The Importance of Foreign Language Teaching in Modern Academia - Rebecca Collin

Foreign languages have been opening doors to opportunity for centuries and will continue to shape careers for years to come.  The small size and geographic and linguistic diversity of Europe play a key role in multi-lingual education, especially at the tertiary level.  Germany, though considered large by European standards, is only about 1/10 the size of India. It is surrounded by nine neighbouring countries; all but two (parts of Switzerland and Austria) speak a different language.  

In today’s global economy, in-depth knowledge of several languages is key to success.  The EU has pledged to help citizens become proficient in three languages, but it is not the goal of language centres and departments at European universities to teach students how to merely count or order food in a new tongue.  A student who is brilliant in the laboratory in his or her home country will be out of place and out of work just a few kilometres away without significant localized language skills.  Modern foreign language teaching, whether in Berlin or Bangalore, facilitates deep, subject-specific knowledge of foreign language and culture and allows for productive scientific exchange. 

Increasing globalisation and the need for  this scientific exchange have spawned a new era of foreign language teaching.  There are already numerous books and articles on this topic; I merely hope to present a brief overview.  At “my” university (the University of Rostock, founded in 1419), languages have always been part of the curriculum. Originally just Latin and Greek were taught; today almost a dozen languages are offered here. But what has changed? The demands of the workplace have changed.    Just a few generations ago, even those lucky enough to attend university often found employment in their home country, home region, or even in their hometown.

Today’s increasingly globalised world means millions of students are travelling great distances both to study and to work, at a rate that would have been deemed unthinkable for their parents.  I had the opportunity to attend both a year of secondary school and a year of university in Germany in the 1980s; back then this was an “exotic” thing to do.  Now fully half of my students in English classes (and, of course, all of my students in German classes) are from abroad.  A decade ago, most “foreign” students here hailed from Europe or Russia. These days many students are from Asia, the Middle East and even Africa. One of last semester’s B2 English seminars had 16 students from almost as many countries.  

Students from India have a huge advantage over those from Cameroon or Kyrgyzstan if they choose to study or work abroad: students from India are typically fluent in English…. or think they are. This is still a problem at the university; self-proclaimed “near-native” English speakers who are not prepared for the rigours of studying or working in an international environment. I believe most students could and should continue to attend language classes throughout their study and research years to work on their spelling, grammar, writing and presentation skills, and, of course, their pronunciation.

This is in no way a criticism of the tremendous task India has undertaken: to educate tri- and even quadrilingual (or more!) students at a very high level. That is a fabulous feat! The multilingualism of India, where over 100 languages are spoken by many, and hundreds more are spoken by a few, has made teaching English a priority. However, some skills seem to be glossed over in many school programs, based on what I see in the classroom.

 Whether a student is from Delhi or Delaware, Kiev or Kinshasa, there are gaps in both secondary and tertiary education that we as a university language centre are trying to fill. Handwriting, spelling and punctuation all play a role in both the classroom (where handwritten exams are still the norm) or the workplace. In German, for example, a word can take on a different meaning or part of speech (e.g. verb vs. noun) simply through capitalisation, or a lack of it. And the difference between a vowel with or without the two dots can cause misunderstandings, laughter or even fistfights:  the German word “schwül”, for example, refers to hot and humid weather; the word “schwul” (no dots) means homosexual.  These slight differences in spelling and pronunciation are stressed and practiced in modern university courses. 

When older readers think of language classes, they may recall dry grammar drills and dusty booths in a “language laboratory”, or students standing and reciting verb conjugations.  This is, thankfully, a relic of the past.  Today’s foreign language teaching focuses on communication and empowerment: seeing the new language as a just one item in a student’s (or employee’s) “soft skills toolbox”.  Modern foreign language teaching also stresses cultural differences and areas for potential conflicts.  Speaking the same language is but one way to achieve communication.  Topics such as punctuality and eye contact, lifting your voice or not being submissive are all potential pitfalls for those who have not been taught such skills.  As Paul Watzlawik famously said:  “You can’t not communicate!” Time management and how well rules and laws are enforced in different places are all situations that can cause misunderstanding and even termination in the workplace. This is why intercultural communication should be part of any foreign language classroom striving to help students gain access to the international stage. Workplace competence is an essential component of a good academic foreign language classroom or a subject-specific course. 

Modern subject-specific language courses, whether taught in English, German, French or Bengali, go beyond the standard “this is a chair”-type vocabulary and delve not only into the previously mentioned intercultural awareness; they also enter the realm of specific terms and devices needed in one’s field of study or in the international workplace.   A student with good everyday English certainly knows what a bottle or glass container is, but perhaps not the difference between a test tube, a beaker, or an Erlenmeyer flask.  These, however, are essential differences in a laboratory. The abbreviation “RUL” has a very different meaning for the pneumologist (= right upper lobe of the lung) than for the business student (=remaining useful life) discussing a product cycle.  The same is true for road engineers, who must learn the pronunciation difference of the German “umfahren”:  depending on the syllable stressed,  “UMfahren”  means to run over / hit something and “umFAHRen” (to drive around something).

Modern foreign language courses focus on all four skills: from passive (reading, listening) to active (speaking and writing).  What’s more, today’s classroom uses modern technology.  From watching authentic videos to formulating a lab report, we try to address what the students need to communicate effectively.  We focus on praise and progress rather than marks alone.  We teach vocabulary in context; the vocabulary of a laboratory or the operating theatre while watching a video of one in use. 

In his fascinating book “Does Science need a Global Language?”, Scott Montgomery states that like-it-or-not, more than three quarters of the world’s scientific research is published in English.  Subject-specific English courses therefore focus on grammar and writing skills as well. And, most importantly, students practice.  I aim for 3- 5 writing assignments per term for each student, and include extensive feedback. There are so many “how-to” books written about publishing in English, some of which (e.g. Adrian Wallwork’s fine series) are used extensively at our university, and they all focus on the conventions of academic writing, whether for a scholastic paper, a scientific poster or a presentation.  These books, the knowledge behind them and active, modern teaching methods have helped millions of students and scientists write and speak well, be it from teaching the prepositions of comparison or reiterating the idioms and collocations of presenting research results.  

The University of Rostock offered a dual-language (German and English) “Poster Course” in 2019 (pre-Corona) as part of the “General Academic English” series; the course was bursting at the seams, or rather, the confines of the classroom.  Students learned how to write and then present their academic work to an international audience. Courses the past few semesters have been on-line only; another breakthrough in increasing access to good content.  

As much as we strive for breakthroughs in pedagogical theory and practice, and in spite of the progress of the past decades, I am sure that even within my remaining lifetime, the media and methods of teaching a foreign language will change.  We will continue to evolve as both teachers and students learn to face the requirements of a modern, globalised economy. I am pleased to be part of the process.


Rebecca Collin was born and raised in the USA and started learning foreign languages at a young age.  Her first contact (at age 4) was her mother’s handkerchief covered with Spanish phrases. At school, Rebecca started learning German, her true passion.  Stays abroad in Munich and Hamburg were the foundation for her first degree in German Studies and European history (B.A., Smith College) and her graduate studies in German (M.A., University of Maryland). She has taught both English and German at the university level since 1991, and also holds certificates in Spanish and French. She now resides in Rostock, Germany.


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