A Conversation with Claire Kramsch and Sirpa Tuomainen

Featuring Mark Kaiser (MK), Claire Kramsch (CK), and Sirpa Tuomainen (ST)

MK: Both of you are back from sojourns in Europe. Can you tell us about what you were engaged in there?

CK: I had a semester sabbatical and I spent it in Paris, where I grew up. It gave me the opportunity to go back to my family, friends, and former peers, and finish a book I was writing. I had time to get in touch with colleagues, teachers of German and teachers of English, some of whom I went to school with. It was nice to reconnect with my home country on a more professional basis.

MK: Sirpa?

ST: I spent a year in Finland at my alma mater, University of Jyväskylä. I had a forty percent appointment as a lecturer at the Department of Languages. I taught online Finnish courses and developed web-based materials for those courses and others. Our audience was quite multicultural; the students came from all over the world — from China to Macedonia. I also took courses: ethnography courses out of personal interest and an assessment course under a Title VI grant. The University of Jyväskylä has many European Union (EU) projects, and one has been developing assessment tools according to the guidelines set out in the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR). In addition, I subbed at my own former department, the English Department, teaching a writing course in the spring semester. Developing a blog that I later used in my ethnographic research also took up a lot of my time.

MK: Both of you have spent much time with foreign language faculty in Europe, in France and in Finland. Would you say that foreign language teaching is in transition right now in Europe?

CK: Definitely! Both in France and in Germany, educational systems now have to teach foreign languages within a European Union framework to produce future European citizens and not just French or German citizens. That creates interesting tensions between national and international educational goals. There are clashes of methodology, pedagogic vision, and social class. What are languages good for? Who are they good for? Are they for everybody or just for the elite? The French in particular are now asking quite anguished questions regarding what it means to be an “educated native speaker.”

ST: Finns have always studied different languages. Because we are a country of only five million speakers of Finnish, it’s always been important to study several languages, starting in elementary school. We are also a bilingual country in that we’ve all had to study Swedish. I started first with Swedish, which wasn’t called a foreign language but a second mother tongue. It’s often called “forced Swedish” because many feel it’s useless to study another “small” language. This situation has changed though; from the seventies on, most students began taking English first. With the young and the well educated, English is now a second language rather than a foreign language, or the third language spoken in Finland along with Swedish and Finnish. What’s changing is that some parents feel that their children will simply learn English on their own. That’s why there’s more attention paid to other languages. Because of rapid globalization, the importance of the study of Asian languages and Russian is being discussed more and more.

MK: Within the institutions?

ST: Right. If you live in a big city the schools offer many languages, and you can choose which languages to study. Most children choose English, but there are some who choose a more “exotic” language — mostly because the parents know their children will pick up English outside of school. Because of the Common European Framework of Reference as an assessment tool, based on “can do,” the methodology is also changing.

MK: Making it more utilitarian?

ST: Yes. What I saw, however, was that language teaching was still pretty old-fashioned, and I was surprised. I thought pedagogy would be quite modern, based on how well the students learn. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is used in over sixty countries, and Finland ranked first in 2000 and 2003 in many different subject areas. The common view is naturally that what has been done in teaching languages must be good since the results are so good. But there’s a lot of talk about language teaching pedagogy. It’s become especially important in the European Union that students learn about the cultural aspects of the language.

MK: What about English in France? Is that a similar situation? Is it just assumed that everybody learns English and so the focus within educational institutions is on other foreign languages?

CK: The languages offered in French schools are not usually decided by offer and demand but by the Ministry of Education who decides which languages will be compulsory, and at what age. Traditionally, the two first foreign languages offered have been English or German (that you start at age 12), with Spanish as a second foreign language (that you start at age 15), because France has traditionally taught the languages of its neighbors. Today, school children still have to learn two foreign languages, but English has been made into the compulsory first foreign language and Spanish is taken as the second foreign language because of the global nature of Spanish and the job opportunities on the global market. German is still offered, but fewer and fewer high school students take it. The same is true of French in Germany. It’s very sad. The French and the Germans hardly learn each other’s languages any more. English as a subject matter in French schools is experiencing a tension between being the national language of the British and the Americans, and being a European and global language.

On the one hand, English has to be taught according to ministerial guidelines issued by the French national education system that promotes quintessentially French values, such as logic, reason, clarity of thought, lucidity of style, and an understanding of symbolic systems of representation. These values are meant to prepare citizens in a republican democracy to work for the common historical and cultural good of a nation-state called France.

On the other hand, English being the de facto language of Europe, it has to serve the needs of the European Union and be taught according to the CEFR for the teaching of foreign languages. The CEFR prepares learners of English to participate in a global economy according to liberal democratic values like entrepreneurship, participation, individual initiative, competitiveness, and communicative competence. Teachers of English in French schools are very suspicious of pragmatic approaches to teaching foreign languages. They are critical of what they call les approches actionnelles, i.e., action-based, task-based approaches to teaching foreign languages. These approaches, they say, enable you to do things with words, perform tasks, and solve problems, but they don’t necessarily enable you to reflect on language as an object of study. For French teachers, language is an object of study: it “vehiculates” or transmits representations, schemas of understanding, ways of seeing and understanding the world that have to be analyzed and interpreted.

MK: But certainly the business community in France must need people who can deal with language in a very utilitarian way.

CK: That’s precisely where you have the tension between those who are more pragmatically oriented towards the market and those who represent the values of the French educational system. What kind of students are French schools supposed to rear: good consumers or good citizens?

ST: In Finland there is a practical motivation but language learning is at a high level and extremely academic. The Finnish high school or gymnasium has a rigorous program and there’s a very difficult national exam that students have to pass. This means that students study towards that exam, so even if there are these European guidelines of “can do,” they still do lots of academic work, writing essays and so on. Many students are now writing their theses and dissertations in English. The goal is that Finns will be able to produce high-level academic English.

MK: So, on the one hand you have the educational establishment, which is not that different from the professoriate in the United States, that is looking to develop skills of literary and cultural analysis, and is not looking to train future translators, for example. On the other hand, you have the business establishment that’s probably much more interested in the pragmatic. Where does that leave the government? Where does that leave the bodies that actually decide the policy issues?

CK: In France, between the old educated bourgeois elite that finds jobs as civil servants in France and the new cosmopolitan polyglot elite that finds jobs on the global market, you’ve got the immigrants, mostly from the former colonies. They come to France with their own languages and cultures and they need to be integrated into French society.

Whereas in the US we conceive of integration mostly in economic terms, in France and Germany integration is conceived mostly in cultural terms. That’s why European countries insist on immigrants learning the language, the cultural mores, and the values of the host country. The pedagogy of French language teaching partakes a little from both the pragmatic and the cultural approaches. On the one hand, you want immigrants to acquire communicative competence in the language. On the other hand, if you want to integrate them culturally, they’d better have the training in Cartesian critical thinking and the understanding of symbolic systems that will make them respected middle-class citizens. The French film The Class offers a good illustration of that dilemma.

ST: Finland’s a little bit different because while education was once for the elite, there’s a movement for equity in schools that’s been going on for quite a long time. Now everybody has a chance to be educated. Because of immigrants and refugees, there are many Finnish as a Second Language programs, and because we’re working toward creating equity, a lot of attention is paid to textbooks, and how they can be modified so that the kids can really understand math and science. That’s a big issue right now; a lot of money is being poured into this. Finnish as a Second Language is still really new in Finland so we’re satisfied if adult immigrants or refugees only learn practical Finnish that allows them to function in society, because they can do their higher education in English. All immigrants take English if they don’t know it already because most of the universities and many vocational schools offer all courses in English as well.

MK: Is there a concern that eventually all this is going to lead to a marginalization of Finnish within the culture?

ST: Not really, no. They really look at English as adding another language and using it as a tool. Finnish language and culture are going strong. Finnish is definitely needed for full participation in Finnish society. But English is needed in ever-increasing international contexts. Also, for many subcultures, English is the language used to negotiate common meaning and identity among different ethnic groups.

MK: Is English sufficient for social capital in Finnish society? That is, if you only know English and speak just a few words of Finnish, will you be considered a second-class citizen?

ST: Not necessarily a second-class citizen but never really acculturated into Finnish society.

MK: I call that a second-class citizen!

CK: Why doesn’t the Finnish state want its immigrants to integrate linguistically in the Finnish community?

ST: Oh, it does, but Finnish is a complex language, so it’s assumed that if adults immigrate, it’ll take too many years before they can study at the university level in Finnish. After all, Finnish is a non-Indo-European language with a complicated grammatical structure and non-cognate vocabulary.

CK: But why the university level?

ST: Well, if they study, let’s say in any vocational school, they would more likely be studying in Finnish, learning skills. But universities now are very bilingual.

CK: But take for example a Somali immigrant to Finland. In order to take part in Finnish democracy, this immigrant has to understand political speeches, has to be able to read the newspapers, and has to be able to understand political documents, not study at the university. This immigrant needs to know how to read, write, and speak educated Finnish.

ST: Yes, all the immigrants get to study Finnish, and it is required in schools. However, there is often a choice for the language used in higher education.

CK: Why is there a choice?

ST: Finland is embracing globalization and internationalization of her educational system. The choice draws in foreign students and levels the playing field. I took up this question of language choice with a young Congolese immigrant I met. I said, “Well, you were already in a master’s degree program in your country, and you want to study sociology, so why don’t you continue your studies in English?” He answered, “I have chosen this country to be my new home so I want to do my studies in Finnish.” He wanted to truly become a part of Finnish society. As most Finns would, I found that quite admirable, but unusual.

MK: Historically, in French society for example, knowing a second and or third language was part of being an educated Frenchman. There was a certain social status that one acquired through education and knowing a second and third language. Is the purpose today more one of the creation of a European identity? If we assume that knowing a second language isn’t so much about intellectual capital as it is necessary for the functioning of this new European state, is that then the definition of a European, a person who can work across many languages simultaneously both at a pragmatic level, but also a fairly high intellectual level? Is that part of the push? Is it a part of a strengthening of the European state?

CK: Yes, and that’s why there’s so much talk about multilingualism and intercultural learning; these two things are at the forefront of concerns of foreign language educators. Because multilingualism is needed in order to be able to operate linguistically across the borders of Europe, people attach a great deal of importance to becoming multilingual. There’s a lot of debate about capitalizing on families of languages as a way to foster multilingualism in the schools. In other words, if you’ve learned English as a first foreign language should you not learn German rather than Spanish because German is part of the same Anglo-Germanic family? Or if you know Spanish, should you not learn Italian? Or perhaps exactly the contrary: because you’ve learned Spanish, you should be learning German. So there’s a lot of talk about that.

You have two almost rival conceptions of what is needed within a united Europe. One is that you need multilingual competencies or glosso-diversity; you need to know as many codes as possible in order to communicate on the linguistic level with as many people as you want. On the other hand, you have the scholars in intercultural learning like Michael Byram in Durham, Adelheid Hu in Hamburg, Karen Risager in Denmark, and Geneviève Zarate in France who come from schools of education or anthropology, who are less linguistically and more culturally oriented. They feel that you don’t need only linguistic skills to get along with your neighbor within the European Union. What you mostly need are psychological and moral skills of tolerance and understanding. It is less important to know one language in depth; it’s more important to have the ability to work together even if you don’t share a language.

ST: The intercultural side of language learning has always been emphasized in Finland probably because of the business communities in the European Union, although even before the EU came into being it was a big concern in Finland. There is now a European Union standard called the Guidelines of One plus Two Languages. Finland has actually upped it to Two plus Two. Finnish and English are probably in most cases the first two. Beyond these there will be two more. Asian languages and Russian are being pushed a lot these days.

CK: A lot of these issues are discussed in the Précis du plurilinguisme et du pluriculturalisme, edited by Geneviève Zarate, Danielle Levy, and myself and published in 2008 in Paris by the Editions des archives contemporaines. Because of the scholarly background of the first two editors — Geneviève Zarate is an anthropologist, very much of the Bourdieu school of thought in sociology, and Danielle Levy is a literary studies specialist who happens to be interested in personal narratives — the Précis does not have much of a linguistic orientation.

The Précis tries to orient the teaching and learning of foreign languages away from the mostly instrumental view of the CEFR, and away from an exclusively institutional view of language learning. It argues that the CEFR does not take into consideration enough the construction of identities, the circulation of values across borders, the inversions or even inventions of meaning necessary for transcultural understanding. In addition, foreign languages should not be seen as exclusively a subject matter taught in schools, but as an aspect of everyday life, in the workplace, in the family.

MK: Is the teaching of languages being affected by technology as greatly as it is here?

CK: Throughout the four years that I collaborated on that project, not once was there any talk of technology. It’s just not on the radar.

ST: In Finland it’s definitely on the radar. There’s a lot of talk about technology and technology is used frequently. All the universities have a Language Center where practical skills in many languages are taught. The Erasmus Program students, for example, who come for three months or longer on exchange, take Finnish as a Second Language at the Language Center. They use modern techniques in teaching and a lot of technology. Students have a site where, in addition to live classes, they can do self-study, hook up with a speaking partner, and do web-based learning. It’s extremely well developed.

MK: The European Union notwithstanding, it sounds like there are significant differences across Europe! How would you compare what’s happening in Europe with the way we’re looking at foreign language teaching here?

ST: I would compare it with English as a Second Language (ESL) teaching here. ESL has always used modern approaches and is using more and more technology. Often foreign language teaching in the US has lagged behind.

MK: In what way?

ST: From what I’ve seen of how languages have been taught in high schools and even at the universities, it seems like the newer approaches haven’t been introduced or haven’t caught on. There’s been a more traditional way of teaching. Europe is more advanced because there are more languages being taught and it seems to be more important there than here. In Finland it’s absolutely necessary to learn foreign languages so the approach, the attitude, is very different. People have a lot of motivation to learn; evening courses in many different languages fill up quickly. Average working class people are eager to learn Spanish or Italian, for example, before vacationing in Spain or Italy.

MK: As you were telling me earlier this afternoon, foreign language teachers are valued. The foreign language subject matter is valued within the schools, and the instructors are valued, whereas in the American secondary educational system, they’re all marginalized. It’s not a core academic subject; it’s one of the things cut when budgets get cut.

ST: Yes, that’s part of it. The general attitude, the attitude of the government, everything really supports foreign language teaching. Of course that means that you have more tools, you have more money, and you can develop it more. It’s pretty advanced, in many ways.

CK: I would concur. There’s a sense of urgency in Europe: foreign language learning in Europe is not an exotic luxury but a historical and geographical necessity. And it raises identity questions because it happens mostly at the elementary and the secondary level, not the university level, at a time when youngsters are trying to define who they are and how they fit in.

ST: It’s true. In Finland, immersion programs are quite popular. Many parents send their children to immersion programs. The most popular are in Swedish or English. There are also some schools using French or Chinese or even Sami. These are actually free public schools. I don’t know if anyone has thought of the question of identity if both parents are Finnish and their child is in a Chinese school. It will most likely be a new research topic in a few years!

MK: Does the identity question then impact, for example, the large Arabic populations in the suburbs of Paris? Do they have access to Arabic instruction within the French schools?

CK: Sometimes, yes. But Arabic in French schools is taught as a foreign language not as a heritage language.

ST: I can’t remember how many kids you need to have in a particular school — it may be five or six — speaking a particular language, but they will get some home language instruction every week for a couple of hours at least.

MK: Thank you both for this very stimulating discussion.