Current Affairs – Calling all Applied Linguists

This post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Language class (Photo: Jirka-Matousek)

Language class (Photo: Jirka-Matousek)

In a previous blog, I wrote about the determination of the origin of migrants through linguistic analysis. Since then, the refugee influx has become more significant by the day, now reaching major crisis proportions. Unfortunately it is no sort of solution to anything, but a few further reflections on linguistic aspects of this crisis come to mind.

English speakers

First, there has been much misinformation as to why so many migrants who have been camping in Calais wish to enter Britain rather than staying in France. Although the government would have us believe that it is because of our “over-generous” benefits system, in fact it is largely for other reasons, notably the fact that many of them speak English and not French.

Britain has benefited hugely in the past from English being a world language (although this is largely due to the power and influence of the US rather than that of Britain itself). Now, the status and ubiquity of English have, as it were, come back to hit us in the face.

Language lessons

Secondly, you may have read recently that the German government is offering 600 hours of German language lessons to the migrants settling in Germany. Scandinavian governments also have been offering language lessons to newly arrived settlers for many decades. This is a highly effective measure: learning a language is probably the best method for understanding the relevant culture as well as allowing suitable adaptation and integration in the host country. As an added bonus, it provides work for an army of language teachers, a fact which people reading this blog should appreciate.

IELTS exams

A third recent news item also provides food for (linguistic) thought. The Home Secretary Theresa May, desperate to cut down the number of migrants to the UK in order to fulfil election promises, plans to impose a higher IELTS English language requirement on prospective students from non-EU countries than the one demanded at the moment.

As someone who teaches students of many different mother-tongues, I agree that insufficient English language skills can be a problem. But on the whole our international students can express themselves quite adequately in oral discussion.

The problems arise with academic essay-writing, on the basis of which their university performance is graded. The difficulties there are less to do with incorrect English as such, and more to do with understanding what type of discourse is expected in such an essay – a complex linguistic and cultural question, though one which can of course be taught.

The IELTS language exams are not designed to measure these types of academic skills, so the university itself has to try to fill the gap by providing academic English and study skills training. But this is often too little and too late.

In fact, the proposal by Theresa May has nothing to do with academic motives – nobody really even pretends that it does. It is purely a way to legitimate the exclusion of one cohort of migrants and so make the overall immigration figures look better.

Excluding university students is, to put it mildly, a strange choice, since the government has elsewhere explicitly committed itself to accepting skilled, as opposed to unskilled, migrants. In purely financial terms, it means that the UK will benefit less from the overseas students’ fees – never mind the loss of goodwill which will result if we no longer allow overseas students to be educated in the UK.

In each of these news items, the linguistic issues are only part of the picture and political solutions are by far the most pressing. Still, the part played by language in day-to-day problems is evident. Applied Linguistics may not be able to solve the world’s problems, but it is important as the discipline which allows the related linguistic issues to be addressed in a scientific and well-informed manner.

Read the BBC’s recent article on “the battle over the words used to describe migrants”

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2 thoughts on “Current Affairs – Calling all Applied Linguists

  1. I totally agree with Penelope. Using language tests to keep students out is a hideous political practice. Language can be learnt and improved over a relatively short time-span. Our politicians don’t seem to understand that one can be very bright and yet not very strong in English – or is it simply that exclusion on the basis of linguistic proficiency doesn’t seem quite as bad as exclusion on the basis of race and religion??

  2. I am absolutely in agreement with what you have said. To take this vexed issue one step further- I believe that many, MANY fully native English speakers would also struggle with the test. This is due to constraints imposed by factors additional to language, including the time pressure of the test(s) and the need for strategies, practice and coaching in how to actually approach them. I seriously doubt that Theresa May or her peers would perform particularly well on it initially. But as you have pointed out, she’s not really interested in that…

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