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Note From the Editor: Language, Narratives, Myths

VU International News and Reviews No. 117 July 16 2018

July 2019

As part of the Mastermind Europe project, I have delved a bit into the rich mines of language competencies that are the “Common European Framework of Reference (for languages)” and the similar framework of the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages. I found two eye-openers worth sharing:

  • The European framework makes a distinction that was new for me between the ability to use language when speaking to a person or a group and the ability to engage in conversation with a person or a group: “spoken presentation” vs “spoken interaction”.
  • The American framework labels language proficiency as “interpretive” (reading and listening), “presentational” (writing and speaking to others), and “interpersonal”. But this “interpersonal” is both oral (conversation) and written. Using social media is a form of written conversation.

Spoken interaction and written interpersonal language competence: makes sense, but it had never occurred to me.

In the Netherlands and elsewhere, a debate is waging about pros and cons of degree programmes taught in English. I feel this is part of the nationalist-populist backlash of our times; in an earlier note, I argued that we should count the number of degree programmes that are only existing because there are enough international students to keep the programme afloat.
But I was drawn to a recurring argument that programmes taught in English lead to weaker proficiency in our native Dutch language. Googling on the topic I found

  • Very little research on the impact of second language acquisition on first language proficiency
  • Some tentative conclusion that it may lead to first language attrition under certain circumstances;
  • And a clear description of these circumstances: the first language does suffer if *) the second language really becomes the dominant language and the first one is hardly used anymore and *) the acquisition of the first language was stopped before the end of puberty.

In other words: if our Dutch students would completely stop speaking and learning Dutch halfway secondary school and from then on only speak and listen to English, then the opponents of English taught degree programmes would have a point with the native language argument. But they don´t, so they don´t. Case closed.

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