English, English alone – a biased view about internationalisation of higher education
As regards the importance of English proficiency, please allow me to tell you a story.
When I worked at Texas A&M University in the US as a professor many years ago, I had a PhD student from South Korea who had immense academic potential but was very poor in English. I suggested that he should write his doctoral dissertation in Korean and then have it translated into English. But hearing my proposal, another Korean student told me that it wouldn't work because what that student wrote in Korean was hard to comprehend. So the English language is not the key point. And it is not only Korean students who have problems with English. A number of my American students failed to convey exactly what they meant to say in their academic reports even though the reports were written in pure American English. So, no, English is not the key point.
Please grant me the permission to tell you another entirely different story.
The baby-boomer generation in Taiwan regarded Ke Qihua's New English Grammar, one of Taiwan's most popular English textbooks, a must learn, even though he was just a middle-school teacher. His grammar book was respected as the "Bible". And yet Ke Qihua had never been to the US or Europe, and had never even stepped outside Taiwan. In the early days, almost all accomplished personages in Taiwan who went for overseas for higher education benefitted from Ke Qihua's New English Grammar. People like that because it has real content.
Here is another well-known story.
Kai Lai Chung is well known for his significant contributions to modern probability theory. He is the man who carries off the palm and is second to none among Chinese scholars in the sphere of probability. But he speaks English with an accent so strong that neither Americans nor I can understand him. When he was a professor in Stanford, his students rushed to the President's office to complain. You know what the president told the students? "Professor Chung is our university's valued asset. If his lectures are incomprehensible, it should be your problem." Frankly speaking, I can give out a list of dozens of well-known expatriate professors in the US who speak broken English. A number of non-native Chinese teachers in the US enjoy a reputation far and wide and are much respected in the academic community, but their spoken English is far from proficient.
Here I would like to say a few words based on my personal experience.
I believe that many of you have attended lectures. Sometimes, the speakers employ full-blown rhetoric, with nice pronunciation and intonation, but the audience felt at a loss as to what was the actual message. By the time the audience got home, they could hardly remember what the speaker had talked about or what messages the speaker had actually tried to convey.
Without doubt language is important. Currently, English enjoys the greatest popularity throughout the world. So we cannot afford to ignore it. However, it is not that important that one should speak beautiful English or Chinese, and your ability to speak Chinese or English well is less associated with the effectiveness of your communication or with the efficacy of bringing yourself into prominence or with major accomplishments or minor achievements. So it is less necessary to regard it as something of primary importance. In terms of internationalisation, the first thing we should take into serious consideration is to observe international standards and practices. The key to the effectiveness in communication is attitude, sincerity, logic and content. The pity is that articles stuffed with meaningless rhetoric are prevalent and cause anxiety; they are obstacles to communications.
November 18, 2013