European universities ‘should maintain place for local language’

International students and staff should be expected to speak the national language of the host institution, says study

November 25, 2019
Leaflets with the word 'Yes' written in different languages are displayed. Scottish referendum, 2014.
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Universities in continental Europe should position English as a parallel or second language to their country’s mother tongue, according to leading institutions.

Bernd Kortmann, director of the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies and author of a report for the League of European Research Universities, told Times Higher Education that institutions had “gone too far” if there was “no longer a place for the local language” in lecture halls and classrooms.

“There is very good reason if we have international students coming to, for instance, continental Europe for a master’s programme or a PhD programme [for them] to also learn the relevant national language,” he said.

However, Professor Kortmann said, he would not make national language classes mandatory for foreign students.

“It should be on offer; it should be a strong encouragement. But I would not force this on people,” he said.

The Leru briefing paper, Language Policies at the Leru Member Institutions, says that universities outside the Republic of Ireland and the UK should “position themselves…with regard to…the use of English either as a parallel language to the national language or merely as a possible second language for teaching, research and administration” and also to the requirement for undergraduate and postgraduate students to “master at least one foreign language besides English”.

“Besides their mother tongue(s), international students, faculty, and administrative staff must be expected to speak the national language of the host institution (at least on a receptive level) and English (or possibly other languages relevant to their field) on an academic level,” it adds.

A proposed law in the Netherlands would require universities to have a legal duty of care for their international students’ Dutch language proficiency, although it stops short of mandating that all foreign students take part of their courses in Dutch. Ninety-five per cent of master’s programmes at Leiden University are taught in English, according to the paper.

There is also increasing political pressure in Sweden, Denmark and Finland for universities to “maintain a clear position for the national language and not to overdo it in terms of offering degree programmes exclusively in English”, Professor Kortmann said.

However, he said, universities did not necessarily have to row back on English-language instruction in order to promote the national language.

“One can do the one thing without forgetting about the other things,” he said. “The trend towards English-language instruction is one that is increasing, but one should restrict it to those programmes where it really makes sense.”

The Leru study, which strongly advocates that universities develop institutional language policies, also includes the results of a 2017 survey of the 23 Leru member institutions. It found that 11 universities require foreign students to “acquire competencies” in the institution’s national language as part of the admissions process, while a further seven institutions recommend that foreign students do so.

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