Language learning is at the heart of internationalisation

Anglophone universities must embrace the skills and cultural understanding that learning foreign languages instils, says Vicky Lewis

July 4, 2021
A signpost with the names of different languages on it
Source: iStock

Having recently reviewed the global dimension of 134 UK university strategic plans, I noticed several blind spots. The most jarring – and least discussed – is the failure by universities to make the connection between their ambitions for international engagement and language learning.

While there is much rhetoric in these strategies about making a positive global contribution and building sustainable international relationships, few even mention the possibility that bilingual or multilingual staff and students might be better equipped to do this than monoglots.

As one of my interviewees observed: “The UK’s sense of internationalisation is more about showcasing what we do rather than learning from others. The absence of language learning from our strategies says a lot about the culture underpinning ‘English’ internationalisation.”

Quite apart from playing into stereotypes of British insularity and inflexibility, this one-way approach is not sustainable – and does not cut it within global higher education circles. Collaboration, equity and societal impact are at the heart of discussions about the future of internationalisation, especially now that a pandemic has reinforced both the interconnectedness of nations and the importance of international cooperation.

The European Commission has a goal for all EU citizens to speak at least two additional languages. It understands the vital role that foreign languages play in enhancing intercultural understanding, employability, mobility and competitiveness. The UK’s schools watchdog Ofsted noted something similar in its recent curriculum research review for languages, remarking how learning a language “helps to equip pupils with the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life” and to appreciate and celebrate cultural difference.

Last year’s British Academy-led report into language learning went further by highlighting the strategic importance of languages as the UK recovers from the pandemic and seeks to strengthen its relationships around the world. A previous academy report, 2019’s Languages in the UK, recycled the claim apparently first made in 2013 that monolingualism is “the illiteracy of the 21st century”.

Yet instilling 21st century literacy feels like an uphill struggle. GCSE and A level language study continues to decline and university language departments continue to close. UK university leaders are in an invidious position; if the pipeline of students dries up, language degrees become economically unviable to deliver. However, justifying closures on that basis misses their crucial role in internationalisation.

Within UK universities, there is widespread acceptance that graduates need intercultural competencies if they are to work effectively in a global context. However, students who try to acquire these without ever having experienced the challenge of communicating in a foreign language are doing so with one hand tied behind their backs. Hence, the financial investment required to foster a culture of language learning (whether as part of a degree programme or as an extracurricular offer for students and staff) is ultimately an investment in the global employability of an institution's graduates – as well as in that institution’s positioning as an internationally trusted and genuinely open-minded organisation.

That positioning is particularly important with regard to international students and staff. Far from adopting a deficit perspective towards non-native speakers of English, UK universities should engage with them as an institutional asset. After all, how can a university claim to be truly international – or decolonised – if it does not proactively draw on the experiences of those many staff and students who have shown initiative and adaptability by coming to the UK and operating in a second (or third) language? They should be held up as an example to other staff and students of the intercultural strengths that come with language learning.

The languages universities prioritise may not be the same languages that their native-speaking staff learned (or started to learn) at school. Around the world, there has been an astonishing rise during the pandemic in the learning of Asian languages on the Duolingo platform, with five of the fastest growing being Hindi, Korean, Japanese, Turkish and Mandarin Chinese. Recent webinars hosted by the Centre for Global Higher Education also underline the shift in the centre of gravity towards Asia, which is accompanied by a need for Western countries to start understanding different Asian countries on their own terms – for which proactiveness in building up language skills is essential.

Imagine if a UK university framed internationalisation in terms of valuing other cultures and perspectives. Imagine if it had the courage to position language learning at the heart of its drive to foster cultural intelligence, supporting a central pillar of its global engagement strategy. It would overturn stereotypes, forge a distinctive institutional identity and put a new, decolonial spin on “Global Britain”.

Vicky Lewis is an independent consultant who works with higher education providers to develop or refine their international strategies. She is author of a report, UK Universities’ Global Engagement Strategies: Time for a rethink?

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