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The language of learning

By Alison Wolf - posted Monday, 22 November 2004

Higher education is genuinely and increasingly global in its frame of reference: and its gossip, its journals, its news services and its league tables. This constant babble depends for its efficiency on a shared language: partly mathematics but mostly English. But was a single dominant language inevitable? And does it have to be English?

Last year, on a Central European train, a German friend of ours fell into conversation with some earnest tourists. He was puzzled that they were labouring to learn Czech grammar. They were happy to explain: they wanted to read the original Kafka text. Our friend hesitated, then broke the news. Czech would be no help to them. Kafka’s works were all written in German.

He doubts they believed him - which shows how far we have forgotten, as well as lost, the extraordinary civilisation of pre-war Central Europe. These countries produced great literature that captivated the world. They were the home of innovation in philosophy and economics. They dominated world science. And the language in which they did this was not Latin, not French, not English, but German.


German universities defined “world class” from the 19th into the 20th century because German states and localities competed with each other to attract and support great research professors. Their American students took the modern idea of the research university home with them. Today, it is California, creating its university system under Clark Kerr, or Texas, pouring billions into its Austin campus, which evokes that lost Germany of scientific pre-eminence, not modern Europe’s centralised university systems.

Who, 100 years ago, would have guessed that the world’s scientists would soon communicate only in English? If you visit Thomas Edison’s laboratories in New Jersey, there, in his perfectly preserved office, are shelf upon shelf of German-language scientific journals. Today, US universities so dominate scientific research that the rest of the world is an also-ran. But in the period between the wars, the whole North American continent produced a small fraction of the Nobel prizes that went to European science.

Hitler, of course, destroyed Central Europe’s German-speaking culture, leaving much of its heartland imprisoned within the Soviet Empire for almost 50 years. In doing so he bestowed on America a generation of brilliant scholars who laid the foundations for its contemporary dominance. This, in turn, is why we now have a truly global academic language.

The Anglo-Saxon countries all benefit enormously, of course. We operate naturally in English. We are not forced to learn any foreign language well (and so really should have time, as children, to learn some other things a lot better than we do). And we attract fee-paying foreign students who want to study in our universities as much for the language they teach in as for the quality of our instruction. We should be very grateful to those 18th century Brits who defeated the French in the Seven Years War and secured North America for our native tongue.

But was it in fact inevitable that the language of that particular northern continent would conquer the world? Isn’t it conceivable that German could have done so instead; or, at least, that we could have had a two-language world of science? The Roman Empire, after all, used Latin and Greek simultaneously for centuries - and it was Greek that was the language of culture.

Perhaps English would have triumphed in the end. But I don’t think it was completely inevitable, and I certainly don’t think it need have come so soon. For German to have remained the language of high culture and the scientific frontier would, though, have demanded a very different Germany, for the simple reason that so many of those who graced it were Jews.


Kafka was a German-speaking Jew: so, of course, was Einstein; so was Wittgenstein. Or take John von Neumann, one of the 20th century’s great intellects, and a quintessential Central European. He was born in Budapest, educated in Hungary and Germany and Switzerland, with a first academic position in Berlin - and then emigration to the universities of the new world. And so it was there, not in Germany, that he made his enormous contributions to game theory, ballistics, hydrodynamics, and to the whole development of modern computing.

The Nazis destroyed German cultural and scientific pre-eminence in the course of destroying so many of the people who loved and created it. They rejected university autonomy and cultural and intellectual diversity. The Americans embraced them, and so today it is the ideas generated by their universities that fashion the world.

I do not see anyone, now, dislodging English from its global position: at least not in my lifetime. However, the more it becomes the whole world’s academic language, the less we native speakers can rely on it for competitive advantage. And certainly the whole world should learn the 19th and the 20th century’s lessons about what fosters intellectual greatness.

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This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the Times Higher Education Supplement, London, UK.

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About the Author

Professor Alison Wolf is Professor of Education, Head of Mathematical Sciences Group and Executive Director of the International Centre for Research in Education at the Institute of Education, University of London. She is the author of Does Education Matter?

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