Teaching a foreign language to university students of other majors within a limited number of hours

Written by: Valentin A. Videnov, New Bulgarian University

The article describes the impossibility and impracticality of teaching a foreign language to university students of other majors within a severely limited number of hours while aiming at an active knowledge of the language, and offers some advice, namely that the teaching be aimed at a strictly passive knowledge within the students’ major. It is based on the author’s experience teaching English at the Agricultural University – Plovdiv.

When I started work at the Agricultural University – Plovdiv (then the Higher Institute of Agriculture) in 1998, most majors studied 60 hours of a foreign language per semester for the first year as a required subject. The students could further choose to study 30 hours of a foreign language per semester as an elective for the four years of their Bachelor programs, which meant that some groups had as many as 6 hours a week during the first year. In addition, there were some “intensive” groups, which had 60 hours of language study per semester for all the years past the first, culminating in a state exam in the chosen language.

By the time I left the Agricultural University in 2005, the situation had radically altered. Now, most majors study only 30 hours of a foreign language per semester for the first year as a required subject, and the students can choose only one semester of a foreign language as an elective (30 hours again) during the further course of their programs. There are no “intensive” groups and no state exams. This means that some students have only 60 hours of a foreign language as part of their university education.

A notable exception to this bleak picture remain the major programs in the Faculty of Economics. Their students of Agricultural Economics study 45 hours of a foreign language per semester for the four years of the program; their Distance Learning students also study a foreign language. But here I will not focus on these students, nor will I talk about the Agricultural Tourism program, also offered by the Faculty of Economics. The target of my attention will be the foreign language instruction of students in the agricultural programs, given the severe limitation of hours, as I propose to use my observations on teaching English to them in order to reach some conclusions on the possibility and the advisable form of teaching a foreign language to non-specialist university students within limited hours.

Clearly, teaching a foreign language to the future agricultural specialists of Bulgaria has become a real challenge. It is not only the limitation of hours that presents a difficulty. The students at the Agricultural University are required (at least as a policy of the Foreign Languages Department) to study the same language that they studied in high school. As the exit Foreign Language I level of Bulgarian high-school students is supposed to be B1 – following the European Council Framework, some further language work (even specialized) could still be done at the university level within the 60 hours allotted. The foreign language knowledge and skills of high-school graduates who apply to, are admitted to, and enroll at the programs of the Agricultural University, however, have been steadily going down over the years. As a result, to be at all meaningful, the university foreign language work with some groups – and these have become the overwhelming majority in programs such as General Agronomy, which are essential to the University’s purpose, — has to start at ground level; and it can progress rather slowly and painfully sometimes.

There are indeed some students scattered in the different groups who are really advanced, but as the groups are formed by the Faculty administrations regardless of foreign language proficiency levels, the only thing to do with these students is to give them individual assignments to complete outside the scheduled classes, and then work with them separately. Such students are so few, however, that their presence or absence does not change the predicament we are examining.

The central question that naturally emerges here is what to do with these 60 hours of university foreign language instruction, how best to utilize them. The answer to the more basic question of the sheer possibility of effective instruction given the limitation of hours and the deplorable entry level of the majority of students is here assumed to be positive: otherwise the whole enterprise should be given up, which is obviously not an option. But most of the available and widely used modern foreign language systems come in levels, where a minimum of 120 hours are required to cover a level, which is twice as much as the allotted number of hours we are dealing with here. And then an elementary level of foreign language proficiency would little avail the future agricultural specialists: it is bound soon to disintegrate and bring most of them back down to ground level. So the question of “What to do?” does seem really troublesome.

Elsewhere, I have described an approach to teaching in such a situation, based on my actual practice with the English instruction of students of other philologies within the Philological Faculty at the University of Plovdiv.1 During this earlier teaching experience, I had the freedom entirely to construct my own program, so I did what I felt made most sense. I still would like to believe that it worked. Accepting the regular appointment at the Agricultural University, however, I was given a course program to follow, which never really was adjusted to the dwindling number of hours within which the course was to happen, while a radical change seemed to me to be required. I never proposed such a change (even though I may say I was about to just before I left) let alone helped implement it. So I am here sharing the observations I made during the growing frustration with my teaching efforts, and trying to point to a way out – applicable not necessarily just to the agricultural major programs at AU – Plovdiv, but also to programs at other higher educational institutions, where – due mainly to the decreased total number of program hours – the foreign language component has shrunk (or is going to shrink) to such absolute minima.

Let me first describe the current practice at AU: with the students of the agricultural majors, with whom I mostly worked, and as I have experienced it.2 Although there exists a specialized English textbook for university students of agriculture, which has undergone three editions,3 its use had already been abandoned in 1998. It was (and still is) claimed to be dated: both in its general (grammar) and specialized components.4 So in its place the use of Part One of the system English for Bulgarians, developed under the supervision of Andrei Danchev and still widely used,5 had been adopted for the teaching of English. It is targeted to adult learners in an academic setting, and offers a good grounding in all essential areas of grammar with clear and salient explanations specifically intended for Bulgarian learners and numerous exercises to reinforce it. I can say I have enjoyed using it.

The very bulk of the book, however, made it less and less suitable for the new format of the course with the progression down from 120+ to just 60 hours combined with the general decline of students’ entry proficiency levels. To do justice to it as instructional material, a course has to cover it all, including most of the exercises. Intended for beginners as it is, it does stand on its own feet grammar-wise, but only in its entirety. While reaching the end (the volume consists of 25 lessons with a revision unit after each group of 5) was still possible to aim at in the early years of my teaching at AU, it had become out of the question by the beginning of academic year 2004/05. To start at Lesson 6 (Present Simple vs. Present Continuous) let alone Lesson 11 (Present Perfect) taking the knowledge of the preceding material for granted had been ruled out by the students’ obvious lack of knowledge; and having started at the beginning, you were lucky if you managed to get past Lesson 11 for the 60 hours (some of them inevitably dedicated to testing purposes in one form or another and to administrative work) with the faster groups.

Now that was apparently worse than doing nothing at all. Foreign language work is only meaningful if it leads to covering all areas of essential grammar (even if some should be covered in less detail than others), as grammar is a system of interdependent components.6 If acquiring an active command of a foreign language is ruled out as a course objective by the limited number of hours, the passive use of the language (for purposes of research in an academic field such as agriculture with its subordinate fields of agronomy, horticulture, plant protection etc. for instance) can only be achieved as an ability by the initial systematic study of grammar. But can the whole of English grammar (at an introductory depth-level) be squeezed into a semester of 30 hours? I would like to suggest that the answer is “Yes” (and especially so with English where the morphological paradigms are so simple as to be virtually non-existent and the syntax is susceptible of being clearly explained). But on a number of conditions:

  1. The essential grammar should be stripped to its bare bones, while still presenting it in its systematic completeness;
  2. The lexical items used for the purposes of grammar presentation should be kept down to an absolute minimum;
  3. The exercises should be few and as simple and straightforward as possible (mainly sentence manipulation and structure recognition) with the aim of preparing the students to interpret texts in their later use of the language;
  4. The topic situations – if such are at all included – should be targeted at the very basic survival level and should naturally go with the grammar presented.

The study of grammar so outlined can also serve as a Humanities component in the major programs offered. By means of it the advanced students could be included in the work of the groups, as they might find the presentation of foreign language grammar as a complete system of interest; and their knowledge would be helpful and encouraging to the other students. The second semester can then be devoted to reading a piece of text relevant to the students’ major in order to master the essential vocabulary in the area, practice using a dictionary, and further observe the grammatical constructions studied during the first semester, now in their actual discourse functioning.

So what I am proposing is the developing of a fresh, modern textbook for the students of agriculture in Bulgaria, adapted to the new, challenging situation that their foreign language (and English in particular – English is by far the most studied language at AU) instruction finds itself in. That textbook would have to present the skeleton of English grammar as a system in the way described above. Then current texts (such as articles or book chapters) should be included, covering all the areas of specialization that the Agricultural University now offers:7 General Agronomy, Animal Husbandry, Horticulture and Viticulture, Plant Protection, Ecology, Tropical and Subtropical Agronomy, Agricultural Engineering, Hydromelioration – ideally texts in the fundamental disciplines that are studies early in the programs, and valuable scientifically. But these texts should not necessarily be a part of the book; they could be changed each year. They should not even be studied during the second semester of the required course, but could be postponed for study during the one-semester elective. What is important in my opinion is the grammar part, and it is this part also that can be transferred to the foreign language course design in programs in other disciplines at other universities where a similar limitation of hours applies.


  1. See Videnov 2004a. The approach described there focuses on the particular suitability of in-depth theoretical discussion of the grammar of a foreign language (other than their major one where applicable) for philology students, especially early in the course of their studies. But it can be applied to university students in programs outside the domain of philology as well, as I shall argue here.
  2. The observations described here reflect mostly my own practice, and only so much of my former colleagues’ as I have come to know of. They are in no way meant to apply to everyone teaching a foreign language at AU, or even to all languages taught there.
  3. Sirakov et al. 1989. The textbook consists of six parts as follows: Part I, Basic English introduction in 16 units, covering all the essential grammar, with exercises; Parts II – IV, Specialized English sections in the areas of Veterinary Medicine and Zootechnics, Agronomy and Agricultural Economy; Parts V – VI, Grammar and English-Bulgarian Vocabulary Supplements. I shall argue that even if dated, and far behind the current specific needs of the agricultural major programs at AU, this textbook, especially with its Grammar supplement, should be taken into consideration, if not even followed as a model, for the change of strategy I am proposing. My view ahead is thus mostly backward-oriented.
  4. There also exists a specialized French course for university students of agriculture (Spasky et al. 1988), but even though one of its authors retired from AU only a year before I left, and the other – my good friend Galina Andonova – still teaches there, it is similarly not used for teaching purposes. It consists of 21 lessons, simultaneously introducing grammar and specialized vocabulary.
  5. For the latest edition, which is still in print, see Danchev et al. 2000. Even though this text was chosen mainly for its affordability, it has many good features to recommend it. Some of its features though are certainly as dated as those of Sirakov et al. 1989, and the graphic design, with illustrations bordering on the ridiculous, is far from modern.
  6. I have examined the role of grammar in the foreign language instruction of specialists in other areas in Videnov 2004b, but only as supplementary to usual course materials that include graded texts, vocabulary-building exercises, activities etc. Here I am proposing a more radical centering on grammar as a way out of the pressure of a very limited course span.
  7. Excluding, as I mentioned, those offered by the Faculty of Economics where the foreign language teaching situation is rather different.

Works Cited

  • Danchev, Andrei et al. English for Bulgarians. Part One. Vezni-4, Sofia, 2000.
  • Sirakov, Marin, Denka Dobreva & Ljudmilla Petrova. English for the Higher Institutes of Agriculture. Third Edition. Naouka I Izkoustvo, Sofia, 1989.
  • Spasky, Maria, Rossitsa Choumenova & Galina Dantcheva. Manuel de français A l’usage des étudiants de l’Institut Supérieur d’Agriculture. Naouka i Izkoustvo, Sofia, 1988.
  • Виденов, Валентин. Подход към преподаването на английски език на филолози неанглицисти. В: МУ – Варна, ІІІ международна конференция “Езикът – средство за образование, наука и професионална реализация”. 2004, стр. 455-8.
  • _______ . Ролята на граматиката при обучението по чужд език на специалисти от други дисциплини. В: ТУ София – Филиал Пловдив, ІІІ научна сесия “Икономика и управление”. 2004, стр. 152-4.

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