Take for instance India (English), Pakistan (English), Morocco (French), Algeria (French), etc. One thing they all have in common is they use the colonial languages in their higher education and research.

What advantage do they feel in the use of those colonial languages?

Would reverting back to their native languages be too difficult or expensive or utterly impossible? Why?

If using dominant international languages is so advantageous, why are numerous other countries (e.g. Arabic speaking countries, plus Iran) continuing with their own languages?

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    We (the people of Bangladesh) were colonized by the British. But mainly we use Bengali as the medium of instruction for about the first 12 years of education. May 19, 2021 at 6:49
  • The situation is often more nuanced, Algeria is a case in point. Do you mean higher education (university, etc.)?
    – Relaxed
    May 19, 2021 at 6:51
  • @Relaxed, yes, higher education & research.
    – user366312
    May 19, 2021 at 6:52
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    If you ask a question, you must be prepared to listen to the answers rather than demand simplistic all-or-nothing explanations. Language politics just don't work that way.
    – Relaxed
    May 19, 2021 at 7:37
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    The upper classes like something that divides them. Look at the English - historically French and Latin were commonly spoken as the language of government or the educated and English, as it was, was spoken by the common man. As time went on the language became a sort of combination of all. Often the fancier English words stem from the French - banquet, envoy, diplomacy, bureaucracy come to mind. It took a long time to happen though. May 19, 2021 at 8:38

2 Answers 2


There seems to be two basic factors at work: practicality and politics.

First, practicality. Many of the countries that use English as a common language are a patchwork of languages and peoples. (India reportedly has 121 languages that are spoken by at least 10,000 people, and more than 19,500 that are native tongues to someone: https://indianexpress.com/article/india/more-than-19500-mother-tongues-spoken-in-india-census-5241056/ ) Pakistan likewise has dozens of languages: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_Pakistan Purely as a practical matter, there needs to be some common language in order for people to work together. But if one of the native languages is chosen, then 1) it's seen as that language group trying to make itself dominant over the others, and 2) Probably few people outside the country speak it. Whereas if they choose English as the common language, everyone can despise it equally, and they can talk to foreigners*.

Secondly, politics. The (predominantly Islamic) countries that DON'T use English or French as their lingua franca have set themselves up as opponents of the Western world. Why would Iran, for instance, choose to use the language of the "Great Satan"? They also have Arabic as a common religious language, even though the modern versions have diverged considerably from the classical. (Much like the position of Latin in medieval Europe...)

*One of my pet peeves about living in Switzerland (which has four official languages) was that whenever I would try to practice my French or German, people would automatically switch to English.

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    Why would Iran, for instance, choose to use the language of the "Great Satan"? --- this is not the case. Iran uses Persian because (1) they were never colonized, (2) they take pride in their own history of 3000-5000 years.
    – user366312
    May 19, 2021 at 16:58
  • In case you don't know Hindi and Urdu are dominant official languages in India and Pakistan.
    – user366312
    May 19, 2021 at 16:59
  • @jamesql This answer would probably be better without the value judgment of "opponents of the Western world" bit. There is no reason a large population should not use its own language preferentially and there is nothing untoward with them doing so. There on the other hand cases where, not necessarily in the field of linguistics, Western values have been imposed on populations by local rulers in the name of progress and those often dont end well. As a neutral lingua franca however? Quite understandable though I am not sure it applies to all the examples in the OP's question. May 19, 2021 at 18:52
  • @user366312: Iran, or Persia as it was, certainly was colonized, in the first wave of Islamic conquest outside the Arabian Peninsula: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muslim_conquest_of_Persia I'm quite well aware that Hindi and Urdu are official languages, but as I said, making them the exclusive language devalues all the other languages & the ethnic groups that use them.
    – jamesqf
    May 20, 2021 at 6:18
  • @jamesqf, The classic colonization took place during the Industrial revolution when various European empires established colonies in Africa and Asia or the Americas. The main purpose was to loot natural resources and raw materials to the colonizer and send back finished products to the colonies. The colonies were also sources of slaves and were victims of inhuman tax regimes. The colonizers also imposed their own European laws and languages on the locals. If you call Arab Conquest Colonization, that doesn't paint the real picture of Persian history.
    – user366312
    May 20, 2021 at 10:52

Mastery in a dominant foreign language (especially English obviously but even French or Portuguese) comes with a lot of advantages socially and professionally. It sets you apart from those who speak “only” local languages, is useful for international trade (even with neighbouring countries, not only the former colonial power) and service opportunities (process outsourcing).

That pressure keeps language use alive in spite of a deliberate push to establish a “national” language, e.g. in primary education. In Algeria, paradoxically, distinction through mastery of French became even more powerful as the government was trying to promote Arabic and teaching French became deemphasized in public primary education. Only an elite had access to French schools (and therefore an advantage in higher education at home and abroad). It's also not the case that all tertiary education is in French but that creates other hierarchies.

It's also important not to underestimate the fact that none of these countries are fully homogeneous culturally, there are (hundreds of) millions of people who do not speak Arabic or Hindi/Urdu or only speak it as a second language they do not identify with. In Algeria and Morocco, there is also a gap between the variants of the Arabic language used in teaching and the vernacular (darija).

Finally, beyond the various factors that have an influence on language use, one basic fact is that governments cannot engineer a switch from one language to another, root out foreign influence, or prop up a local language at will. Linguistic policy is often very contentious but ultimately a lot less powerful than often assumed. Another area where that's evident is minority/local languages in Europe.

  • Mastery in a dominant foreign language (especially English obviously but even French or Portuguese) comes with a lot of advantages professionally. --- So, why are numerous countries, say, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, etc. not moving toward English or French?
    – user366312
    May 19, 2021 at 7:05
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    @user366312 They are starting from a different point with different factors having different weight (professional use is only one of the factors I mentioned). As I am trying to explain, it's very nuanced, you cannot flip a switch. It's not like the benefits of speaking English mean everybody is going to teach fully in English across Europe either. Iran I would not even think of as a legitmate comparison and I know very little about Egypt. Turkey does have English-language universities, incidentally and some other countries are moving towards that (I am thinking about the Netherlands).
    – Relaxed
    May 19, 2021 at 7:09
  • @user366312 Key in what I wrote is “keeps language use alive”. One obvious factor is that French or English were already in large use in teaching, business, and administration. That never was the case in Turkey or Iran.
    – Relaxed
    May 19, 2021 at 7:32

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