The university of Hasselt is to introduce a course in basic French for students of economic and business sciences, because their level on arriving at university is so poor.
“Students who come to us at the start of their university career have less and less of a command of French,” the head of the faculty. Martine Verjans, told the VRT. “They find it particularly hard to carry on a conversation in French, to the great embarrassment and frustration of the students themselves.”
The students in question are Flemish, and have been taught French from a relatively early age in school. But a common complaint is that school pupils are taught grammar rather than how to speak the language in a live situation.
“Students pass the French class in the third grade of secondary school [years five and six], but when they come to us, they realise that they just do not have a command of spoken French,” she said.
And the problem is not particular to Hasselt. “This is an evolution that’s been going on for ten years,” said Nathalie Nouwen of the Institute for Living Languages at the university of Leuven, which works with classes across all faculties.
“This deterioration in the knowledge of French among students is a very serious business,” she said. “At the end of their studies we deliver these students to law offices and companies, where fluency and language knowledge is required. And we have more and more difficulty in responding to the demand. There is an uncomfortable knowledge gap opening up.”
The universities are keen to stress that their concern is not so much for students looking to go into international jobs, but for all students entering the Belgian workplace. A cursory glance at the jobs postings in the press or online shows that a command of French is a very basic requirement for most jobs, even in Flemish companies working in Flanders. The Belgian marketplace is not so large that companies can afford to ignore half of it. The notable fact is not so much that Flemish universities are working to improve their students’ command of French, but that French-speaking universities see no need to take special measures to ensure their students leave with some command of Dutch.
Leuven university has already taken a number of measures to tackle the problem. These include a quick three-day refresher course for all new first-years; and a programme running throughout the year where KULeuven students chat online with their counterparts at UCL in Louvain-la-Neuve.
Meanwhile the Institute is working on a programme that would allow students access to a digital exercise platform to improve their understanding of French grammar in their spare time. The reward for those who complete the course will be an extra point in the exams, or the right to have their score rounded up.
The root cause of the problem may be right under the noses of the education establishment. Last month 42 French teachers in Flanders published an open letter drawing attention to the problems they face in teaching French adequately in Flemish primary and secondary schools.
“The whole French language early learning path is under threat and our expertise, our passion for the language, our professional honour as teachers and our responsibilities as instructors oblige us to defend ourselves,” they wrote. “With the recent reforms, the workload has only increased and many colleagues admit they have less time and space for French.”
And the situation does not improve as the students advance to secondary school. The objectives announced had appeared promising, the teachers said, but when objectives were transformed into programmes, they found that classes had been cut from four or six hours a week to only three.
“That will make the achievement of the objectives impossible,” they concluded.