Language deterioration among students in Belgium, higher education teachers say

Language deterioration among students in Belgium, higher education teachers say
Credit: Belga / Hatim Kaghat.

Both Dutch and French-speaking teachers of Belgian higher education universities and colleges have raised concerns over what they see as a " degradation of language" among students over the past years.

The situation was recently brought to public attention when Professor of Medicine and Vice-chancellor of UAntwerp, Filip Lardon, tweeted in distress after going through the exam papers of students. Multiple Belgian media have since reported on the issue, both from the Dutch and the French-speaking regions.

Tweet translation: Improving exams. First Bachelor of Medicine. The number of language and especially 'dt' errors is unimaginable. I'm starting to wonder if they agreed to play a joke on me to deliberately write down as many as possible. If so, they succeeded.

Dozens of lecturers responded in agreement to the tweet. While it may be surprising to those who do not consistently grade papers, over the past years numerous studies have been done on the topic of language degradation among students.

The latest PISA (the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment) study in 2019 showed that 20% of Flemish pupils left education as "functionally illiterate". Experts expect that the Covid-19 crisis and Belgium's teacher shortage accelerated the decline of language skills.

Reasoning abilities also decreased

Olivier Delsaux, Professor of French grammar and spelling at UCLouvain said that there are common words students don't seem to understand, even though they often appear in media. "We feel they are powerless in the face of language, especially when the level is high."

Various educators also said that the reasoning abilities of students have decreased. "A striking number of students asked for explanations to understand the questions [in the exam]. While these were standard formulations of the Dutch language," said Professor Carl Devos (UGent).

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"More than minor language errors, language comprehension should be an absolute concern,' explained Elke Peters, lecturer in linguistics (KU Leuven). "In a lecture, a certain kind of language is used – academic language. Those who stumble over academic words find it difficult to comprehend text or process learning material."

Peters suggests that one solution can be to provide rich, longer texts in secondary school "with explicit attention to vocabulary and thus also more academic words".

A lack of discipline?

Devos explained to De Standaard that it is also not the job of a university lecturer to correct every spelling error, and in first-year groups where 800 students need to be graded, such a feat is simply not possible. The professor also explained that some students would ask what a word in an exam means which often appears in a textbook. "That a student reads that fifty times and never looks it up, I don't understand. I often notice a lack of – it sounds so old-fashioned – discipline."

Marielle Maréchal, a French Professor at the University of Liege, seems to agree, as she was quoted saying: "They make huge mistakes, and if they were to proofread they would realise this but they don't. They also write sentences that are not correct. They also write sentences that don't mean anything at all."

Many higher education teachers raise their concerns over the level of French among their students, even among those studying to be teachers themselves.

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