As long as the message gets across...
Leiden University’s Academic Language Centre offers courses in a wide range of languages, from beginners to advanced level as well as translation and editing services.
Language is an essential tool for all members of society. We agree our ideas and opinions through the medium of language; we acquire knowledge by reading texts and communicating verbally or in writing; we report on our work and suggest improvements for processes.
Assumptions when communicating
If we make the mistake of assuming that there is no need for us to pay attention to the language we use to express all these things, we’ll often be unpleasantly disappointed with how our communication turns out.
If we take the attitude of "What does it matter... as long as the message gets across", we ignore some essential elements of communication.
Even in conversations among people speaking their native language, misunderstandings and lack of comprehension occur with alarming regularity.
What we have to realise is that communication isn’t just a simple "transfer of information", in spite of what this metaphor seems to indicate. Because we never really express in concrete words everything we actually mean, the people we are talking to must actively attach meanings to our words.
The listener can never be 100 per cent certain that what we mean is what they have taken away from the conversation. The ambiguity of words, their emotional value and any imprecise conjunctions between different clauses in a sentence - all these are potential threats to successful communication.
In the haste of daily life we rarely take the time to check whether we have truly understood one another. It is only when relationships become critical or unstable that we ourselves start to pay more attention when we listen, and we become aware of the potential for misunderstanding.
Language as a medium in teaching
In view of these considerations, and given that educational institutions teach their students through the medium of language, there is a real risk of their teaching being only partially understood.
Experienced teachers, for whom the subject matter has, over time, become second nature, are faced with the task of "transferring their knowledge" - that misleading expression again - to a generation of students for whom these ideas are completely new.
Much of the time this communication is decidedly one-sided. There is rarely any opportunity for students to state clearly what they have understood, and to check whether this bears sufficient resemblance to what the teacher intended. Given the over-full classrooms in some high-volume subjects, this remains an idealistic dream.
It also explains the problems that a subject such as Law faces with the current generation of students. For many Law students, Dutch is not their first language, and even some native Dutch speakers’ command of the language, in a subject such as Law, leaves a lot to be desired.
There is just one conclusion: the days when we could have blind faith in the language capabilities of our students are long gone. And with more and more courses being taught in English, the problem is spreading.
Students from the farthest corners of the world write their theses in what is -for them- a foreign language, English, often without any formal training in academic English.
Dutch-speaking lecturers, who in their own language have a broad rhetorical repertoire at their disposal, now have to teach in English and assess the texts written in English by their students.
For the time being, such a change presents more challenges than benefits. We all know what it is like if communication becomes strained and we feel disadvantaged by having to communicate in a language that is not our mother tongue.
The right testing methods are crucial
Economic constraints mean that multiple choice tests are common in high-volume programmes. The basic premise of such tests is that the student doesn’t do any writing himself, but ticks the correct boxes on an answer sheet.
It’s not that his choice of a particular answer is not founded in sound argument, but the test doesn’t require him to formulate the argument himself. He has to recognise the right answer and not be confused by other misleading answers that might appear to be right. That’s quite different from formulating a response yourself independently.
In the event that we need to undergo oral surgery and have a tooth extracted, will we feel comfortable if we know that the dentist’s training was based on multiple choice tests where as many as 30 per cent of his responses could be wrong and he would still pass?
As long as the message gets across...
Precise language learning
We have to realise that the complete message contained in our words and written texts can only really be communicated if we know and observe the norms of the language.
It then becomes obvious that our teaching must stress the importance of using language precisely and at the same time educate students so that they, too, understand this.
The aim of this "training" is to develop students’ ability to communicate effectively. Training in these skills is urgently needed, but it’s something that calls for investment.
Attentive, and in some cases individual, instruction in a secure learning environment is necessary, and, combined with prompt and clear feedback, can help students understand how to achieve their objective in the most effective way possible.
Roelof van Deemter works as communications advisor at Leiden University’s Academic Language Centre. Roelof is engaged in finding new ways of learning and teaching that fit the needs of diverse institutional and individual clients.
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