Losing fluency: why the UK needs linguists

Modern languages are struggling in an inward-looking nation. Revival may come by showing the young they are a route to a more connected world

February 23, 2017
French sign
Source: Reuters

Regrets? Most of us will have a few about our university days. Too much time spent on frivolities. Not enough time spent on frivolities. Too little appreciation of how unique those three or four years are, and how rapidly windows of opportunity come and go.

In an interview in last week’s Times Higher Education, the novelist Monica Ali admitted that she “didn’t go to a single lecture in the first two years”. “I regret that I didn’t make more of all the university had to offer,” she added. Missing lectures to quite this degree may be unusual, but missing many of the magic casements that briefly open during one’s undergraduate years is not.

My main regret is not taking advantage of the Erasmus programme to spend a year somewhere else in Europe – partly for the language that I imagine I would have learned, but mainly for the experience that I’m sure would have enriched the rest of my life.

Clearly an Erasmus year is not the same thing as a language degree. But the opportunity to immerse oneself in another culture, mediated through the technical process of learning its language, seems to me to be one of the most valuable ways to spend such a formative period. Which makes it so regrettable that modern languages have, for many years now, teetered on the brink of a full-blown crisis, with student numbers declining, departments closing and well-meaning administrators seeking to preserve them as extracurricular addenda to the degrees that still sell.

In our cover story this week, we assess the state of modern languages, with linguists from universities in the UK, the US, Australia and Denmark giving first-hand accounts of how their field is faring, and what they think the future holds.

This is not a gloom-fest. There is optimism in their analysis, and concrete foundations for the way ahead. Our contributors also bring some clarity to the reasons behind the malaise, and how student attitudes and motivations have changed over the years (this, of course, is the key to plotting the field’s revival).

There are also some specific factors at play currently that could present opportunities. It won’t have escaped your notice that among the various political schisms that have revealed themselves in the past 12 to 18 months is a serious rift between old and young. It’s not new to observe that personal politics often shift to the right over time, but it was still startling to see how closely age correlated with attitude in the Brexit vote.

Although this is not quite as clear in support for Trump in the US, the narrative that the old (who vote) are determining a future that the young (many of whom do not vote) neither want nor endorse is a theme of our time.

Which raises an obvious question: if the young are indeed desperate for a more connected world, then what better time to attract them to modern languages? The necessity of looking outward for cultural experience is likely to become even more pronounced if – as we report in our news pages – the flow of students into the UK is being stymied and concentrated in particular types of university. Taken together, the scholars contributing to our cover story suggest that a combination of existing initiatives to tackle the downturn in demand for modern languages (such as the measures introduced by Aarhus University and Copenhagen University to “combine market-oriented skills with insights into languages and cultures”, or by the University of Birmingham to work with schools to counter an idea that languages are an elitist field), and capitalising on the revolutionary mood of young people who feel that they are being isolated against their wishes, could offer a way ahead.

There may be a dose of principle above pragmatism in appealing to young people’s fears about horizons closing in. But if universities don’t stand for principle, then they don’t stand for much at all. And if modern languages are allowed to slip quietly into oblivion, it wouldn’t just be a matter of regret, it would be a tragedy.


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Print headline: Fading fluency

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