Language learning


Language learning is broadly defined as developing the ability to communicate in the second / foreign language, and in this context includes:

  • Language learning for specialists. This includes programmes which not only teach language but also a variety of subject ‘content’ related to language such as literature, culture, history and politics at BA or MA level. This also covers programmes and courses involving the teaching of translating and interpreting.
  • Language learning for non‐specialists or service languages. This includes language teaching options which are available to all interested students, some of which may have a focus on specific topics (e.g. German for Law) or on the enhancement of selected skills (e.g. effective speaking skills). Also included are programmes in which language is a minor part and predominately relates to the learning of language skills rather than related ‘content’ studies, as outlined above (language learning for specialists). This type of language learning is often offered under an Institution Wide Language Programme (IWLP).
  • Languages for instruction (including the teaching of the language/s of a host university to non‐native speakers), where the target language is normally used as the language of instruction. For many institutions in the EU this will often relate to the teaching of courses through the medium of English. This is described more fully in section 2.4 Content and language integrated learning (CLIL).
  • Language learning for social purposes. This includes language learning for mobility or where the local language is taught as a foreign language to incoming students. It also relates to language learning for employability, travel (holidays or living abroad) or for heritage/family reasons. In some cases language learning of this type will take place as part of continuing or adult education delivered by higher education institutions.


Language learning in the European Higher Education Area

Languages are taught in language departments and / or commissioned from external institutions (outsourced). In many universities, language departments or language centres also offer language courses to non‐specialist students. It is common for specialist students to be taught within an academic language department while non‐specialist students are more likely to be taught by language centre staff. It is noticeable that there is often little cooperation between language centres and language departments (providers of the language courses) with the former being seen as providers of language teaching while the latter are often more concerned with the teaching of the literature, culture, history, politics etc. of the target language. However there are examples of institutions in which both providers are co‐located and language teaching across specialists and non‐specialists is delivered by professional language teaching staff, e.g. in some institutions in the UK. Most languages courses are delivered face‐to‐face, in a classroom setting, although blended learning (with e‐learning support) is also becoming quite common. Fully on‐line language courses are a very small minority.


Knowledge, understanding and skills (competences)

Having completed a first cycle higher education programme of language study in higher education, students should have acquired:

  • the ability to use the target language(s) as a medium for understanding, expression and communication
  • explicit knowledge of the language (knowledge of language structures and language systems, awareness of lexico‐grammatical issues)
  • awareness of languages as a means of communication (discourse)
  • awareness of the norms governing the social dimension of languages (sociolinguistic aspects)
  • intercultural awareness and ways of developing experiences which involve exchanges and interaction between different cultural perspectives (see intercultural communication sections)
  • effective language learning strategies
  • an ability to mediate between languages (where translation/interpreting forms part of the curriculum)

Students who have acquired such knowledge and understanding will be expected to demonstrate the capacity for:

  • communication in the target language using the full range of linguistic skills (speaking, reading, writing, listening)
  • appropriate use of the language in a range of contexts and for a range of purposes
  • use of the appropriate metalanguage for linguistic description
  • appropriate use of reference material and other sources e.g. grammars and dictionaries
  • lifelong language learning
  • self‐directed learning (learner autonomy)


Teaching, learning and assessment

Below is a list of some of the common and/or emerging practices in teaching and assessment in languages


“Languages are:

  • a medium of understanding, expression and communication, described here as the use of the target language
  • an object of study in their own right, described as explicit knowledge of language
  • a gateway to relate thematic studies comprising various bodies of knowledge and methodological approaches, described here as knowledge of the cultures, communities and societies where the language is used
  • a means of access to other societies and culture, described here as intercultural awareness and understanding”

Teaching and learning

Currently different approaches to language teaching and learning coexist, ranging from the traditional (teacher‐centred) to the more innovative (use of IT and emphasis on self‐managed learning). Both can be valuable and effective: much depends on the context of the teaching and learning, which is influenced by availability of resources, financial support and opportunities for professional development/training of language teachers.

More traditional (teacher‐centred) approaches: 
Students are less likely to become autonomous learners or to be key players in the construction of their knowledge.

What this means for language learning:


  • focus on formal learning: accuracy is more important than fluency and development of language strategies
  • separate approach to the learning of language skills sometimes resulting in a higher development of receptive language skills compared with productive language skills (e.g. after an extended period of language of tuition a learner may struggle to communicate orally in everyday situations such as on holiday)
  • technology (audio cassettes; DVDs) used as extra support for class teaching or, as in the case of interactive exercises in computer‐based language learning, used for individual training of grammar, vocabulary and listening or reading skills, but not to support interaction
  • learning a foreign language often in a monolingual/monocultural context. Students are less likely to be engaged in mobility or offered opportunities for native speaker interaction
  • a unilingual approach to language learning (unilingual = learning a language as an isolated phenomenon)

More innovative (learner‐centred) approaches: 
Student‐centred methods whereby the student is, for example, encouraged to use research skills to find their own learning material. Integration of independent learning methods whereby self study is combined with taught face‐to‐face courses.

What this means for language learning:

  • use of methods such as the communicative approach to language learning which puts emphasis on practical/functional use of language
  • study abroad programmes which enable the learner to acquire the foreign language in context and which promote the social dimension of language learning
  • self‐assessment methods aligned to learner‐centred instruments such as the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEF), or the European Language Portfolio (ELP) which also support greater learner autonomy and greater comparability of competencies across Europe
  • learning a foreign language in a multilingual/multicultural context using methods such as tandem learning (cross‐cultural and linguistic exchange between native speakers of different target languages)
  • encouragement to make active use of the language at early stages to put emphasis on communication (communicative language learning, see above)
  • supporting the student in identifying his/her preferred learning styles/methods (personalised learning), in progressing at his/her own pace, in developing as a lifelong learner and in acquiring language learning strategies for future learning
  • use of technology to support interaction (e.g. communication/social networking tools (audiovisual or written interaction) or collaborative writing tools such as wikis
  • multilingual approaches whereby students are encouraged to transfer previous language learning knowledge and skills, e.g. identifying links between languages
  • focus on informal aspects of language learning e.g. use of the language outside the classroom in contexts such as Language Cafés, clubs, cultural events etc.
  • collaborative approach to the development and delivery of language courses (e.g. cross‐cultural courses)


The use of assessment by oral and / or written exams, administered by expert language teachers is the predominant form of assessment in languages. Some universities also use language tests provided by external providers, especially with non‐specialist students. There is also some evidence of the use of computer‐based tests. In most universities, exit levels for non‐specialist students have already been defined, or are in the process of being defined according to CEF levels. This is not always the case for specialist students. Some university language centres and language departments use the CEF and CEF‐related instruments, such as the European Language Portfolio (ELP) to achieve transparency and comparability of learning outcomes and to foster autonomous learning and language awareness among learners.