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!Hola Parlez vous Ingenieurwesen? Do civil engineering graduates need a second language?

A row has broken out between the ICE and its graduate and student members over the importance of including language skills in the post- graduate training leading up to the professional review (ICE news last week).

Graduates & Students National Committee chair Alex Ritchie is marshalling her troops for a co-ordinated effort to overturn the Education, Training & Member ship's plan to make basic foreign language conversation skills a core SARTOR objective.

In a recent letter to ET&M chairman Peter Guthrie, she argued that the new requirement could mean it would take longer for graduates to become chartered. It could also deter good, technically minded teenagers from taking up civil engineering.

'We are questioning whether this proposal would be of much value to the Institution. The professional review is based on an assessment of technical and management standards. Basic language skills are peripheral to an engineer's measure of competence,' said Ritchie.

But before the GSNC chair is drowned out by claims that students have their heads in the sand, she claims student members are supportive of the need to develop foreign language skills, and points to alternatives to a mandatory test.

'As a career-long learning issue, language skills should be part of continuing professional development. At least then it would not just be one exam. If people learn languages parrot fashion for a one-off exam, there's no value to the Institution.'

GSNC has no objection to language skills as a specific objective of the professional review, which could be added if the candidate's working environment demands language skills. Others argue that rather than study basic language skills, civil engineers should study the industry in other countries to get a technical insight of overseas practice. Ritchie believes that the requirement would be more appropriate as part of the EurIng European Engineering qualification.

While admitting that he is moved by Ritchie's arguments, ET&M chairman Peter Guthrie denies that the professional review is merely a test of technical competence, stressing the need to show professional roundedness.

'Coming through the review should prove that engineers can communicate ideas coherently and demonstrate creativity and problem-solving skills. Awareness of a second language is proxy to that. By the time civil engineers are 26 or 27 they should show that they have extended beyond the narrow confines of technical discipline. Other CORE objectives are deliberately wider than just technical competence and help to differentiate between membership and associated membership,' says Guthrie.

'The second language requirement will not be an exam to prove that candidates could work in that country. That's missing the point,' he continues. He stresses that universities will not have to include language courses on civil engineering syllabuses, while insisting that the requirement would not lead to delays to gaining chartered status.

The outcome of the wrangle is hard to call at this stage, although there are indications that the graduates and students might win. They are understandably angry at being asked to put their competence as civil engineers on the line for the sake of a skill that would not necessarily have any bearing on their ability to do the job.

But the civil engineering establishment is also right to encourage its members to develop themselves as rounded members of the society they expect to serve.

Damian Arnold

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