Modern languages: four reforms to reclaim the future of our discipline

Stephen Hutchings and Yaron Matras call for the modern languages community to be proactive in what are difficult times for the discipline

June 26, 2017
Language learning with dictionaries
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Recent measures taken at a number of UK universities – including cutbacks on modern languages staffing, redundancies and in some cases the closure of courses – show the unprecedented pressures that UK universities are facing (and the serious implications these pressures have for an already embattled modern languages community). 

Modern languages disciplines can exercise some control over their future, if they are prepared to be proactive, to countenance radical reform of their programmes, to rethink their relationships with other disciplines and to engage in a creative reimagining of the place of languages in a globalised world.

Below we offer some suggestions that, if they do not represent a water-tight, universally applicable solution, may at least initiate the sort of conversation across our community that is urgently required.

Any reform should begin with a rejection of the prevailing compartmentalised, nation-state based approach to the organisation of modern languages units and curricula. This could be addressed by strengthening offerings in Chinese, Arabic and Japanese, and introducing the likes of Urdu/Hindi, Punjabi or Polish, thereby dismantling the fallacious distinction between “community” and “foreign” languages.

Difficult choices on resource allocation could be minimised if UK universities were to require all students to take one course in a modern language during their undergraduate studies. Under this scenario schools, where Britain’s “languages problem” begins, would be incentivised to restore the discipline to its rightful place in the secondary curriculum.

Secondly, it is time we capitalised upon the immense value to our students of the multilingual communities in which our large universities are located. By building close partnerships with those communities, we will be able to identify opportunities to expose students to the languages in their midst, enhancing their linguistic proficiency and their appreciation of the importance of linguistic diversity, and involving them in staff-led research.

The Multilingual Manchester initiative is already operating a student volunteer scheme that is open to students of all disciplines across the university. Even when there is no precise correspondence between placement and language or other degree programmes, such initiatives can equip students with vital transferable skills.

Thirdly, much can be gained from working across the boundaries of individual language disciplines to create modules with a strong comparative or transnational dimension. These would offer significant economies on staff resource, since the burden of teaching them can be shared across disciplines.

Possibilities, which are almost infinite, might include “New Media and Political Protest in Authoritarian Societies” (co-taught by staff in Arabic, Russian and Chinese); or “Remembering Communism in Eastern Europe” (co-taught by German and Russian staff). There is a bigger imperative still to embed modern languages expertise, and its associated “world view”, throughout the arts. This would require an alignment of modern languages curricula with those of the still surprisingly monocultural arts disciplines (history, English, drama, film etc.) and, where feasible, the social sciences (politics, sociology), as well as those that deal with diversity management and global outreach, such as anthropology, human geography, and planning, business and population health.

Our final suggestion concerns the teaching of modern languages themselves.

The response to target-language teaching of so-called “content” modules is often that students can only cope with simple material when it is taught in a language other than their own. This attitude internalises the British lack of confidence in speaking other languages; elsewhere in the world, target-language teaching is the norm rather than the exception.

Bolstering the number of content modules taught in the target language would dismantle the language/content dichotomy, which is based on a dubious assumption that the world of culture and ideas can be separated from the form through which it is articulated. It would also help deliver on meeting student requests for more exposure to their target language without increasing staff resource.

To summarise, these reforms would require a strategy of developing, and carefully balancing, different categories of module: dedicated language acquisition courses; content courses delivered in the target language; content modules taught in English but co-taught across language disciplines and offered to other departments as well; and content modules taught in English but developed by single language disciplines in consultation with other arts disciplines.

None of what we are proposing is incompatible with the retention of languages to degree level, and across the range of languages offered by large modern languages schools. In fact, the reforms outlined offer the best chance of extending that range.

We have to be realistic about what declining modern languages enrolments and wider challenges to higher education mean for our subject areas, and to work with university management teams to arrive at the most efficient and productive deployment of our expertise. We have simultaneously to argue vociferously for the critical importance of that expertise and to articulate a compelling vision for modern languages research and teaching aimed at halting, and ultimately reversing, the long decline. 

Stephen Hutchings is professor of Russian studies at the University of Manchester. Yaron Matras is professor of linguistics at the same institution. A longer version of this article is available on the University of Manchester website.

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