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As an example ETH Zurich, which is arguably one of the best universities in Europe, still educates Bachelor's students in German:

Please note: the Bachelor’s degree programmes begin in German. In the second and third years of the programmes, some of the courses may take place in English.

This doesn't make sense to me as it's obvious that the vast majority of technical literature and textbooks are published in English. And pretty much every major scientific journal only accepts works in the English language. This also decreases the amount of competition between the applicants as German speakers hold an advantage over others (not to say native English speakers don't hold the same advantage back at home, but English is by far more common).

So why didn't every single major university switch to English already?

EDIT: I am mainly referring to programs in the STEM field, such as engineering

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Feb 2 '17 at 19:00
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    Obvious? Maybe to people who don't read other languages. I applaud anyone resisting the spread of English. – WGroleau Feb 5 '17 at 18:25
  • @WGroleau I read two other languages and studied in university in a language that I learned at the age of 17 – user14156 Feb 5 '17 at 19:06
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    Then you ought to know better. – WGroleau Feb 6 '17 at 0:51
  • @WGroleau Using my experience as a student in a foreign language environment I believe switching to English is benefecial. However the arguments here are convincing enough for why it's not a good idea (yet). – user14156 Feb 6 '17 at 0:55

12 Answers 12

71

There are some excellent answers out there, but let's add this:

Not all undergraduate programs lead to graduate studies. In fact, most undergraduates go on to work. We can speculate that the work environment will be in the language of the country. Actually, there's even a place where this is the law. In Québec (Canada), most companies are required to have French as the working language.

Also, how are we to keep the connection between public and science if scientists cannot explain their work in the language of the public?

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    Minor nitpick: "In Québec (Canada), most companies are required to have French has [sic] the working language." -> No, they are required to provide service in French, and internal documentation in French (but they are not restricted to only French). Technically this means an office could be staffed entirely with non French speakers, it just has to have infrastructure in place such that a a French only speaker, in theory, could find their way around. educaloi.qc.ca/en/capsules/… – goldilocks Feb 2 '17 at 15:12
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    For companies over 50 employees, an official evaluation is done and a "frenchifying" program will take place if French is not the main language everywhere. spl.gouv.qc.ca/languefrancaise/politiquelinguistique/faq/… – Emilie Feb 2 '17 at 17:52
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    @JonathanReez I don't think so, since Québec is the only province with French as the only official langage. New Brunswick is bilingual. As English doesn't need much protection, I doubt it. – Emilie Feb 2 '17 at 19:20
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    "Not all undergraduate programs lead to graduate studies. In fact, most undergraduate go on to work" any source for this claim? While this seems quite obviously true for US Americans, I don't think this applies to European universities all that much. In Germany for example over 70% of all bachelor students continue with a master. In Switzerland according to a quick google search that quota is at 88%. Those are all newspaper articles that don't quote their sources well, so I wouldn't put too much trust in them, but they do coincide with my experience though. – Voo Feb 3 '17 at 19:38
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    @Voo in Switzerland, and probably Germany too, the Master degree is the one that counts. A Master's student is just finishing the normal college education, not really being a "graduate" student. – Cape Code Feb 4 '17 at 20:01
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ETH and all other universities in Switzerland are funded by the government and offer college education for minimal tuition. While foreign students are welcome to attend, the primary purpose (at least at the undergraduate level) is to provide education to the locals. Nonetheless, that doesn't seem to be a limiting factor, especially at the graduate/research level since ETH has been recently ranked one of the most international institutions by Times Higher Education.

There is a wealth of excellent textbooks in German, and many fields still have original research published in German. Also, the majority of students don't pursue academic or research careers and thus might very well spend their entire career speaking almost only German.

Plus there are practical considerations too: asking non-natively English speakers to teach in English is most certainly going to decrease the average teaching quality. Now if it's to give lectures to a class that is almost entirely German speaking, it borderlines the absurd.

The question seems to be more: why would some universities switch their teaching language to English?

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    @AlexeyB. well, yes, but Swedish universities still have undergrad programs in the Swedish language – user14156 Feb 1 '17 at 13:54
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    @JonathanReez Keep in mind you don't need a "wealth" of excellent textbooks, you just need one decent one per class. Also, depending on your teaching style you might not actually need the one. (As evidenced by the number of students who complain about paying out the nose for textbooks but never actually using them.) – R.M. Feb 1 '17 at 14:11
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    Just to add. In the Netherlands bachelor courses are often given in Dutch but use English textbooks. Most Dutch undergraduates can read English well and there are a lot of good English textbooks but the professor still explains everything in Dutch, which helps with understanding as its always easier to express yourself, and to understand your mother language. :) – Roy T. Feb 1 '17 at 14:53
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    STEM is not a single field, it's the collection of dozens under one name because of their greater interrelationships with each other. paul garrett has already pointed out that (some) mathematics journals accept English, German, French works; I have had to get help translating some relevant research in Korean, Spanish, Russian; there are also a number of chemistry and physics and engineering journals in all of these languages which Google and Wikipedia happily point out. @DSVA so your comment is simply not true. – Nij Feb 1 '17 at 19:26
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    addendum: I am currently struggling with this. I did do a PhD in an English speaking country as a native German and returned to Germany afterwards. I learned a lot about all sorts of technical parts of laser machinery, optics and so forth. I have no clue how they are called here. I am learning the German word as I come across each "gap". It will take me years to freely express the technical details in my mouther tongue instead of english. That does not feel right. – nonsense Feb 1 '17 at 19:28
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  1. While original research is dominated by English, good textbooks are available in most languages. Needless to say, having learning material in your native language helps a lot, even if you master English.

  2. The level of English required to read technical literature is much lower than the level required to express yourself freely and understand fast-paced speech. Having all courses in English would eliminate students which are good at their discipline but mediocre in foreign languages.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Feb 5 '17 at 19:10
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    My master thesis adviser, a native German, once said to me on the issue of having courses held in English, that foreign students do not come to Germany, or as in my case Austria, to listen to bad English. – Dohn Joe Feb 6 '17 at 8:26
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This is quite a discussion currently in the Netherlands, where many -if not most- of the bachelor and master studies switched to English. However, a disadvantage of following education in your non-native language, is that it's harder to understand all subtleties. Another aspect is that in many fields (medicine, psychology) communication skills are also important, and it's weird to practise those skills in another language (one you're probably hardly going to use in the job).

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    +1 for the last sentence, in particular it's weird to practise those skills in another language (one you're probably hardly going to use in the job). – scaaahu Feb 1 '17 at 11:57
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    It is a strange move. You are basically excluding those weak at languages from attending university altogether. – Weckar E. Feb 1 '17 at 12:43
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    @WeckarE. Hah! When I was an undergrad at Cambridge (UK), it was still a requirement for all applicants for every degree course to have passed an exam in Latin! Oxford used to have a similar requirement as well. – alephzero Feb 1 '17 at 13:52
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    It's not only for the students that certain subtleties are hard to understand; most professors who think they teach in English actually teach in IBE (International Broken English). – user800 Feb 1 '17 at 13:53
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    @alephzero So you passed those exams. Now consider how well you'd have done at your degree if all your Cambridge lectures had been in Latin. I got the top grades at GCSE [the exams British school children take aged 16] in both French and German; I'd have had great difficulties if my undergraduate lectures had been given in either of those languages. – David Richerby Feb 1 '17 at 14:36
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Here are some arguments based on my experience why teaching in English-only could be detrimental for students, especially at bachelor level.

Quite often, it's not only the language that's used, but also the culture from which the language is coming and the point of view of such culture. This sometimes leads to the not-invented-here mentality. For example, many English-language books talk about Nyquist–Shannon sampling theorem, completely ignoring people who actually published first. Such actions could lead students to develop a skewed world-view which could have detrimental results in the long run. This might also be very touchy issue if the local society has had significant number of researchers who are unknown in English-speaking circles.

Furthermore, English language is not suitable to discuss some topics. A good example would be word "ground" and electrical engineering. There are countless threads on EE.SE due to the confusion this word causes. After a while, engineer will learn to pick up enough context to figure out which ground is being discussed, but this can still be a bit problematic. In my language, on the other hand, there is no such confusion, because we have a separate word for each "aspect" of English ground, completely avoiding the "ground" confusion and the huge amount of energy needed to solve it.
Another example would be AC and DC. In my language, we have a word for unidirectional current, another for current whose direction changes. Then, we have another set of terms for constant current, for current which has one dominant frequency and another set of terms for more complicated waveforms.

Yet another reason could be backwards compatibility, especially for languages which have highly developed technical vocabulary. It's quite likely that a new engineer would need to interact with a bit older co-workers and not knowing their technical cant can make things needlessly complicated, especially when there are no direct translations between English concepts and local concepts. In cases where old technical documentation written by dead authors needs to be read, issues are even greater.

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    And they forget Kotelnikov ;-) As a curiosity, a couple of years ago I asked a question, now closed, about differences in terminology that can cause confusion in a multilingual environment: academia.stackexchange.com/q/36887/20058 – Massimo Ortolano Feb 1 '17 at 15:53
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    You raised some important points here. – aparente001 Feb 1 '17 at 23:38
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    About backward compatibility I'd like to bring an example: to civil engineers is more important to understand local building codes (in local language) than advanced research in the field (often in English). – Pere Feb 3 '17 at 0:07
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There are pros and cons for using a native language. The reason why not English is that there is more cons than pros.

They simply do not care enough (cons>pros) about you and your problems with their native language, to change the way the things are. If the university is not commercially making profit off foreigners, it could be that they do not even want you there. You can find many good pros in the answers, but here is probably the greatest pro:

  • People think the best in their native language

Bachelors are still learning to think, so it makes it natural to teach them by the language of their thinking. They often study old stuff that has been translated a long ago to their native language. In industry they might still use that same language, because their internal things will never be communicated with foreigners. Writing stuff in English is considered extra effort, and without a reason it will not be done.

Fun BTW: In a non-German nation we use German teaching material because it is sometimes superior.

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    The idea that you think in any language is, itself, highly dubious. – Jack Aidley Feb 1 '17 at 13:25
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    Some languages are faster than others at technical and mathematical reasonings. everyone i know thinks faster and better natively(Catalan) than in english or other languages. – CptEric Feb 1 '17 at 13:51
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    @JackAidley What do you mean by thinking? The process of how people come to conclusion and make decisions is influenced by the language they are using. As an additional example to my previous link, the concept of future me in a language changes behaviour: ted.com/talks/… You could assume that this is due to some kind of a feedback loop between thinking and interpretation different from thinking, but in a non-psychological/philosophical context I would dare to say that people think in a language. – user3644640 Feb 1 '17 at 14:03
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    "The concept of future me in a language changes behaviour." Does it? I thought that the strong Sapir-Worf hypothesis had been pretty thoroughly debunked. – TRiG Feb 2 '17 at 11:38
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    @user364460: From the perspective of a linguist, the stuff that Chan claims about the effect of futurity on economic behaviour is ridiculously naive. It's interesting to note, though, that it appears to appeal enough to laypeople to grant him a TED talk and a paper in an economy journal. – Schmuddi Feb 2 '17 at 22:22
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Two important factors are

Convenience. The materials used for teaching are usually not scientific literature, but custom course material prepared by the lecturers. Usually, the academics at the respective university have a lot of such material available in their home language. Translating everything to English is a resource-intensive task without an immediate reward. Tasks of this kind usually have a low rank on the priority list, since academics are very busy people.

Lack of incentives for change. The fact that ETH is one of the best universities in Europe, without giving their courses in English, means that they obviously can get away with it.

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    There are even incentives for it to stay that way. – nonsense Feb 1 '17 at 19:30
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On the long term, using only English at universities will make it a lot more difficult to be able to communicate about the subject in the native language to lay people or to high school students. The native language will not have developed its own words to denote key concepts as the subject matter evolves over the years. So, a few decades down the line, you would have to explain things in English or using awkward half English sentences, making a technical subject even harder to understand.

Journalist won't bother to write about new developments for native language news reports, and it won't be on the high school curriculum. Beginning students will have less knowledge about the subject matter compared to students in English speaking nations. This effect already exists to some degree, we should not make it worse than it already is.

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A lot of great answers, wanted to add culture as a reason by an example of a very extreme example of native speakers / English speakers.

Icelandic is spoken by around 350.000 people and also has perhaps the greatest English proficiency as non-native speakers in the world (Denmark is best according to English Proficiency Index but to me Icelanders would be higher if they were a part of the index).

Icelandic universities teach Computer Science in Icelandic. Very common English computer terminology has Icelandic equivalents fx. to save = að vista created by a committee but regular usage often involves slang fx. to save = að seiva. A few Icelandic words have been welcomed by the public.

Even though common usage goes to phrases the industry likes to provide Icelandic oriented software. Coding is primarily done in English but User Interfaces are often provided in Icelandic. One can often see a discussion in Icelandic Programmers Facebook Groups about what people consider a good translation. These are some of the most active conversations.

  • Wouldn't it make sense for Iceland's universities to teach everything in English, except for a course on GUI translation in Icelandic? Also, are there books on subjects such as Algorithms in Icelandic? – user14156 Feb 2 '17 at 19:07
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    @Jon I don't think so. I just don't see a huge influx of international students happening in Iceland very soon. On the other hand, it is interesting that little Iceland is still big enough to have Icelandic-speaking CS professors. I could envision a transition to English instruction if the university was understaffed and forced to hire from abroad. Guessing that Thor is from Iceland, I suppose he could offer a more complete explanation. – LLlAMnYP Feb 2 '17 at 22:01
  • There actually is quite an influx of international students now (in comparison with Icelandic students). I am not so familiar with the history of CS education in Iceland, I believe we did not have these materials in Icelandic but it was later translated. Not heard of problems staffing the universities. – Thor Feb 7 '17 at 10:09
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I studied engineering in France (I'm French by the way) and the vast majority of the students in my university found jobs in France... Where people mostly speak French.

So mastering your subject in your native language is not only more practical, as already said in other answers, it's also often necessary.

Of course, mastering English is required when you do science or engineering, but it doesn't have to be the only language you know.

It's not a question of lack of openness or fear of change, I consider it's enriching being able to speak and think in several languages.

Most native English speakers only know English and I believe it's a limitation, not an asset.

Dutch speak at least two languages, Swiss could speak even more (French, German and Italian are the three spoken languages in Switzerland).

Science is also about meeting and exchanging with people from many places, speaking more languages helps interactions with the rest of the scientific community.

In my workplace, most people speak French and English. Those who speak more languages have less difficulties to adapt to new contexts.

If all renown universities would only teach in English, I think it would also create a uniform way of thinking, and science is also about thinking differently than others.

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    "I think it would also create a uniform way of thinking" - so why are British universities so productive? Most people there only speak English... – user14156 Feb 2 '17 at 21:32
  • What do you mean by productive? I didn't say that people that speak only one language could not be good in their field. It's just that knowing more languages is a good thing, especially in science where the communities are international. And a lot of foreigners study in English universities. – Ben Feb 2 '17 at 21:36
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    But... English universities only teach in English. Therefore if French universities switched to English as well, shouldn't their productivity remain the same or increase? After all, most of their students would now be fluent bilingual speakers. – user14156 Feb 2 '17 at 21:40
  • You have a point :) – Ben Feb 3 '17 at 8:25
  • @JonathanReez: Again? Why don't English universities switch to French? Then we'd have even more bilingual people than the other way 'round. – WGroleau Feb 5 '17 at 18:41
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Building on some previous answers, e.g. AndrejaKo:

When you learn something in your dominant language, it is more likely you will own it, i.e. make it your own.

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    I have noticed situations in the U.S. where children of immigrant parents speak to their parents in a limited version of English, receiving responses in their home language; or speak to their parents in a limited version of their home language (not having received any formal instruction or read any literature in their home language). This can stunt their intellectual and cultural growth. (The solution: bilingual education.) – aparente001 Feb 1 '17 at 23:44
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I am currently doing my Masters at ETH, and my answer will cover why the ETH Bachelors is in German and will hopefully apply to other universities as well.

ETH is not very selective in selecting swiss students for its Bachelors degrees. In fact, since it is a federally funded Institution, it is obliged to admit any Swiss student who has passed (cf. Admission and Education section of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ETH_Zurich). They have an extremely hard exam at the end of the first year which students have to pass to continue with their studies. Usually, 50% of the students taking this exam fail and eventually drop out of ETH.

So, you are looking at a majority swiss (mostly from the german part of Switzerland) classroom. It only makes sense to have the medium of instruction as the one which most of the class is familiar with. In fact, EPFL, in the French part of Switzerland has most of its Bachelors courses in French (http://langues.epfl.ch/languages-requirements).

Since the Bachelors programmes at these universities are aimed at improving the education standards of the populace and to have a skilled work-force, they are in the local languages.

When it comes to Masters courses, which are geared towards research and have an international classroom, the language of instruction is almost exclusively English.

PS. There are plenty of high-quality technical books in German. Widely used books like CLRS are translated to German and they have their own books such as the ones from Duden (http://www.duden.de/) which parallel the quality of their English counterparts.

  • But don't most Bachelors students in Switzerland proceed to do a Masters degree? – user14156 Feb 6 '17 at 15:23
  • I don't think that's true. Unlike US Masters, which are basically cash cows, swiss masters are pretty intense and are geared towards preparing students for a PhD. So, not all bachelor students go onto do a Masters – gokul_uf Feb 6 '17 at 19:12

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