Université Libre de Bruxelles 1: Plan Langues

Author(s): Ian Tudor
Institution/Organisation: Université Libre de Bruxelles (BE)


1.1 Scope of the initiative


From the academic year 2005-06 the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) launched what is described as the Plan Langues http://www.ulb.ac.be/planlangues/. The initiative extended language learning to all students of four faculties, Humanities (Philosophie et Lettres), Psychology, Science, and Applied Science The students of these four faculties, until that point in time, had had limited or no language learning possibilities within their academic programme. The initiative affects over 3,000 students in these four faculties (out a total of around 19,000 students at the ULB).

The initiative targets 1st cycle students, mainly in their 2nd and 3rd years of study – BA2 and BA3.

1.2 Range of languages studied

The Plan Langues involves the teaching of one of two languages – English or Dutch.

The dominant role of English in the Plan Langues reflects the importance which this language has in academic life (in particular in terms of access to specialised academic material), and also with respect to the role of English in terms of employability, both internationally and within Belgium.

1.3 Learning outcomes

In achievement terms, the goals of the Plan Langues were defined with respect to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), with B1 as the minimum target level in four skills – reading, listening, writing, and speaking.

Specific importance is given to three main sets of competences:

1.4 Practical realisation

The Plan Langues has two main components:

The first is made up of obligatory language courses with a weighting of 8 ECTS taught by ULB staff in students’ 1st cycle programme.

The second component involves the provision of remedial language courses offered to students free of charge by the Fondation 9, a language school affiliated to the ULB. Two main types of course are offered:

These courses are complementary to the mainstream ECTS-credited ULB taught courses. The courses are cost-free for all students, and attendance is by free choice. Teaching is conducted in groups of 8-12 students.

The Plan Langues also involves all students in the four faculties concerned taking a multiple choice level test in BA1. This test serves to inform students of their level in the target language. Students who obtain a low score on this test are strongly advised to undertake remedial work prior to beginning BA2, and specifically to avail themselves of the remedial courses offered by the Fondation 9, either prior to beginning BA2 or during the academic year. The remedial courses offered by the Fondation 9 are geared specifically to the needs of this category of student.

The Plan Langues involves obligatory language courses in four distinct faculties. The general goals of the obligatory and ECTS-credited courses in these four faculties are essentially the same (B1 on the CEFR as a minimum achievement target, and the relative emphasis on receptive skills in BA1/BA2 courses and on productive skills in BA3 courses.) However, the teaching-learning materials created are specific to each faculty, reflecting the students’ academic orientation. The approach to course design and materials development is thus an example of EAP / pre-experience ESP.


2.1 Context

The Plan Langues was launched subsequent to an extensive process of consultation among a range of institutional actors within the Commission Interfacultaire Langues (a consultative body gathering together university management, deans of faculty, and language teachers). Prior to the launching of the Plan Langues, the students of the four faculties concerned had limited or no language learning in their academic programme. In other administrative units of the ULB, however, extensive language learning programmes had been in place for many years, in particular in the Solvay Business School, and the departments of Economics and Politics. The most widely taught languages in these units are English and Dutch.

The decision to extend language learning to all students in the four Plan Langues faculties derived from two main sets of factors.

2.2 Strategic goals of the initiative

The strategic goals of the initiative reflect the two elements of context outlined above, namely the generally low levels of language competence among the student body on entry, and the will of the ULB to take fully on board not simply the more immediately evident aspects of the Bologna Process (the 3+2+3 degree structure, and the ECTS crediting of courses), but also its wider goals in terms of enhanced academic mobility, employability, and internationalisation.

On a more detailed level, the following goals dominated the decision making process which led to the launching of the Plan Langues:



3.1 Numbers of students following language courses

The launch of the Plan Langues extended obligatory language learning to a considerable number of students. In the academic year 2006-07, the number of students affected by faculty are as follows:

BA2: 535 (EN), 33 (NL) = 568
BA3: 314 (EN), 34 (NL) = 348
Total: 816

BA2: 322 (EN)
BA3: 232 (EN)
Total: 554

BA2: 278 (EN)
BA3: 203 (EN)
Total: 481

Applied Science
BA1: 345 (EN)
BA2: 322 (EN)
BA3: 232 (EN)
Total: 899

Total for the four faculties: 2,740 students

In addition, 1,140 students in BA1 took a test that provided them with information on their level in the target language together with suggestions for remedial work.

This means that a grand total of 3,880 students benefited from language courses or from testing + guidance during the academic year 2006-07.

NB.1: As the courses are obligatory all students concerned followed the course and took the end-of-year examination.

NB.2: The decline in student numbers between BA1 and BA2 is a reflection of failure rates. There is no entry examination for university study in Belgium, and failure rates in BA1 are often high, a substantial number of students taking their year again or re-orienting to other disciplines.

3.2 Achievement levels

As already stated, the goals of the Plan Langues were set at B1 minimum in the four skills of reading, listening, writing, and speaking. End-of-year examinations were evaluated on the basis of the CEFR. These results, however, had to be converted into a mark out of 20. In Belgium 12 / 20 is a clear pass; 10 / 20 is a partial pass (10 / 20 offers success in a given course, but an overall average of less than 12 / 20 leads to failure). The results for the four Plan Langues faculties in the June examination session of 2006-07 for BA3 students are as follows in terms of the percentage achieving a mark of 12 / 20. This result indicates that the students in question had achieved a clear B1 level in the four target skills; results of 16-17 / 20 or more indicate achievement levels within the B2 range or, in a limited number of cases, C1.

•    Humanities: 59% (EN), 57% (NL)
•    Psychology: 66%
•    Science: 83%
•    Applied Science: 85%

Success levels vary from one faculty to another, but in all cases over half of the students achieved (or exceeded) the target level of B1.

3.3 Uptake of optional courses

As stated in 1.4, above, access to cost-free remedial courses offered by the Fondation 9 is an integral component of the Plan Langues. Initially, these courses were geared principally to students of the four Plan Langues faculties, and these students still have priority. However, access was also extended to students of other faculties.

In 2006-07 1,401 students attended the remedial courses offered by the Fondation 9. (Provisional estimates for 2007-08 suggest that this number will be over 1,800.) However, of these 1,4001 students enrolled in the Fondation 9 courses, only 467 were from Plan Langues faculties. (This point will be discussed in section 4, Success Factors.)

Furthermore, in 2007-08 a new initiative was launched, namely cost-free and optional Tables de Conversation. These are informal conversation classes animated, in the main, by incoming Erasmus students under the supervision of teaching staff of the Cellule Langues. The languages offered are English, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, German, and French. During this academic year around 50 persons (students and a staff members) attended these courses. Motivational levels were reported to be high, and the initiative will be developed further in the coming academic year.

3.4 Overall evaluation

Further work needs to be done in order to consolidate the gains of the Plan Langues, in particular with respect to achievement levels in certain faculties and the uptake of the remedial courses offered by the Fondation 9. This having been said, a very considerable number of students have received language instruction which they would not previously have had, and a significant number of them have achieved or exceeded the initial achievement target set.

The achievements of the Plan Langues need to be seen within the broader perspective of the language policy initiatives of the ULB. In 2006-07, a total of 3,023 students in non-Plan Langues faculties followed obligatory courses in English, and 1,598 in Dutch (most taking both languages). The launch of the Plan Langues has thus more than doubled the number of ULB students studying one of more languages. Thus out of a total student population of around 19,000 students, the following numbers were actively involved in obligatory and credited language learning in 2006-07:

In addition, 1,401 students availed themselves of optional remedial courses offered by the Fondation 9.



The information given above indicates that the Plan Langues has been a success in terms of both the number of students following language courses, and with respect to achievement levels. Three main factors appear to explain this success

4.1 The obligatory nature of the Plan langues courses

The ECTS credited Plan Langues courses are obligatory and constitute an integral component of the academic programme of the students concerned: success in these courses therefore counts for students’ overall academic success. Although this varies from one faculty to another, presence at language courses is either obligatory or at least strongly encouraged. Although we are here in the domain of speculation, it is unlikely that, without the courses being obligatory, more than a small number of the 2,740 students who followed and completed the language courses set up under the Plan Langues would have undertaken any serious language learning on their own initiative. The obligatory nature of the language courses may thus be considered to be a significant factor contributing to the qualitative success indicators given above.

4.2 The linking of the content of language courses to students’ academic domain

As already stated, while general goals of the Plan Langues are common to all four faculties, the content of the Plan Langues courses is geared around students’ academic programme: teaching materials are thus specific to each faculty. Prior to the launch of the Plan Langues, one option was to offer a single, general purpose course to students of all faculties. This was rejected, and thus faculty-specific courses were developed. Attitudes vary, but at the outset of the Plan Langues doubts were expressed by a significant number of students as to the value of having a language on their academic programme. The pedagogical decision was therefore made to link the content of teaching-learning materials to students’ field of study, essentially for motivational reasons, the hypothesis being made that students would “accept” language learning more easily if the teaching-learning materials used had a clear link to their academic programme.

4.3 Collaboration between language teaching staff and faculty

The integration of language learning into their academic programme was a novelty for many students in the Plan Langues faculties. Furthermore, not all faculty members were convinced of the relevance of language study. This means that a considerable effort had to be made in terms of advocacy for the role of languages among both students and faculty. In this respect, the support and collaboration of faculty management and staff has revealed itself to be a crucial success factor. This has taken a variety of forms, and differs from one faculty to another – explicit emphasis on the role of languages provided by deans of faculty or other academic staff, inclusion of obligatory L2 reading materials, lectures given in the L2, etc. Indeed, ULB students develop a strong “faculty identity” and messages from faculties (whether explicit or implicit) supportive to the Plan Langues and to the language teaching staff play a crucial role in the success of the initiative.

4.4 Challenges

Despite the successes identified in section 3, the anchoring of the Plan Langues varies from one faculty to another, and a number of challenges have had to be faced.

Addressing and finding answers to these challenges is an ongoing process. At the time of writing, the ULB is moving towards the end of the third year of the Plan Langues. The language teaching staff are engaged in an ongoing process of pedagogical adaptation of their courses. Efforts are also being made to establish closer links between the language teaching staff and the client faculties with a view to addressing the challenges outlined above. Furthermore, there is increasing awareness of the need to engage students in a more personally meaningful and better informed interaction with their language learning.


5.1 Lessons to be learned at institutional level

The Plan Langues is only in its third year of existence, and involves an ongoing dynamic of experimentation, evaluation, and revision. Certain lessons may, however, be learned at institutional level.

5.1.1 The importance of faculty support

In view of ULB students’ strong faculty identity, the integration of languages into students’ academic programme calls for strong faculty support. This is most evident in terms of the message that “languages count”. Ongoing advocacy as to the role of languages at faculty level is thus crucial: in this respect dialogue and collaboration between language teaching staff and faculty members plays a key role.

5.1.2 The obligatory nature of language learning

One ongoing question in the language policy field is whether languages should be made obligatory or offered on the basis of free choice (albeit within a broader framework of options). Within the context of the ULB, as a result of students’ heavy timetables, as well as a somewhat unstable awareness of the role of languages in their overall academic training, the obligation to study a language would seem to be essential. Without this obligation, there would be a distinct risk that few students would make the necessary investment in language learning. Making language optional might lead to an enhanced qualitative involvement in language learning. It would, however, be a risky option at the current point in time.

5.1.3 Linking of language learning to students’ mainstream academic programme

Most students (not surprisingly) accord primary importance to the content of their academic programme, and may not always perceive the relevance of language learning. As already indicated, tat the launch of the Plan Langues, the decision was made to gear the content of teaching-learning materials around students’ academic programmes. (This is the case in the other language teaching programmes in existence at the ULB, too.) Clearly, there are objective gains in linking language learning with students’ mainstream academic programme. Within the context of the Plan Langues, however, this linking may be seen as crucial in motivational terms. Tensions persist, however. Many students have a very short-term perspective on languages, looking for immediate help with, for example, the reading of highly specialised material in their academic field. The role of languages as part of their broader academic and professional training is not immediately apparent to a good number of students, though this varies among individuals and also from one faculty to another. The decision as to whether to link of the content of teaching-learning materials to students’ academic domain has an objective dimension in terms of how the ultimate goals of their academic programme, including the place of language skills, are defined. In the context of the Plan Langues, however, it would appear to be a key success factor in motivational terms.

5.2 Broader implications

Perhaps the most important single factor to be derived from the present case study is the need to gear policies, practices, and initiatives to the specificities of the target population. Towards the end of the third year of the Plan Langues, it has emerged very clearly that the student populations of the four faculties concerned differ from one another in a significant number of ways, even if common points do exist. As emerged from the project European Network for the Promotion of Language Learning among all Undergraduates (ENLU ), there is no one-size-fits-all strategy in the language field. The following specific points seem to merit consideration.

5.2.1 Attitudes to language learning

Although there is a generally open attitude to language learning among French-speaking Belgian students, it is by no means certain that many would have taken up the study of a language were it not an obligatory component of their academic programme. In the target context, making languages obligatory therefore seems essential, at the current point in time at least. This may of course vary from one context to another, but evaluating the spontaneous awareness of students with respect to the added value of language skills, and their willingness to undertake language learning on their own initiative, would seem to be a crucial factor.

Questions as to students’ awareness of the nature of language learning may also merit exploration. Students’ involvement in and what they are likely to derive from the various language learning opportunities they are offered is likely to depend on their understanding of the processes of language learning. Awareness raising and learner training may thus also merit consideration as components of a broader language initiative.

5.2.2 Linking (or not) language learning to students’ academic programme

This is clearly a choice. In the target context, the linking of the content of language courses to students’ academic specialisation was a key success factor. This reflects the students’ instrumental and often short-term approach to language learning – if they could not see a fairly direct link between the target language and their academic programme, motivational levels would probably decline. In other contexts, students might well be willing to accept (or might even prefer) a more general purpose approach. Here, too, close consideration of participants’ attitudes to language learning is crucial. In this respect, we are firmly in the domain of perceptions or subjective realities rather than more objective criteria relating to the ultimate goals of students’ academic programme.

5.2.3 Language learning as an expression of an institutional “vision”

Students’ motivation for and active involvement in language learning is likely to reflect the overall “vision” or mission statement of their institution – the institution as a whole or potentially their administrative unit / faculty. In this respect, the presence of a clear institutional / faculty stance on the added value of language skills is of fundamental importance. In this respect, institutions / faculties need to be attentive to their real commitment to the goals of the Bologna Process, and the implications which these have in terms of the language skills of their students.

5.2.4 Initiating a virtuous cycle

Where language learning is not the norm at a given point in time, action is needed to initiate enhanced awareness and action. The Plan Langues, despite the difficulties which surrounded its adoption, has served such a purpose. Since its launch other initiatives have emerged, even if they are not directly linked to the Plan Langues as such. The question is thus how best to initiate reflection on and action in the field of languages. The Plan Langues involves action within the curriculum. In other contexts, alternative strategies may be more effective. A lucid evaluation of context would thus appear to be a crucial first step in launching a language initiative. The question would thus seem to be how best to initiate a virtuous cycle of language learning, even if the specific strategies adopted are likely to very from one context to another.

5.2.5 Initiating and maintaining motivation

As the mainstream literature on motivation in language learning indicates, initiating motivation is one thing, but measures also need to be set in place to maintain motivation. The language teaching team responsible for the Plan Langues has thus been involved in a wide range of actions geared to adapting teaching-learning procedures to the specificities of the target populations, and engaging a dialogue with client faculties as well as with the students themselves. A language policy initiative needs therefore to be planned over the long term, with scope for ongoing dialogue with participants and potential revision of the specific strategies and practices adopted. It would therefore seem advisable to establish procedures for the ongoing evaluation of any language initiative.