Learning or using English?

What English course settings might a student in Germany experience? Evan Frendo’s professional development session at ELTABB cleared the cobwebs on CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning), a relatively new concept at the primary and secondary school level. I know it well from my own school days at The German School in Washington. Going through the school syllabus in a foreign language means that you become a proficient speaker and writer. You’re assessed on your linguistic abilities as a matter of course, often through a small percentage of any given grade, but generally more indirectly, as you must be able to (re-)produce the content and participate in the whole social context. Teachers running this system will benefit from being fully trained to make the additional challenge to students, which is steep at the beginning, work out. Thinking back to my school days, the teachers coming over from Germany were fully trained domestically, and didn’t have to struggle with the school language.

Now, university students in Germany are increasingly expected to be able to handle their entire syllabus in English, too, without having had this CLIL way in. A new trend at college is to have courses in English, which gives students more practice in preparing to move about in their increasingly international field. Having courses in English also lowers the linguistic barrier for foreign students and makes German colleges more international. The BBC recently reported that German universities are attracting foreign students especially because they are free, and don’t charge more for foreign than for domestic students. The British Council calls German universities the most foreign-student friendly.

So how do the universities provide their students with scaffolding on the way to becoming an expert user of English? They aren’t importing lecturers; so their existing lecturers need to skill up to handle the multiple challenge of teaching content and facilitating learning in an international, mixed level class in a language that is not their own. Universities are traditionally cosmopolitan communities, though. I’m going to Leipzig tomorrow and will learn what parts of the challenge they in fact do see as needing support.Students can also take general English courses, often to earn the necessary credits or pass entry level tests; EAP (English for academic purposes), which prepares students to study abroad in an English environment, teaching presentation, essay and job application skills. ESP (English for special purposes) or “Fachsprache Englisch” prepares pre-service and trainee students to handle the job in English. This table illustrates the main distinctions between the different course types.


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Teaching English for business communication skills, writing online for learners, translating, sailing whenever I can, from Washington, D.C.

8 thoughts on “Learning or using English?”

  1. Sounds interesting. There are certainly a lot of German academics who struggle, especially with writing academic prose in English, which often follows different conventions and rhetorical patterns. (At least that’s been my experience as an editor of texts produced by German scholars.) Anyway, it’s nice to see such things being developed. But for what fields? And is this a niche phenomenon, or something that will penetrate the mainstream?

    I’m also curious how this is supposed to work without a more international faculty, especially with Germany’s system of two dissertations and Privatdozenten who sometimes work for free. Or are we talking about a different kind of teaching position for such tasks?

  2. Hi Mark, thanks for writing. You’ve got the background as a lecturer of both history and English, so you’ll understand the problem.

    I see your point about it being difficult to expect lecturers to go to the extent of skilling up, but I do think more and more are doing so on a voluntary basis, willing to go the extra mile. German colleges are competing for “Exzellenzuniversität”, and providing seminars and lectures in English is one thing that gets them ahead, so if you’re contributing on that side, well, it’s intrinsically rewarding.

    I don’t know how the discussion about the two PhDs is developing. I think that will take a long time. After all, a PhD is the way into entry level academic jobs in many disciplines at this point. Germany has made a true cult out of academic titles, lowering the bar as we saw recently, and now has a bit of a mess to sort through.

    The whole international college experience is establishing an interesting level of operational English at the everyday academic level to process the learning. The VOICE – Project (Vienna-Oxford International Corpus of English) has documented that interlingua and is calling it ELF, English as a lingua franca. They’ve got masses of recordings and their transcripts online, it’s worth checking out. http://www.univie.ac.at/voice/

    Most of the lecturers need to give talks in English anyway, so they can draw on that expertise to teach regular classes. But both lecturers and students, lacking advanced language skills, clearly need to have an editor once they move on to be published. That job is not going to die out any time soon.

    Universities all over seem to be addressing these issues, though.
    In Munich, the university has a “Fremd- und Fachsprachenprogramm” which delivers general language and academic skills courses across faculties in 40 languages (!) as well as providing ESP training, which they’ve developed in projects. http://www.sprachenzentrum.uni-muenchen.de/sprachprojekte/index.html. (You left Munich in the 90s, right? This was developed in the early 2000s, I think.)

    Then there’s tailored patchwork going on all over. I’m giving the geoscientists in Potsdam some focussed training made to measure for postgrads. My content gaps are huge, but I hope to get by as a “relational expert” at some point, able to talk the talk without walking the walk. These language skills courses are a part of a completely different set of ancillary science skills training that is not language-focussed. Language is the medium, and the medium is expected to work.

    NNS lecturers have other gaps, they need to learn to handle interactions in class and figure out how to assess tests and papers in the foreign language. I’m giving a workshop where they’ll create their own “skripts” for various stages in a lesson. Need to see them in action in our workshop, though, before I fully understand what exactly it is that they might need to work on. I’m thinking that more graphic organizers might be helpful to process terminology, and that more task-based teaching, even at this very advanced academic level, might work. They might also try running debates, have students whiteboard concepts, develop their own exam questions… and I’m frankly hoping that the lecturers are coming in to try these things out. Very curious how this will go. – Do you have any didactic tips to share to process terminology?

  3. Sounds like a really interesting assignment, Anne. At my institute I have an analogous situation. Since I’m a historian, I know the basics of what I’m working with, but I’m doing consumption history, which is a whole different ballgame from what I have studied and written about. Still, I find that a lack of insider knowledge is often helpful, because the specialists can’t get away writing purely in code. I force them to make the relationships among their different ideas and actors and so on clear, so I can understand them. In the process, they improve their written English and sharpen their arguments.

    Anyway, thank you for the additional information.

    By the way, I never studied in Munich (worked there for a spell), but I did an MA in Augsburg in the early 90s.

  4. Hi Anne,
    I’m intrigued by the workshop you’re giving for the NNS lecturers. The ones I work with are keen to improve their English, and we’ve even discussed the idea of organising regular discussion groups with Business English teachers. The ‘deal’ is that they would improve their English while we, the Business English teachers, develop a better understanding of Economics, etc.
    However, the kind of workshop you describe sounds so much more constructive, with potential sharing ideas on methodology, classroom management, etc.
    I’d be interested to hear how it’s going!

  5. Hi Stephanie,
    Your students sound great. Do you have them in one group, or do they “just happen to be lecturers”? I’d love to hear more about it! You’re based in Baden Württemberg, I saw. So are you working with lecturers in Freiburg?
    I can really recommend getting into the methodology with them. I think we English teachers have a lot to share. Your idea of doing it as an extended course sounds great.
    In my case it was a two day compact in Leipzig (about 2 hours from here), and I’m very curious to know what the lecturers will do with the input.
    I’ll be repeating the workshop in September, and including all the new learnings. But I should also pursue your suggestion and offer it locally, here in Potsdam and Berlin, as an ongoing project.

  6. The NNS lecturers I was referring to are colleagues of mine at the Duale Hochschule Villingen-Schwenningen, so not really students as such (sorry to have been confusing!). The suggestion of a discussion group came from them, but what they have in mind is an informal ‘drop-in’ group together with me and our other full-time Business English teacher. The difficulty will be arranging a time when we can all meet.
    I also wonder how the freelance Business English teachers will react to the idea. Will they regard it as ‘skilling up’ for themselves, an opportunity to share ideas on methodology, or a request to provide unpaid coaching for tenured professors? Hmm….
    Anyway, I’ll keep you posted on any developments!

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