Wisdom in languages

February 9, 1996

Jim Coleman is right to call for nationally agreed standards for languages (page 4). Britain, traditionally excelling in linguistic incompetence, is now experiencing huge demand from students and employers for language teaching. Trouble is, with bits and pieces bolted on here and there in first-degree courses, neither students nor their potential employers can have much idea how competent they are. "Fluent French" on a CV may mean anything from "Encore une biere" to detailed knowledge of Moliere. German taken as an optional course in a business studies degree may not mean the same as German taken jointly with business studies.

There is a useful model available for action. When it comes to teaching English to foreign students, Britain has an efficiently monitored and standardised system - indeed a major export industry. Recognised standards are set for those studying in language schools both in this country and abroad with exams set and marked by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate.

What is to stop the Institute of Linguists Educational Trust or the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Resource from setting up something similar at least for the major European languages? Perhaps the National Council for Vocational Qualifications could help by calibrating them to NVQ levels two to five.

Such standardisation could, of course, reveal weaknesses in course structures. It could also open opportunities for research into languages teaching and learning. It might lead to the development or dissemination of improved teaching methods - there is considerable experience in the university system. South Bank University and the University of North London, for example, go in for large-scale language teaching for London employers.

Professor Coleman's call for more language teaching specialists also makes sense. At present, many universities use language lecturers whose research specialisms and expertise are in a particular country's culture or literature and not in the mechanics of linguistic tuition and learning processes. Or they fill gaps by shamelessly exploiting native-speaking partners of their existing staff (or foreign graduate students), employing them on short contracts with heavy teaching loads. But even then they cannot meet demand.

If our linguistic incompetence is to be overcome in the next generation, clear thinking and streamlining is surely needed. It would be well to do it systematically - the problems of Italy's overworked and underpaid language teachers (page 9) provide a cautionary tale.

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