The Emergence of Language Centres in European Higher Education

Europe has experienced the same trends of globalization and recessionary forces as have affected the rest of the world. Geopolitical factors have also contributed to the growth of language centres in Europe. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a major driver of economic and political change. New European democracies in the nineties have emerged, higher education institutions have changed and adapted and within universities new models of second and foreign language education have been created.

Language centre models were viewed as structurally flexible and cost- effective responses to large and varied demands for language learning. From small beginnings in the sixties, language centres (Grauberg 1971) began to expand towards the last decade of the 20th century and this growth continues to this day.

A defining aspect and one of the key strengths of European language centres is that they are pragmatic, open and responsive to change. Their structures are adaptive and have led not just to one or a small number of models but to a large variety of structures. There is no single organizational model for language centres and structures continue to evolve (Aub-Buscher and Bickerton 2002; Ruane 2003). Writing on the issue of language centre models in UK higher education, Michael Worton (2009, p. 4) has outlined a situation that could be applied to language centres all over Europe and their relations with MFL (Modern Foreign Languages):

‘There is considerable diversity across the sector, and the customer base is broad, presenting significant challenges in terms of teaching and organization. There is no single model of provision and no uniform model for the relationship between Language Centre Departments and the academic MFL Departments.’

This openness and flexibility in attitude are also reflected in the approach of the professional bodies representing language centres. CercleS (European

Confederation of Language Centres in Higher Education 2013) provides a good example. Founded in Strasbourg in 1991, it is a confederation representing language centres across the European higher education sector. The unifying focus of the confederation is the teaching of language for communication purposes. Consequently, membership of the Confederation is open to a broad constituency including Language Centres, Departments, Institutes, Faculties or Schools in Higher Education. It brings together 290 higher education language centres in Europe, it represents some 250,000 students and thousands of staff in different categories (academic, administrative and technical). It is a federal structure uniting a group of National Associations which support and represent the diversity of need in their local and national contexts. This diversity includes research and action research, publication, policy development, materials production, testing across many languages. A broadly-based, flexible and outward looking body such as CercleS - or other similar body - with its track record of cross-border outreach is in theory strongly placed to respond to the challenges posed by the expansion of Chinese in higher education.

But while the number of university language centres has increased, expansion in the range of languages taught has not extended much beyond the teaching of English and European languages. The teaching of Asian languages, or indeed languages from other parts of the globe, continues to be on a small scale. A rapid review of the CercleS website (European Confederation of Language Centres in Higher Education 2013) and other Europe-based official or associative bodies such as, for example, the European Centre for Modern Languages (2013), shows that Chinese or indeed other Asian or world languages are not yet widely represented.

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