A recent review of about 134 UK universities’ strategic plans showed several blind spots. The least discussed (and perhaps the most jarring) among them – is the failure of universities to align their ambitions for international engagement with language learning. Language learning is the key to internationalization because it opens a whole new world of opportunities to young aspirants who wish to start their careers abroad or even in their own country.
The Missing Link
While several strategies are implemented on building sustainable international relationships, the possibility that bilingual or multilingual students and staff might be better equipped to bring about the needed change is not much considered. The absence of language learning says a lot about the culture underpinning internationalization.
Internationalization today is more about showcasing what we can do rather than learning from others. This approach is certainly not sustainable – and does not bode well with global higher education circles.
Role of Language Learning in Internationalization
When it comes to internationalization, collaboration and societal impact are at the heart of discussions, especially now that the pandemic has reinforced the importance of international cooperation.
Understanding the significance of foreign languages in boosting intercultural understanding, mobility, employability, and competitiveness, the European Commission has set a goal that all EU citizens need to speak at least 2 additional languages.
Learning a language equips pupils with the knowledge they need to succeed in life and to acknowledge and appreciate cultural differences. For students who apply for MBBS in Germany and MBA in Switzerland knowing a foreign language is always beneficial.
A 2019 British academy report called “Languages in the UK”, recycled its earlier claim made in 2013, apparently stating monolinguals is “the illiteracy of the 21st century”. And yet, instilling 21st-century literacy feels like a struggle.
The university leaders are in a tough spot. Owing to the pandemic, the pipeline of international students is drying up, and university language departments continue to close. While lack of students is impacting the framework for sure, however, justifying closures on that basis dismisses their vital role in internationalization.
Within global universities, there is widespread acceptance that students must have intercultural competencies to work effectively worldwide. However, learners who try to acquire them without ever experiencing the challenge of conversing in a foreign language are doing so without proper tools in their arsenal.
Therefore, the financial investment required to promote a culture of language learning (whether as an extracurricular offer for students and staff or as part of a degree program) is a major move to achieve global employability for an institution’s graduates – as well as to position the institution as a genuinely open-minded and trusted organization.
That positioning is especially important when it comes to international staff and students. The universities should treat the non-native speakers of English as an institutional asset rather than adopting a deficit perspective towards them.
After all, a university can claim to be truly international or decolonized only if it proactively draws on the experiences of those many students and staff who have shown initiative and adaptability by coming to a foreign country and operating in a 2nd (or 3rd) language. They should be held up as an example to others of the intercultural bond that comes with language learning.
The advantages of learning another language are not restricted to personal development and growth. It also plays an important part in making the world a better place to live in, so without a doubt language learning is the key to internationalization. Language learning has become simple with online tutorials like French online classes and German online classes, etc..