The university’s rector, professor Giovanni Azzone, explained the reason of this choice: "Universities are in a more competitive world, if you want to stay with the other global universities - you have no other choice”, and "We strongly believe our classes should be international classes - and the only way to have international classes is to use the English language”.
The PoliMi’s switch to English follows a common pattern in Europe, where more than 4,500 university courses are currently being taught in English, according to Nic Mitchell, founder of De la Cour Communications, an organization that studies the internationalisation of higher education.
Thanks to globalization, the humanity’s ancient dream of a common international language seems to be close to come true, with English replacing Latin, its predecessor as a common European language, and closing the doors to experimental artificial languages such as Esperanto.
But why English?
English is not the most spoken language in the world, in fact it places itself in the third place after Mandarin (aprox 14.1% of world population) and Spanish (5.85%). However, English has certain characteristics that make it suitable as an international language, such as the fact that it has a reasonably easy grammar, with minimal inflection. Or in other words, it is not that difficult to learn.
Furthermore, English is flexible. It has a particular capacity and willingness to introduce new words taken from other languages into its vocabulary: a clear example for this are the many Italian words used by English speakers, mostly in relation to food and classical music (cappuccino, pasta, latte, panini, spaghetti, pizza, bravo, aria, crescendo, adagio, legato, mezzo-soprano). As a last point, we must consider the massive usage of English in contemporary music, which is an fundamental cultural aspect.
New music from the USA and UK has already influenced at least two generations of people all around the world, people who have listened to songs written in English and sung those same songs in English. This cultural aspect contributed to the spread of English between non-English speakers, affecting in particular young people.
However, imposing English as the official language for education worldwide is still a matter of debate and controversy. Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, sees as a possible consequence that "Less will be written in local languages and the culture may be weakened. And fewer textbooks will be written in local languages. Intellectual life may well be weakened."
Emilio Matricciani, associate professor at PoliMi, is convinced that "Speaking Italian to our countrymen is like watching a movie in colour, high definition, very clear pictures. On the contrary, speaking English to them, even with our best effort, is, on the average, like watching a movie in black and white, with very poor definition, with blurred pictures”.
Nevertheless, students seem to welcome the idea of the switch, considering future employability and career prospects in particular. “I agree with the choice... If our university gives us the tools to use our knowledge all over the world it is better.” Masters degree student Anna Realini said.
Whether the switch to English will affect the strength of Italian teaching, however, it is still to be seen.