4.1. Mature Students: Who Are They?
The analysis of the results shows that the sample consisted of 105 men (53.8%) and 90 women (46.2%), aged between 23 and 79 years old, most of them in between 26 and 40 years old (n = 136, 69.7%), as shown in Table 1
The average age of the MS is 34.5 years old. Using the MacCune et al. [69
] definition of MS, the results show that most of the subjects are older MS, as they are aged between 31 and 66 (n = 119, 61%). This conclusion is reinforced by the analysis of the average age per year of the degree MS are currently attending, since it is always above 33 years old (see Table 2
Regarding gender, the majority of MS are men (n= 105, 53, 8%), as in the studies considered in the literature review. However, in this case, contrary to what was presented by Merrill [61
] and Quinn [62
], women are also a minority, but they represent 46.2% (n = 90) of all MS in the study. In fact, the results show that in the first year, there are six more women than men attending HE degrees, and in the third year, the number of females is very similar to the number of males.
Concerning MS’ learning career, the results indicate that before their current HE attendance (Academic Context Pre-HE), the vast majority have secondary education attendance from 10th to 12th grade: the majority of MS (n = 107, 54.9%) have the 12th grade, 45 MS have the 9th grade (23.1%), and 21 respondents have the 11th grade (10.6%). The option of 12th grade incomplete was indicated by 12 MS (6.2%. The Vocational Education and Training courses (VET) was marked by ten subjects (5.2%)). For instance, focusing only on the 82 MS attending the first year of their degree, the majority (n = 70, 85.3%) have secondary education attendance.
In order to estimate how long these 70 MS have been away from formal education, the average age of secondary school students, 17 years old, will be taken as the starting point. The results indicate that the average number of years that these MS were away from formal education is 21 years. The lowest number is seven years away from formal education, and the highest value is 36 (see Table 3
These results also unveil the fragmentation of these students’ educational paths, as stated, for instance, by Fragoso [9
], Kasworm [64
], and Williams and Seary [65
As far as the HE attendance is concerned, most of the MS (n = 92, 47.2%) are attending the first year, 34 of the respondents attending the second year (17.4%), while 62 are in the third year (31.8%). The current frequency of the second cycle—integrated master’s degree—was marked by seven of the MS (3.6%). As indicated in Table 2
, 18 MS that are in the first year have two or more enrolments in that year. Regarding the second year, 13 MS are attending the second year for the second time or more. Twenty MS are repeating the third year for the second time or more. Regarding the master, three MS are in their second enrolment or more (see Table 4
). It should be noted that these are full-time and not part-time enrolments.
Analyzing the data in Table 5
, it could be concluded that around 30% of these MS (n = 63, 32.3%) have, at least, one more enrolment than was supposed, considering the year they are attending.
Still concerning HE attendance and according to the results, most MS attend degrees in the scientific area of the Social Sciences and Humanities (n = 131, 66.8%). In this scientific area, the degrees with ten or more MS attendance are Public Administration (n = 27), Languages and Business Relations (n = 16), Basic Education (n = 13), Design (n = 12), and Office Administration Studies (n = 10). The second most chosen scientific area is Exact Sciences and Engineering (n = 47, 24.7%), from which two degrees with more than ten students stand out: Information Technologies (n = 14, 7.2%) and New Communication Technologies (n = 12, 6.7%). The scientific area of Life and Health Sciences, chosen by 16 MS (8.2%), does not have any degree with ten or more students enrolled. However, we can highlight Biology and Nursing degrees with seven MS each. The Natural and Environmental Sciences area, namely a Meteorology, Oceanography, and Geophysics degree, was the choice of one MS.
Regarding the main reasons to choose a HE degree, 122 MS (62.5%) stated that their degree is related to their current professional activity (n = 68), future professional projects (n = 41), and personal enrichment (n = 13). In the area of Life and Health Sciences, the degree choice is mostly related to future professional projects, while in the areas of Social Sciences and Humanities and Exact Sciences and Engineering, there seems to be a strong connection with the MS’ current professional activity.
In more detail, in the area of Social Sciences and Humanities current professional activity, for instance in Public Administration, Accounting, Design, and Office Administration Studies degrees, several MS indicate the connection between their current job and the area of the degree as the reason to attend the HE degree. Concerning the Exact Sciences and Engineering area, the current professional activity is the strongest reason for MS to choose the HE degree, as for example, in the degree of Industrial Engineering and Management and Information Technologies. It is also important to note that in the area of Social Sciences and Humanities, there is some considerable relation with future professional projects, mainly in Languages and Business Relations, Basic Education, Marketing, and Design (see Figure 1
In sum, back to the initial question, ‘Mature Students: Who Are They?’, and taking into account the results, in this study, MS are slightly more men than women with 34.5 years old as the average age. Most of these students have the 12th grade or secondary school attendance, and the average number of years away from formal education, before applying to HE, is 21. Regarding the HE attendance, most of the MS are attending the 1st year, and around 30% of them have, at least, one more enrolment than it was supposed, considering the year they are attending. In relation to the reasons for the choice of the degrees attended, the professional context (current and future) emerged as the main reason. More specifically, in the area of Life and Health Sciences, the degree choice is mostly related to future professional projects, while in the areas of Social Sciences and Humanities and Exact Sciences and Engineering, there seems to be a strong connection with the MS’ current professional activity.
4.2. Mature Students: In Which Contexts Do They Have Contact with Languages?
Recalling the two previous research questions (see Method Section), it could be stated that in this study, there are three main contexts that contribute significantly to the development of plurilingual repertoires: personal, academic, and professional contexts.
4.2.1. Personal Context
Regarding the personal context, which refers to languages mobilized in the interaction with parents, partners, children and friends, or other relatives, most of the MS refer European Portuguese as the mother tongue and as the most widely spoken language, namely with their parents, partners, and children. However, as shown in Figure 2
, it is with friends and with extended family that there is more linguistic diversity: besides European Portuguese, MS indicate English, Spanish, French, and German as the languages mobilized into the informal context of interaction with friends and other relatives.
As seen in Figure 2
, the results indicate the personal context, namely family, as an important setting in the development of plurilingual repertoires [18
]. However, our results also underline the development of MS repertoires as a result of interactions in personal context with different social actors, specifically close friends and extended family. These findings highlight the biographical dimension of the plurilingual repertoires since subjects have different friends throughout life, with different characteristics and important influences.
4.2.2. Academic Context
When asked about their contact with foreign languages in an academic context (pre-HE), most of the MS (n = 188) indicated that they have come into contact with French and English. Only seven MS report not having learned foreign languages in formal settings pre-HE.
As far as HE is concerned, 105 MS (53.9%) attend HE degrees with foreign language courses in their curricula (see Table 5
As it could be seen, most MS have English as the only foreign language in the attended degree. Only 33 (16.9%) subjects have formal contact with other languages, such as Arabic, Chinese, French, German, and Spanish. The findings, similarly to other studies [30
], emphasize the role of a single language, English, as a tool of economic and professional empowerment for students. Even though European language diversity and the growing academic and professional mobility (physic and virtual) are a reality, it seems that HE Institutions tend to value only the instrumental role of English [58
]. In spite of the fact that European language education policies have been underlining the need for Higher Education Instituitions (HEI) to develop plurilingual policies, namely by providing the possibility of language learning, the truth is that HEI throughout Europe have been tending towards monolingual education policies [31
Accordingly, in our previous study [79
], findings indicate that the inclusion of formal language learning in HE, through language courses, is more valued by MS than by institutional actors even if most students also value only English and consider it important to be included in the curricula.
The results also indicate that the HE attendance is seen by the majority of MS (n = 140, 71.8%) as a positive influence in the development of their plurilingual repertoires. Accordingly, MS underline the fact that the academic life, in multiple ways and levels, allows students to have contact with different languages and peoples (the translation of MS’ voices is the responsibility of the authors of this paper):
No matter the degree, with or without languages, either in terms of programmatic content or even in the level of research carried out by students in any other language, this [the HE attendance] will contribute to their [MS] development in the knowledge of other languages (MS26/195).
Contact with students and Professors from other countries leads to an opening to and development of languages (MS129/195).
Thus, MS emphasize the role of languages in social interactions in academia, arguing that:
As the student universe is filled with the most diverse nationalities, we have contact with several languages (MS16/195).
During the day, we meet and communicate with people from other countries and we do it in different languages (MS37/195).
When we meet people from Erasmus programs, if we want to communicate, we must strive to understand each other (MS187/195).
In addition to social interactions, MS consider that academic tasks are an opportunity to promote the development of their plurilingual repertoire. Particularly, MS referrer to bibliographic reading:
We always have to read books that are in other languages and that forces us to learn (MS9/195).
And along with that task, they also mention the importance of attending conferences:
We have to attend several conferences with foreign speakers and we have a lot of bibliographies also in foreign languages (MS2/195).
We can attend lectures presented in other languages, work with programs and manuals in other languages (MS41/195).
The development of plurilingual repertoire within the research was also underline by a mature student that states that:
At the research level, is all [tasks] in foreign languages (MS85/195).
MS also stress the importance of the development of their plurilingual repertoire during HE attendance in order to access new knowledge:
By accessing foreign language manuals and resources, it enables access to new knowledge (MS36/195).
It [the foreign language knowledge] prepares us to obtain and understand, more efficiently, information that does not exist in Portuguese (MS101/195).
In the learning path, it is necessary to understand some subjects [in foreign language] that are not available in my mother tongue (MS63/195).
However, it is stressed that English is the predominant language in the academic context as it is argued that
Much of the necessary bibliography is in English (MS40/195).
Most of the information search is done on English sites (MS53/195).
Even if this predominance seems to be felt as an imposition (MS189):
We find ourselves “obligated” to read a lot in English (MS189/195).
Nevertheless, the use of another language enhances new connections with knowledge by requiring other ways of saying things, as mentioned by this MS:
The daily contact with diverse literature, as well as the need to write in English, force me to rethink the way I express myself and make myself understood in a language other than Portuguese (MS3/195).
In a nutshell, these last findings reinforce the role of the social interactions with foreign actors in academic contexts, namely Erasmus students, in the expansion of the plurilingual repertoire [46
]. These contacts embody one of the main goals of HE: to develop transversal skills in students that enhance their mobility and their ability to live in culturally diverse societies [32
]. The findings also underline the relation between the accomplishment of academic tasks of diverse nature and the development of plurilingual repertoires [28
] since most students (n = 140, 71.8%) consider that the HE attendance and its inherent tasks promote the development of their plurilingual repertoire, namely the construction of knowledge. In addition to the highlighted English predominance, it is also clear to these MS that being able to work in several languages could be important, and it is considered as an advantage, but it is simultaneously very demanding [38
4.2.3. Professional Context
A total of 138 MS (70.8%, n = 195) state that they have contact with foreign languages in a professional context. Most of the subject have contacts with English (n = 58) or English with other languages (n = 65), such as Spanish (n = 16) or French (n = 15) or both (n = 20). French was indicated by two subjects and Spanish by six. Table 6
specifies the languages mobilized in this context as well as the situations that specify the languages mobilized in various situations in this context.
As stated by several authors [35
], this study also suggests that the professional context is one of the most dynamic regarding the development of a plurilingual repertoire. Similarly to the academic context, there is a dominance of the English language in the professional settings (n = 58), but most subjects (n = 65) contact simultaneously with other languages, such as French, Spanish, or German.
Considering the situations of contact with languages mentioned above, oral interactions (face-to-face or at a distance) in assistance tasks are those with more linguistic diversity (English, Spanish, French, German, and Italian in different combinations). Accordingly, 34 MS have contact with suppliers and/or customers in multiple languages, mainly English, Spanish, and French. The plurilingual repertoires of these subjects are also mobilized when they need to read documents (n = 20), mainly in English but also in French, Spanish, German, or Italian. Working in a global labor market means to have meetings with different actors, which have different plurilingual repertoires. In this sense, subjects (n = 14) refer that they have meetings in English, Spanish, French, and Italian (with different combinations). These findings indicate that plurilingual repertoire and its mobilization during social/professional interactions are central to the individual’s employability and careers.
We conclude this section with the voice of one mature student who highlights this close relationship between the academic context (HE) and the professional one regarding the dynamics of plurilingual repertoire, stating,
Much of our literature review is in foreign language, so we always increase our [languages] knowledge, and also, in the work context, we have to deal with people who speak other languages, which will also increase our [languages] knowledge (MS53/195).