Language Centre of the University of Vienna

Author(s): Sonja Winklbauer
Institution/Organisation: Language Centre of the University of Vienna (AT)

1. DESCRIPTION OF THE SUCCESS CASE

1.1 Scope of the initiative


The following case study showcases the Language Center of the University of Vienna (Sprachenzentrum der Universit?t Wien, www.sprachenzentrum.at), founded in 2001, the European Year of Languages. According to its foundation charter its has a dual mission: on the one hand, it aims to offer high-quality (continuing) education in languages to students, university staff and a general audience (currently 4500 participants a year), while on the other hand initiating and/or coordinating research projects in the fields of quality assurance and language teaching, thus developing into a research-oriented platform of the University of Vienna in the fields of language teaching and learning research.

Furthermore, national and international cooperation has been consistently promoted and encouraged. The Language Center is a member of the Austrian Association of University Language Centers and Institutions (VUS), of the Association of language centers, language teaching institutes and institutes of foreign languages (AKS) and of the European Confederation of Language Centers in Higher Education (CercleS).

In the general context of ever broader internationalization in the field of education and on the labor market, the Language Center significantly contributes through high quality teaching to the European language policy. By way of the Language Center, the University of Vienna consistently implements concrete programs and projects aimed at promoting multilingualism.



1.2 Range of languages learned


Currently, the Language Center of the University of Vienna is offering tuition in the following 25 languages: Albanian, Arabic, Austrian Sign Language, Bulgarian, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, Greek, Hindi, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Slovakian, Spanish, Swedish, and Turkish.

Next to the languages taught in schools, much attention is given to promoting the languages of the neighboring countries and to languages rarely taught, respectively the languages of minorities, such as the Austrian Sign Language (ASL).

As the languages offered by the Language Center represent an additional offer and are not part of university curricula, students can have a free choice. Statistically, the most sought-after language is English, followed by French and Spanish, as well as Austrian Sign Language.


1.3 Learning outcomes


Practice-oriented language tuition in groups of up to 14 participants creates a learning environment that ensures persistent contact between the learners and the language and culture they are studying, which guarantees the subsequent usability of the skills gained. The focus lies on communication competence and intercultural awareness.

At the end of 39/40 tuition hours, learners undergo formal tests in which their writing, reading, speaking and listening skills are graded according to the CEFR. On the other hand, the specialized courses, though not rounded off by a formal test, enhance the participants' communication skills both in terms of employability and academic proficiency, which is best illustrated by courses like "English for Academic Purposes", or "Effective Presentations in English".

 
1.4 Practical realisation


The core strategy of the Language Center is implemented by means of the following activities and teaching programs:

 

2. BACKGROUND TO THE INITIATIVE

2.1 Context


The University of Vienna regards itself as a European university striving to implement impulses in the field of education that have been discussed, adopted and/or recommended at European level. Thus, the Bologna Declaration endeavors to establish a European Higher Education Area which necessitates multilingual participants. Adequate language education is therefore a prerequisite to the creation of the EHEA.

In general, the range of languages currently offered by the University of Vienna is the result of an organic growth. It has reached the considerable scope of 60 modern languages, which, in our era of globalization, constitutes a good starting point for further enlargement. However, austerity measures, among other factors, have led to the situation that basic courses in European languages (e. g. Spanish or Italian) have become accessible only to students majoring in these languages. Concomitantly, the specialized language courses have been neglected lately, just as the range of courses in less widely taught languages and migrant languages needs expanding.

Established in 2001, the Language Center of the University of Vienna sees its task in supporting – on the academic level and beyond that – the European Union’s commitment to the objective of the multilingual citizen of the Union, by offering language tuition complementary to that of the University.



2.2 Strategic goals of the initiative


Within its range of activities, the Language Center has set itself the following targets:

 

3. SUCCESS INDICATORS

In its seven years of existence, the Language Center has gained a solid reputation for modern, high-quality further education; the number of languages (from 16 in 2004 to 26 in 2007) offered and the numbers of participants have been constantly rising (from 2100 in 2004 to approx. 4000 in 2007).

Although enrolled students cannot acquire credits on the basis of certificates issued by the Language Center due to certain legal constraints, more than two thirds of the participants are students, which strikingly proves that they are fully aware of the importance of foreign language proficiency.


The following trends in course booking can be singled out as further success indicators: 


The Language Center is constantly contacted by media about foreign language issues, such as trends in language learning, pieces of advice with regard to learning a foreign language, etc.

4. SUCCESS FACTORS

A significant success factor is the transparent course structure of the Language Center, which prepares learners in two to three phases for the next level of competence, in accordance with CEFR.

The group size of up to 14 participants guarantees sufficient personal supervision of each individual student, while leaving room for both formal and informal learning options (theatre outings, trial seminars, events at cultural institutes).

On the other hand, the Institution gives great attention to supporting and further developing its teaching staff.

The Scientific Advisory Council of the Language Center, a committee on which all university institutions specializing in language teaching (the philology institutes, the Center for Translation Studies, the Department of Linguistics) are represented, guarantees the permanent connection to the University of Vienna; the special organizational unit for quality assurance of the University of Vienna has taken responsibility for quality assurance at the Language Center as well.

The Language Center’s structure ensures flexibility in more than one way:


The Language Center perceives itself as a service institution and therefore gives great attention to customer orientation.

A further substantial factor in being regarded as a competent partner is the allocation of both time and financial means to project work. Noteworthy in this context is the project on the status of the Austrian Sign Language in schools and universities (www.univie.ac.at/sprachemachtwissen), which, after a runtime of one year, has comprehensively surveyed the current situation of hearing impaired students and pupils and suggested numerous innovations. This project has had a significant impact with ministries, the hearing impaired community and the media.

5. LESSONS TO BE LEARNED

5.1 Lessons to be learned at institutional level


In order to motivate as many students as possible to learn several foreign languages, the Language Center needs to preserve and further expand its flexibility and customer orientation.

Tight connections with the University are paramount for quality assurance and further development.

Furthermore, execution and coordination of projects must continue to be one of the two foci of the institution, as they are the sole guarantor of a solid connection between research and development on the one hand and practice on the other. More cooperation opportunities with the philology institutes should be pursued in the future – the Language Center could for example act as an empirical testing ground for final theses in the field of language teaching research.

The aforementioned flexibility of the Language Center is partly due to the fact that since 2004 it has been “outsourced” as part of a “daughter company” (“Innovationszentrum Universität Wien GesmbH”) that obeys principles of the market economy and is characterized by a relatively flat hierarchical structure and short chains of command.

This outsourcing, however, has consequences, namely that certificates issued by the Language Center are not recognized as credits within the scope of the university syllabus, besides which attending courses at the Language Center is subject to charges payable by the enrolled students (for 39 teaching units, the following amounts are currently charged:
€ 300.00 for external participants, € 230.00 for registered university students, € 130.00 for students receiving scholarships and grants).

All parties involved (the management of the Language Center, the Scientific Advisory Council, the vice-chancellor level) are currently doing their best in order to create an adequate, formal general framework.

A further consequence of the aforementioned outsourcing is that research activities are only possible to a limited extent within the frame of the current form of organization, as these activities require university-type structures. In order for the Language Center to evolve into a university platform for language teaching and learning research, as initially planned, other forms of integration into the University of Vienna will have to be worked out.


5.2 Broader implications


The structure of the Language Center can, for all intents and purposes, act as a blue-print for other institutions: tuition in groups as small as possible, orientation and adaptation to the participants’ requirements, connection of practice and project work, amalgamation of students and other target groups, opening of a university subsidiary to the public at large with the aim of promoting lifelong language learning and thus contributing to multilingualism amongst students and other social groups.