Ab initio language teaching in Scottish universities

Authors: David Bowker and Susan Stuart


This paper is based on a research project which reviewed the provision and operation of a range of ab initio language courses in Scottish universities. Questionnaires and semi-structured interviews helped sketch a picture of the Scottish situation. It was found that the current provision demonstrates a number of features highlighted in earlier UK research and that it is possible for students who start as beginners to exit as successful Honours graduates in the language. It may be, however, that the success of these students depends on a curriculum that is not appropriate for all students who take an ab initio course.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Navigating the new landscape for languages conference (www.llas.ac.uk/navlang), 30 June - 1 July 2004.

1. Details of the project

Reports by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE 1996) and the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC 1997, 1998) in the 1990s made some generally positive reference to beginners language courses and there have been a few published case studies (Bayley 1992; Baumann 1999; Proudfoot 1998). The trend away from traditional language degrees towards joint degrees and more study from ab initio has been widely remarked (Bayley 1992; Kelly and Jones 2003).

The main focus of our project was on ab initio provision where there was a possible route from the beginners class into the 'mainstream', from which students may progress into a final Honours class in the language. By 'mainstream' we understood that pathway followed by students who embarked on their university study of a language having achieved a (Scottish) Higher or A-level in the language. We looked at how the ex-beginners were integrated and how successful they were perceived to be. The information gathered related to the academic year 2002-2003.

Our first sources of information were university prospectuses and websites and from these we discovered which languages were taught in which institutions. Having identified relevant staff, that is, those in charge of ab initio provision we devised and sent out a questionnaire. We received 31 completed questionnaires, representing 42 language courses in 11 institutions. We followed these up with 13 semi-structured interviews. All of our evidence came from lecturers; we did not speak to students.

Our study was limited to Scottish universities: in Scotland there are four ancient, four 1960s and five new universities. All but one of these institutions offer beginners' language classes in a number of languages including the following: French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Scottish Gaelic, Czech, Polish, Japanese, Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese and Scandinavian languages. Highers, the Scottish examinations taken after five or six years of secondary education, are offered in the first six languages listed.

We found diverse 'rules' about who was allowed to join these courses: in some cases entry to ab initio classes was limited to those stating a desire to progress to a degree in the language; sometimes a history of successful foreign language learning was said to be required, but in fact the approach was usually quite flexible. There was also a concern not to allow students with prior qualifications in the language to gain credits too easily. In general, however, it was easy to access these courses, and the Scottish system which in most cases offers faculty entry rather than entry to a particular course, facilitated the study of a new language as a third or fourth subject in the first year. These courses were popular, and no coordinators felt that their courses were threatened by lack of student numbers. In fact teaching resources were often stretched and there was little need to make any effort to attract students. The largest cohort in the first year taking these classes was 200, the smallest 11.

There were usually between 3 and 6 hours of language tuition a week in the first year, sometimes supplemented by background lectures in English on history or literature. These beginner students joined those who had entered University with a qualification in the language after 2, 3 or 4 semesters and a variety of special arrangements was in place to support these students when they joined the mainstream. There was a focus on preparing students for further study in the language, possibly (and in some cases this was openly acknowledged) at the expense of the (majority of) students who studied the language for one year only. A good grasp of grammar was considered to be a key factor in facilitating good progress, and often at a later stage distinguished the ab initio students from those who had studied the language at school. Nevertheless most respondents claimed that they made frequent use of communicative activities. Most first year courses had mixed content and included all skills, though at the extremes there were classes which consisted mainly of grammar and those which were largely devoted to fluency activities (where the students were expected to acquire the grammar independently).

2. Findings and Conclusion

We found that the teachers were often well qualified, with significant teaching experience, and that in some cases senior members of staff taught beginners classes themselves. The status of the teachers covered a wide range and included (senior) lecturers, teaching fellows, hourly paid lecturers, language assistants and post-graduate students. About half were native speakers and a third had a formal qualification in language teaching. Teaching these courses was considered to be enjoyable and rewarding.

To what extent is this provision a success? From the point of view of the departments it is highly successful. The student numbers in year one make a significant and welcome contribution to viability of the language and provide a useful additional source of Honours students. It also widens access, in particular in the case of less taught languages. Many ab initio students make excellent progress, particularly in grammar, and are often considered to be at least as, or more competent than students who have a school qualification.

Their success is attributed to strong motivation and the fact that they are a self-selected group. Lecturers also believe that they have responded well to (their) good teaching; some suggest that qualified students have not had appropriate teaching in school. The role of the year abroad is also recognised as a great equaliser. The ex ab initio students who go as far as the Honours class do on average as well as the others.

It is acknowledged by the teachers, however, that this success comes at a price: the courses are designed as an access route for those who will continue with their study of the language, despite the fact that these are in most cases a minority of the cohort.

There is an apparently irresolvable tension in the provision under current structures. Providers want to maximise student numbers in order to develop or sustain provision in their subject area. This fits well with an inclusion agenda which favours broadening opportunities. The desire to draw students into the Honours classes, however, leads to the development of a curriculum which is designed particularly with the needs of those students in mind. This partially concealed exclusive approach may lead to a less satisfactory learning experience for those students who are not talented linguists or whose main interests lie elsewhere.


Baumann, U. (1999) 'Ab initio vs A-level students of German: how does their performance compare?' Language Learning Journal 20: 8-14

Bayley, S. (1992) 'European Languages in British Universities: adjusting to the enterprise culture .' Language Learning Journal 6: 30-35

HEFCE (1996) Subject Overview Report: Quality Assessment of Iberian Languages

HEFCE QO 5/96 (www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/hefce )

Kelly, M. and D. Jones (1992) A new landscape for languages Nuffield Foundation

Proudfoot, A. (1998) 'From the cradle to the grave: the changing profile of Italian language learners'. Tuttitalia 17: 23-27.

SHEFC (1997) Reports of a Quality Assessment in French Studies SHEFC (www.shefc.ac.uk/publications)

SHEFC (1998) Reports of a Quality Assessment in European Languages SHEFC (www.shefc.ac.uk/publications)