The Austrian Level:The university and beyond

A microstudy among university students in Vienna.(short version)


Methodology and Structural Outline


Rather than serving as a means to a specific end, empirical work is, unfortunately, all to often used to hide underlying weaknesses of one's theoretical constructs. To avoid this pitfall my study is designed as a supplement to the extensive theoretical discussion of the preceding parts. When doing empirical work as part of a thesis one of the major difficulties is representativity: it is quite difficult to get a number of subjects large enough to make statistically relevant propositions. Thus I would like to warn the reader that the findings reported below are, from a purely statistical point of view, not representative. This does not mean, however, that they are not enlightening - I simply want to emphasise that my research can only be taken as indicating certain trends, not as an irrevocable truth.

After thinking at length how I could use the limited resources at my disposal most effectively I decided not to look at a cross section of the Austrian populace at large but to deal with a specialised subgroup in more detail. For this purpose I have adopted the term "microstudy" from Historical Anthropology. This branch of history does not look at countries (or even continents) but at small "microcosms" like towns, villages, hamlets and even single persons. (see Dressel 1996, particularly 188-93, 249-50) For my study I decided to deal with the microcosm of the university, or, to be more precise, university students.

For this purpose I devised a questionnaire with 14 questions dealing with the most important points discussed in the theoretical part of my essay. The questionnaire was designed with the well known "kiss" (keep it short and simple) formula in mind so that students would firstly understand the questions and secondly be able to answer them fairly quickly. For the latter reason and because most questions were designed to be answered with a clear "yes" or "no" I decided against using gradeable scales.

Two often used variables, namely sex and age, where not elicited because they were not regarded as essential for my research. However, when choosing my 160 subjects, which I all interviewed in person, I took care to get a roughly balanced male-female ratio. Regarding age, I only asked people from their late teens to mid-twenties - mature students were not interviewed.

Concerning the field of studies I asked for a broad classification into humanities and social sciences (GEWI/GRUWI), medicine (Medizin), law (Jus), technical studies (TU) and economy (WU). I did not feel it necessary to make further subdivisions, because my interest is in broad differences between the students of those faculties. Taking into account that there are pronounced difference between academics from different disciplines in their use and evaluation of English (see Ammon 1998, Skudlik 1990 and below) my hypothesis is that students from the humanities, technical subjects, economy and medicine will have rather diverging views as well.

The questionnaire is in German, firstly so that students with poor or no knowledge of English are able to give their opinion and secondly so that the psychological barrier against answering questions in a foreign language is avoided. I conducted a pre-test with 10 students which revealed no major difficulties with the design of the questionnaire and the ability to understand and answer the questions. Students were interviewed at the following locations in Vienna: Hauptuni, Universitätscampus AAKH, TU, WU, Juridicum, and the AKH. For each field of study interviews were conducted on 2 separate days so as to minimise the chances of getting only students from a certain lecture or a certain year (semester). 160 questionnaires were valid (32 for each faculty). Although I asked people studying in Vienna this should not be taken to mean that I only asked Viennese. Many people from the provinces come to Vienna to study and the university also has a lot of foreign students .

[Note: The print version discusses the results of the questionaire in detail]


From the Microstudy to a more General Perspective: English in different domains.




In my study, students of medicine often occupy a middle rank. However, regarding the question if some units are held in English medical students had the highest "don't know" and the lowest "yes" rate. One tutor explained to me that lectures held in English are not strictly speaking part of the curriculum. Rather, they may be attended voluntarily for additional information. Furthermore, the medical students interviewed do not feel that they have to read much technical literature in English. The current situation thus seems to run counter to the requests made in parliament regarding the medical curriculum. There, one MP demanded "English, English and, again English." ( Stenografisches Protokoll 1998 106 session: i) And a colleague from a different party agreed that for an M.D. an excellent command of English is nowadays essential because it is the international congress and scientific language. Having worked for a pharmaceutical market research company at medical conferences for some time I can only confirm that English is essential at international medical meetings. Both at the ECCO 10 conference (that is the annual gathering of cardiologists participants) and the ESC 2000 (the European Stroke conference) English was invariably the only conference language. As the ECCO10 conference was much larger than the ESC2000 (7.824 participants as compared to 1178) size does not seem to influence the choice of language. While English was announced as the only conference language at the ESC congress (ESC 2000 Final Congress Programme 2000: 63) this was not the case at ECCO10. There, the dominant positions seems to have been taken for granted. As both conferences took place in Vienna there were nearly as many German speaker as English speakers (see below). Still, German was only spoken among Germans and Austrians (and perhaps a few Swiss) and was not used for any lingua franca purposes. (personal observation)


Figure: Participants from English and German speaking countries at two medical conferences.

Speech Communities

ECCO 10 1999

ESC 2000


English speaking (inner circle)

+ outer circle (total)

1196 (15.286%)

1351 (17.267%)

310 (26.316%)

331 (28.098%)

German speaking (Germany and Austria)

1041 (15.286%)

299 (25.386%)

Source: ECCO 10 Conference Manager, ICOS Congress Organisation.


Because English is so important in the medical world one might consider enlarging the number of units held in English. After all, a substantial majority of medical students (81.25%) agree that it makes sense to present medical content in English and a sufficient number of ESP courses also seems to be available.




The importance of English in business was clearly reflected in my study. Generally speaking the sample of economy students was quite enthusiastic - if somewhat conservative - in its evaluation of the language: 93.75% regarded English as the language of progress but among WU students there was also the highest number of those who thought that there were too many English influences in German. Furthermore, the WU students were strongly in favour of British English as the standard for teaching; they were also adherents of the monolingual as well as the native-speaker centred approach. A high percentage of economy students often has to read technical literature in English. English is also important in business life outside the university; after all 84% of companies want English as a foreign language, only 32% demand French. (data from Felberbauer 1996: 63) In the Austrian job market, English is regarded as a basic qualification; consequently not knowing English may be a decisive deficit.


In Austrian businesses which operate internationally the internal use of English is not so much a feature as it is in Scandinavia (see part 2). However, such companies not infrequently recruit higher-level staff by means of English language advertisements in Austrian newspapers. (see Dension 1981: 8-9)


Obviously, to what extent English will be necessary differs very much according to what position one holds. According to research conducted by Stockinger, secretaries, for instance, are expected to be able to hold telephone conversations in English while technicians have to be able to read technical literature. (1995: 229)

According to Stockinger, 42,8% of the companies in Upper Austria have taken some measures in foreign language education. (1995: 233) Among bigger companies that offer ELT for their employees are IBM Austria and EA Generali Insurance. (see Malzacher 1996: 87) While large corporations often teach English with internal trainers, smaller businesses are more likely to rely on courses offered by a variety of institutions like Berliz, the Berufsförderungsinstitut (BFI), the Business Language Centre, Talk Partners, Das Sprachinstitut der Industrie, Inlingua, International House vVenna, International Language Services and the WIFI. Less orthodox ways are used in the so-called "Superlearning" Institutes. (see Malzacher 1996: 88)




When devising the questionnaire I was not sure if I should include both law and economy students as I felt that their answers would be quite similar. However, the analysis of the questionnaires has now convinced me that I was right to retain both groups; in fact the opinion of the law students is often opposed to that of the WU students. My sample of law students decisively rejected the notion that there are too many English influences in German. Rather, they regarded English as a cool language. They also least agreed with the monolingual and the native-speaker fallacy. Only 12.5% of them said that they often have to read technical literature in English. Concerning the demands and wishes of professional lawyers I was not able to come up with much secondary material. However, in the parliamentary debate on medical English, Sonja Ablinger (SPÖ) confirmed that Austrian lawyers, too need to be able to speak good English in international settings. (stenographisches Protokoll 1998 106 session: i)


Humanities and Social Sciences


Students of the humanities and social sciences were least of the opinion that English is the language of progress. Conversely, 34.38% thought that there were too many English influences in German. A majority (although rather a small one) was in favour of British English as the standard for teaching English. Few students said that there are units which are held in English; still nearly 60% agreed that it would make sense to have some content taught in English - which is not too bad for a faculty where English has traditionally not had that much of an impact. The fact that 90.62% stated that it is important to know English for their future career may even be an indication that English becomes more important in the humanities.


Technical Subjects


Before I started with the statistical evaluation of the questionnaires, my hypothesis was that English would play a particularly important role among students of technical subjects. This turned out to be only partially true. Above all, the TU students from my sample seem to take a pragmatic attitude towards the language. Interestingly they are rather against the monolingual approach but in favour of the native speaker. Those opting for British English as the model for teaching have a tiny majority, but many students of technical subjects opted for a combination of British English and American English. Maybe this is the case because American English is used a lot at the TU but does not have the prestige as a teaching norm that British English has. Almost all students (90.63%) said that some units were held in English and even more agreed that the presentation of content in English makes sense. Interestingly, only 62.5% said that they often have to read technical literature in English. Initially I had presumed that this percentage would be higher. Among the subjects taught at the technical university computer sciences is likely to be one of the most influenced by American English. Although many of the most-used programs are now available in other languages than English for the end-user, the computer scientist has to use a good deal of English as most computer languages use English terms. (see also part2) This sometimes leads to an interesting mixture of German and English as the following example from SQL ("Structured Query Language" - a "language" used to query a database) shows:

INSERT INTO Angestellte IN 'c:\firma\xy.mdb' SELECT Nachname, Vorname, Geburtsdatum FROM Neueingestellt WHERE Einstellungsdatum < Now() - 30 (example provided by Herbert Siedler)

Students of computer sciences also seem to have to read a particularly high amount of technical literature in English. Furthermore, at the Technical University they are required to do units (6 hours) in English with a final examination in the foreign language. Pronunciation does not seem to play an important role at these examinations, though. (personal communication).


English for Special Purposes


The participants of my study evaluated ESP very positively: 70.6% stated that there were units in their field of study which are held in English and 81.2% said that a presentation of technical content in English makes sense for their field of study. However, regarding the availability of ESP courses there were huge differences between the various faculties. While students of medicine and law were to a very large extent aware that such courses existed, students of the humanities to a considerable extent (71.9%) said that such courses were not in place. The fact that ESP courses are in high demand is underlined by a report from Robert Beck about English courses at the University of Agricultural Sciences (not covered in my study). The number of students who attend these courses, which have a strong ESP competent, has grown from 20 (1991) to 180 (1995). (Beck 1996: 111) At the Agricultural University, English for Scientific Writing is offered on demand against a fee. Here the aim is the American norm or, more specifically the standard of journals such as the New Scientist and the Scientific American. As a knowledge of ESP seems to be getting more important in a variety of fields, such courses should be integrated into the curriculum; to demand extra fees seems a doubtful practice as it tends to discourage students from participating - particularly those who are not well off.


The German speaking Scientist and English


As shown in part 2 English has become the language of European science. But what are the attitudes of German-speaking scientist and how do they use English? The most comprehensive research on this topic has been conducted by Skudlik (1990). She groups the various fields of study into three categories:




Skudlik concludes that the line between anglophone and non - or less - anglophone sciences coincides with the division into natural sciences and the humanities.

If one compares Skudlik's findings with my own study it seems that this division already affects students - after all students are socialised into the academic culture of their specific field of study. Thus the fact that English was not an important factor in law and that it is least regarded as the language of progress by students of the humanities fits rather neatly into Skudlik's typology.


The future role of English at the University


In some faculties English already has a strong position, in others courses taught in English and ESP courses are still more the exception than the rule. It seems, though that even in the humanities English is more and more recognised as the international lingua franca.

Thus the question arises to what extent lectures and seminars should be held in English. For some fields it has even been suggested that one should switch to English as the only language of instruction. Ammon suggests a general bilingualism of German and English at the university, primarily with natural sciences and particularly at postgraduate-level (1998: 235) However, his arguments are not really convincing. Rather than insisting on general bilingualism it would suffice to have extensive ESP courses which teach students everything they need to know to participate in international discourse. To familiarise the students with content presented in technical English it is also reasonable to have a couple of lectures or even seminars in English. The amount of such lectures should not be too high - maybe 25% of the course of study would be an adequate margin - and students should have the possibility to chose between a German and an English lecture on the same topic. These safeguards against too much English are necessary; it has to be ensured that the already difficult discourse between academics and the lay audience is not additionally burdened because the academic is not able to explain details of his work in his mother tounge. Rather, specialists must at all times be able to communicate their specialist knowledge in their native language.


Summary and Conclusion


Again, I would like to shortly summarise the findings of this part:



In this chapter I have applied a diachronic as well as a synchronic approach to illustrate the many purposes English has served in Austria. Austria can be regarded as a case-study which shows that English always has to be seen as part of a complex linguistic ecology. The situation in Austria is thus also further evidence against linguistic imperialism (see part 1) and, indeed, any other theory which overgeneralises and simplifies such complex processes as the interplay between the national language and the lingua franca.


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