Eventually I grew tired of having to explain over and over why all my class material is in English. It's a mandatory course in Art History. I want to put some warning in my syllabus to minimize any arguments. The problem is how to do it politely, yet clearly.

The reasons are clear: there is no material in their native language for the courses I teach; obviously I cannot and will not translate the material; and it is their duty to read in English. I guess I cannot tell them straight that if they do not read English well they will not even understand classes well and will get low grades. I don't want to sound rude.

Is there a way to explain the situation, or is it better not to include such a written statement in a syllabus and keep things as they are?

  • 19
    Can you elaborate on the fact that it is their duty to read in English? It is rather an interesting situation; in other countries (such as in Czech Republic) it is the other way around, with teaching in the native language being mandatory for a public school.
    – M. B.
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 12:30
  • 9
    I do teach in their native language. It is mandatory that I do so. But all the texts are in English. There is simply no publication in my field in their native language.
    – user12512
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 12:32
  • 35
    Why do you consider it rude to tell them up front that reading English is required? It seems rude to not tell them up front.
    – NotMe
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 14:23
  • 18
    I'm trying to make two points: 1. this really depends on the local situation, more detail is needed (e.g. where you're teaching) 2. if it wasn't made clear to them at the time when they were admitted to the programme that English is a requirement, then it's not reasonable for you to ask this for a mandatory course
    – Szabolcs
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 18:04
  • 14
    @Joseph: If they are required to take the course to graduate and they were not aware that they needed to know English in order to do so then they really have a point. If you're saying they don't need to do the English readings in order to do well in the class then explicitly tell them so.
    – user541686
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 20:37

11 Answers 11


I agree that it makes sense to set expectations as early as possible.

I'd just put

Note that all XXX for this course are in English.

in the syllabus. You should of course be specific as to what XXX is:

  • Class slides
  • Required reading
  • Supplemental reading
  • Lectures (you could have slides in English but speak the local language during the actual lecture)
  • Quizzes
  • Exams

If quizzes/exams are in English, you should also note whether students would be expected to answer in English.

Whether or not you also want to include the reasons for this is really up to how much space you have in the syllabus and whether there isn't anything more important to put there. I'd say that a warning might be a better use for the space:

If your English is not up to reading/understanding/writing technical documents, this course likely is not a good fit for you.

  • 2
    Stephan, your first suggestion is nice. I had thought of something like that. The latter warning, however, would be fine only in optional courses. Although I would think twice before putting it in print, fearful that it would invoke upon me the wrath of faculty and students alike.
    – user12512
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 17:53
  • 8
    @Joseph: in an ideal world, for a compulsory course this warning would be pushed away from the course notes to the point where the decision is made that makes your course inevitable: "if your English is not up to reading technical documents, this subject likely is not a good fit for you", or "this university likely is not a good fit for you because there are compulsory courses in which strong English is required" if the course is compulsory for all undergraduates. As you say, though, even those who privately admit it's true might not want to say so in public, for political reasons. Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 19:04
  • 9
    From the comments, it sounds like the issue is broader than this particular syllabus question. If the level of English proficiency required to complete required courses for the program is higher than the level required (and advertised) as a prerequisite for entering the program (or obtained from classes during the program), then either the classes need to be changed or the program entry requirements need to be changed. Eventually the department must face the issue somehow.
    – BrenBarn
    Commented Dec 13, 2014 at 20:38

In many fields, you cannot be considered educated as an effective practitioner unless you know a particular language, because communications in that field are done in that language.

For example, once it was the case that one could not be a chemist without reading German, because all of the most critical work in chemistry was published in German. Currently, it is extremely difficult to be a computer programmer without reading English: although interfaces and user documentation is often translated, the actual code and APIs for most programs is written in English. Likewise, around the world all air traffic controllers are required to be proficient in English, as that is the agreed-upon fall-back language for air traffic control.

If the course you are teaching is in such a field, then explaining this fact can help students understand why it is important for them to read texts in English. They may not be happy with this fact (and there may be good reasons to be unhappy about it), but understanding how language plays into their ability to put the material to use may be useful for getting them to accept its importance.

  • 16
    I once had a student in a summer prep class who wanted to study CompSci without knowing any English - he had had German, French, Latin and Spanish at school. I told him he should use the time until the official start of the course to learn some basic english. He didn't, tried to start in summer, and sunk quickly, although his math grades were not bad and the bachelor course is taught in German. Everyone else dropped because of the math - he dropped because of the english...
    – Alexander
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 15:45
  • @jakebeal, you are absolutely right. Every semester I try to do that, but after some years I came to terms with the fact that my arguments are not convincing. It's a mandatory course. They can't graduate without passing it. None of the other professors are like me. Some don't even speak English. The faculty voted for ending foreign language classes in the department. And yes, if I told what I teach, the need for foreign languages would be so obvious that most would comment that this situation is ridiculous: I teach History -- Art History and Middle East Studies.
    – user12512
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 17:45
  • 3
    @Joseph You should mention that you teach History in the question. That put everything in a completely different perspective for me and I realize that some of the comments I wrote on your question don't apply. I studied physics, meaning we had a smaller volume of material and could rely mostly on class notes.
    – Szabolcs
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 18:12
  • 3
    I see a weakness in your argument: if English is an absolute necessity to work in a field, it means that English has to be learn somewhere before the graduation. It could be an independant English class, or a "English for Science/Engineer/History of Arts" class, or a class held in English. BUT it still need to be unambiguously agreed upon before registration in that class.
    – Taladris
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 12:35
  • (-1) I think this is simply untrue. You need some English to do research in most fields but not merely to be an effective practitioner. Alexander's anecdote notwithstanding, there are in fact many computer programmers who know very little English.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Dec 14, 2014 at 23:26

Could you clarify where you are teaching and at what level?

A young undergraduate student might consider it "unfair" if he or she fails your course because of insufficient English skills. A more mature student will understand that you're offering preparation for real life.

A professor of mine once told us halfway through the class that "the remainder would be held in the international language of science, broken American English." He expected us to get the technical terms right and the rest of our sentences understandable. Proper pronounciation was optional.

Back to your question, tell your students that you expect reading comprehension of technical literature. They don't have to speak English, and they don't have to write beautiful sentences.

  • 1
    Hopefully, nobody has failed my course because of language skills -- many students just use it as an excuse. And you're absolutely right about the technical terms.
    – user12512
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 19:00
  • 26
    +1 for "the international language of science, broken American English"
    – reirab
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 22:09

If the course is mandatory I think, in fairness to the students, you should go one of two routes:

  • Make the English reading requirement formal and written. It should be included in the prospectus for any program that requires your course. There should be a suitable English course that can be taken before your course, and that course, or equivalent skill, should be a stated prerequisite.
  • Make it possible to get the top grade in your course without reading any English. That would mean including in the course notes material that an English-reading student could get from text books. The text books would be at the most optional extras for students who want to go beyond your course, not required material. Given the additional information that the subject is Art History, you could still require the text books for their illustrations, but write notes that tell the students what they are looking at.

Whether English-reading is required for the program seems to be a policy decision that should be made by the faculty as a whole.


There is a third, intermediate, option. Campaign to make the course an option rather than mandatory. In that case, the English requirement would only need to be documented in materials the students use to make their optional course selections. It does not need to be part of the requirements for the program as a whole.


I think you can simply mention the main references and course materials at the beginning of the class.

On the other hand, I believe, it is the job of an instructor, to present the material in the official language of his/her institution is such a way that without additional materials, the students can well follow the course and to be able to successfully pass the exams.

André Weil once said

The student's note-book should be his principal text-book. 

In Mathematics (and I believe in many other domains) there are still some domains in which one cannot really be an expert without knowing French and German. But just because the materials of my domain is not in the official language of my institution (for example they are in French or German), doesn't mean I can force the students to learn them. It is my job to teach them and present them in the official language of my institution.


I think you certainly need to make crystal clear at the very beginning of the class that a reading knowledge of English is required. If possible, it should be clear even earlier than that - perhaps mentioned in the course description that students read when deciding to register for the class. That way, students who do not have the necessary skills can sign up for some other class instead. By the time the class starts, it may be more difficult for them to do so.

Another option may be to require an appropriate English class as a prerequisite (which can be waived for students who already have sufficient fluency).

If this is a mandatory course, then you need to have a discussion with your department as to whether your use of English materials is reasonable. They have an interest in running a program which students can actually pass. If your colleagues decide that this is not reasonable, then either you will have to change the way you teach it, or someone else will have to teach it instead of you.

  • 2
    I'd rather not deal with the faculty. Many things are not reasonable. For example, this semester "the faculty" have found a way to erase all fails from a course (Honors Thesis, which is required): school transcripts of all students who fail won't show that they have failed that course (some students 2 or even 3 times). That is their concept of "reasonable".
    – user12512
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 21:59
  • 6
    @Joseph: That sounds unpleasant, but to be honest, I don't think your idea of "do what I want without asking them" is really the answer. It's unprofessional. If you can't live with the decisions your colleagues make, then maybe you ought to consider looking for a different job. Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 22:09
  • 2
    @Joseph The only way to make the situation fair to the students that lies entirely in your own hands is to change your course to remove the need to read English. That may be a lot of work. You would have to write up in the language of instruction, and include in your course notes, all material that the students need to know to ace your course. Not just pass it. Ace it. Forcing a poor grade on someone because they lack an unstated prerequisite would be unfair. Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 22:38

Try something similar to the following:

This course, and all required reading, will be presented in English. If you need assistance understanding any course materials, please see your counselor or [other university resources for ESL students].

This makes it clear that everything will be presented in a specific language, and indicates that the class and teacher are not the appropriate people to work with students lacking English proficiency.


Depending on the country/culture in which you teach, it might simply not be possible. It's easy to assume the “everybody speaks English” or that “students will need it anyway” to make your life easier but often it's not true.

Without starting a debate on language planning, it's not obvious to me why it should be impossible to learn art history and enter a career in teaching, become a museum curator or whatever it is your students could do after taking your course, certainly if they speak another major European language.

Personally, I speak several languages and would certainly recommend learning English to anybody who asks but I also know people doing decent work without knowing it, even in supposedly internationalized and English-dominated fields like computer science. It's useful and common to be sure but outside of academic research it's not vital and I don't think it would be fair for me to deny people an education and career (or, from another perspective, to limit the talent pool in the country) on that basis alone.

If you teach in a country where English is not a general requirement in higher education or there is an expectation that lecturers provide their own teaching material, then it is in fact your job to enable learning in the local language and there might be no way to prevent students from perceiving your not doing so as unfair, rude and lazy.

  • As for the "expectation that lecturers provide their own teaching material", there is none, except that the professor make available the readings, usually by photocopying the books and articles and leaving it in a "room" where students get a folder and pay on a page-by-page basis.
    – user12512
    Commented Dec 13, 2014 at 12:06
  • @Joseph I changed that to “or”. You still haven't provided many details so we all have to speculate a bit. But in any case my main point is that you can't assume that students will or ought to find this requirement reasonable or that finding a clever way to express it will put all arguments to rest.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Dec 14, 2014 at 23:32

You are asking how to explain things politely. I don't think it's that complicated. Simply state:

"All required reading for this course will be in English."

There's nothing rude about that in terms of voice.

However, you don't give us enough background information to understand the context. If this college doesn't teach all courses in English, and doesn't require proficiency in English, or anything similar, then no matter what your voice, students are going to see this as a rather rude obstruction in their curriculum. This would be a failing of the particular school you are teaching in. They need to make it clear to students that there may be classes requiring all reading in English prior to them committing to the program.


I can't judge your colleagues just from your observations, but maybe I agree with you. Nonetheless, students are suffering (though not terribly) from this.

Since you wrote that you can't really discuss this with the faculty, I think the possible solutions are:

  • List the requirement anyway, if your colleagues won't bother you for that. Some students will be annoyed and in their right to be annoyed (at the situation, if not necessarily at you).
  • To improve things for students, if you can, get faculty to make your course optional, and possibly to accept at least an optional English course for credit in the degree.

    That still implies discussion with colleagues, but it doesn't require them to do extra work (say, learn English), so they might be more willing to accept. Moreover, it's the easiest solution which is actually fair to students. That might reduce your studentship to people who care and accept the requirement. For you, that might be good (you'd get more motivated students) or not (if too few students pick your course and colleagues get nervous about it).

  • I don't know really enough to say this, but if it's reasonable for you, you might want to change to another department where you can work with your colleagues rather than against them. From your tone, it sounds like it would avoid you quite some annoyance and make both departments better for students. I've seen or suffered, as a students, enough departments where communication between professors was visibly dysfunctional. Of course, I don't think anybody can demand such an extreme solution from you.

I second o.m.'s remark about the language of science being broken English -- and I would stress the advantage of this fact to the students (at least in the first lesson). Science isn't something that is done only in and for one country, e.g., German Science, or US Science, etc.

Sure, there are national organizations and differences in universities between countries, but the findings themselves are usually applicable and discussed internationally (with all intercultural differences, at least most of the work in psychology is widely applicable, probably all of the 'hard sciences', and I'm guessing that even if local art history is discussed, theories are probably internationally applicable).

So, being able to (at least) understand English allows a student to listen into that discussion.

You must log in to answer this question.