Multilingual Higher Education: Beyond English Medium Orientations

This month we published Multilingual Higher Education by Christa van der Walt. Here, the author tells us how she came to write the book and the importance of research in this area.

Multilingual Higher EducationThe idea for this book was born when I first read Ofelia García’s impressive Bilingual Education in the 21st Century: A Global Perspective (2009). My impression was that much had been published on bilingual education at primary school level, much less at secondary school level and virtually nothing at higher education level. From my own work at school level and then in higher education, I knew that multilingual teaching and learning strategies are generally regarded with suspicion. Furthermore, I also knew that the status attached to higher education would militate against marginalised languages in its classrooms.

In my own multilingual context, the use of other languages in classrooms is ubiquitous (although not necessarily acknowledged!) but I really started to research higher education classrooms after my involvement with language policy development at Stellenbosch University in 2002. A research project in 2004 on bilingual universities worldwide, initiated by Prof Chris Brink who was then the rector of Stellenbosch University, made me realise that policy-level research says nothing about what is happening in multilingual classrooms. This impression was confirmed at various international conferences and in discussions with colleagues from European bi/multilingual universities, notably Michael Langner from the University of Fribourg, Ana Virkunnen-Vollenwider (now retired) from the University of Helsinki and Gudrun Ziegler from the University of Luxemburg. A sabbatical in Germany in 2010 led to discussions with Annelie Knapp of the University of Siegen and Hartmut Haberland at Roskilde University and these conversations increased my awareness of the problems of transnationally mobile students. The pervasive assumption that the use of English would solve all these problems made me connect the role of language in South African (and African) higher education institutions to efforts in Europe to establish English as a language of learning and teaching. The recent book CLIL in Higher Education by Fortanet-Gómez (2013) on the introduction of CLIL in European higher education institutions is a further valuable source in this regard.

Although higher education institutions differ widely, they seem to share the challenge of increasing student participation and throughput locally while managing the pressure to compete globally. It is self-evident that language is central to both efforts and in my book I try to show how it is possible to include more languages in the classroom, while acknowledging the role and status of English. I am not particularly interested in how multilingual language practices can be accommodated at policy level. For me there is a bigger issue at stake and that is the training of higher education practitioners. The fact that disciplinary specialisation is often the only qualification that academics require to become lecturers is, to my mind, the main reason why teaching and learning does not result in improved student success. In-service education and training of academic staff is needed because there is a level at which the proposed strategies that I mention constitute good teaching practice, whether we connect them to multilingual education or not. Mobilising students’ resources, including the languages that they use to support and develop learning, seems self-evident as part of a higher education pedagogy.  I can only agree with García (2009:11, her emphasis) when she says that “some form of bilingual education is good for all education, and therefore good for all children, as well as good for all adult learners”. This statement must be kept in mind in view of the increased introduction of CLIL, particularly in Europe, as Fortanet-Gómez (2013) shows.

I hope that this book will inspire more classroom-based research so that we can elaborate on these first steps towards a multilingual higher education pedagogy.       

References
Fortanet-Gómez, I. (2013) CLIL in Higher Education: Towards a Multilingual Language Policy. Bristol: Multilingual Matters
García, O. (2009) Bilingual Education in the 21st Century: A Global Perspective. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell

Also available:

CLIL in Higher EducationCLIL in Higher Education by Inmaculada Fortanet-Gómez

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