The 30-year call for help

March 8, 1996

A protest by students and teachers at France's prestigious oriental languages institute is the latest twist in a long-running saga. Since 1964, its staff and pupils have been calling for more space and better facilities.

The National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilisation, nicknamed "Langues'O", is in many ways a victim of its own success. In 1939, it attracted 600 students to courses running the linguistic gamut from Japanese to Urdu. Today, there are 10,000 pupils studying 81 languages taught by more than 600 academics. In the interim, while keeping its headquarters in Paris's seventh arrondissement, it has had to rent - and, in many cases share - a further six premises from universities and schools throughout and beyond Paris. The institute's president, Andre Bourgey, has said he would need a helicopter to monitor his entire establishment.

A 1991 study by the national evaluation committee for universities said the institute's layout was "abnormal and to be condemned".

In the institute's centre at Asni res, which it rents from the Paris III University, Langues'O students are each accorded 20 square centimetres. The figure rises slightly - to 26 square centimetres - in the Dauphine centre, and to the luxuriously high ratio of 3.58 square metres per pupil in the Broca centre. At Asni res, the language laboratory - which accommodates 18 students at a time - is shared between 1,762 Langues'O pupils and students of German from Paris III. In theory, one hour in the laboratory should accompany every three hours of language courses. In reality, students of Egyptian Arabic, for example, receive 45 minutes of language laboratory every two weeks. There are no tutorial rooms, relegating teachers and students to the corridors to hold discussions outside class time. Library facilities are also poor. At the Dauphine Langues'O centre, the capacity is 180 places for 4,640 students.

"It's not even organised to the extent that, for example, people studying central Asian languages are together in one centre," said Daphne Abiven, a student of Russian at the Clichy centre. "There's no sharing of resources like there would be in a normal university. If you want to follow your studies properly, you often spend your day taking the metro, the bus, walking between one centre and another. It's all very disjointed."

Hong Lau Triffault, a student of Vietnamese at the Dauphine centre, said: "When you first come here, there's this notion that it's a very prestigious institute. But when you go inside and begin to study here, you realise that it's really not."

The pursuit of prestige was one of the reasons Langues'O came to be. In 1669, a language school was set up under Louis XIV, its aim to train diplomatic and commercial intermediaries between France and the east. The present institute dates back to 1795, when that original establishment became the Special School of Living Oriental Languages, based in Paris's national library, and offering courses in Arabic, Persian and Turkish. Since then, it has grown into the biggest such institute in the world, offering more than 1,500 language and civilisation courses ranging from Swahili and Maya to Japanese and Mongolian.

As the institute expands, academics are finding it more difficult to find space for books and equipment.

Monique Slodzian, director of the institute's Research Centre for Multilingual Engineering, says: "It's ridiculous, because by depriving ourselves of these kinds of materials, we cannot advance as an educational establishment."

Ironically, the sticking point of the Langues'O crisis is not a lack of funding, but a pending building permit. Last year, the 200th anniversary of the institute, the government agreed to build a campus in the 14th arrondissement, near the Cite Universitaire. But local residents object to the design of the new buildings. The mayor of the 14th and the City of Paris have thus withheld planning permission until the row is resolved.

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