"If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen [then you have to speak German]." This oft-quoted remark by Willy Brandt, a former German chancellor, suggests that the language in which a message is delivered can be of strategic importance.
In AACSB’s 2009-10 Business School Questionnaire, 95% of participating AACSB member schools in countries where English is not the official language indicated that degree programs were offered in English. In fact, 47 of these schools (38%) reported English to be the primary language of instruction for degree programs offered. Of these, 29 reported that English was the only language of instruction in degree programs.
Another interesting dimension of the survey data is that schools in countries where English is the official language are predominantly uni-lingual in terms of the language of instruction. Among the 574 schools in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States that participated in the survey, all but two reported English to be the primary language of instruction. These two, unsurprisingly, were located in the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec. Only nine business schools in these six countries reported offering certain programs in another language of instruction.
Around the beginning of the first millennium A.D., Latin and Arabic served as common languages uniting scholars from different world regions and facilitating what Kemal Gürüz has described as some of the earliest international mobility in higher education. Today, is the English language playing a similar role within the world of management education?
One potential driver of such a phenomenon could be the frequency with which English is used as the “lingua franca” of business around the globe, and the desire of business schools in different world regions to prepare their students, regardless of the region in which they will work, to interact easily in this environment. A second could be schools’ reliance on English as a language most likely to unite students with varying mother tongues within the same classroom.
Clearly, however, English is not the only language of business; there are several other languages that play a significant role in global commerce and which are valuable to practicing managers in international companies, as well as emerging hybrids of English and other languages that suggest English will never be more than semi-global at best. Some business schools in English speaking countries encourage or require proficiency in a second language by the time students graduate, while other schools emphasize the importance of language skills by making them a basis of program admission. The University of South Carolina Moore School of Business, for example, requires undergraduate students participating in a collaborative program with the Chinese University of Hong Kong to acquire proficiency in a second language (Mandarin). INSEAD’s MBA applicant criteria include that the student be fluent in English and demonstrate practical knowledge of at least one other language.
Nor are English courses the only way to attract students who speak a variety of other languages into the same program. Choosing to retain or add another language of delivery may serve as a strategic move by a school to “select” students into the program who already have a level of fluency in the language that will facilitate easier communication in certain markets. And there are worthwhile questions about the level of proficiency in any language required for students to maximize the learning experience. There have been numerous reported cases of schools that have been overly optimistic about the lack of a language barrier when recruiting international students, and have found lower than expected language capabilities to be impediments to meeting program objectives.
Whereas in years past, the language of instruction at many schools was likely to have been taken for granted, in today’s global higher education and business environment, it is likely to increasingly become yet another strategic dimension of program design and delivery.