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Who are the Specialists? Teaching and Learning Specialised Language in French Educational Contexts

Quels spécialistes pour quelles langues de spécialité dans l'enseignement secondaire et universitaire en France ?
Shona Whyte


Cette étude interroge la notion de spécialisation dans l'enseignement-apprentissage des langues étrangères en milieu guidé en France. Elle examine les objets et finalités de l'enseignement des langues et de la recherche en didactique des langues, et compare les conceptualisations de la langue et du domaine de spécialisation à travers le prisme de la langue-culture, de la langue de spécialité, puis de l'acquisition des langues secondes en tant que domaines connexes susceptibles de nourrir la réflexion. Après avoir abordé des questions liées à la recherche, à l'enseignement-apprentissage et à la formation des enseignants de langue dans l'enseignement secondaire et à l'université, nous identifions un certain nombre de points d'intersection de ces différentes perspectives. Ces intersections ou invariants touchent au rôle des recherches en acquisition dans la formation des enseignants de langue, au potentiel d'une approche par la tâche pour l'enseignement à la fois en LLCE et en Lansad, et à la dimension interculturelle de l'étude des langues.

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1The goal of this issue of Researching and Teaching Languages for Specific Purposes, to use the English title of the RPPLSP journal, is to examine epistemological, theoretical, and pedagogical dimensions of languages for specific purposes (LSP), and in particular the links between LSP teaching and LSP research. In French higher education, the distinction is traditionally made between language specialists and non-specialists. Specialists are destined to teach modern foreign languages (MFL, or Langues, Littératures et Civilisations Etrangères, LLCE) in secondary schools and higher education. Non-specialists, rechristened specialists of other disciplines (LANgues pour Spécialistes d’Autres Disciplines, Lansad), have instrumental language needs outside language teaching and modern language studies. When discussion turns from language users or scholars to the language itself, however, the dividing line is drawn differently, this time between the general language and its specialised or specific varieties. Now the specialisations are reversed: the language specialists identified earlier study general language, and non-specialists more specialised varieties. The language scholars in LLCE are concerned with the general language, its standard varieties, often its academic, literary, and prestige forms. Meanwhile their Lansad colleagues focus on specialised varieties, perhaps in relation to medicine, law or the sciences. However, yet another distinction is valid here. A third contrast can be made between knowing about a language and its culture, or about a language variety and its speech community, and knowing how speakers come to possess such knowledge: a difference between language appreciation and language acquisition. Language appreciation involves learning about the linguistic structure of the target language, as well as the culture of its speakers and the contexts of its use, be these general or specific cultures and contexts. Language acquisition, on the other hand, is concerned with learning to understand and use the language in communication, in any context. This line therefore separates both LLCE and Lansad scholars from another type of specialist, that is a linguist or language scientist specialising in second language acquisition (SLA) and, by extension, a language educator trained in applying second language research to instructional contexts.

2It is these kinds of distinctions, which, of course, beg the question in the title of the present paper: what kind of specialist is in the spotlight? Is it one specialised in the study of the target language and culture, one specialised in the “specific purpose” for which the language is used, or rather one specialised in the learning (and teaching) of foreign languages? Written in English and drawing to some extent on British and North American perspectives in an attempt to link the French higher education context to current research elsewhere, this paper takes English for specific purposes (ESP) as an example of LSP, and aims to contribute to the debate by examining the intersections of LSP with SLA, applied linguistics approaches to specialised language, and modern language studies. In so doing it seeks to tease out differences between the three approaches to language education, to explore ways in which they influence teaching decisions in different ways (with particular emphasis on the French context), and finally to focus on common ground underlying these perspectives on language education in ways which serve LSP teaching and research interests.

1. Language education in MFL, LSP, and SLA

3The first questions to arise in any attempt to discuss the teaching and learning of a second or foreign language for general or specific purposes are the following: what exactly is being taught and learned, for what purposes and by what means? The next logical concern involves research into these questions, including what has been termed “SoTL”: the scholarship of teaching and learning (Richlin) and research in languages and linguistics. A third issue concerns the relationship between language and content: what kind of balance is achieved between linguistic competence or language proficiency, on one hand, and content knowledge, on the other. What curricular content is involved on each side?

4In the first section of this paper these issues are examined in turn from three perspectives: that of modern language studies or modern foreign languages (MFL), that of LSP as a branch of applied linguistics, and that of SLA. The reader is also referred to a glossary of the main terms used in English and their French equivalents, including acronyms and scope as defined in the major journals, in the appendix to this paper.

1.1. Object and goals

  • 1 International Federation for Modern Languages and Literatures

5Perhaps the most familiar approach to language education in France is the MFL perspective. This approach has historically underpinned the majority of teaching and learning of foreign languages in instructed contexts in both compulsory and tertiary education in Europe. Its object is the language and culture of a given language, since language is seen as an instrument of cultural mediation, and thus inseparable from the historical and cultural context(s) of its speakers. MFL scholars traditionally specialise in specific areas related to a particular aspect of a given language (though interdisciplinary approaches also exist); the umbrella organisation FILLM (Fédération Internationale des Langues et Littératures Modernes)1 defines the field as the scholarly study of
- modern and medieval languages and literatures;
- language and literature as research-based scholarly disciplines in universities and tertiary higher education institutions;
- particular theoretical or methodological approaches to language and literature, […] some particular period of literary or language history, or […] literary movement or grouping, or […] particular author.

6Applied to language education, this approach seeks to expose learners to target language literature, art and history for objectives related to cultural enrichment and perhaps intercultural understanding. From this perspective, the development of language proficiency is a pre-requisite for or indeed a by-product of a broader cultural or liberal arts education.

7Another perspective on language education is both narrower and more practically oriented. In the field of LSP, of which ESP is easily the longest-established, the following definitions are widely accepted:

ESP is an approach to language teaching in which all decisions as to content and method are based on the learner's reason for learning. (Hutchinson and Waters 19)

ESP is defined to meet specific needs of the learner; ESP makes use of the underlying methodology and activities of the discipline it serves; ESP is centred on the language (grammar, lexis, register), skills, discourse and genres appropriate to these activities. (Dudley-Evans and St John 4-5)

8LSP is thus discipline-specific, and rests on the assumption that a linguistic description of particular types of language can be used to inform language education by delimiting and structuring the type of knowledge displayed by speakers of a given variety in a particular context or for a specific objective. Learners generally learn this specialised language by attempting tasks typical of the discipline in the sheltered environment of the classroom.

9A third perspective on language education comes from the field of SLA (Larsen-Freeman and Long, Doughty and Long, Saville-Troike) or second language learning (Mitchell and Myles). This field is variously defined as

(…) the study of individuals and groups who are learning a language subsequent to learning their first one as young children, and to the process of learning that language (…). (Saville-Troike 2)

(…) the learning of any language, to any level, provided only that the learning of the 'second' language takes place some time later than the acquisition of the first language (…). (Mitchell and Myles 5)

(…) basic and applied work on the acquisition and loss of second (third, etc.) languages and dialects by children and adults, learning naturalistically and/or with the aid of formal instruction, as individuals or in groups, in foreign, second language, and lingua franca settings(…). (Doughty and Long 3).

10Seen from this perspective, language - be this a first language (L1) or a second or subsequent language (L2) - is a unique human faculty, perhaps distinct from other cognitive abilities, and certainly a complex, abstract system which in many ways lies beyond the conscious control of speakers (Gass and Mackay).

11SLA is a relatively young field, often dated from Corder (1967) and Selinker (1972), and many aspects of acquisition are still not well understood by researchers (Gass and Mackay 1). SLA specialists believe, however, that language is not generally amenable to explicit teaching and learning and that language education should therefore seek to create conditions for acquisition to occur. Such conditions involve the provision of language input to learners in forms that they can readily comprehend, as well as opportunities both for interaction in the L2 and for reflection on the language in meaningful contexts. The objective of language education, in this view, is to develop linguistic proficiency in the form of L2 communicative competence.

1.2. Scholarship and research

12What of scholarship and research from these three different approaches to language education?

13MFL scholars are generally housed in schools of arts, letters and humanities in universities and higher education institutions, alongside colleagues in history, philosophy and literature, with whom they share both interests and methods of investigation. They aim to advance understanding of aspects of the culture of the target language and its speakers through the study of artefacts like literary productions, history and society, often from a contrastive perspective, which compares native and foreign languages and cultures. Translation is both a means and an object of the study of modern languages in this approach. The objective of teaching is to provide both information and methodological tools to understand and eventually contribute to this body of knowledge, and to further understanding of culture(s) in the broadest sense.

14LSP, in contrast, is situated within the field of applied linguistics, alongside bilingualism and multilingualism, discourse analysis and pragmatics, language planning and policies, and multimodal communication, to name some of a range of language-related disciplines falling within the aims and scope of the journal Applied Linguistics (see glossary). LSP aims to describe native speaker competence (or, more recently English as a lingua franca or ELF usage) as well as textual characteristics of language in a particular domain of application, traditionally disciplines such as law, medicine, business and science, but also even narrower domains. Saville-Troike defines LSP as a specialised form of SLA, stating that

(…) restricted or highly specialized functions for ‘second’ languages are designated language for specific purposes (such as French for Hotel Management, English for Aviation Technology, Spanish for Agriculture, and a host of others), and the learning of these typically focuses only on a narrow set of occupation-specific uses and functions. (Saville-Troike 14, emphasis in original).

15Lest the reader imagine LSP to be an offshoot of SLA, Pica points out that LSP pre-dates SLA and was an early preoccupation of applied linguistics:

Applied linguists have worked on language teaching and learning long before the label “SLA” gained widespread use in the late 1960s, as new theories emerged about language, its acquisition, and use (see, for example, Corder, Ravem, 1968; Selinker). […] In other studies, applied linguists identified language forms and functions across academic, professional, and occupational fields, and used them to construct syllabi for specific purposes and content-based language needs (Munby, 1978; Widdowson, 1978). (Pica 2)

16Researchers in LSP have thus long concentrated on developing tools to advance their understanding of particular language varieties, in recent years drawing for example on corpus linguistics (Boulton et al.). LSP research proposes descriptions of specialised varieties, often contrasted with the general language. Learner needs analysis is at the centre of LSP education and is used to inform the selection and structuring of curricular content. LSP teaching aims to place materials at the disposal of learners to meet their specialised needs in terms of language and content. SLA, on the other hand, can be approached as a branch of either general or applied linguistics. In the former case, SLA is ranked alongside phonology, syntax and semantics, and concerned with the description of the structure and development of L2 competence and use. As noted in the previous section (1.1), SLA is concerned with language (L2) learned after a first or native language (L1), and views learner language, or interlanguage (Selinker), as a natural language distinct from each. SLA research attempts to describe learner varieties and explain development (and ultimate attainment). As a branch of applied linguistics, in contrast, SLA influences language education by the application of SLA research findings to classroom teaching to develop effective methods or materials, for instance. One example is communicative language teaching (CLT) with its emphasis on interpreting, expressing and negotiating meaning (Lee and VanPatten); another is task-based language teaching (TBLT), which involves a similar focus on meaning via particular learning activities (Long “Second Language”, Skehan).

  • 2 See Derivry-Plard for another point of view on these historical developments.

17Two caveats are in order here. The first concerns the purview of applied linguistics as understood in British and North American research compared with France, while the second involves differential uptake of second language research findings in second and foreign language teaching contexts. Both the institutional beginnings of a field called applied linguistics in the middle of the last century, and its initial orientation towards L2 learning and teaching are common to the US, UK, and France (Berthet 84). Indeed, the international association for applied linguistics was founded in 1964 under the title of Association Internationale de Linguistique Appliquée à l'Enseignement des Langues Vivantes, linguistics applied, that is, to the teaching of modern languages (Léon). The eminent British applied linguist Widdowson (“Models”, “On the limitations”) argues for a distinction between an infelicitously restrictive reduction of the field to only those problems which can be solved by addressing purely linguistic aspects, and a more inclusive approach which is “linguistically informed without being linguistically determined” and seeks to “mediate between linguistics and other discourses” (Widdowson “On the limitations” 23). In the UK the influence of key figures such as John Rupert Firth and Michael Halliday contributed to maintaining the place of research on L2 teaching and learning within the broader interpretation of applied linguistics (Linn et al. 11). In the US, while early applied linguistics sought an efficient application of Bloomfieldian structuralism to issues of language learning and teaching, the cognitive revolution subsequently provided fertile ground for Corder's ground-breaking work on learner language and impetus for the development of a more theoretical approach to L2 study using Universal Grammar (White). In France, mid-twentieth century applied linguists were lexicologists and computational linguists with less direct concern for language teaching. Those working in the domains of L2 acquisition, on one hand, and L2 teaching research (language didactics), on the other, rejected the narrow application of linguistic theory to questions of learning and teaching respectively. As a consequence each developed separately from and independently of the field of applied linguistics2:

In France, institutional research policy over the last fifty years has had the effect of splitting up the concept of “applied linguistics” into various specialised fields, including language learning and acquisition, bi-and multilingualism, language teaching, lexicography, corpus linguistics, terminology, translation studies, automatic language processing, language variation, and so on. (emphasis added, CRELA call for papers 2013)

18These differences in what Linn et al. have referred to as the “disciplinarisation” and “institutionalisation” (7) of applied linguistics in the three contexts has also affected uptake of second language research findings in language education. Nowadays most L2 researchers do not differentiate “natural” and “instructed” learners, or distinguish second language contexts (where the target language is the ambient language) from foreign language conditions (where it is not widely spoken, and often restricted to instructional settings). Nevertheless the teaching of English as a second language (ESL) in the UK and North America is generally more influenced by L2 research findings than the teaching of other foreign languages there, or of English as a foreign language (EFL) in France. Hence SLA-influenced methods such as CLT and TBLT are more in evidence in US ESL programmes than in foreign language education (VanPatten). Similarly, MFL education in the UK and EFL teaching in France have traditionally been less affected by development in L2 research. This second caveat will be addressed again in section 2.1 below.

1.3. Language and content

19What does each approach have to say about the relationship between language learning and content learning?

20In MFL, the content is the target culture, including the historical, political and social development of the countries where the language is spoken, and also the critical, perhaps contrastive analysis of the literary and artistic output of members of the language community. Language appreciation is also a goal - understanding the L2 grammar, lexicon and phonology, and learning to translate into and out of the target language - with the overall objective of accessing cultural artefacts in their original form. This approach necessarily dictates an emphasis on the dimension of linguistic accuracy and complexity as a pre-requisite for literary criticism and cultural analysis. Priority is thus often given to cultural content over language competence, and attention to language is oriented to aspects traditionally covered by grammar-translation approaches to language education.

21In LSP, the content is disciplinary knowledge, and the role of language is to provide a means of either (a) learning to express in the L2 content knowledge already mastered in the L1, or (b) developing such knowledge and the means to express it through the L2 at the same time. Lansad teaching in French higher education frequently, though by no means exclusively, tackles the first objective. It is often addressed to language learners who are subject specialists, and taught by language specialists not originally trained in the disciplinary area. The second case is more common in secondary education, under conditions described as content-based instruction (CBI) in North American contexts and content and language integrated learning (CLIL) in Europe. Current CLIL teaching shows a clear emphasis on disciplinary knowledge as Llinares and Dalton-Puffer explain:

Despite the pervasive conceptualization of CLIL as a content and language integrated approach and the growing research on this construct, the realities of CLIL implementation clearly emphasize its content-side. (70)

CLIL implementations are not driven by the rationale of foreign language teaching but by subject-specific curricular goals. (73)

At school level, CLIL lessons are timetabled as content-lessons which are guided by content learning goals and pedagogical traditions inscribed in the content-subject curricula. Furthermore, assessment and certainly high stakes testing in CLIL classes is driven by the content-subject. (70)

22From SLA perspectives, this kind of disciplinary knowledge or content-subject is considered largely immaterial, or at best difficult to account for in terms of influence on acquisition. Strictly cognitive models of SLA view content as subordinate to language, constituting part of the context or setting for language acquisition and use, but not relevant to acquisition processes. As Long remarks: “remove a learner from the social setting, and the L2 grammar does not change or disappear” (“Breaking the Siege” 93). For second language researchers, specific and general L2 acquisition thus follow the same trajectory, and are constrained by the same principles of L2 development. Where LSP experts give priority to the language of the specific discipline in which they are involved, contrasting the specific language features with those of the general language, mainstream SLA researchers see language acquisition as primordial, irrespective of the context of acquisition. Other approaches to SLA, however, take a more nuanced view. Variationist approaches to SLA do admit a role for contextual factors affecting language acquisition, including participants, topic content, and purposes (Douglas, Tarone). This approach suggests that “people construct the world in which they learn languages” (Douglas 25) and that “there is a two-way interaction between the language learner/user and the context, which is dynamic and constantly changing, co-constructed in interaction with interlocutors” (Douglas 38). In this view, then, attention is given both to content knowledge and language competence, both of which are expected to evolve over time.

2. Language education in the French context

23Section 1 presented three different approaches to language education as seen from the fields of MFL, LSP and SLA, and highlighted (a) differences in overall objectives for teaching and learning, (b) contrasting emphases on types of linguistic knowledge and use, and (c) distinct positions on the comparative importance of language competence and content knowledge. How, then, have these perspectives historically influenced language education at different levels, and what tensions or similarities can be revealed? Section 2 begins by summarising the distinctions established so far with respect to research domains and objects of study in the three approaches, before examining their different roles in language teaching and learning, and finally their influence in teacher education, with particular reference to the French context.

2.1 Research domains and objects of study

24Table 1 below presents the type of specialisation involved in the fields of MFL, LSP and SLA, together with short definitions from the foregoing discussion and examples for each.

Table 1: Types of specialisation in language education

  • 3 The history of language learning and teaching (HoLLT) has recently gained some recognition as a fie (...)

25While the history of language teaching is beyond the scope of this paper3, many language researchers and teachers would agree with a broadly chronological mapping of the development of MFL, LSP and SLA approaches to language education moving from the left to the right of Table 1. Modern language teaching practices emerged in counterpoint to classical language teaching (e.g., classical Greek and Latin) and inherited the same orientation towards literature and culture. The more practical orientation of LSP studies essentially reflects a more recent concern with instrumental use of second languages (though see Sarré and Whyte for discussion of the French context). SLA, as noted in Section 1.2, is scarcely 50 years old, and thus the newest of the three approaches.

26The object of study of each field is presented in Table 2, showing how each is defined in relation to adjoining fields and in terms of the goals of study.

Table 2: Different objects of study in language education

27The study of a modern foreign language covers all aspects of the culture, analysed in contrast to the native language and culture, and to those of other foreign languages. MFL studies are undertaken with the goal of understanding and transmitting cultural knowledge in these terms. LSP studies share a similar contrastive orientation, this time in opposition to the general language, and with the goals of describing the language which is specific to a particular discourse community, event or context. LSP research often focuses on the analysis of a specific variety, and not always on how non-native speakers might acquire it (Sarré and Whyte). But for L2 learners and users, the goal is usually an acquisitional one, even of only the “narrow set of occupation-specific uses and functions” described by Saville-Troike (14).

28In SLA, second or foreign languages are defined in opposition to a first or native language. Sometimes the terms “second” and “foreign” are used interchangeably, at others, the former denotes contexts where the target language is in general use, with the latter reserved for situations where the language is not widely spoken, as noted in section 1.2. In any case the goal of language education in SLA terms is communicative competence, described in comparison with L1 skills. Monolingual native-speaker competence is no longer the yardstick against which L2 skills are measured in many contexts, due to both increased recognition of multicompetence models (Cook, Cook and Wei) and a growing body of research on lingua franca usage (Jenkins). SLA research nevertheless studies L2 learner/user comprehension and production, rather than the explicit knowledge of language rules which are often at the centre of MFL research and education, and of LSP research if not instruction.

2.2. Language teaching and learning

29Turning now to language education per se, Table 3 identifies the main objectives, learners or students, and methods of language teaching used in each of the three traditions.

Table 3: Educational goals in language teaching and learning

30As Table 3 shows, each approach informs the teaching of different learner populations: in France, MFL programmes provide training for future foreign language teachers in secondary schools, while LSP language education is offered in post-secondary education to students and experts in specific content domains. SLA-informed programmes are generally reserved for SL contexts, including French as a second language for migrants and international students. Given the different scholarly traditions and learner populations, it is perhaps not surprising that different methods are common within each approach, with grammar-translation and textual criticism features of the MFL paradigm. LSP shares with MFL a preference for the use of authentic resources, while also using contrastive analysis and bilingual reference materials. LSP also shares with SLA approaches an interest in task-oriented teaching, for reasons discussed in Section 3.

31The types of language programmes in France where these different types of teaching are found are shown in Table 4. As suggested in Section 1, MFL teaching is found in modern language departments in humanities faculties in French universities, in LLCE (formerly LCE) degree courses. Instructors include tenured researchers with degrees in MFL, and the main professional objective for many students is to pass national entrance examinations to become secondary school MFL teachers.

Table 4: Teaching programmes in language education

  • 4 Non-language subjects

32LSP teaching is found in both secondary schools and universities in France, as suggested by the two columns for LSP in Table 4. Elective DNL classes (disciplines non linguistiques4) constitute the secondary school incarnation of CLIL or Emile (Enseignement d'une matière par l'intégration d'une langue étrangère) teaching. As Llinares and Dalton-Puffer note in discussion of CLIL in the European context,

Prototypical CLIL implementations (Dalton-Puffer, 2011; Dalton-Puffer, Llinares, Lorenzo, & Nikula et al., 2014) show that CLIL lessons are taught by content-specialists, who are often non-native speakers of the CLIL language. Sometimes these teachers also possess qualifications for foreign language teaching but this is a requirement only in a few national education systems. (70)

33French secondary school CLIL is taught by content specialist teachers, some of whom also have foreign language certification. Tardieu and Dolitsky identify a number of problems with this implementation.

While CLIL is supposed to bridge the gap between language as an object of teaching and as a means, thus combining both language and content learning in a single class, the scheme distinctly separates content teachers’ role in CLIL teaching from that of language teachers. Language teachers are given a supporting role to help bring the students’ language competence up, while content teachers are to create lessons to teach content, in the assumption that the students can carry out the content exercises. Thus, the importance of content predominates over communication itself. The language class then remains exercise-based, and the CLIL class is content-based, while neither, in fact, is task based. (6)

34The emphasis is thus on the learning of content rather than the development of L2 language skills, an orientation also reflected in the format of examinations at baccalaureate level.

35Much more widespread LSP teaching occurs in French universities, in medical, law, business and science faculties, and technical universities, where students generally take ESP courses as part of their degree programmes. Unlike secondary school CLIL, these courses are generally taught by language rather than content specialists; these instructors usually have the same initial training as their MFL colleagues in university language departments.

36The remaining language education in French universities takes place in French as a second language departments (français langue étrangère, FLE) and self-access language centres (centres de ressources de langues, CRL); this teaching and learning is most likely to adhere to principles of SLA. Some might suggest the communicative orientation of this language education with its emphasis on exposure to language input and interactional opportunities occurs almost by default in the absence of alternative literary/cultural or other specialised learning needs or objectives. Instructors here may have background in the language sciences and/or French as second language, though there are also MFL graduates. Learners often take these courses as language requirements for university entrance or indeed graduation.

2.3 Language teacher education

37The foregoing discussion in Section 2.2 has already touched on questions of teacher education, suggesting a predominance of MFL graduates in most areas of language education. This pattern is confirmed in Table 5, which shows the different types of language education available from lower then upper secondary through undergraduate, masters and doctoral programmes.

Table 5: Different types of language teacher education

38The second column in Table 5 indicates the traditional “specialist” MFL pathway which trains its own replacements, but is also the degree of choice for secondary MFL teachers as well as ESP instructors and researchers. Those whose degrees involve LSP, such as degrees in business and sciences, for example, or applied languages with business (Langues étrangères appliquées, LEA) do not generally pursue doctoral studies in LSP; doctoral candidates come instead from MFL degree backgrounds. Similarly, there is only partial continuity from secondary school to higher education: while pupils taking a literary concentration at baccalaureate level can take foreign language classes in MFL literature (Littérature étrangère en langue étrangère, LELE), CLIL courses in other subjects (DNL) depend on the availability of qualified teachers at individual schools and do not lead to related higher education LSP courses. Doctoral students working in SLA generally come from language science rather than MFL backgrounds.

39Given the different approaches to language education presented in Section 1, together with the analysis of their implementation in France in Section 2, it is now possible to isolate areas of common ground in the different “L's” of MFL, LSP and SLA.

3. Theoretical and pedagogical intersections

40In some ways describing the relations between these three different perspectives on language education is like a children's playground hand game where each player aims to place their own hand on top, dominating the others. MFL specialists view their approach to language and culture as the high road of language study, compared to which LSP and SLA perspectives are lacking an essential cultural component. SLA specialists see language acquisition as the key question of interest, with literary or other content domains relegated to the status of contextual factors. And LSP of course places great importance on the non-linguistic content component, which seemingly sets it apart from the other approaches and lends a professional or scientific aura. In Section 3 the aim is not to suggest hierarchical relations of this type, but rather to identify intersections among these approaches which may help unify different language education enterprises.

3.1 Teacher preparation in language education

41One advantage of considering SLA perspectives on language learning and teaching, an approach which we have seen is not widely represented in language education in France, is that it highlights common ground in MFL and LSP approaches to both teaching and research. As Tables 2 and 3 suggest, while the focus and objectives of SLA-informed language education is learner language, and the learner's ability to communicate, MFL and LSP are often concerned rather with language appreciation, or knowledge about the target language. In MFL and LSP there is a focus on content knowledge, which may be related to but is essentially separate from actual language use. An English studies programme covers the literature and culture of English speakers, while a medical English course assumes or provides information on the topic of medicine. Might it not therefore be possible to consider both literary/cultural studies, on one hand, and specialist content disciplines, on the other, as forms of CLIL or LSP?

42To some extent existing secondary school programmes already admit the connection between literary and scientific CLIL: pupils can take elective courses in foreign language literature, on one hand, and subjects such as physics or mathematics taught in the foreign language, on the other. So both literature and other school subjects are viewed as types of content which can be studied in a foreign language. The literature course, however, will be taught by an MFL teacher with a masters degree in MFL, and who thus has both content and language expertise. The physics course, on the other hand, will be delivered by a physics teacher with a degree in science who happens to have some foreign language competence. This teacher will have greater content than language expertise. In higher education there is a similar discrepancy in teacher expertise across disciplines. As in schools, higher education MFL programmes are taught by MFL graduates, with both language and content expertise. In other disciplines, such as scientific Lansad teaching, for example, courses are not delivered by language instructors with comparable language and scientific competence, but rather by these same MFL graduates, who have, for the most part, greater language than content knowledge. In schools there is therefore a bias towards content expertise in LSP teaching, while in higher education it is towards language expertise. In neither case, however, are issues of language acquisition addressed, either in the design of teaching and learning activities, or during teacher education.

43For SLA researchers who take an interest in language education, this absence of SLA expertise in language education is a cause for concern:

Language acquisition is the place where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. Ideally, the language acquisitionist possesses both a strong theoretical background in language and a strong background in acquisition, and these are the people who presumably understand language acquisition most profoundly and have the best chance of informing language teaching. (VanPatten 6)

44VanPatten calls for increased recognition and inclusion of SLA specialists in language education in US universities; his survey of French and Spanish departments reveals that “only 6% of the faculty in Spanish has any expertise in second-language acquisition; in French it is about 2%” (6). In North American universities second language studies programmes are frequently attached to ESL language centres which prepare international students for university study, and second language research often takes ESL learners there as a convenient source of participants for empirical studies. MFL programmes, in contrast, involve fewer learners with lower ultimate attainment, and, as VanPatten shows, little or no links to second language research. I am not aware of a comparable survey of faculty training in European higher education, but it seems likely that similarly low figures may be the norm in the majority of European universities and that VanPatten’s arguments regarding an absence of SLA training in all sectors of language education may also be relevant here. To the missing LSP component in the educational trajectories of LSP teachers and researchers (Table 5) should therefore be added a lack of SLA background for all language teachers.

3.2 TBLT for learning language and content

45A second intersection of interest involves LSP and SLA this time, and concerns TBLT, as noted in Table 3 and raised by Tardieu and Dolitsky as discussed in Section 2.1. In her conclusion to a recent System special issue on CLIL and TBLT (edited by Garcia Mayo), Ortega sees a natural connection between this form of LSP teaching and the general language teaching method:

In both approaches, teachers and students get on with the business of doing things with words in ways that maximize the learning of language without neglecting the creation of new knowledge. (109)

46Ortega also argues for a sensitive approach to L1/L2 use to avoid the types of difficulties described by Tardieu and Dolitsky (2012):

In CLIL classrooms the L1 takes up a special place, because it is the shared language of students and teacher (who are typically non-native speakers). Thus, if the L1 is overused and misused, the two pedagogical approaches would be undermined in their core. However, a simplistic L2-only position is also untenable, because it neglects cutting-edge knowledge in SLA that demonstrates (Cook & Wei, 2015): (a) the L1 is always interacting with the L2 in the mind of learners, whether covertly or overtly, (b) the L1 is a resource for self-regulation and learning, and (c) the project of learning a new language is in essence a project of becoming bi/multilingual, multicompetent, and transcultural, where all languages of the individual interact and are open to influence from one another. (108)

47If TBLT is suited to LSP-oriented teaching in the form of CLIL in secondary education, it is also highly relevant to higher education contexts, as demonstrated in recent work in applied languages LEA (Buck and McAllister), scientific English (Brudermann), and legal English in French universities (O'Connell). TBLT offers the double advantage of providing a framework for the preparation and implementation of learning activities which can include learners of differing levels of L2 proficiency, but also varying levels of competence in the content areas in question. Tasks can be adapted to support beginning L2 learners or conversely to challenge more proficient L2 users. Different tasks can also be designed to enable pupils and students with relatively limited knowledge of the content domain to gain some understanding of the discipline, or alternatively to support more advanced learners in developing L2 competence in comprehending and expressing an already established disciplinary expertise.

3.3 Intercultural dimensions

48The remaining intersection of the three approaches discussed in this paper lies between SLA and MFL. What do acquisition researchers and literary scholars have in common? On the face of it, from the discussion in Section 2, there are significant differences in approaches to language education in the two disciplines. In particular, the MFL approach rests on the explicit teaching and learning of linguistic facts and cultural information, while SLA research emphasises implicit L2 learning, particularly in the cognitivist-interactionist models which underpin TBLT (Long “Second Language”). There are differences in both scope and methods underpinning the pedagogical applications of each. And yet, a similar educational philosophy underpins both MFL and SLA-inspired language education. Long (“Second Language” 9) enumerates a number of principles “to which most language teachers and students subscribe in their everyday lives – principles that need not be forgotten in the classroom” and which “include
- educating the whole person,
- learning by doing,
- rationalism,
- free association,
- learner-centeredness,
- egalitarian teacher–student relationships,
- participatory democracy.”

49Long (“Second Language” 13) further claims that a principle such as “real learner-centeredness, as distinct from rhetorical hand-waving and everyone just getting along, is addressed first and foremost in the cognitive domain”. This position is echoed in Ortega's evaluation of TBLT in CLIL:

The innovations offered when L2 instruction integrates language-and-content in well-designed task structures hold great promise for optimal linguistic learning, yes. But as any of the studies in the special issue show, they also aim at promoting the learning of (a) academic content, (b) social, contextual, interactional, and identity dimensions of using a new language, (c) transcultural learning, and (d) technological literacy learning. (107).

50For these authors, then, L2 teaching and learning can and should provide opportunities for personal development that go beyond the narrow confines of language acquisition to address the social and transcultural dimensions traditionally valued by MFL scholars and underpinning the design of programmes of literary and culturally oriented modern language studies. The difference lies perhaps only in the means of accessing these dimensions, with L2-focused instruction depending on tasks, while MFL studies look to texts for the same insights.


51How, then, does the foregoing discussion shed light on the main question posed in this special issue regarding intersections in LSP teaching and LSP research? By defining and contrasting three approaches to language education and investigating the role each plays in language education in French secondary schools and universities, this paper has identified a number of parallels in goals and methods which offer promising ground for the development of LSP teaching and research.

52With respect to SLA dimensions of language education, this paper has suggested that research findings in this field can inform MFL and LSP to provide an acquisitional dimension which underpins the language component complementing these two types of content knowledge. From this perspective, it seems possible to consider the literary and cultural content of LLCE courses as broadly comparable to the disciplinary knowledge or subject content of Lansad programmes, while at the same time advocating greater awareness and inclusion of methods of teaching and learning which improve conditions for L2 acquisition in each context.

53One way of doing so is highlighted in a second area of intersection between different approaches to language education identified in this paper: task-based approaches to language education which are common to much of LSP and also match SLA research recommendations (Long, Ortega). TBLT can be applied at both lower and more advanced levels of language proficiency, and adapted to L2 users with greater or lesser control of specific academic content. It thus offers a framework for integrating CLIL and LSP teaching well suited to higher education contexts. The paper suggests that leveraging the affordances of TBLT for LSP content and language learning may also have additional benefits in terms of wider, humanist educational goals, addressing in this way a third intersection between MFL and SLA.

54This paper argues that SLA intersects with LSP at the level of the learning task; MFL shares with LSP an emphasis on disciplinary content; and MFL and instructed SLA agree on the intercultural or transcultural dimension of language education. These constitute so many reasons to overcome the different specialist / non specialist divisions outlined here, and instead focus on these areas of common ground so rich in potential for the development of LSP teaching and research.

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Appendix 1 - Glossary of English and French terms:





applied linguistics

the study of language and language-related problems in specific situations in which people use and learn languages […] bilingualism and multilingualism; computer-mediated communication; conversation analysis; corpus linguistics; critical discourse analysis; deaf linguistics; discourse analysis and pragmatics; first and additional language learning, teaching, and use; forensic linguistics; language assessment; language planning and policies; language for special purposes; lexicography; literacies; multimodal communication; rhetoric and stylistics; and translation. (AL)

all areas of research involving the application of linguistics; language and linguistics in a variety of domains of application such as language learning/acquisition, language disorders, variation studies, translation, language planning, lexicography, natural language processing (RFLA)

linguistique appliquée

language learning and pedagogy, second language acquisition, sociolinguistics, language policy, language assessment and research design and methodology (ARAL)




naturalistic and instructed language learning, language loss, bilingualism, language contact, pidgins and creoles, language for specific purposes, language technology, mother-tongue education, terminology and translation (IRAL)




Content and language integrated learning

Enseignement d'une matière par l'intégration d'une langue étrangère (Maljers et al, 2010)



Enseignement d'une Matière Intégré à une Langue Étrangère (Auger & Kervan, 2010)



CLIL is a dual-focused educational approach in which an additional language is used for the learning and teaching of content and language with the objective of promoting both content and language mastery levels (Maljers et al, 2010)

Approche éducative à double orientation qui consiste à utiliser une langue autre que la langue de scolarisation pour l'apprentissage et l'enseignement à la fois de la matière et de la langue, dans le but de favoriser la maîtrise des deux et atteindre des niveaux prédéfinis (Maljers et al, 2010)



content-based instruction (broadly synonymous term more common in North American contexts)



content, educational content, disciplinary content

Discipline non-linguistique



English for academic purposes




English as a foreign language


français langue étrangère


English as a second language


français langue étrangère ou seconde


English for specific purposes

anglais de spécialité



foreign language (second language acquired outside immersive context)

langue étrangère



second language

langue seconde


any language after first/primary language(s), especially one acquired in natural immersive contexts

L2 research

second language research

recherches en acquisition des langues étrangères/secondes



second or heritage language acquisition or use, or the interface of acquisition and use with pedagogy (SSLA)

language acquisition among different types of learners and in diverse learning situations, with particular attention to oral speech and/or to signed languages (LIA)



simultaneous or consecutive second and additional language acquisition in children and adults; links to non-applied fields such as theoretical linguistics, cognitive science, and psycholinguistics. NOT educational and pedagogical issues in language teaching and language testing (SLR)


fundamental theoretical issues in language learning such as child, second, and foreign language acquisition, language education, bilingualism, literacy, language representation in mind and brain, culture, cognition, pragmatics, and intergroup relations. (LL)



language for specific purposes

langues sur objectifs spécifiques


example: français sur objectifs spécifiques


LSP teaching

teaching of languages for specific purposes

langues pour spécialistes d'autres disciplines


language teaching research

language didactics, language teaching research, language education

didactique des langues, didactique des langues étrangères, didactique des langues-cultures


research in the field of second and foreign language teaching (LTR)

revue de didactologie et de lexiculturologie des langues-cultures ; promouvoir et développer l'accès aux langues-cultures, étrangères et maternelles (ELA)

research and discussion about the learning and teaching of foreign and second languages […] scholarly exchange among researchers and teachers of all modern foreign languages and English as a second language (MLJ)


modern foreign language studies (MFL)

langues, littératures et civilisations étrangères


modern languages


second/foreign language teaching

second language teaching

enseignement-apprentissage des langues étrangères

enseignement-apprentissage des langues étrangères/secondes

foreign language teaching

enseignement-apprentissage des langues secondes


second language acquisition

acquisition des langues étrangères ou secondes


Appendix 2 - Journals cited:

Annual Review of Applied Linguistics (ARAL)
Applied Linguistics (AL)
International Review of Applied Linguistics (IRAL)
Language Learning (LL)
Language Teaching Research (LTR)
Language Interaction and Acquisition/Language, Interaction et Acquisition (LIA)
Modern Language Journal (MLJ)
Revue ELA (Etudes de linguistique appliquée)
Revue Française de Linguistique Appliquée (RFLA)
Second Language Research (SLR)
Studies in Second Language Acquisition (SSLA)

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1 International Federation for Modern Languages and Literatures

2 See Derivry-Plard for another point of view on these historical developments.

3 The history of language learning and teaching (HoLLT) has recently gained some recognition as a field of research in its own right, with the creation of an AILA research network and associated publications (McClelland and Smith). See also Brown et al for an overview of more recent developments in the field.

4 Non-language subjects

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Table des illustrations

Légende Table 1: Types of specialisation in language education
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Légende Table 2: Different objects of study in language education
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Légende Table 3: Educational goals in language teaching and learning
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Légende Table 4: Teaching programmes in language education
Fichier image/png, 95k
Légende Table 5: Different types of language teacher education
Fichier image/png, 78k
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Référence électronique

Shona Whyte, « Who are the Specialists? Teaching and Learning Specialised Language in French Educational Contexts », Recherche et pratiques pédagogiques en langues de spécialité [En ligne], Vol. 35 N° spécial 1 | 2016, mis en ligne le 29 novembre 2016, consulté le 25 septembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Shona Whyte

Shona Whyte is associate professor in UMR7320 Bases, Corpus, Langage, with research interests in L2 interaction in technologically mediated contexts and CALL teacher education. Publications include Implementing and Researching Technological Innovation in Language Teaching (Palgrave, 2015) and a co-edited volume on IWB-supported language education Teaching languages with technology (Bloomsbury, 2014).

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