Achilleas Kostoulas

Applied Linguistics & Language Teacher Education

Language Policy in Higher Education

For the most part, my professional background has been about teaching English. It may therefore seem counterintuitive that I would become involved in a language education project that explicitly excludes English. The Apprentisage des langues MoDiMEs dans une Europe plurielle (ALaModE) [1] project focuses on languages that are in danger of being marginalised by the global spread of English.

What I want to do in this post is share some information about the project and how it has been developing so far. Specifically, I would like to discuss what makes the study of less-widely-used [2] languages important. Following that, I would like to share how we are attempting to understand, and eventually challenge, asymmetries in language education policies. Also, and most importantly, I would like to invite anyone interested to join us in a workshop that will discuss the role of less-widely-used languages in higher education (scroll to bottom of the post for more details).

Thinking about less widely used languages

It may seem like the study of less widely used languages is the domain of enthusiasts, perhaps with a quaint affinity for tradition and folklore. What I would like to put forward, however, is that there are commonalities across such languages, and that these commonalities suggest a need for a more comprehensive approach to their study. Whether we focus on the situation of Cornish in the British Isles, Basque in the Iberian Peninsula, or Pomak in the Rhodhopi mountain range between Bulgaria and Greece, all these languages are subject to the same kinds of pressures: e.g., common discourses about their value in a global economy, similar concerns about their fit with national narratives, comparable lack of resources, and so on.  

To me, this suggests that, in addition to the worthwhile efforts that are underway to document and preserve these languages, there is also a clear need to understand the common processes that make a language less-widely-used. Some of the questions that could usefully guide language policy include:

  • How do we define less-widely-used languages?
  • What are the reasons why some languages are more salient than others in language policy?
  • What are the processes that lead to a language becoming marginalized?
  • What are some ways to challenge the processes of marginalisation?

The ALaModE project cannot aspire to provide conclusive answers to these questions. However, what we do aspire to achieve is to initiate a systematic problematization of such questions, and perhaps offer some examples of ways in which they can be answered. By drawing attention to the processes that shape decision-making in language policy, we want to especially challenge the view that the marginalization of less-widely-spoken languages is natural and/or inevitable.

You can read more about the project below, and in the project homepage (TBC).

Mapping language policies in Higher Education

As a first step towards problematizing the place of less-widely-used languages, we are in the process of tracing the language policies that are in place in Higher Education across Europe.

What makes a university a suitable site to study language policy?

Although universities are not always typical of language use across a country, there are several reasons why we felt that an empirical investigation of language policies in higher education might be theoretically productive.

For one, universities can be very linguistically diverse, in that they attract students and scholars from diverse geographical backgrounds. At the same time, they are places of contestation between the native and standard languages, as well as English as a global lingua academica.

Also, universities are likely to reflect the aspirations of the communities they serve: in some ways, their language policies model the ‘ideal identity’ a community views in itself.

Perhaps most importantly, though, universities can be powerful agents of policy maintenance or change, both because of the prestige associated with academia and because of the potential to shape the ideologies of future generations.

Taken together, all the above considerations led us to believe that the study of language policies in Higher Education would provide us with more direct access to the processes of language marginalization and spread.

Creating a questionnaire to document language policy

As a first step towards the study of language policies in higher education, we created a questionnaire that could be used to document beliefs, goals, and practices in specific universities. A first draft of the questionnaire was created during a workshop that took place at the University of Poitiers in November 2022. The questionnaire, which was drafted in English for reasons of convenience, was then distributed across the consortium of participating members for feedback, and subsequently revised in light of comments received.

A revised version of the questionnaire (‘ALaModE’ template questionnaire’) was then sent to all the participants in December 2022 for translation, localization, and piloting. Translating the questionnaire to local languages was a policy decision consistent with the aims of the project. The localization involved tailoring the questionnaire to the particularities of the local linguistic ecologies. For example, questions about the role of ‘regional’ languages were expected to be more relevant to countries with autonomous regions (e.g., Spain), but could perhaps be removed in countries with more homogeneous administrative structures.

The piloting phase involved generating an empirical description of the consortium members’ home universities. This empirical work was expected to have three main outcomes. The most obvious of these outcomes would be to document, in a series of case studies, how different universities located in diverse geographical settings, approached the question of language policies. From a methodological perspective, engaging with real-world data was expected to further refine the questionnaire, before it was made available for wider use.[3] Lastly, it was hoped that the case studies would lead to actionable suggestions about increasing the visibility of less-widely-used languages, and to discovering affordances for cooperation.  

The Workshop

The findings of the case studies will be shared in an online workshop that will take place on 24th April 2023 (9:00-15:30 CEST), while the case studies themselves will appear in a special issue of the Revue du Centre Européen d’Etudes Slaves.

Workshop programme

How to join

We would be delighted if you were able to join us at the workshop. If you are interested in taking part, please follow the link below.


[1] Learning less-widely-used languages in a plural Europe.

[2] Less-widely-used? Less-widely-spoken? Less-widely-diffused? I admit to struggling with the translation of the French acronym MoDIMEs (moins Diffusées et moins Enseignées).

[3] We hope to make the parallel versions of the questionnaire available to researchers in multiple languages.





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