Who will speak up for languages?

September 2, 2010

These are testing and paradoxical times for universities' modern languages departments. A significant number have closed in recent years; others have been hacked to the bone, nearing the point of being unsustainable as distinct intellectual entities.

Yet modern language learning has rarely been as important as it is now. This point has been securely and repeatedly made in a succession of official reports in the past year alone. The CBI stresses that the UK is simply not keeping up with the demand for graduates with high-level language skills and intercultural competence. At a time of economic crisis, we need more than ever a flow of young people who can engage in international, nuance-sensitive dialogue and promote arguments with confidence and fluency.

Where are these graduates to come from? And if primary schools are to reintroduce foreign languages from 2011, will it be necessary to import native speakers from other parts of Europe to supplement the staffing of this process? Smart universities recognise the importance of investing in languages. But some institutions feel they cannot afford to recognise it. A government-led initiative is surely necessary. No longer is it acceptable for the UK's political class to float into international encounters in a unilingual bubble; for better or for worse, we have a coalition government led by a prime minister who can converse passably in French, and a deputy prime minister with no fewer than five languages.

Will they and their ministers now provide leadership in finding ways to target help towards language departments experiencing short-term recruitment fluctuations? This is a moment offering a strategic choice, with implications not only for this country's political economy but also for its maintenance of a strong international research reputation.

Mary Bryden, President, Association of University Professors and Heads of French.

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