The Power of Languages in Internationalization in Higher Education – An Overview

Bonnie Wong

20 October 2023

Internationalization is the “process of integrating an international, intercultural, and global dimension into the teaching, research, and service functions of higher education institutions” (Altbach and Knight, 2007). Already in 2018, more than 90% of universities included internationalization as part of their mission plan to foster international cooperation and continue to improve the quality of teaching and learning at their institutions.

Higher Education (HE) institutions worldwide are adopting internationalization strategies to help create an inclusive global community of learners, researchers, trainers, and educators. This article highlights ways foreign language teaching and learning is crucial in the internationalization process.

Advantages of Foreign Language Learning for Internationalization

Foreign language learning is intrinsically connected to internationalization in HE, helping students and staff communicate more effectively with their peers worldwide, promoting cultural understanding, and enhancing the quality of academic exchange. Foreign languages also provide students with skills to succeed academically and professionally in our interconnected world.

Advantages of foreign language learning for internationalization include:

  • Enhancing employability – Employers highly value multilingual skills, and students who speak multiple languages are more likely to find employment in various industries and sectors.
  • Cultural competence – Learning a foreign language helps students and staff gain a more in-depth understanding of different cultures and perspectives, boosting their ability to work with people from diverse backgrounds and helping create a more inclusive and welcoming environment.
  • Academic exchange – Speaking a foreign language enables students and staff to participate more fully in academic exchange programs and research collaborations. It also strengthens their ability to contribute to international conferences and seminars.
  • Personal and cognitive development – Learning a foreign language is a challenging and rewarding experience that promotes personal growth. It also enhances cognitive functions such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity.

Making foreign language learning a part of an institution’s internationalization strategy has several advantages beyond the academic field, and, of course, language learning should not be limited to the English language. Many other languages have an extensive global reach because, for example, they are spoken by a large number of people or because they are the official or factual languages of countries with significant economic influence. Furthermore, international cooperation and student and professional mobility are more likely to take place within a geographical area, so learning languages that are dominant or important regionally can be a significant asset. Examples include (but are certainly not limited to) Spanish or Brazilian Portuguese in Latin and Central America, French in parts of Africa, and Mandarin Chinese or Japanese in South-East Asia.

Implementing a Durable Foreign Language Learning Program

Foreign language learning is an important aspect of “internationalization at home” strategies to meet specific and immediate needs or more long-term objectives. For example, students taking part in outgoing mobility would have an immediate need to learn the language of their host country before leaving. On the other hand, incoming international students or researchers are able to settle more quickly in their new environment by learning one or more of the local languages. Long-term foreign language learning strategies within an HE institution can target students, academic and research staff, and administrative and supporting staff. Furthermore, these strategies can go beyond classroom learning and become a part of campus culture and institutional identity. Making foreign language learning available to those in charge of welcoming international students, researchers or staff will also support your local team in their daily tasks.

Long-term foreign language learning as part of the home curriculum, be it in self-study or group classes, will help students, academics, and researchers benefit from internationalization strategies at their home institution: open-mindedness, cognitive benefits of multilingualism, cultural and intercultural awareness and understanding, employability, academic or professional mobility opportunities and, of course, foreign language skills. Foreign language and international experiences can be fostered from the home institution through virtual tools, online classes with international guest speakers, or remote collaboration with a partnering institution.

Finally, on-campus or virtual events promoting foreign language learning, interculturality, or multilingualism help create an international environment at the home institution. Such events allow for engaging and informal learning opportunities that can pique curiosity about one or more foreign languages, which, in turn, might be transformed into an actual formal learning experience. Implementing and maintaining a foreign language learning program at an HE institution can be complicated and costly, especially for institutions or countries with more limited resources. For these reasons, e-learning platforms such as Altissia can be an excellent option as part of an institution’s internationalization strategy, as they usually offer several languages to learn and multiple interface languages. E-learning platforms also offer flexibility; they can be used for self-study, integrated into a foreign language curriculum, or become part of a hybrid or blended learning course.


Internationalization is an important strategy for Higher Education institutions to prepare students for a rapidly changing world, foster global academic collaboration, and improve the quality of education. Foreign language learning is a critical component of the internationalization process, as it promotes cultural understanding, enhances employability, nurtures personal growth, and helps to create a more diverse and inclusive international community.

Works Consulted & Cited

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De Wit, H. & Altbach, P.G. (2021). Internationalization in higher education: global trends and recommendations for its future, Policy Reviews in Higher Education, 5:1, 28-46, DOI: 10.1080/23322969.2020.1820898.

European University Association. (2014). Trends 2015: Learning and teaching in European universities. Brussels: European University Association.

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Knight, J. (2006). Internationalization of higher education. In: J. Forest & P. Altbach (eds.), International handbook of higher education (pp. 97-121). Springer.

Knight, J. (2013). Internationalization of higher education: A conceptual framework. In: The Routledge Handbook of Higher Education for Sustainable Development (pp. 105-118). Routledge.

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Thondhlana, J., Chiyevo Garwe E., de Wit, H., Gacel-Ávila, J., Huang, F., Tamrat W. (eds.) (2021). The Bloomsbury Handbook of the Internationalization of Higher Education in the Global South. Bloomsbury Publishing, London, New York.