Teaching modern languages without culture will harm global relations

Aberdeen’s proposal to close language degree programmes might save money but it will impoverish international understanding, says Charles Burdett

November 13, 2023
Cartoon of two people with a tangled speech bubble between them symbolising misunderstanding
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The University of Aberdeen is preparing to consult on plans to make drastic changes to its provision of modern languages. Though it remains committed to language learning as an accompaniment to other degrees, it has signalled its intention to consider withdrawing from the integrated study of language and culture.

The proposal is motivated by a sudden deficit and the university will no doubt have to make difficult choices, but the intention to single out modern languages calls for public scrutiny given its implications for how and why we study other languages and cultures.

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To begin with, when we are confronted with the horrors of events unfolding in Israel and Gaza, when we witness in real time the expansionist intentions of the world’s authoritarian regimes, and when the enduring legacies of colonialism are everywhere apparent, it is clear that we need to develop the capacity to think in global terms and develop the specialist cultural and linguistic knowledge that enables us to do so.

The danger of separating language from cultural study is that it promotes the belief that, if you share a channel of communication, you are necessarily sharing the same meanings and drawing the same inferences. Only when you see that language is not a neutral tool but an instrument that is embedded in, and expressive of, complex cultural systems do you grasp the difficulty of really achieving shared understanding. A proficiency in language alone will only take you so far in appreciating the intricacy with which people living in different parts of the globe make sense of the realities that they inhabit.

Likewise, it is only through the development of linguistic and cultural competence that you can begin to understand the full extent of the challenges that people face in specific localities – not least the UK, with its huge range of practices, languages and histories of mobility – or which confront the world as a whole.

To take two examples that are at the forefront of everyone’s consciousness. It is surely clear that it is not possible to grasp what is happening in Ukraine without a knowledge not only of the histories but also of the cultures of both Russia and Ukraine, of the contrasting notions of society that operate in both countries, and of how speaking one language or another in an environment of violent polarisation can become a matter of life or death.

Alternatively, one might reflect on the growing evidence of climate catastrophe. If we are to develop more sustainable lifeways, we need to rethink and re-imagine every aspect of how we interact with the natural world and how we function as a global society. Yet that is only possible if we are open to modes of linguistic and cultural signification that allow us to think and feel beyond our habitual frames of reference.

All of these considerations – none of which are controversial – make the threat to Aberdeen’s modern languages degree programmes difficult to comprehend. It is all the more puzzling in light of the significant investments being made by all four UK nations in the teaching of languages and intercultural understanding, in an attempt to address the current shortage of specialists with these skills, recognised as essential for social cohesion, creativity, security and economic development. The CBI has, for example, been arguing for at least a decade that the UK’s failure to produce enough linguistically and culturally skilled graduates places the equivalent of an additional tax burden on businesses.

What about the suggestion that students don’t want to study culture and are only interested in language acquisition? It’s true, of course, that the ways in which we access culture are constantly changing and that every university department and subject area needs to constantly adapt its teaching practice accordingly. But I doubt that students are truly indifferent to the core elements of a modern languages degree: how people move between linguistic and cultural systems; how they struggle – or have struggled – against modes of oppression or injustices created by centuries of colonialism; how they continually fashion identities that do not conform to what a given society might define as normative.

Aberdeen’s proposal to move away from modern languages degree programmes might help to solve the financial issues it is facing, but if carried through it will deprive the next generation of students of the opportunity to contribute to society by acquiring an understanding of the world through multiple, constantly changing perspectives. When the need for meaningful global understanding could not be greater, the implications of this should be considered with the utmost seriousness.

Charles Burdett is director of the Institute of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

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