‘Not every teacher can teach in English without any training’

Photo: Utrecht University, Maria Salaru

Dutch students who take psychology classes in English, score an average .5 point lower than those who are taught in Dutch. This is the conclusion of the dissertation written by cognition scientist Johanna de Vos at Radboud University Nijmegen. The article that newspaper NRC devoted (in Dutch, ed.) to her dissertation made people frown – including at Utrecht University, because: what does this mean for all students taking English-taught classes?

Rick de Graaff, professor of Didactics of Foreign Languages and Bilingual Education, and linguist Rias van den Doel, who’s involved in English training sessions for UU teachers, put the results of the Nijmegen study in perspective. De Graaff: “The cause could lie in one of many aspects: the limited language proficiency of teachers and students, for instance. Teachers may be teaching in English for the first time. Or perhaps they’re native English speakers, but don’t take into account the linguistic background of their students. The problem might also lie with the way their assessments or exams are set up.”

“I concur,” Rias van den Doel says. “We’re talking about first-year students here. It’s possible that an adjustment period plays a role as well. Furthermore, in this study, we don’t know whether the teachers are trained to teach in English. That brings me to an important point. The study didn’t look at the level of training the teachers have had for teaching in a different language. The important thing in English Medium Instruction (EMI) is that it can only work well if all participants – teachers and students alike – are prepared for it.”

So training teachers for teaching in English is essential?
Van den Doel: “A teacher who’s teaching in English, needs to be able to explain the way their classes are set up. This type of menu structure is very important if students and teachers don’t share the same mother tongue. Structure helps make clear what students can expect at what time.

“Discussing the vocabulary used in classes beforehand is important as well: for instance by discussing all the relevant terms in English at the start of a series of classes.

“It’s also wise to establish some expectation management about the use of English. Some students expect their teachers to talk the way people do on TV. This isn’t realistic at all if they’re not native speakers. I recommend teachers to share a recording of them speaking before classes start, through Blackboard for example. That way, students know what that teacher sounds like, and they can get used to it.”

What’s the value of this training course?
Eventually, everyone who teaches in English at the faculty should have a basic qualification for English-taught education (BKE). That BKE is an initiative set up by the faculty. Those who have obtained their BKE, have an adequate level of proficiency in English – including pronunciation. Additionally, those teachers are able to use the relevant language in English for both native speakers and non-native speakers. And finally, teachers are able to supervise and assess students’ writing in English. Van den Doel: “The latter is important because for teachers who aren’t trained for this, it can be difficult to assess the English of non-native students. If you yourself are unsure about certain things, you might end up being too strict. At the same time, a teacher might lack some knowledge, and say something’s wrong when it isn’t. Teachers can take additional courses for this.”

De Graaff: “The decision of whether a study programme is taught entirely or partially in either Dutch and/or English, should depend on the learning goals of that programme. The question is whether you use English for communication only, because you have to service a group of English-speaking foreign students, or because you’re focused on the development of the professional knowledge and competences of students, in which case it doesn’t matter how their English proficiency develops. Or, one of your learning goals is that students develop their academic English, and you want to be able to give feedback on that – that requires an entirely different set of linguistic didactical skills.”

Is internationalisation imperative for universities? What’s the status of Dutch as an academic language?
De Graaff: “It’s of great importance that academics keep developing Dutch language skills in their disciplines. After all, many students will use Dutch. At the same time, many developments in different disciplines happen internationally, where the main language is usually English, and that’s unlikely to change in the next few decades. The ideal situation isn’t or/or, but and/and. You can offer a Bachelor’s programme that’s mostly taught in Dutch, and an English-taught Master’s programme. Or you choose to teach some classes in the Bachelor’s programme in English, some in Dutch. That way, students can consciously develop themselves in both languages at an academic level. A teacher could teach in English, but offer Dutch assignments, for example.”

Van den Doel: “It’s a misunderstanding to think that a study programme in English should be taught entirely in English. Within academia, the discussion about EMI (English Medium Instruction, ed.) focuses more and more on the topic of multilingualism: switching between languages is in fact very important to being able to work in an international context.

“The choice of teaching in English has to be a well-considered decision: it demands more of teachers and students. You shouldn’t jump off a cliff like lemmings. Realising that it will always take time and effort to do something in a different language. It’s a long-haul process. In some places, the decision to switch to teaching English is taken very abruptly, throwing teachers into the deep end without providing the right support.

“It’s problematic if you’re not helping your teachers. Teachers can be trained in their English pronunciation. We know, for instance, that Dutch students are very sensitive to the English pronunciation of their Dutch teachers.”

They don’t take teachers who speak with a thick Dutch accent seriously?
Van den Doel: “You can disapprove of that, but it’s better to arm a teacher with pronunciation training, to make sure it isn’t as noticeable.”

Rick de Graaff, you’re an expert in the didactics of foreign languages, bilingual education and using English as a teaching language, especially in high schools. Is there anything teachers at university can learn from the way bilingual education is done in high schools?

De Graaff: “Within bilingual secondary education, there was a strong conviction that you can’t just start teaching in English without receiving proper training first. Teachers are very specifically trained in the right language skills, and on how to teach in English.

“The UU training is in line with some things that have been done in secondary education for the past 20 years. Schools have been assessed on this for 20 years now. The policy at schools for bilingual education is to teach at least 50 percent of courses in English as much as possible – at least during the entire first half of pupils’ school years. That percentage is more a policy decision than something based on research. Often, freshman year classes tolerate some Dutch until autumn break. Then they switch to English completely, because otherwise, students would fall back on their mother tongue too easily. But in my opinion, the connection to their mother tongue is very important; that bilingualism and being able to switch between two languages. There are steps that could be taken there.”

Van den Doel: “In many parts of the world, people switch between different languages very easily, and they handle this fluidly. That’s called translanguaging. In Europe, we experience more pressure for a national language. In many countries, multilingualism is the norm: in South Africa for instance, or India. If you want to educate students to become world citizens, this hybrid language use is also important.”

How difficult is it for your brain to switch between two languages?
Rick de Graaff: “Languages aren’t in separate boxes or drawers in your brain. Language is connected to a multitude of concepts in your brain. That interaction and those branches can be great. When you activate both Dutch and English, the one language can enrich the other.”