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Plurilinguism in Higher Education – A Conference on Linguistic Policy in Universities and Higher Education Institutions

Last Updated: 12 Mar 2018

An Armenian saying goes “As many languages you know, as many times you are a human being.” Charles the Great is attributed a similar idea: “A man who speaks four languages is worth four men.” Such a wise saying could complement the European motto: “United in diversity.”

Kant, in a famous chapter of his Critique of Judgment, argued that “to think into the place of others” was a necessary step towards common sense1. Tzvetan Todorov2, in “Literature in Peril” (a short essay to be read and re-read without moderation), observed that “to think and to feel from the point of view of other people, either real persons or literary characters, is the only way to strive toward universality” (p78).

This is not the most widespread conception of universality but it might contain one of the philosophical tenets of plurilinguism.

It is surprising enough to hear sometimes that English is nowadays what Latin was in the past. It is just like expressing nostalgia for an intellectual order which was entirely dominated by the Church and that prevailed from the time the Roman Empire adopted Christianity (making it a state religion in 370) and lasted until the 18th century. A return to vulgar languages was initiated by Dante (1265-1321), who was the founder of modern Italian just like Luther was the founder of modern German, and reached the domain of sciences with Descartes (his Discourse on the Method was initially published in French in 1647) and Galileo Galilei. Descartes himself explained that it was a matter of breaking free from the yoke of conformism while reaching out to a new audience that could not read Latin (and which Latin are we talking about anyway?).

Descartes took the question of communication into account since the Discourse on the Method was translated into Latin later on. This might certainly have been an opportunistic decision, a move not to alienate the Church and also a way to address intellectuals who did not speak French. However, he also took into account another dimension of language: when Descartes addressed scholars who thought and wrote in French, he was calling for the development of ideas outside of the Church.

Latin did not die with Descartes or Galileo Galilei. Latin did not die at all, for that matter. Even today, it remains the official language of Vatican and it is still an inexhaustible source of inspiration for our languages which are derived from it to variable degrees.

In the scientific domain, Latin has remained a communication tool in a scientific community both multilingual and plurilingual. Humanities and sciences have therefore been communicated in Latin but not only, and were developed in a variety of languages.

One more difference: while Latin was always central to developing our modern languages, international English, used as a lingua franca rather than a cultural language, puts them in jeopardy.

The historic settlement in the case of the Politecnico di Milano

The question remains the same to these days and has been given a new lease of life with the decision by the Italian Council of State in the case of the Politecnico di Milano.

Although European law does exist, there is no European legal order. If there had been one, the decision of the Italian Council of States

could have been referred for cassation to the European Court of Justice or to the European Court of Human Rights. Such a thing is unlikely to happen. The rector of the Polytechnic Institute of Milan has agreed (with obvious reluctance) with the decision of the Council of State and has not mentioned the eventuality of contesting it. The settlement by the Council of State, which was based on a decision by the Constitutional Court of Italy, is therefore final and conclusive.

Because legal orders are distinct between countries, the double decision of the Italian Court could not be invoked in, say, French or German law. However, these historic decisions have to hold all our attention.

Since the 28th January 2018, any course taught in universities and higher education institutions is illegal and unconstitutional if it is only delivered in English. “International” is now understood by Italian law in terms of at least two languages: a foreign language and Italian. This makes sense on the semantic level, the prefix “inter” suggesting two entities. Let’s have a quick look at what the Italian Council of State tells us:

-To begin with, the Italian Council of State acknowledged globalization and the need for internationalization: “the progressive supranational integration of legal systems and the erosion of national borders as they are entailed by globalization, might certainly infringe, in many ways, on certain functions of the Italian language. Plurilinguism in contemporary society, the use of one particular language in certain domains of human knowledge, the propagation of one or several languages are nowadays phenomena that belong to the essence of the constitutional order and that are placed on the same level as the national language in diverse areas of application.”

-Yet, internationalization is not to be reduced to one single language: “Globalization should not push the Italian language “into a liminal position: on the contrary internationalization is the very reason why privileging the Italian language is far more than the formal defense of a heritage from the a past, out of touch with change and modernity, but an enduring principle of the constitution and a pivotal element in the transmission of historical identity and of the Republic’s legacy as well as the condition for the preservation and improvement of Italian as a cultural asset in its own right.””

-The Italian Council of State indicates how to respond to these two principles: The goals of internationalization “must definitely be achieved, but without infringing on the constitutional principle of primacy of the Italian language, equality of access to higher education and academic freedom.”

The Italian Council of State develops extensively this argumentation that is available in its entirety in Italian and French on the web site of the OEP.

Comparison with French Law

If a parallel with French law was to be drawn, the decision would appear in perfect agreement with the article 121-3 of the French Education Code which is, in its current version, a transposition of the article 2 of the law on Higher Education and Research passed on the 22th July 2013. According to this article

“1. Mastery of French language and knowledge in two other languages are part of the primary goals of education.

  1. The language used for teaching, assessments and all sorts of examinations, as well as in Phd and master dissertations in both public and private educational institutions is French. Exceptions could be justified. […]

In such cases, higher education courses shall not be delivered entirely in a foreign language but only partially. […]

Foreign students attending foreign language-courses shall benefit from French classes if they cannot demonstrate sufficient proficiency in French. Their command of the French language is part of the graduation assessment.

French-speaking students shall be offered classes in the foreign language in which the course is delivered.”

The whole article is available from this link.

Although this text resulted from heated debate in the Parliament, its implementation by the Ministry of Education, Research and Innovation is only partial. Two examples:

-The 2016 annual report on the use of French language mandated by the Ministry of Culture has made public for the first time the results of the implementation of the law. But the statistics do not discriminate courses that are delivered completely in English and courses delivered partially in English.

-On the 14th February, upon the opening of the Conference on Internationalization and Promotion of the French Language and Plurilinguism, Minister Frédérique Vidal praised full-English programs as a showcase for plurilinguism. She saw a positive outcome in the fact that 57% of the students enrolled on programs delivered in English could speak French at the end. Yet, the measure according to which French classes should be delivered to these students to allow them to understand the part of the course delivered in French remains :

unimplemented in 3 cases out of 4.

If the law were implemented properly, it is not 57% but 100% of the students who should master French upon graduating.

Conference on linguistic policy in Universities and Higher Education Institutions

This raises the wider question of linguistic policy in Universities and higher education institutions.

Higher education has a many-faceted role in the domain of languages: enhancing a relationship to the territory, raising awareness to regional languages, training teachers, training non-specialist students. Its role is not limited to the question of the English language, however central it may be. The problem of language in teaching programs has never been the object of a comprehensive reflection, nor does it benefit from an explicit policy. In this domain, implicit and improvisation are key words.

All these problems arise on a backdrop of philosophical interrogations that have been widely discussed for decades. To what extent is conceptualization influenced by language? Is the transmission of knowledge and concepts independent from languages? Can research be developed in one single language? Is creativity possible in another language than the mother language(s)? (Mother language being an “imperfect” phrase, it is used here for want of a better one.) Are there such things as linguistic or cultural ecosystems? Does linguistic hegemony lead to uniformed thought? Etc. When thought about, consciously or not, in a given linguistic universe, these questions may find answers that some people would deem simple. But how should the problems of transfer from one universe to another and across different linguistic universes be dealt with? It is important to know what is at stake behind this kind of questions, even when no definitive answers can be found.

This is the reason why the OEP, in a partnership with the Ecole Polytechnique, the Ecole des Ponts-ParisTech, the University Paris-Diderot-Paris VII, the University of Cergy Pontoise, the University of Strasbourg and the Association of the Language Teachers in Higher Education, has organized on the 8th and 9th of November 2018, under the high patronage of the Conférence des Grandes Ecoles and in partnership with the Ministry of Culture, an international conference on the “Linguistic Policy in Universities and Higher Education Institutions.” This conference is intended as a continuation of the speech delivered by President’s Macron on the 26th of September at the Sorbonne and as a parallel to the ministerial conference on European Higher Education Area (EHEA) scheduled from the 23rd to 25th Mai 2018 in Paris.

Click here to access the web site of the conference

1E. Kant, Œuvres philosophiques, T. II, Gallimard, 1985, § 40, p. 1073.

2Tzvetan Todorov, 2007, La littérature en péril, Flammarion