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Toward Multilingual Universities

September 13, 2012

DUBLIN, Ireland -- European universities continue to respond to enormous demand from international students for English-language courses, and should develop robust language policies that articulate an appropriate balance of English and other global and national languages in the curriculum, panelists said Wednesday at the European Association for International Education conference. English is well-established as the dominant international language of academe worldwide.

“A lingua academia is a curse and a blessing at the same time,” said Christian Timm, director of the Centre for Languages and Philology at Ulm University, in Germany. Timm chaired the panel entitled “Lingua academia vs. linguistic diversity at European universities."

“The ideal is a mix between the lingua franca [specifically, in this case, the lingua academia], the languages of the country, and multilingualism in general,” said Pinuccia Contino, who directs the multilingualism and translation unit of the European Commission, which in 2011 released a report entitled Lingua Franca: Chimera or Reality.  “Whenever this mix is not balanced, there are problems and there can be serious consequences and losses.”

Contino said that these losses are not only cultural in nature, but they also can be political -- in that the exclusive use of English in research could prevent the dissemination of knowledge among a citizenry – and even economic. “Let’s not forget that when we have a lot of languages we also have a lot of induced jobs, which deal with languages and with translation.”

A leading Italian public university, the Politecnico di Milano, attracted headlines this spring when it announced it would move to all-English instruction at the graduate level in 2014. However, the more typical approach has been for European universities to introduce English-language courses as a complement to offerings in the national language(s).

English-taught programs – which are typically marketed to international students -- have multiplied rapidly in Europe, from 700 in 2002 to 2,400 in 2007, according to data collected by the Brussels-based Academic Cooperation Association. The association has not collected any more recent data on this subject, but Queenie Lam, a project officer, said that the StudyPortals.eu website currently lists 7,500 such programs.

This trend has worried some in international education, as was apparent from the audience comments on Wednesday. The programs are being formed to satisfy international student demand, but some in the audience bemoaned that these students aren't interested in learning national languages like Polish, or even French. Audience members also expressed concern that some of the professors who are teaching English-language courses have low levels of English language proficiency themselves.

Johann Fischer, president of the European Confederation of Language Centres in Higher Education, pointed to the University of Copenhagen as an example of good practice in this regard: the university has testing procedures in place to certify the English proficiency of academic staff.

One university that is just beginning to offer English-language courses is the Universidad de León, in Spain. This summer, the university offered training to economics and engineering faculty interested in teaching in English. To prepare for the task, the 20 instructors participated a 30-hour course on campus, as well as a two-week intensive course in Ireland, hosted by the University College Dublin.

“Long term, there has to be a policy” determining what a minimum level of English proficiency is for instructors, said Robert O’Dowd, who teaches English as a foreign language and applied linguistics at León. “At the moment we’re depending on people’s goodwill, and providing them all the support we can.”

 

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