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What is the real price of ELT…

…and is it possible to subsidise the cost?

Back in December, an intriguing and divisive article appeared in the Guardian. The article, titled ‘English still rules the world, but that’s not necessarily okay’, was written by lecturer in public policy and administration at the University of Ulster, Michele Gazzola. In it, Michele discusses the position of the English language in today’s modern world, and the implications it has for those who speak it as a second language. Specifically, Michele says there is a real cost, financially and socially, to both countries and individuals.

In Europe, most countries teach English as a second language, with around 5-15% of their education budget allotted to foreign languages. The EU, specifically, encourages each member state to teach at least two foreign languages. Meanwhile, the UK has continued to see its own foreign languages budget consistently slashed. After all, when everyone else speaks English, do British kids really need to learn French, German or Spanish?

For many, the response to this information may well be ‘so what?’. After all, the emphasis on foreign language education is beyond our control. Further, for ourselves and our readers, ELT is how we put food on the table! Well, there may be one solution…

In his article, Michele talks about the ‘linguistic tax’, a theoretical strategy initially proposed by Philippe Van Parijs of the University of Louvain. The idea is deceptively simple: English-speaking countries would pay a ‘global tax’, with the revenue distributed to countries where English is taught as a second language. Of course, the implementation of such a tax is essentially impossible, says Michele, requiring some sort of ‘world government’ to collect and distribute the cash.

Regardless, the Gazette was intrigued by this proposal and approached Michele to discover more about the factors that inspired the theory.

The true cost

So where do these costs come from? The immediate conclusion may be that the countries who teach English require more classroom hours. However, evidence suggests this isn’t the case.

In 2018 the OECD data on classroom hours showed Australia had the highest number of classroom hours (over 11,000), nearly twice as many as Hungary (around 6,000). The USA, the UK, Canada and New Zealand are all in the top ten for long hours. Ireland comes in at number 11.

Well, according to Michele, it’s easy to spend less on foreign languages if you simply are not paying anyone to teach it. Michele also notes a significant lack of foreign language teachers in the UK. In 2022, Professor Becky Muradás-Taylor from the University of Leeds gave a talk at the British Association of Applied Linguistics (BAAL). In it, she stated that even if everyone currently studying foreign languages in the UK became a teacher, the UK would still not have enough foreign language teachers for the school system.

Want to save money? ‘Just don’t teach something,’ says Michele.

That may well be the case for state education. But what about higher education?

‘Universities are extremely interested in international rankings,’ says Michele. ‘This is because the percentage of foreign students is an indicator of “quality”.

‘The problem is you attract international students who don’t learn the local language and then are likely to go elsewhere. Countries are educating doctors and engineers who leave and don’t pay back into the economy. In the short term, it is good for universities, but there is a long term cost.’

Michele went on to say that, for some sectors, English is quickly becoming the dominant language. Some countries run higher education courses almost entirely in English, putting those who may not be able to speak English as well as their peers at a disadvantage, and perhaps even unable to access higher education at all. This is particularly true for those already from a disadvantaged socio-economic background.

However, if you do speak English, then you should have nothing to worry about, right? Well, research suggests there may be poorer learning outcomes for students who learn in English as opposed to their native language. A recent study from Sweden found students taking a course in English were more likely to have lower scores and drop-out than their peers taking the exact same course in Swedish.

There can also be a financial cost on the individual, says Michele; academic writers who speak English as a second language are more likely to have to amend their work on account of spelling and grammar. To avoid this, they may find themselves paying out of pocket for an editor.

Well, why do researchers not just write their papers in their native language? Michele tell us it’s not quite that simple:

‘There is little incentive for research papers to be written in any language other than English. Articles and papers in English are far more likely to be cited, and citations contribute to rankings, so journals will squeeze out other languages.’

Would it even work?

The Gazette was quick to wonder what the reaction would be from certain countries to a linguistic tax.

On paper, taxes would be taken from all countries whose official language is English. However, ‘it would exclude countries where English is an official language, but not as widely spoken as a native language, such as India,’ says Michele.

Therefore, Ireland, a country who speaks English due to colonisation, and Canada, a country where French is widely spoken alongside English, would be included in the tax. Michele concedes Canada may well be complicated. ‘In this case,’ he says, ‘only the provinces where English is most widely spoken would be taxed.’

For now, in the absence of a world government to enforce such a tax, Michele tells us there may be realistic ways to bridge this financial gap that some countries have actually already implemented. One way is for governments to implement a law surrounding patents, wherein patents filed in English may be shorter, cost more, or be free for a certain period of time. Some elements of this strategy already exist in South Korea, where the national patent office charge higher fees if some services are requested in English rather than Korean. If European countries implemented similar laws, it could be the first step to subsidising the cost of English education.

So, as English continues to rule the world, do you agree with Michele that it might be high time to ‘curb its power’?

Image courtesy of Library
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