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Finding strength in diversity

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Melanie Butler asks Cambridge English’s Esther G. Eugenio about her new role leading a large-scale study for the European Commission comparing national language tests 

Please tell us about your background and what you are doing now.
I’m from northern Spain, and studied translation and interpreting in Salamanca before moving into language education. When I was at university I taught in Salamanca and Valladolid, which gave me a really strong foundation for what was to come. I’ve also taught in schools around other parts of Europe. At the moment I’m just finishing a PhD in language pedagogy, focusing on multilingualism and the teaching and learning of third languages. For the last year I’ve been based in Cambridge, as part of the secretariat of the Association of Language Testers in Europe (Alte). So, this project is a really exciting one for me as it is really close to my professional and personal interests.


You are to be the project manager on a new five-month European Commission project to compare national language examinations across the member states. What kind of language are you covering?


We’ll be focusing on foreign languages at lower secondary and higher secondary levels within national systems. So for the study we’re planning to cover the foreign languages that are taken by more than 10 per cent of pupils in each country. Look out for English, French, German and Spanish, and we expect to be covering some of the less obvious ones such as Dutch, Russian, Swedish and maybe other languages as well. We won’t be looking at community or regional languages as these raise very different issues, not least because they are very likely to be the first language or the medium of instruction for many of the learners.


It sounds like a monster project – sort of a Bologna process for languages. What is the first step you need to take?


It’s a big project, but a finite one. We’ve now assembled a really experienced team, and our first step is to get a really clear picture of language exams across Europe. This involves working with ministries of education to make sure that we have an accurate, up-to-date understanding of how their language education systems really work and the role that examinations play within the language learning and teaching process. We’ll then be gathering and analysing the vast amount of data that these systems generate, so that we can develop a standard approach to evaluating and comparing them.


Clearly your job is to manage the project, not to complete it singlehandedly. What can you tell us about the team you are going to work with?


Fortunately, I’m working with a really experienced team including Neil Jones, who was project director for the European Survey on Language Competences programme a couple of years ago, and Nick Saville, director of research and validation at Cambridge English, as well as Kasia Vazquez, who has a background in working on EU programmes in her native Poland. Kasia has been very involved with our work with the ministry of education in Portugal, where we are assessing the level of English of every student in their final year of education. We’ll also be working very closely with the European Commission’s directorate general for education and culture and with specialists in country, many of whom were involved in the European Survey on Language Competences project.


I can hear language teachers all over Europe groaning that we are talking about language tests again and that learning is not all about tests. How would you reassure them?


I strongly believe language tests should be seen as a tool for enhancing learning, not as an end in themselves. Language tests do not exist in isolation, and what is tested and how it is tested usually reflect the way language learning and needs are understood. For this reason, we will be looking at the broader language education contexts in which these examinations have been established, and how well they match the communicative skills specified by the Common European Framework of Reference. In this sense it builds very much on the European Survey on Language Competences approach and the concept of learning-oriented assessment to help improve both the level and the relevance of language learning.


I can also hear teachers complaining that it will end up being all about English language qualifications because of the breadth of take-up of the language across Europe. How can the project avoid this pitfall?


Of course, English is by far the most widely taught, used and demanded language, so there will naturally be a strong focus on English, but the project is based around the Barcelona objectives of L1 + 2, and we will also be looking at qualifications in the second foreign languages in each country, so this is very much about supporting multilingualism, not just English.


From what you understand of the European Commission’s policy, what is the main question they are seeking to answer with this project?


Last May the EU Council asked the commission to look at ways in which existing data – data which is already collected within national education systems – could be used to compare language proficiency across Europe as a basis for improving language learning. So I think they’ll be looking to this project for an indication of how comparable the existing systems are and how they can be made both more directly comparable, using the CEFR, and more effective in delivering positive learning outcomes for all learners.


From your own professional point of view, what is the most important question you would like to see answered?


I’m really keen to see how much variation there is across Europe, and how this diversity can be used as a strength. If we can create an approach which helps teachers to understand where their pupils really are in international terms, then I think we will have made a significant contribution to language education across Europe. It is this finding and sharing of best practice that will really make a difference to language learning.

BEST PRACTICE Esther G. Eugenio says the new study aims to raise the standard of language learning across Europe (Courtesy Cambridge English)