EUA Council for Doctoral Education

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Doctoral education and language: from university requirements to workplace needs

In doctoral education, language training should be revisited to bring doctoral candidates closer to the skills requirements of the workplace. As Annalisa Zanola of the University of Brescia writes, doctoral candidates need to communicate in international contexts during and after their academic experience, making specific public speaking modules a must, with special attention to multilingualism and intercultural dialogue.

It is a well-known fact that the professional success of doctoral candidates during and after their doctorate often depends on their communication skills, as well as their ability to speak different languages. However, in spite of mastering languages, the doctoral candidate entering the workplace and encountering professional verbal exchanges will experience specific ways of communicating that will be goal-oriented, focused on individual tasks, limited by rules and restrictions, influenced by hierarchy, structured in a specific way, and based on unique sets of vocabulary. In other words, no language certificate will ensure that a doctoral candidate will be well-equipped for the workplace. To our knowledge, however, in many European countries (including Italy), these fundamental components of doctoral education are not offered in the curricula. In principle, language courses extensively cover vocabulary and grammar, written and mediated communication, and the necessary foundations of employment communication and interpersonal/intercultural relationships, but they do not cover public speaking.

All across Europe, the intersection of doctoral education and language training in an intercultural context deserves attention, especially as there is an absence of guidelines and specific reports on the topic. The OECD Diagnostic Report 2017 on skills challenges for Italy insists both on the importance of making better use of skills in the workplace (communication skills above all) and on strengthening the skills system, including advanced knowledge of a foreign language (English) in authentic workplace communication situations. In the specific case of English as an international language, functionality in workplace English requires the capacity to apply language skills in a variety of activities, including familiarity with public speaking. Furthermore, the Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion cites the importance of adapting school and university curricula to workplace needs among its “Recommendations for the support for higher education institutions”. Doctoral candidates should be included, as they too need to be equipped with an understanding of the real communicative needs of their future workplaces.

Drawing on these considerations, the real challenge in Italy is defining the needs of internal and external doctoral communication in a foreign language. They are integral to the workplace, but they are shaped by factors such as a university’s internal and external environments, which in turn influence management approaches and modes of work organisation. Moreover, dissatisfaction on the part of the doctoral candidate is evident, as most learners need support in handling generic professional texts and presentations, some of which have an academic orientation, others being related to workplace contexts. The perceptions of language professors generally reinforce and complement this. Doctoral education should, therefore, provide doctoral candidates with appropriate conditions for meeting the interdisciplinary discourse-based demands and the needs of the workplace community for multidisciplinary communicative expertise. This mismatch between the real world of professions and that of the classroom needs to be handled realistically.

A main concern is that of underlining the need for public speaking training in specialised educational contexts, and for collaboration between language and linguistics researchers, practitioners and professional communities. Bridging the gap between the academic and professional worlds will result in better models for effective public speaking in professional contexts. Earlier studies in the field support this opinion and provide evidence of the strong importance of this domain in doctoral education. In addition, a brief analysis of workplace skills required by professional communities at present demonstrates that public speaking can no longer be ignored in academic linguistic education.

Public speaking builds on the basic communication skills that one develops while acquiring language and learning how to make conversation. Like expanded conversation, it should preserve the natural directness and spontaneity of good conversation. And like conversation, it should be tuned to the reactions of listeners. In a professional context, speakers and listeners of this conversation are usually highly-motivated people, looking for oral effectiveness and efficiency. While public speaking has been analysed from a rhetorical point of view, as well as from a political and legal perspective, or from the conversation analysis angle, the issue has received limited attention in the context of education.

A focused reflection on the impact of good public speaking skills in the workplace in a foreign language is needed, in both the contexts of language teaching and research. Due to the varied and complex nature of language teaching and training all across Europe, however, public speaking studies and programs should be adapted to the academic audience, and not standardised or copied from models that are suitable to non-academic contexts. In the European academic landscape, some isolated cases of public speaking modules in academic courses on specialised languages are emerging, as pioneering and challenging proposals that need to be taken seriously. These will support universities in being ready for authentic internationalisation and the necessary attention to workplace needs that are required on a global scale.

doctoral education reform

“The Doctoral Debate” is an online platform featuring original articles with commentary and analysis on doctoral education in Europe. Articles focus on trending topics in doctoral education and state-of-the-art policies and practices. The Debate showcases voices and views from EUA-CDE members and partners.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA Council for Doctoral Education. If you would like to respond to this article by writing your own piece, please see The Doctoral Debate style guidelines and contact the CDE team to pitch your idea.

About the author

Annalisa Zanola is Full Professor of English Language and Linguistics and Rector’s Delegate for Language Teaching and Training at the University of Brescia. She also represents her university in the European Language Council (ELC). Her research interests include the epistemology of English phonetics and phonology and the most recent trends in public speaking and academic writing, English as an international language, international english in business communication and health communication. She is member of the Board of the International Doctoral Program in European Languages and Specialised Terminologies at the University of Naples “Parthenope”.

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