From some days there is a political debate about language policy in Italian Universities, following the decision by a court to (re-)assert Italian as the national language of Italy and henceforth not to permit English-only courses, which would be a discrimination of Italian University students — mainly graduate and PhD — as Politecnico di Milano pretended — some other local Universities, such as Udine’s, are trying to do the adopt the same English-only policy. Nota bene: qui c’è il testo della sentenza del TAR sul sito ufficiale per chi volesse farsi un’idea. [Rough translation: link to the original Italian text with the motivations, for people interested.]
First, this is good news per se, that such a topic is finally debated in my country, as in the last 20 years Italy was mentioned in the international public opinion almost only for the marvellous adventures of Mr Bunga Bunga. At least, this is a topic worth a public debate!
To have a comparison, in the same days the French left-winged newspaper Libération opened its first page in English on order to welcome the new law that let some courses to be taught in English in French Universities, because foreign students in French are only 12 per cent.
Please note the difference: in France they are debate to have some University classes in English, while in Italy we debate to have English-only Universities.
In Italian University courses, Italian-English bilingualism is the de facto standard in many hard science curricula. This is easy to explain, as professors and researchers live in a situation of academic diglossia: we teach in Italian but publish in English. That’s why many presentations, slides, textbooks and so forth are available only in English, for a lot of disciplines. Nevertheless, there are a lot of disciplines which are deeply linked to the language used to give lectures. For example, do you think that learning the history of Europe in English or Italian would be the same? Of course not! And please, stop repeating the mantra: “this is valid only for the humanities”, because mathematics, logics, chemistry, natural sciences have a amount of literature also in French and German — at least.
Bur there is another argument against an English-only policy in Universities. it is completely unfair for Italians to force classes with only Italians in to be taught in English, as suggested by the Politecnico’s proposal. And rather stupid: in the global market of English-speaking Universities, an Italian English-only one would be marginal: if I were a foreign student who wants to go to an English-speaking University, I would definitely not choose Italy as my first choice, but the UK and Ireland (first choice), or a University in the North countries (second choice). Again, not surprisingly: in the North countries they speak English better than in the South countries — after all, English is a German language, such as German, Dutch, Swedish, and so on, so that they put less effort to learn English than people speaking a Romance language such as French, Spanish, Portuguese, or Italian.
That said, I’m not living in the Moon. I am perfectly aware that in the present-day European Union, only a good command of English let people, researchers, professors and students move abroad more or less easily. But this does not imply that we should use only English in Universities! Multilingualism is the European strength: for example, foreign students at the University of L’Aquila follow international degree courses in English and take classes of the Italian language at the same time. Joint degrees between Universities from different countries is a good way to have multilingual curricula — I’m not saying necessarily in English, take care! Some friends told me that Italy and France have international degrees where the thesis is written in French, with summaries in Italian, and discussed twice so to be valid in Italy and in France either. I think is a good strategy.
We should consider a bilingual curricula as a plus, comparing to English-only countries, which are often prisoned behind their monolingualism. A great book by Robert Phillipson told us about the risks of an English-only EU (suggested reading).
And, in case of any doubt, I think we have other options than English for the role of vehicular language in the European Union, as I already publicly said in 2005 in a journal paper. Please download and enjoy.