Why does English spread in global academia?

The Linguistic Ethnography Forum’s e-seminar devoted to Ingrid Piller’s recent book Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice: An Introduction to Applied Sociolinguistics is currently running. Some discussions so far are concerned with the use of English as a medium of instruction in global education, and I would like to expand on the spread of English as the medium of global academia here. I would like to argue that it is important to approach the spread of English as medium of global education by looking beyond language per se to account for macro-social forces that significantly yet covertly influence decisions on language use. I will also consider how our publishing choices relate to the global spread of English.

To show that language choice is not primarily a question of language, I will focus on the spread of English-medium lectures in Korean universities as an example: in 2011 global media reported the suicides of four students and one professor at an elite Korean university. The media blamed these tragedies on the university’s language policy of conducting classes in English only.  These media reports motivated us (Piller & Cho, 2013) to investigate the more fundamental question of what drives the zealous pursuit of English in Korean higher education.

The findings of our research show how the powerful ideology of neoliberalism can serve as a covert language policy, where market capitalism combines with academic capitalism. Since the neoliberal turn of Korea during the 1997-8 Asian Economic Crisis, improving competitiveness has become a mandate for Koreans, who endured immense social suffering during the crisis (e.g., massive unemployment, family breakups and suicides). In this context, English came to be seen as a key to competitiveness. While English as a competitive advantage may seem a common-sense approach given the global status of English, the Korean case demonstrates that the spread of English is inextricably linked with capitalist expansion.

English-medium lectures are important for local universities as they are mandated to compete for global excellence, which is tied to profits from increasing numbers of foreign students and government grants. Moreover, English-medium lectures are directly related to university rankings conducted by mainstream media. These rankings annually assess Korean universities according to set criteria with English-medium lectures being one of the key components to measure institutional internationalization. While other criteria such as research, learning environment and social reputation of graduates require time to produce measurable outcomes, increasing the number of classes taught in English can create instantaneous effects on the internationalization score and hence improve rankings almost immediately.

Universities are not the only institutions deriving a profit from English-medium lectures. For mainstream newspapers losing revenue due to increasing competition from online media, university rankings serve as a new source of revenue through production of special issues and university advertisement placements. This capitalist chain in which university and media interests are inextricably linked remains largely invisible to the public.

The spread of English as medium of instruction is widely seen as the result of the “free choices” of institutions and individuals who wish to better themselves and accordingly make personal choices as free market agents. However, it usually goes unnoticed that these “personal choices” are not really choices but are made within a narrow set of options that are determined by market interests.

In the e-seminar, Ingrid raised the question of how to remedy disadvantage resulting from language policies in education. I believe that research aiming to investigate and expose the complex power relations behind English-medium lectures has an important role to play. However, all too often such research is not accessible to policy makers and other stakeholders. Our 2013 article demonstrating how neoliberalism works as a language-policy-setting mechanism in favour of English medium lectures, for instance, was published in Language in Society, a sociolinguistic academic journal published in English. Although our article is available for open access from Cambridge University Press, the language of publication means, in effect, that our research follows the same logic that we describe for English-medium lectures. While we do not derive a direct financial benefit from publishing in English, we derive profits of distinction and reputation that may enhance our careers.

How can our research make a difference when it is published in English in an international sociolinguistics journal that is only read by fellow sociolinguists? Does it make sense to be critical of the global spread of English in education if we only publish that criticism in English? For us, the answer is no and we have been fortunate that 녹색평론 (“The Green Review), a progressive social policy journal in Korea, has just published our work about “English-medium lectures in Korean higher education” in Korean.


ResearchBlogging.org Piller, I., & Cho, J. (2013). Neoliberalism as language policy Language in Society, 42 (01), 23-44. DOI: 10.1017/S0047404512000887

Piller, I. & J. Cho. (2016). 한국의 대학과 영어강의 [English-medium lectures in Korean higher education]. 녹색평론 Green Review 148, 89-106.

Author Jinhyun Cho

Dr Jinhyun Cho teaches English-Korean translation and interpreting at Macquarie University in Sydney. Her PhD research explored the phenomenon of “English fever” in South Korea from historical, societal and individual perspectives, with a particular focus on the translating and interpreting profession. A monograph based on her PhD research was published by Springer in 2017 as “English language ideologies in Korea: Interpreting the past and present”.

More posts by Jinhyun Cho
  • Brendan Kavanagh

    Language and politics are inextricable. It is interesting to consider that a minority language, once spoken by a small Germanic tribe of Angles, would one day spread itself through colonialism and globalisation to be the world’s Lingua Franca.

    I wonder if this will change as America’s power wanes and China increases its influence as a world superpower. Will Mandarin cement its place as the new global academic language? This would be an interesting power shift, which I don’t think would bode well for English speaking communities who have been comfortably monolingual for several generations.

  • Julie

    It is sad to hear the story in Korea and even more upset to learn how the spread of English could be connected with the expansion of capitalism in global academia. It is true that any institution has its expect to rank itself high in academia as education is now also bridging culture to culture. If the university could draw more students from worldwide, it is undeniable that it has succeeded in increasing its symbolic capital. While such capitalism could be gained through various ways, the extreme desire of using English-medium lectures or instructions for profits should be criticized. Yet English continues to spread globally, its expansion in academia would not be overemphasized for capitalism especially for financial profits.

  • Binisha Sharma

    Today, children almost around the globe are taught in a language that is not their mother tongue but English. Knowing the global language is
    crucial, yet, there are disadvantages too. For instance, students sometimes do not understand the language of instruction and it turns out to be difficult to comprehend the content. So, they simply rote the sentences or paragraphs without understanding. In my opinion, multilingual teaching is an option to help students grasp content in their mother-tongue.

  • Bindu pokhrel

    Learning English language has been a trend everywhere in today’s world as an individual’s identity is judged on the basic of their English language skills.In Nepal, English language is introduced to the students from playgroup level. So far the compulsion of learning English is concerned, English is being taught as a subject more than a language. Although the students study English as a compulsory subject each year from grade one to ten still a large number of students struggle to pass the subject which has led to the optimal level of frustration among the students, sometimes ending up in a suicide. On the other hand, many private educational institutions have already adopted English as the main medium of instruction and follow English only policy which undoubtedly has helped learners in developing good English language skills but also has affected the first language skills of the students.

  • Wonghoi

    It is the first time I know from this article that some unis in Korea tried to improve their ranking situation by adding English courses throughout their plan. English-medium lectures are becoming more and more important in other Asian countries as well. Especically in China, more and more corperate unis are developing themselves to be the best university in our country. Nowadays, there are three main universities that have gained success from it, which are Hongkong Baptist Uni, Nottingham Uni, Liverpool Uni. You might get confused that why those unis will be famous in China. It is due to that they all have set another new organization or college in different cities of mainland China, which helps a lot of students learn foreign knowledge in theri own country. In the future, I believe that there will be more and more unis like this to be opened in China, and it will become a future trend in the next coming 10 years. Gaokao has caused so many damages to our students, and those unis could offer new opportunities for them.

  • Ulfath Sadia

    This article reflects on how English has became part of business. Starting from the universities to the newspapers, English has expanded everywhere. For the expansion of the multinational companies to my country our education ministry also putting more emphasis on English language competency for better employment opportunity of the youth. This is a profit making scope for the universities to get more students by implementing lectures in English. If I talk about my career perspective I chose to be a TESOL Teacher as the qualification has a global value, as English became a global phenomenon. So, it will bring me more and better job opportunities.

  • Ulfath Sadia

    The article refers to my own experience in my country Bangladesh, where English is the medium of instruction in the higher degrees. The students are taught by Bengali during their school days and a sudden change to English textbooks and lectures make the process of education quite complicated. Often, the students are not able to understand the meanings of the lesson and the class lectures. Though the students shows positive attitude towards the English MoI but still faces difficulty and forced to do rigorous translation based study I order to understand the lessons.

  • Dhanisa Kamila

    I cannot agree more about the fact that a country’s ideology is giving a significant influence on how the people in such country perceive a language, in this matter, English, and how it strongly affects their educational context. The drive of globalization has also made English became the most chosen language to use in order to internationalize many educational institutions in Korea. Koreans highly value the people who are able to conduct English well and this phenomenon is famously known as “English Fever”. Parents are doing mostly anything to put their children in an English-language-based learning environment, and educational institutions are conducting many English-based lectures.

  • 44209150

    Thank you Jinhyun for sharing this interesting article. In reading this post, I just recalled my father’s advice to choose English as my major for the tertiary bachelor program. While English language major was not zealously selected by high school graduates in my area in 2005, my father could envisage the crucial role of English in the future; therefore, he oriented me to pursue English language teaching major at the University instead of majoring administrative business. His saying “Learning English will be a good path to the modernization, industrialization and development of a country” has still been etched on my mind. In the context of global integration, Vietnam has launched the national language project 2020, which requires all students at tertiary level to be able to use English in their daily communication. One of the typical of the spread of English in academia is that despite dissertations written in Vietnamese of PhD graduates, abstracts are required to be written in English. I have come to seek the answer to the question “why English per se is always available in any materials and resource? Is it because this language is linked to the economic power of countries speaking that language?”.

  • Meera Panthee

    English has been a fascinating language almost all over the world because people those who speak other languages also communicate in English and comprehend. It is always beneficial learning English because it opens up an array of opportunities but at the same time, learning English is actually difficult for second language learners. In the context of Nepal, people with English proficiency are highly respected and valued so children are motivated towards its learning. But at the same time, some cannot master their skill which leads towards failure at school. However, English language is the pressing need of today.

  • Pejman Golshahi Soumeh Saraei

    The tendency toward employment of English-medium in education has its impression in university practices. Depending on the country and its scientific level of knowledge, this can be instructive and helpful and sometimes to limit the progress. If it is used wisely since most of the resources are available in English, the learners have got a higher chance of occupational and social status, however, considering the transmission of ideas and concepts in a lecture and the role of the audiences, using a the first and common language is a better idea. Internationalization is another term that most of universities are trying to achieve which at the same time must be coincided with more pedagogical support.