Published: 14.06.13

More tongues than one

The general conclusion of the recent event entitled “What language skills will students need in the future?” was that among academics, English as a lingua franca is just not enough. To integrate, learning the local language is an absolute must.

Angela Harp
Sabina Schaffner, Director of the Sprachenzentrum and Thomas Vogel, Pro-rector of ETH Zurich and a member of the Sprachenzentrum's Board of Trustees. (Photo: Angela Harp / ETH Zurich)
Sabina Schaffner, Director of the Sprachenzentrum and Thomas Vogel, Pro-rector of ETH Zurich and a member of the Sprachenzentrum's Board of Trustees. (Photo: Angela Harp / ETH Zurich) (large view)

ETH Zurich today has around 18,000 students from over 100 different countries, 3,800 of whom are doctoral students. Among this internationally diverse student body language competency, particularly in English and German, is of growing significance. ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich have recognized this and continue to work closely with the Sprachenzentrum (“Language Centre of the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich”), which was jointly established in 2002 for both higher education institutions.

Despite the wide range of courses and services, there are still issues when it comes to integration. Sabina Schaffner, Director of the Sprachenzentrum and Thomas Vogel, Pro-rector of ETH Zurich and a member of the Sprachenzentrum's Board of Trustees sit down with ETH Life to shed light on the language situation at ETH Zurich.

What are the current trends in language learning?
Sabina Schaffner: The figures show that courses for German as a foreign language are the most frequented at the Sprachenzentrum. English and Spanish follow. What we’ve observed over the last few years is that German as a foreign language has become less important as a language for research and studies and more important as a language for social integration or for future career advancement in Switzerland.

Does this mean German proficiency is increasing among lecturers at ETH?
Schaffner: When we look at the course trends, mastering German doesn’t seem to be the goal. For example, the percentage of courses offered at lower levels has significantly increased from 20 percent to almost 50 percent in the last 10 years, while the number of higher level courses have remained constant. This supports the observation that the overall motivation of Master and doctoral students is not to achieve proficiency, but rather to integrate socially. In this case, basic high German is sufficient. Where we do not have a lot of demand is at the middle levels. This is a target group that we need get better at reaching.

Why are professors and doctoral students in focus?
Thomas Vogel: At ETH Zurich, professors and doctoral students coming from abroad are required to teach in German at some stage. However, many of them are not meeting this prerequisite. This language requirement also sometimes poses a problem when recruiting doctoral students, as it limits our hiring pool. Still, we are adamant about keeping courses in German, particularly in the first year of the Bachelor programme. However, in some departments the amount of English lectures is growing; even local German-speaking doctorates are holding lectures in English.

Do you consider this a problem?
Vogel: Actually no. The real problem comes later when the doctoral students finish their term and want a permanent post at ETH, or in Switzerland in general. It’s a sort of an opposing trend; because it has become very easy to function and live without German at ETH, there is no real motivation to learn the local language.

Is talent being compromised in order to keep up the language standards?
Vogel: It’s not about language standards, but rather about functionality. Retaining our doctorates and post-docs for a longer term is something we take pride in at ETH Zurich. But after all, we are a Swiss institution backed by the Swiss parliament, so be it a position in the administration or in governance, German is the official working language, and therefore a competency, on which we cannot compromise.

What is ETH Zurich doing to support this target group in achieving proficiency in German?
Vogel: Of course, we cannot force our doctorates and professors to learn German. The only thing we can do is to persuade them by showing them the benefits. We do our best to help our people develop, which is why we work so closely with the Sprachenzentrum. This language centre caters to the specific needs of academic professionals at ETH Zurich by offering a variety of courses and coaching services.

What are the main needs in language training?
Schaffner: One of the biggest needs within the ETH Zurich community is academic writing in English: reports, research papers, thesis papers and doctoral dissertations, for instance. For many doctoral students, English is a foreign language, but to succeed in the scientific and research world they must be able to produce high quality texts for international publication. Taking this into consideration, we begin to understand why non-native English speakers especially, are content with basic receptive and social interaction skills in German.

Given that English is the lingua franca and for most a second language, is it fair to expect German proficiency as well?

Vogel: Well, it depends on what each individual wants to achieve. Sure, it’s easy to get into contact with other foreigners, but this isn’t integration. Learning German opens up new worlds, not just in academia, but also in day-to-day life and potentially in the Swiss job market. However, I am aware of the fact that Swiss German further complicates the issue.

What should be the strategy moving forward?
Schaffner: Part of the strategic decision is linked to money: do we want to invest more money into additional courses geared specifically toward integration? As we have seen most of the students do not reach a level of academic competency in German, so should our goal just be to make sure foreigners feel comfortable by giving them the tools to integrate? Or is it more political than this? Should we also be asking ourselves if Switzerland should take a deeper interest in keeping highly qualified foreigners in the workforce – academic or in industry? If so, we need to invest in courses that really prepare them for the Swiss job market. As a representative of the language centre, my personal opinion is that this would make sense.

What can be done to motivate doctoral students to take their German skills to a higher level?
Schaffner: There needs to be a commitment from both the students and the institutions.

Vogel: Supervisors or department heads could offer more support in this area. If Ph.D. students show interest in building a career in Switzerland, we should help them develop their German skills by paying for courses or allowing them time off to attend courses, for example.