With three official languages and many others spoken, the grand duchy is a star pupil in multilingualism. People in education, however, fear that an imbalance between what’s taught in schools and state exam requirements could pose a threat to Luxembourg’s multilinguistic future.
For generations, students in Luxembourg have been taught and graded in the three official languages of the country, which lead to outstanding linguistic proficiency in comparison to other countries. To land a job in the public sector, every candidate needs to pass a language exam in French, German and Luxembourgish, and even additional languages for some positions.
However, as a response to the many recent educational reforms, many fear that the country has lost sight of its linguistic advantage.
Monique Adam, president of the teachers union FGIL, told Delano in an interview on 6 October that it is time to review language instruction:
“We need to identify what languages are required and if other languages are gaining in importance. We should clearly state this, and inform parents that perhaps no longer German or French are essential but English. We should discuss this matter and decide on a structured programme, rather than offer a system where everyone gets to choose their preference. I fear that people will fail with a language system based on preferences.”
Following a reform of early education, pupils in state-supported pre-schools (“cycle 1”) are taught in both Luxembourgish and French. Adam, however, believes that the integration of French is unproductive to foster multilingualism, and that adapting to international standards should be done more carefully. “It is vital for children to have a reference person for one language.”
Another reform changes tests of older students’ linguistic proficiency. According to the education ministry, final exams in secondary schools will now be based on six disciplines. Within these six, two disciplines entail “languages and mathematics”, three disciplines focus on a chosen specialisation, and the sixth discipline tests general education. If a student decides, for example, to specialise in natural sciences, only one out of the three languages taught in secondary school (German, French and English) will be tested during their final exams.
Marvin Caldarella Weis, a member of the education union SEW, shared his personal opinion during an interview with Delano in October, noting the possible drawbacks of this new system:
“Due to their diplomas, Luxembourgers always had the advantage of going abroad to study. However, when one considers that in Switzerland, students with a diploma from the A section [the languages and literature discipline] are not accepted at universities, then one has to wonder if this scenario risks happening with diplomas from other disciplines--for example, when one chooses the natural science path and stops learning languages. So, the quality of instructed material is slowly regressing, which always used to be an advantage of Luxembourgers.”
Language tests fail to test language
While the reforms decrease the number of languages students need to master in order to pass graduation exams, the language requirements to pass civil service exams remain the same. To become a secondary school teacher in Luxembourg (career A1 or A2), applicants must sit an exam in which the three official languages are tested.
As explained by the ministry, in the French and German section of the exam, candidates need to translate a German text to French and vice-versa. This means that the exam text is provided in French, but questions about the text must be answered in German; respectively, if the text is in German then they must be answered in French.
Cindy Tock, a master’s in linguistics graduate from Newcastle University, with a specialisation in language acquisition, explained to Delano on 16 October that teaching languages was not the same as translating texts from one language to another. In her opinion, these language tests fail in verifying one’s linguistic abilities. Tock explained that there’s a difference on a cognitive basis which determines how we use languages:
“Linguistic competence is what humans have internalised as information in one language and this can spontaneously be used in a conversation. It’s used intuitively and shows that you master a language.”
The problem Tock identified in current language exams to enter teaching careers is that they do not test the linguistic competence, but rather the linguistic performance:
“performance is what you can deliver at a given moment”.
Then she added:
“translation requires the second [performance], whereas it should test competence. However, it’s difficult for a translation to verify the linguistic ability because it only tests a conscious knowledge.”
Moreover, Tock reckoned that the core issue of these language tests is that they reflect the general approach towards teaching languages in schools, which in Tock’s view corresponds to an archaic model. In relation to language teaching in secondary schools, Tock noted:
“We have a system of languages which is based on a model from the fifties. It’s an approach in which the more is learned by heart, the better. And that’s not necessarily correct.”
A different approach to language acquisition
Implementing more communication-based modules into class that test intuitive linguistic skills would help to improve the out-dated language models, according to Tock. Moreover, it is essential to avoid that “people are taught a language without context”, because “when the brain cannot establish any relations then the language doesn’t really enter the brain.” This means that tenses, vocabulary and grammar should always be put into context.
As to how one could improve the language exams for budding teachers, Tock explained:
“the simplest would be to have a conversation about the weather and other trivialities. Another step could be to ask the candidate to write a text about a book or other area of interest--which would be a way of testing the language for which it is intended.”
Unlike fact-dependant sciences, Tock thus stressed that languages should be tested for what they’ve been invented: communication.