Thursday, 25 April 2013

CLIL in HE: impressions of the ICLHE conference in Maastricht (April 2013)

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the ICLHE (integrating content and language in HE) conference in Maastricht. Over 100 participants from all over the world Spain, Oman, South Africa, Denmark, the UK, Belgium, Finland gathered to talk about CLIL in HE. But I should firstly point out that its not called CLIL in HE, actually. In HE, they talk about ICL (integrating content and language) or EMI (English as a medium of instruction) and not CLIL. I swallowed the word CLIL every time I was about to use it.

Below, I describe some of the interesting themes that sprang out for me related to ICLHE.

No agreed ICL methodology
There appears to be no ICL methodology for higher education (HE). In her opening plenary, Cecilia Jacobs from Stellenbosch University in South Africa pointed out that there is no consensus in HE about the definitions of language, content or of integration! There are multifarious approaches to ICL in HE all over the world, the goals and rationale of ICL are different everywhere. She called for a collaborative pedagogy to benefit everyone. One interesting presentation about lecturing in Spain did, however, actually reveal that many lecturers already do have strategies for helping students to understand their lectures – strategies that they already use when lecturing in their mother tongue. For example, when asked about adapting materials, lecturers stated that they do these things: clarifying concepts (using elicitation from the students), giving examples, making resource material available before class, focusing on essential concepts, repetition. They also used scaffolding strategies, such as giving reading guides, providing glossaries, checking understanding by using questions, using more body language, using graphic organizers and providing multimodal input.

Lack of training
Connected with the lack of agreement on methodology, many countries are struggling with lack of time and funds to provide training for either teachers or students. Training is sometimes implemented after a problem with student drop-out or failure appears, but mostly ICL methodology training is ad hoc and sporadic. Trainers at language centres offer courses, for example, in “English in HE” and then integrate ICL methodology into those courses.

Students and lecturers language level
The level of both students and HE lecturers is a major issue. Many institutions seem to throw their lecturers in at the deep end and give them no choice: Next year youll be teaching chemistry (economics, philosophy) in English. Others just assume that their lecturers English is good enough, whereas it actually isnt. Another issue follows on from these two questions:  how can lecturers really help their students to understand high level material when they themselves arent really proficient English users or even worse - if they believe they are proficient but they arent? Questions which are still buzzing in my head. 

Reasons for ICL in HE
The reasons for ICL in HE are interesting. HE institutions want to attract international students, so change policy and offer courses in another language, mostly English. Some reasons for ICL in HE that I heard were: to market courses internationally; to attract national and international students; to promote the institution; to develop economic and cultural collaboration; to improve students language skills; to promote academic research and professional networking; to help students to get better jobs. But its mostly about marketing, I fear.

Language policy a thorny issue
One theme that recurred throughout the conference was that there is a real need for language policy in HE. I discovered through chatting with my colleague that my university (Utrecht University) doesnt have one, and that developing language policy let alone implementing one seems to be a minefield. For example, Finland wants to promote a multilingual policy of working in Finnish, Swedish (a minority language spoken by about 6% of the population) and English. And some areas of Spain are also developing language policy which aims to respect three languages: Valencian, Spanish and English. How do you write and implement a language policy at a HE institute which includes respect for the mother tongue(s) and which satisfies everyone? A real brain breaker.

Resistance on the part of lecturers in HE to improve their own language skills is a further issue. Lecturers believe that lecturing in a different language is exactly the same as in their mother tongue.  There is some convincing to be done here, so that lecturers become more open to improving their own (academic) language skills, as well as to developing an appropriate methodology for working in a second or third language at a high academic level.

Linguistic objectives
Lecturers in HE do not formulate linguistic objectives for their courses. Doing so might improve their and their students awareness about language and the language they are learning while studying, say, physics or business studies.

Throughout the conference, there was an appeal for collaboration between language and content teachers. Success stories were those that told of subject (Economics, Business Studies) lecturers in Denmark really working together to improve both ICL methodology.
My impression during the conference was that Denmark is leading the field in ICL in HE. The University of Copenhagen, for example, has a really well-thought-out language policy (focusing on ‘parallel language use’, and thus identifying in which situations Danish and English are used). Students and lecturers at some universities are thoroughly prepared. For example, at a university where teaching through English resulted in student failure and drop out, the language centre helped both students and lecturers to learn about academic strategies. Students were given diagnostic tests, and workshops in strategies: academic listening, writing and reading skills. Lecturers are also learning, for example, about (a) how to help students understand their lectures effectively, (b) strategies for giving feedback and (c) creating crystal clear exam questions.

Subject lecturers where are you?
ICL at least at this conference seems to be dominated by language specialists. But where are the subject lecturers? I met a couple of inspiring women again from Denmark at the conference dinner who teach design, but the rest of the delegates seemed all to be language specialists.
As at every conference, the most delightful moments were meeting other delegates from all over the world. Our extremely interactive workshop on whether HE ICL had anything to learn from secondary CLIL went really well, so that gave us (me and my colleague Annemieke Meijer) a buzz. We made new friends and contacts, all concerned with CLIL (oh, sorry, ICL, oh - no - EMI)!  

P.S. Thanks very muchto Annemieke for her useful feedback on a first draft of this blog.

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