and multilingual universities

1 September to 3 September 2005
University of Helsinki, Finland
Vic Webb
1. The conference on Bi- and multilingual universities – challenges and future
prospects, organised by the University of Helsinki, was the second of its kind,
the first having been held in 2000 at the University of Fribourg/Freiburg,
The conference was attended by 306 scholars from 45 countries, including
most European countries, as well as countries such as Colombia, Mexico,
Saudi Arabia, China, Japan, Korea and Malaysia. African countries that
participated were Rwanda and South Africa (with six representatives).
Eleven university rectors also participated, as well representatives from the
Council of Europe and the European Commission.
An indication of the seriousness with which the issue of bi- and
multilingualism is regarded in Europe is that the President of the Republic of
Finland, Ms. Tarja Halonen, also addressed the conference.
The conference decided that a network of scholars in the field of bi- and
multilingual universities must be established and maintained.
2. A basic point of departure of the conference was that bi-/multilingualism was
the norm world-wide and that more and more universities were becoming bior multilingual (in Europe as a result of the Bologna Agreement, the
increasing internationalisation of universities and globalisation).
The increasing bi-/multilingualism of universities has led to a number of
problems, some of which are:
a) Students taught in languages they do not know well enough for academic
purposes may be seriously disadvantaged
b) Teaching staff may not be adequately proficient in the languages in which
they are expected to teach
c) The inadequate language proficiency of staff and students may lead to a
lowering of academic standards, which places the qualifications awarded by
the affected university and their international recognition at risk
d) Language may become an instrument of division and discrimination (e.g.
through students and staff being hierarchised according to their competence in
the dominant language) and thus become a focal point of conflict in
universities, and
e) The national (and indigenous) languages of a country may become
threatened if an international academic language becomes too dominant in
national institutions
These problems mean that universities need to address issues pertinent to
multilingualism as a matter of priority.1
3. Main themes addressed at the conference were:
Language educational aspects of bi- and multilingualism
Quality assurance of international and intercultural programmes
Starting and maintaining good practice in bi- and multilingual
Language policies and minorities
Multilingualism in practice: What challenges?
Papers dealt with topics such as the following:
 Language policies at bi-/multilingual universities
 Models for bilingual education (parallel, dual medium)
 The costs and benefits of multilingual programmes in higher education
 Assessing the language proficiency of students and staff
 Developing academic writing in second languages
 First language support for instruction through a second language
 Language across the curriculum (the responsibility of teachers of
content subjects to develop students’ language skills)
 What languages should be taught and studied in a university?
 The promotion or maintenance of minority languages as languages of
 The survival of minorities
 Internationalisation, not Anglicisation (the hegemony of English2)
 The role of the cultural factor in higher education (inter-cultural
communication skills; identity)
4. The conference expressed very strong support for the recognition and
promotion of linguistic diversity/multilingualism (interpreted as referring to
mother-tongue plus 2 more languages), emphasising that it:
 is an international resource, facilitating inter-group communication, and
thus mutual understanding and co-operation
It is interesting to take note of the “7th seminar in the series European Policy Seminars” organised by
the Academic Co-operation Association to take place on the 29th of September, 2005, in Belgium, on
the topic: Between Babel and Anglo-Saxon Imperialism? English-Taught Programmes and Language
Policy in European Higher Education. In their e-mail on the seminar the organisers wrote: “English is
holding a fairly uncontested position as the most widely used language in international higher
education and academic publishing, as well as the media and trade. In line with this trend and in
response to an increasingly international and competitive environment, a growing number of
universities are now offering programmes taught in English, in countries where English is not the
official language. This seems to be in contrast with EU policies promoting diversity and
multilingualism, and it is perceived by many European stakeholders as a simple means for universities
to generate more income. This seminar offers a forum for this debate. It explores and questions the
present and future role of English in higher education in the context of European language policies. (It)
will have a look at the practical implications of a higher education which is partly or fully imparted in
English. Would higher education imparted in English limit ones; ability to Express oneself and thus put
content on a secondary level? Or are domestic students better off being taught in English, so as to be
prepared for further study or work abroad? What are the best practices to be adopted by universities?”
Hegemony (or linguicism) is defined as a condition which reproduces inequality in the access to
scarce resources.
is a national resource, being regarded in Europe as a core value and
viewed as a feature which gives Europe its uniqueness
facilitates a deeper understanding and tolerance of and respect for distinct
communities, thus contributing to (national) integration
is a central factor in educational development, since an inadequate
proficiency in the language of learning can lead to educational
underachievement, failure, poor pass-rates, repetition of academic
programmes, and so forth (phenomena which can be amply illustrated
from educational results in countries such as Canada - in the case of the
French minorities, and South Africa -with English Second Language
can constitute an economic asset (as argued, for example by Mr IllkaChristian Björklund, Deputy-Mayor of Helsinki, who pointed out that
successful cities needed a solid knowledge-base to support the economic
base, and that cities with high urban diversity were more likely to attract
knowledge-workers and knowledge-specialists).
can be an important component in the development of democracy and the
construction of a society that treasures human rights
is often personally liberating, and
provides more access to professional opportunities
The importance attached to the issue of multilingualism and linguistic and
cultural diversity in Europe is demonstrated by the extensive attention paid to it
by the Council of Europe, which has been awarded Euro 30 billion for
addressing issues pertinent to multilingualism.
5. Specific points of view expressed during the conference were the following:
a) The increasingly important role of English and its increased use for
learning and teaching throughout Europe (as a consequence of universities’
programmes of internationalisation, globalisation, and so forth), especially
in the natural sciences and the economic sciences, was accepted, but the
possible negative consequences of this situation were also emphasised: the
use of English as a language of study can be very unfair, strongly
advantaging native speakers of English and seriously disadvantaging all
other students, teachers and researchers who use English as a second, third
or foreign language. It is important to recognise the fact that English is not
an “academic lingua franca”, because it is not a language that can be used
equally well by every student and every academic staff member. (See also
“2” above.)
It is, largely, true that one can’t do much to alter the dominance of English,
but one can respond to it, and determine what forces underlie the strong
spread of English, and develop strategies with which to curb the negative
consequences of this spread. It is also necessary to counter the myth that
excellence, competitiveness and better skills development can only be
achieved through English, and to remind decision-makers of the link
between language and the reality of discrimination, exploitation,
manipulation, poverty and disadvantage (which, in SA, is partly due to the
hegemony of English).
b) It is essential for students to become bi-/multilingual (learn additional
languages, especially in such a way that the life-long learning of languages
is possible) and to develop skills for cross-cultural communication,
particularly given the cultural and linguistic diversity of social, political
and professional life (business transactions, worker migration) locally,
regionally and internationally. In addition, bi-/multilingualism has
empirically been shown to correlate with creativity, lateral thinking,
innovativeness, cognitive flexibility, and adaptability.
c) The increasing dominance of English necessitates the maintenance and
promotion of national languages in domains and for functions that
naturally belong to these languages. In addition to the reasons given in “4”
above regarding linguistic diversity, there are also the following two
 National languages have important roles to perform in national societies,
giving meaningfulness and stature to their speakers. An illustration of
this was given by the rector of Helsinki, Dr. Ilikka Niiniluoto, who
pointed out that the recognition and promotion of Finnish contributed to
the establishment of the Finnish state
 People’s first languages are central to their social and psychological
development. As Dr. Thomas Wilhelmsson, vice-rector of the University
of Helsinki (and chair of all the plenary sessions) pointed out, bi/multilingualism is necessary as a way of understanding oneself and
one’s place in the larger society, and Dr. Stacy Churchill, University of
Ottawa, who asked how one can understand others if you aren’t sure of
your own identity, haven’t been able to understand yourself, the meaning
of your existence and your place in the larger world? Dr. Suzanne
Romaine, University of Oxford, also, agued that a knowledge of the own
language is essential from the point of view of power, identity and
Therefore, though there is a need for a “lingua academica”, national
languages must not be threatened.
d) In addition to the protection of the national languages, there was also
general support for the development of indigenous languages (such as
Saami in Finland and the African languages in South Africa, which are, of
course, both national and indigenous) and community languages such as
Spanish in the US, as languages of tertiary use.
e) University training programmes must, obviously, respond to the needs of
societies, and since modern societies are multilingual their linguistic needs
are self-evidently also multilingual (and multicultural). Professionals (e.g.
teachers, lawyers, health workers, and so forth), practice their professions
in a multilingual market and therefore need to provide services through
multilingual interaction. Universities thus need to ensure that such
professionals are trained to communicate effectively with their
multilingual clients.
f) Universities have important social responsibilities: they cannot restrict the
distribution of knowledge and research findings to their colleagues in the
global research community, but must also distribute their knowledge and
research findings in their own communities. One should also remember
that the tax-payer generally subsidises universities and thus has a right of
access to scientific and intellectual knowledge. Furthermore, universities
should also participate significantly in the intellectualisation of their
societies, promoting a knowledge culture. Similarly, it is also important for
universities to have access to local knowledge, points of view and
perceptions. This is only effectively possible if universities and their
researchers can communicate with the members of local communities in
their first languages.
g) Need for large-scale research: Language policy development and policy
implementation can only occur effectively on the basis of validated
information about communities’ language proficiency, patterns of
language use, language preferences and attitudes, and so forth.
6. A general point of agreement was that the managements of universities (as
well as national/provincial/local government leaders) generally do not have
enough understanding of the complexity of language policy development and
language policy implementation and seem to regard language planning as a
simple (and reasonably superficial) activity, requiring only a degree of
intelligence and common sense, and that it can be handled without the cooperation of language planning expertise. This is unfounded, as has been
shown in many cases: language planning cannot be undertaken without the
relevant information (which can only be obtained through extensive research),
without a proper understanding of the interrelationship between language and
society (the educational, economic, political, social and cultural order),
without an understanding of the requirements of effective management, and
without an understanding of the way in which all role-players can be involved
in the planning process. An important issue to address is, thus, the un- and
mal-informedness of politicians and management (as well as civil society),
who argue on the basis of “common sense” thinking about language and bi/multilingualism. The wide-spread myths about language and bi/multilingualism also need to be addressed.
The response by the EU to the realisation that multilingualism in Europe is
important and must be maintained and promoted was to engage the cooperation of experts in the field to plan and manage the issues involved.
Problems and challenges, objectives and tasks were identified and specialists
were appointed to develop informed and coherent plans. In the area of
language-in-education, for example, the following instruments were
 A Common European Framework of Reference for Languages
 Language Education Profiles
 European Language Profiles
 A Guide for the Development of Language Education Policies
Language planning for tertiary institutions need to cover at least the following
 Language policy development
 Develop language learning courses
 Develop language learning material
 Translate teaching material in content subjects
 Develop technical terminology
 Establish a network of interested colleagues
Language policies, action plans and strategies have been developed, as well as
projects such as Erasmus (student exchange), Socrates Lingua (new language
learning tools) and Socrates Comenius (teacher training courses), and
measures for formally evaluating language competence for purposes of
comparison across Europe.
7. Relevance of the conference for bi-/multilingual universities in SA
8.1 A first point to note is that bi-/multilingualism in SA (and the rest of Africa)
differs from that in Europe. Although the major European countries have
generally all housed autochthonous and allotochthonous linguistic minorities, their
national languages (German in Germany, French in France, and so forth) have
never really been under threat3 as the major media in high-function formal
contexts within their nation-states. It is only since the development of the
European Union that these languages have entered into competition with other
major, national languages. South Africa, on the other hand, has always been
complexly multilingual (officially too, since 1994), and its multilingual reality has
been exacerbated by the use of language for political purposes since the arrival of
colonial powers in the country. As a consequence, the languages of South Africa
are embedded in a-symmetric power relations.
These differences between the multilingualism of Europe and (South) Africa, will
obviously have an impact on language planning in tertiary institutions here.
8.2 A second issue of which to take note is the reasons why UP needs to accept
multilingualism and undertake to promote it. These are:
a) It is a constitutional imperative
b) It is required by the country’s Language Policy for Higher Education
c) It is in the interests of students’ academic performance and thus their
academic development
d) It is in the interests of researchers
e) If the present (a-symmetric) language dispensation is continued, it will
lead to the demise and/or the non-development of languages other than
English as languages of science
f) If the present language dispensation is continued, it will restrict students’
access to rights and privileges, and lead to inequity, disadvantage and
8.3 Decisions to be taken by UP
a) Accept the reality that UP is multilingual, and make provision for this fact
wherever relevant. The University’s linguistic diversity must be recognised
and promoted as a central value of the University, a value which gives
legitimacy to its activities and programmes, and it should be developed as a
Belgium is an exception.
distinctive part of its corporate culture and image and incorporated into its
marketing strategies
b) Acknowledge the fact that language planning is a complex process, requiring
the co-operation of experts in the field to gather the required information,
analyse and interpret this information from a language planning perspective,
develop a new informed, coherent and theoretically grounded language policy
for UP, manage its implementation and evaluate the implementation process.
c) Establish a centre for language management at UP, with tasks such as:
i. Undertaking the necessary sociolinguistic research
ii. Undertaking literature studies on medium-of-instruction models
(parallel, dual and mixed models) for tertiary institutions
iii. Developing policy proposals appropriate to the language policy goals of
the University and correlated with its sociolinguistic character
iv. Undertaking cost-estimates for the different policy options
v. Managing language policy implementation
vi. Organising seminars with staff and students on the language policy
vii. Organising information and awareness campaigns within the University
viii. Managing the development of the African languages as languages of the
University and, gradually, of science
ix. Co-ordinating L2/3 language courses at the University
x. Managing the provision of language services at the University:
translation, interpretation (looking, for example, at the promising pilot
project in classroom interpreting being conducted at the North-West
University) and editing, and
xi. Co-operating with colleagues from other universities4
d) Develop a new language policy for UP, with features such as the following:
 Dedication to the maintenance of Afrikaans and English as media of
 Acceptance of the obligation to promote Northern Sotho/Setswana and
Zulu as languages of science, following a graded plan of
 Accepting the need for a legal framework for recognising, protecting
and promoting multilingualism at UP. (At the conference, Dr. Thomas
Wilhelmsson, vice-rector of the University of Helsinki (and chair of all
the plenary sessions) argued that bi-/multilingualism should be
managed within a normative framework (of laws, statutory
requirements, regulations, policies).
 Accepting that students have the right to learn and to develop
educationally in their own languages
 Accepting that formal recognition must be given to students who have
acquired their credits in more than one language
8. In conclusion, I would like to express my appreciation to UP for enabling me
to attend the conference. It has allowed me to:
The South Africans present at the conference have already decided to establish such a group, to
exchange information and, if possible, to co-operate in joint research and development projects.
Discuss a problem regarding the language situation at the University of
Pretoria (South African universities) with an international audience
(paper attached)
Interact with a large number of colleagues with expert experience of
the theme
Take note of the views of university managements in Europe
Determine the similarities and differences between the bi/multilingualism of Europe and (South) Africa
Share in the experiences and work of colleagues from the best-known
bilingual universities across the world, such as Fribourg/Freiburg,
Helsinki, Barcelona, Montreal, the National University of Ireland,
Laurentian (Canada), Catalunya (Spain), and the University of the
Basque Country
Establish international networks
Make contact with colleagues from SA working on the same issues
V. N. Webb