Those attending the Abu Dhabi branch of the university are under pressure to learn either language before studying their specialist subject.
Sorbonne students must learn English or French
ABU DHABI // Being a French-language university that serves Arab students more familiar with English has been a huge challenge for Paris Sorbonne University since its launch in the capital four years ago.
The university, which teaches all its bachelor programmes in French, began teaching some of its master's programmes in English last year, but the executive director, Jean-Yves de Cara, said that language issues continue to be a burden.
"It puts a lot of pressure on new students because they have to go through the study of a foreign language before they get into the serious programme that they want to learn," he said.
"It's something that requires a big effort from them. Of course we've been thinking how we can improve that and we do that slowly, in the sense that in this intensive [preparatory French] course, we focus on the language skills, the techniques."
This year, the Sorbonne is ramping up efforts to give extracurricular language seminars to students, especially in subjects such as law, which requires a great deal of specific terminology.
About 40 per cent of students are Emirati, with others from Morocco, the Gulf countries and Europe.
Not only is it in French that the students are struggling, he said, but when they come to study at Masters level, even English proves tough for some, especially when writing Masters level papers and sitting examinations.
Many of the post-graduate programmes such as urban and regional planning are taught solely in English, while others, such as business and languages, are taught in both French and English.
"Last year we started testing in English because, even at master's level, the level of English is not very good here," Mr de Cara said.
"Some students were not able to go on. For those students not up to it, we now organise English training and we are more careful this year. As a result, we are not facing such a big issue for the level of English."
Many of the students coming to study on English programmes, he said, choose to take classes in French, intrigued by the opportunity to learn a new language and culture.
"It's something different for them, in addition to their studies."
About 40 per cent of the bachelor students undergo the intensive French programme but Mr de Cara said there are no plans to introduce English language bachelors.
He said it is regarded by French and UAE policy-makers as key to the university.
Fatima Abdulla, a research fellow at the Dubai School of Government and the managing director of Global Consulting Associates, said the challenges are not surprising.
"When you're learning a subject like law in French, you have to know the nuances. It's an added burden for the students," she said.
Ahmed al Hammadi studied law in Arabic for his undergraduate degree at UAE University but said he wanted "a new experience" for his post-graduate studies in international law, diplomacy and international relations, which are all in English, with some lectures in French.
"The Sorbonne is a big name," he said. "In the beginning it was very hard because it was a new language but as time goes on, I can feel I am improving."
In Dubai, the French fashion school Esmod teaches all programmes in English.
Its associate director, Tamara Hostal, said: "We give all the students the option to study French or Italian for a few hours a week but 90 per cent of them choose French because, for them, Paris is in their dreams as the centre of fashion."