MOOCs and the language barrier: is open education not so open after all?

MOOCs and the language barrier: is open education not so open after all?

As I discuss in a new book, we should dispense with the idea of English as a fearful “hegemon”. Too often, anxiety over the spread of the English language is really about dislike of American power.

English has been put in place as a global language by a host of historical forces, ranging from British colonialism to World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today it is actively chosen, not imposed.

Compare this with other tongues around the globe, including Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian, Portuguese. These languages together cover two-thirds of the inhabited world but all were spread by military conquest, colonial expansion, and, in some cases, religion by the sword and the book.

Yet we do not speak of Spanish as a “hegemon” in Latin America. Or of Arabic in Northern Africa and the Middle East.MOOCs and the language barrier  is open education not so open after all

English also comes at the end of a long line of great lingua franca that have had major impacts on human knowledge — Latin, Persian, Chinese, Sanskrit and Arabic to name a few. On the negative side, these lingua franca often suppressed scholarship in more local tongues. On the positive side, however, they greatly advanced knowledge by acting as nourishing media, combining the scholarship of many cultures.

They also acted as internationalising forces. A brilliant pupil drawn to the sciences in 10th century Kazakhstan or Spain had to know Arabic so he could travel to a centre of learning and study with high level scholars.

There are similarities with MOOCs today. Technology is such that knowledge and learning can “travel” throughout the world to students with an internet connection. This certainly makes the situation much easier than having to travel hundreds of kilometres on foot and horseback. But it doesn’t at all alter the role of a shared language.

Some have proposed that the importance of English will be short-lived, due to advances in computer translation. But after 60 years of debates among linguists, translators, and computer specialists, this seems unlikely. It may be possible by mid-century for simple oral communication, but not for more complex written and spoken material, such as that in science or literature.