The Languages of the Wider World CETL

Author: Cristina Ros i Solé


The Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL), Languages of the Wider World (LWW) is hosted jointly by the School for African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) and University College London (UCL). Funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), it was set up in 2005 and is one of only two CETLs in the UK devoted to language learning and teaching and learning.

Table of contents

The SOAS-UCL Centre of Excellence in the Teaching and Learning of Languages of the Wider World is a HEFCE-funded collaboration between SOAS and UCL. It was set up in 2005 as one of the only two CETLs in the UK devoted to language learning and teaching. Its aim is to promote and support excellence in the teaching and learning of languages that do not have a large presence in UK HE, i.e.: the languages of the Middle East, Africa, Asia, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Russia. Between the different departments at UCL and SOAS, the LWW-CETL supports the teaching and learning of 70 different languages, from Afrikaans to Zulu. The LWW-CETL builds on the expertise of the language departments of UCL and SOAS by raising the national and international profile of academic activities devoted to these languages, developing and evaluating curriculums, learning materials, encouraging pedagogical reflection and research and disseminating good practice.

With London's plurality of languages and cultures, the Languages of the Wider CETL could not have a better home. London, according to a report by CiLT (2005), is one of the most multilingual capitals in the world with over 300 languages being spoken, the majority of which are Community Languages. Despite this, the most commonly taught languages in the capital and at UK universities are not the ones most widely spoken in the Community (e.g. Urdu, Turkish, Chinese, Bengali or Arabic), but the ones spoken in Europe such as French, Spanish German, Italian; as well as Slavonic languages and English (LLAS 2001). Moreover, until quite recently, the focus of Community Languages teaching has been located in the voluntary sector or in Complementary schools rather than in the University Sector.

One of the main objectives of the LWW-CETL is to increase the number of students taking these languages in Higher Education as well as to improve its resources and build on existing expertise within both institutions. As the original bid document states, 'the establishment of this CETL will signal the UK HE sector is committed to achieving well-resourced excellence in the teaching and learning of all languages' (Hutt et al. 2005) and to build on its expertise. This excellence already has a wide basis to start from: the provision of Languages of the Wider World at SOAS and UCL includes over 200 full and part-time teachers, over 1000 degree students and over 4000 other learners of languages (ibid).

There are different ways in which languages are provided at both SOAS and UCL. In both institutions languages can be studied in different formats and part of different types of qualifications whether credit bearing or not. They can be studied as whole or part of undergraduate degrees. Currently, SOAS offers single degrees in not only the 'major' languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Arabic, but also in Hindi, Thai, Korean, Persian, Turkish and Indonesian/Malay. Languages such as Burmese, Georgian, Hausa, Hebrew, Nepali, Sanskrit, Swahili, Tibetan, Urdu and Vietnamese are also offered as part of a two subject degree of a Humanities or Social Sciences subject. At UCL, Languages of the Wider World are studied in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, which includes the departments of Jewish and Hebrew Studies, Scandinavian Studies, the Dutch department and the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES). These degree programmes include both language learning modules and courses on the history, society and culture of the relevant countries programmes (Hutt et al. 2005).

In addition, the Language Centres both at UCL and SOAS offer a range of these languages to non-degree students. There also are postgraduate MA degrees which focus wholly on Language, Literature and Culture (e.g. MA Chinese Literature, MA Arabic Literature; MA in Scandinavian Studies, Low Countries and Modern Israel). Additionally, SSEES offers eleven languages at beginners' level for reading skills as well as Intermediate and Advanced Russian as part of its multidisciplinary MA.

Why Languages of the Wider World?

Over the years, there have been many labels used to address less commonly taught languages and Languages of the Wider World. These include languages known as 'Community Languages' (LLAS 2001) or otherwise called 'Heritage Languages' (e.g. Creese et al 2006, Lee 2005), such as Turkish and Somali in London. These languages, however, have more often been identified with the voluntary sector than with academic institutions (LLAS 2001). Another group of languages that the LWW-CETL covers within its umbrella term are 'smaller' languages, in terms of number of speakers in the world, such as Icelandic or Estonian, or in terms of how often they are taught in the UK, such as Yoruba and Bulgarian. The Languages of the Wider World, however, are not necessarily languages that have a small presence in the global economy or politics; in fact, some of these languages are now referred to as 'strategic' languages, e.g. languages of strategic importance for economic or political reasons (Hutt et al. 2005), such as Arabic or Chinese.

The status and popularity of Languages of the Wider World is growing at a fast speed. A recent example is the government's increasing interest in promoting the studying of some of the 'world' languages such as Chinese, Arabic and Urdu (Dearing 2006, BBC 2007). Additionally, the recent investment of the government in two UK-wide language programmes testifies to this. One of these is the language programme Routes into Languages funded by HEFCE and developed by the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies (LLAS), the University Council of Modern Languages (UCML), the HE Academy Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies (LLAS) and CILT, the National Centre for Languages which has injected 4.5 million into language teaching to enthuse people about learning languages in higher education. Another, is the 25 million funding awarded to five collaborative centres in language-based Area Studies under a joint initiative between the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) which has provided renewed impetus for the support and promotion of the study of China, Japan, Eastern Europe and Arabic speaking world (HEFCE, 2006).

Indeed, the history of Languages of the Wider World teaching is one which reflects government's interests, such as international relations and developments. The collapse of the Soviet Union and communism in Eastern European countries in the late 80s and early 90s generated interest and funding in the teaching of Eastern European and Slavonic languages (Blazyca 2002, Aizlewood 2003). Equally, the importance of understanding particular colonised regions, such as is the case in African languages, has in the past also prompted the setting up of courses in these languages (Jaggar, 2003). More recently, the rising interest in these languages may be due to the interest in the UK's rising immigration and diaspora community (Arora, 2005; Dearing 2006).

It is timely then that the Languages of the Wider World were brought together under one umbrella where the wealth of expertise and innovation in many different languages and cultures could be concentrated in one place. In this way, the LWW-CETL provides a platform where cross-fertilisation of ideas and dissemination of good practice and a focus for experimenting with new resources, methodologies and pedagogies of these languages can take place.

The LWW-CETL themes

The LWW-CETL focuses on four main themes: Materials and Curriculum Development, Learner and Teacher Training, Dissemination and Outreach and Reflection and Research.

Materials and curriculum development

One of the biggest challenges for the teaching of LWW is the lack of language teaching resources available. The LWW-CETL is addressing this need by funding the development of language materials and the revision and creation of new curricula in these languages. The LWW-CETL is currently funding projects in at least 34 different languages. Some of these projects are focused on the development of materials for self-access, whereas others provide new materials for using in the language classroom. One of the flagship projects is a Virtual language learning environment in Dutch (Virtual Department of Dutch, which is now being expanded and transferred into languages such as Zulu.

A small group of languages are developing self-access materials using the Multimedia Authoring for Language Tutors and Educational Development (MALTED) authoring system developed by the UCL Language centre (e.g. Shona). Other self-access materials are being developed for Japanese, Czech and Polish. Moreover, the LWW-CETL is funding the production of listening materials in Indonesian, Bengali, Yoruba, Tigrinya, Baluchi and Romanian.

Teacher and learner training

Another important area that the CETL is developing is teacher and learner training. For example, the creation of a web portal for language teachers to access on-line resources and the setting up of a project that encourages pedagogical discussions and support amongst language teaching staff are some of the current projects funded by the CETL.

Additionally, the CETL runs in-session training workshops ( for both learners and teachers. These are among the activities provided for the learner through the teaching of generic language learning skills for students embarking on the study of a new language or wanting to recycle their language learning skills.

Plans for the future include the creation of an accredited Masters degree in teacher training for LWW for Higher Education, Secondary and Community teachers.

Research and reflection

Another key area of the LWW-CETL is the promotion and coordination of research in LWW, aiming to bridge the gap between pedagogical research and classroom practice. One of the main focuses is to address the challenges posed by LWW pedagogies, and to identify the specific pedagogical needs of these languages. To this end, a questionnaire for teachers has been designed which aims to identify the innovation, good practice and training needs of LWW. The questionnaire has been distributed to over 150 teachers at both institutions and will be followed by a series of interviews. Moreover, different aspects are being addressed by various projects conducted by different languages at UCL and SOAS such as: do cultural aspects of the language and ICC need to be taught differently?; How can non-roman scripts be taught and how it affects the teaching of the writing skill?; How are technologies and blended environments used in the teaching of LWW?; What are the motivations and learning needs of LWW learners?

The languages in under the umbrella of the LWW-CETL have a very different profile from languages in more traditional language departments such as French, German and Spanish. These are languages with different linguistic characteristics which not only come from different language families but they also span a variety of sociolinguistic situations. The teaching of culture and intercultural competence in the context of these languages presents new challenges for language teaching pedagogy. One of the research projects funded by the LWW-CETL is currently creating a pilot project for a course in intercultural competence for teachers from the perspective of Dutch language teaching.

Another important issue that many teachers of LWW have to address is the teaching of different scripts. As Bassetti (2006) has pointed out, learning a new script (on top of a new writing system) adds new skills to the task of learning a new language. Russian, Urdu, Chinese, Panjabi, Arabic, Hindi, all use different symbols than the ones used in the roman script. Thus, these languages can offer innovative methodologies and techniques that address this particular challenge when teaching writing.

Learning a new script requires, among other things, learning a new way of handwriting: different ways of holding the writing instrument, of drawing graphemes (which lines are drawn first, how loops are drawn), of joining graphemes together, etc.
(Bassetti, 2006)

As some teachers commented when asked what the greatest challenge of teaching their language was in our teachers' questionnaire:

Chinese characters are far too difficult for most learners (and the native Chinese children as well) - I try to separate reading (recognition) and character writing (...)

Cuneiform script; I recommend (very traditional) methods of learning a great number of fairly abstract signs. Reading from original script (not transliterations) is introduced early on.

One of the projects funded by the LWW-CETL is currently looking at the teaching of writing in Russian with the aid of new technology such as electronic white-boards.

As well as looking at specific areas of language teaching and learning, the LWW-CETL has funded a number of language learning facilities at both SOAS and UCL in which research on the use of these technologies for language learning is facilitated and encouraged. These new learning environments are designed to foster experimentation and integration of new technologies with more traditional classroom practices. Both language learners and teachers can use these stimulating spaces to try out their ideas and experiment with new approaches and techniques.

The language spaces aim to provide a blended language learning environment which takes into consideration context in learning by emphasising interaction amongst learners as well as providing a space for creativity. These spaces are equipped with state-of-the-art technology which include PCs with headsets, audio-visual facilities and interactive whiteboards. Some of the software provided in these language spaces includes multimedia editing software, such as audacity, irfanview, Sanako and Melissi synchronising technologies and itunes, as well as authoring packages such as Hot Potatoes and MALTED for creating tailor made digital courses. Several training sessions for both learners and teachers are hosted in the different language spaces. To this end, one of the projects funded by the CETL is investigating the 'Building of classroom environments for innovation and research in language learning'. This project builds on findings from the use of a shared text editor in Russian writing classes (Hughes & Buravova 2001).

Finally, an important area to be investigated in the context of LWW is learner motivation and needs, so that language programmes and syllabi, teaching methodologies and language materials respond to students' profiles and the purposes they want to put languages to. The investigation of the needs and motivations of learners of LWW is one of the major areas of enquiry of the LWW-CETL, in particular the group of learners called 'Heritage language speakers'.

Two projects have been funded so far to pursue this topic. The first was a seminar entitled 'Community Language Education in Practice' which took place in November 2006. This provided a forum in which language professionals and learners of community languages explored ways in which community-led initiatives could be supported by and extended into mainstream schools, further and higher education. The focus of the workshop-seminar was also to identify research areas and future collaboration in the teaching of community languages. The second is a larger scale project on the needs and motivations of Heritage Language Speakers. This project explores the specific needs of four ethnolinguistic communities in London: the Gujarati, Turkish, Polish and Latvian. This is based on a qualitative study using in-depth interviews and some questionnaire data.

Other activities and projects that the Centre is undertaking provide a focus for discussing topics of language pedagogy of relevance to LWW through the organisation of the LWW-CETL Seminar Series ( The LWW-CETL seminar series provides a forum for researchers, teachers and students interested in issues raised by the teaching and learning of Languages of the Wider World. Speakers come from a range of disciplines, from education, linguistics, distance language learning and applied linguistics to broadcasting, and are involved in different aspects of the teaching, disseminating and researching of these languages. The seminars focus on how different theoretical disciplines inform Languages of the Wider World pedagogies and on how innovative teaching practices can provide new insights into language learning. Some of the topics that this seminar series has addressed so far are: multi-competence and heritage language speakers' identity, motivation, intercultural competence, and on-line environments for language learning.

Finally, one of the key objectives of the CETL is to disseminate its work to other institutions and to do outreach work to schools and other educational sectors. The LWW-CETL is pursuing this within and across institutions (UCL and SOAS) through meetings, technical and pedagogical workshops and research seminars. The LWW-CETL also holds annual internal conferences where the results of the various funded projects are presented and discussed and we will be planning an external conference in the near future.

Dissemination outside both universities takes place through the organisation of workshops and seminars open to the wider public (such as the Seminar Series and the London Community Languages Seminar organised in 2006). The LWW-CETL also regularly attends national meetings and international conferences where the work of the CETL is disseminated.


Many thanks to Jane Fenoulhet and Robin Aizlewood for their very useful comments on a draft of this paper.


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Related links

Languages of the Wider World-CETL website

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