The Transition to Writing in English in Non-Anglophone Institutions

The internationalisation of research has undeniably resulted in its Anglicisation. The impact of this on researchers whose first language is not English is well documented, and manifests most obviously in the form of linguistic bias in peer review. Testimonials from non-native academics reveal a range of attitudes towards the need to write in English. What is certain, though, is that given that so much research already exists in English, the language is unlikely to lose its status as academia’s lingua franca any time soon. This raises the question of when researchers in non-Anglophone institutions begin to write in English. This post explores this question, and the perspectives on writing in English in different countries.

German-speaking and the Scandinavian countries have gone to considerable effort to adapt to the Anglicisation of academia and research. Doctoral students may write their thesis in English in almost all universities, particularly in the sciences. Indeed, at the Freie Universität Berlin, for instance, applicants are required to have English language skills corresponding to B2 level of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages in order to be accepted on its natural sciences doctoral programme. Although students may write their thesis in German, the English language requirement testifies to the vast amount of scientific knowledge already published in English. Since PhD students must demonstrate awareness and understanding of their field, the ability to at least read English is necessary, regardless of the language one chooses to write in. Even at master’s level, it is increasingly common in the sciences to study in English. At the University of Basel in Switzerland, English is the language of instruction on most master’s courses in the sciences and social sciences, but humanities courses still tend to be delivered in German. The University of Helsinki in Finland has 36 international master’s programmes with English as the language of instruction in various disciplines ranging from agricultural sciences to economics and Russian studies.

The sheer volume of research conducted and published in English has meant that universities in countries where Anglicisation has traditionally been resisted, such as France, have had to accept that knowledge of English is vital for successfully completing a PhD. This has inevitably resulted in a rise in the number and proportion of theses written in English. In 1987, fewer than 3 per cent of theses were written in a language other than French. By 2015, that proportion had risen to one third, with only 3 per cent written in a language other than French or English, and this rise is not simply due to the greater representation of international students among French PhD candidates. According to Campus France – the agency that promotes higher education, international student services, and international mobility – French is not normally required to read for a PhD in the sciences. Only a thesis summary in French is necessary. The thesis may be written and defended entirely in English. As in other countries, however, French at B1 or B2 level is often essential for a PhD in the humanities or social sciences.

Although the difficulties of writing in a second language should not be underestimated – indeed, at Lex Academic, we support many researchers who find this challenging – this piece, written by a French historian who wrote her PhD in English, offers a refreshingly positive perspective on being a researcher as a non-native English speaker. For this author, choosing to write her thesis in English was both a welcome challenge and a means of achieving the necessary critical distance from the subject, specifically regarding terminology. The broader point, here, is that writing in a second language encourages authors to reflect – for instance, on the most effective way of explaining an argument, concept, or theory – which, despite the challenges involved, can only enhance the quality of a submission. It is time, then, to rewrite the narrative about non-Anglophone academics and recognise their valuable contribution.