Call for standards in languages

February 9, 1996

An expert in foreign language teaching has called for national standards in student achievement following evidence that graduates' linguistic abilities vary enormously.

Jim Coleman, professor of foreign language learning at the University of Portsmouth, says that his survey of some 25,000 students of foreign languages in the United Kingdom shows that the present system gives no real indication of a student's abilities.

Employers have to rely on relatively vague statements such as "foreign language to degree standard" which, he maintains, says precious little about their ability to communicate.

"The survey shows there is a need for universities to state clearly proficiency levels in all course documentation. There are hugely different levels of language performance and provision across the system. Students, parents and employers need to know their linguistic objectives and assessment criteria and these should be defined in accordance with agreed national or international standards," he said.

Professor Coleman envisages a system run on a voluntary basis with universities submitting papers to a body for approval rather than compulsory system of regulation from above.

His work also revealed that too little research is being done into foreign language teaching itself. "The majority of lecturers in a modern languages department will be specialists in literature, culture or other areas and yet there is a tremendous need for research into the way we teach and how we can improve language teaching in universities," he said.

There were huge potential benefits in more research, he added. Foreign exchange trips, for example, would benefit from closer study so as to ensure that students maximise opportunities to learn while abroad.

The results of his two-year survey, which included similar research carried out in six other European countries is contained in a new book, titled Studying Languages: A Survey of British and European Students.

His research was funded by the British Council, the German Academic Exchange Service and the Commission of European Communications. The book is published in association with the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research.

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