Science - June 28, 2007

‘English is not an easy language’

Wageningen University is international and therefore much of the teaching takes place in English. Logical, but what happens if not all participants in the academic process have mastered the language, an indispensable instrument when it comes to passing on knowledge? Not much, according to critical students and lecturers. ‘Nobody in the whole university is responsible for English here. And you don’t just learn it automatically.’

Master’s level teaching in Wageningen is almost entirely in English. / photo Guy Ackermans
‘Wageningen University’s ambition to be international results in friction in the teaching,' says Lindsey Wuisan, a board member of the Wageningen student union WSO. ‘Many students do not speak or write enough English to be able to keep up with the teaching, never mind being able to contribute actively. It’s pretty much left up to students themselves, whether they sink or swim. English is not taught and it’s not tested at all.’

The WSO and the student parties represented in the Student Council are worried about the lack of arrangements for English, especially since more and more teaching takes place in this language. Lectures may be given in English from the second year of the bachelor’s degree, the idea being that the students start to get accustomed to studying in English. Nowhere at bachelor’s level, however, is specific attention paid to English, the WSO points out. Students are faced with large amounts of new jargon, but it is not clear whether their basic English skills are sufficient to be able to use the new vocabulary responsibly.

Arie Terlouw, voted teacher of the year 2007, is also concerned. ‘It’s extremely important that Dutch bachelor’s students get a good academic level of teaching. High-quality academic education requires optimal communication, in which language plays a major role. If the leading actor’s language skills are not fully developed, the academic level will suffer,’ he says.

At master’s level the likelihood of problems arising is even greater, according to the critical student clubs, as there are students from all corners of the world involved. Newcomers are asked to take a Quick Placement Test (QPT) on arrival in Wageningen at the language centre, Centa. If someone scores badly, a talk with the study advisor takes place. The student must then do a language course.

However, the Centa information system is not linked to the central student administration, says Pieter Heringa of the Christian Student Fraction (CSF). As a result, he says, it is not clear which students have taken the test and passed it. It is known that this year about fifty students have done the Basic User Course, the lowest level. You can assume that these students’ English is really not good enough to be able to follow the education here.

Superficial
Students are not the only ones who experience problems. Teachers also have problems, tells Gerda Casimir, lecturer at the Sociology of Consumers and Households group. Although she has no difficulty teaching in English, she enjoys it much more in Dutch. ‘Then I can make jokes and build up layers in my story. In English I’m more superficial because I have a more limited vocabulary.’

To increase their vocabulary, Casimir and other lecturers can do a course at Centa on lecturing in English. Few people do the course however. It would seem that lecturers don’t think they need to improve their English.

Students do not always agree with this, for within the student community complaints are often heard about the broken English of some lecturers. Students can also lodge an official complaint through the evaluation of courses, so that a lecturer scores badly on his or her English. The evaluations however are often inconclusive. For example, Casimir got a bad evaluation for her lectures. ‘But I don’t think that was only because of my English, but a combination of the way I give lectures, the subject I deal with and the impression I make. It is also difficult to work out from the evaluation who thinks what and why. It isn’t clear what you are actually being evaluated on.’ Despite the lack of clarity, Casimir decided to do a language course. ‘First it was postponed twice because there was not enough interest. After eighteen months of waiting a course finally started.’

Bad feedback
To his surprise, Simon Bush, an Australian and lecturer at the Environmental Policy group, did not score top marks for his English. ‘I thought my mark on the evaluation was pretty low, especially considering it’s my mother tongue. Some students obviously don’t understand me because I talk too fast.’

As is the custom, Bush was only evaluated by students who had taken his lectures. That seems logical because students are the ones who have to be able to understand a lecturer. Nevertheless, the question remains whether a student who is not a native speaker is capable of judging the lecturer. The various skills of the lecturers are also not specified separately on the evaluation form, which means that an evaluation remains superficial. And of course everyone knows there are lecturers walking around whose English is anything but fluent.

These lecturers have to mark their students’ papers and essays. It is hardly surprising that they do not feel capable of judging the language skills of their pupils. As a result these skills are often not counted in the grade. ‘I understand that students get inadequate feedback on their essays and papers,’ says Bush. ‘I give a separate evaluation of style and language use. I go to a lot of effort with this because it’s important. Students’ English can improve a lot if we lecturers give them direct feedback. If we don’t do this, either because we are not prepared to or don’t have enough confidence, how can we expect students to improve? How can they learn better English otherwise?’

In the end many students’ English is a hotchpotch of what they had before they arrived, technical language gleaned from books, and what they learn from teachers and fellow students, who are also improvising. The result is very mediocre, in the opinion of Ynte van Dam, a lecturer at the Marketing and Consumer Behaviour group. He sees this in his master’s students. ‘I notice that during colloquia students have difficulty in a short time and under pressure to formulate in English what their research is about.’

Van Dam doesn’t blame the students for this. He blames the university. ‘Nobody in the whole university is responsible for the quality of the English here. English is not an easy language and you don’t just learn it automatically.’

Own responsibility
Pim Brascamp, director of the education institute, thinks Van Dam’s criticism is exaggerated. ‘We intend to test bachelor’s students early on so that they are aware of their level and can do something about it in the summer, like take a course or go abroad. And we are becoming stricter with master's students as well. Most students do the QPT and as a result of the advice they are given the pressure to do something is increasing.’

Brascamp does not think it is necessary to make things compulsory. ‘There’s no point. Everyone knows of a Chinese student with poor English, but these are old examples. Things are improving, the programme directors tell me, and that’s the result of our admissions policy. We admit students who have sufficient command of English. After that it’s up to the students to improve their English if necessary.

Easier said than done, Anda Istudor of student party VeSte found out. ‘I scored sixty percent on the QPT. I got not feedback, but decided anyway to do an English course at Centa as I wanted to improve my English. The level was really low. The teacher was not able to answer questions properly and sometimes knew fewer synonyms than the students. Many people gave up, so there were often very few students. It was not motivating at all.’

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