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Teach a subject in German for a change!

Teach a subject in German for a change!

UM-symposium on higher education in English

MAASTRICHT. ‘Code switching’ - briefly changing over into the native language -  benefits education in English. It allows students to process knowledge more successfully. This is one of the subjects that will be discussed next week during the Maastricht symposium on the growing use of English in higher education, which will also mark the retirement of Bob Wilkinson.

The UM has made great leaps over the past twenty years when it comes to education in English, says Charles van Leeuwen, lecturer at Fasos. “The problem is just that we think we are done and so we invest too little in language education.”

All things considered the UM offers hardly any help to those who study in English, Van Leeuwen explains. “Secondary-school pupils come to Maastricht and from day one they have to flick a switch: we immerse them completely in English. And this is done with very little support, aside from a couple of crash courses for weak students. It is sink or swim. We should monitor their progress better and differentiate between the students’ levels and needs.”

Van Leeuwen also wants more attention to be paid to the students’ native tongue. This would be an advantage in their command of English. “If you allow students in a tutorial group to pair off and switch to their native tongue, even if it is only for five minutes, something important happens. It activates the same knowledge in another language, enabling one to become more familiar with the concepts. It has an tremendous learning effect. Besides, code switching increases student participation. The atmosphere suddenly changes, it becomes friendlier, and students become more active and laugh more. And lastly, they discover the cultural diversity of concepts, which evoke different associations for Germans students than for the French.”

There is another advantage: if English has the function of lingua franca, as it has in the tutorial groups, then the general effect of that is that from the beginning students search for common ground, for compromises. “The risk is intellectual and emotional waning. You have fewer and often less lively discussions or emotional debates. That is more likely to happen in one’s native tongue.”

Don’t get him wrong: Van Leeuwen does not want a multilingual university, but not just education in English either. “I have always been astonished by the fact that Fasos doesn’t offer one or two subjects in French or German. Or allows theses in those languages. It doesn’t cost anything extra and we have plenty of international staff. Another argument is that students later end up in  complex professional environments, where they will be confronted by several languages. The programme of European Studies has no subjects in French, whereas that language is indispensible if you want to work in Brussels.”

Many a lecturer couldn’t be bothered with language policies. “But to my mind, academic skills are by definition linguistic skills. You cannot understand theories or concepts, let alone apply them, if you cannot put them into words.”


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