Learning a foreign language is on many an individual’s bucket list. To converse in a language other than your mother tongue can feel tremendously exciting and rewarding, and above all, it can dramatically improve your experience when visiting a country which speaks the language you have learned. The option to study abroad comes as a welcome opportunity to take on this challenge, but are students and universities doing enough to learn/teach the language to a useful level?
Studying abroad has historically involved the ambition to learn the native language to even a basic level, and we can assume that the main reason for wanting to learn the local tongue is that students aim to enjoy the full range of cultural experiences on offer in the country they visit. But the problem for international students these days is that they don’t have the time to properly learn the language of the country in which they study. Even if they do, they often feel that the reasons not to learn (possibility to achieve better grades in studies, or more socialising) outweigh the benefits of learning to an independent level. Furthermore, many internationals highlight the fact that English as a second language has overridden this need. For students attending institutions outside of the native English speaking countries, the vast majority of the internationals they will meet are able to converse in English, which presents its own unique set of problems in learning the local lingo.
Language requirements in the Netherlands
International students coming to the Netherlands are made to feel comfortable with the promise that ‘everyone speaks English’ to some degree, and this is largely true. But does this hold true in a business setting? During the ‘Careers Made in Rotterdam’ day in April 2013, international students from around Rotterdam and the provincial region were invited by Expertise in Labour Mobility to come along and learn more about what it takes to work in Rotterdam, and what the city has to offer as a working destination post-study.
A panel of experts from various roles and industries in the Rotterdam area, as well as the national education organisation NUFFIC, contributed their knowledge to the session, and almost all highlighted the need for Dutch in the search for work. Many students asked whether even internationally-focused companies have this requirement, to which the reply was a resounding (but not unanimous) “yes”. Although the official language of an international corporation in Holland may be English, much of the in-house verbal communication is conducted in Dutch, which means that internationals are often at an unofficial disadvantage.
Barriers to employment in Germany
Even in countries in which learning and using the language is more necessary in daily life, this trend shows no real change. Evidence from a recent survey conducted by i-graduate and published by the GATE organisation in Germany suggests that many international students attending institutions in Germany are put off the option to continue working after study, simply due to the language barrier. In the survey, students were asked about what would stand as an obstacle against them staying on in Germany to work.
Whilst we can all agree that German is a major world language and spoken quite extensively outside of its homeland, it would still come as an obstacle to 45% of non-EU students, and 23% of EU students considering working there post study. These days, international students in Germany have the increasing possibility to complete their degree in English with relatively little knowledge of the German language. When ultimately reaching the end of their course, they find that they lack the German skills to progress into the job market.
Students are crying out for cost effective and accessible classes in the language of the host country. As we know, student budgets can be extremely tight, and many institutions are known to charge amounts which are incompatible with student resources. Some institutions do offer courses at reasonable cost, for free, or as a necessary part of the course. But many of these courses last for a matter of weeks and serve only as an introduction. Furthermore, students visiting a country for one year or less have very little opportunity to reach a level which is suitable for business or which surpasses their level of English.
The only real solution to advising students on language for working abroad after study is the correct management of expectations. As highlighted, students arriving in the Netherlands expect that since the vast majority of Dutch people can speak English, working in English will pose no problem. This is seldom the case, and increasing numbers of students are disappointed and frustrated at the lack of opportunities which they face at the end of their course. In Germany, language is seen as one of the largest obstacles when finding work, whilst the number of English-taught courses in Germany continues to increase. Furthermore, international students often find that classes which teach a foreign language may be difficult to afford, too time inefficient or too short to achieve a standard which raises them to a level suitable for business practice or fluent conversation.