diversity does indeed come with inclusion.

communication, translation is necessary. (“Pourquoi pas” means “Why not?,” by the way.) Texts in other scripts or religious scriptures require further explanation. This is the case when one of my students quotes verses from the Qur’an in a presentation on Islamic history. I would then ask for the Arabic quote to be not only translated but also interpreted for listeners from other faith traditions.

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Ideally, I would like to see every one of my students graduate with proficiency in at least two languages. In Qatar, competency in both Arabic and English (and maybe in Hindi or Tagalog too) would provide them with a significant advantage on the job market and, more importantly, a broader mind. Of course, reading or writing a couple of essays alone does not translate to fluency. However, a university can hardly claim to be preparing global citizens or leaders if it does not provide at least exposure to a variety of linguistic cultures. If diversity and inclusion are not only about faces but also about voices, tongues matter too.

Jörg Matthias Determann teaches history at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter at @JMDetermann.

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To read more about language-related issues in higher education, see the following articles from Al-Fanar Media:


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