Give languages a fair shout

We need policy to foster foreign language study at all levels of education, says Jocelyn Wyburd

September 4, 2014

The reform ran against the tide of language policy on the Continent, which aims to equip young people with two second languages

We live in an age of globalisation, and UK universities have embraced this in many different ways. Yet the perception remains that the status of English as the global lingua franca makes learning other languages unnecessary, with potentially disastrous consequences for language disciplines in our universities.

The continuing decline of foreign language study in higher education was highlighted in a recent Times Higher Education article (“Demand for STEM subjects holds up in wake of fees hike”, 21 August), following a warning from the Higher Education Funding Council for England that student numbers in 2013-14 could be at their lowest level for a decade.

Language study is about more than just the acquisition of a means of communication. It brings numerous cognitive and educational benefits and is, crucially, a gateway to understanding the world through the words, thoughts and cultures of others. The question we must ask ourselves is whether, as a nation, we can afford to lose such international insight – for that is the certain consequence if language departments continue to close.

We cannot ignore the role played by education policies at secondary school level. In 2004, the Labour government reduced the number of mandatory subjects at Key Stage 4 (GCSE level), removing languages. The reform – designed to give pupils the power to decide their own curriculum and to curb truancy – ran against the tide of language policy on the Continent (and now in Scotland), which aims to equip young people with two second languages, and resulted in a dramatic decline in language learning in the UK beyond the age of 14.

At least, it did in the state sector, which allowed pupils to vote with their feet, or dissuaded them from studying languages in favour of the “easier” subjects more likely to enhance the school’s league table position. Independent schools largely maintained the obligation to study a language, resulting in de facto elitism, with state school pupils particularly under-represented on language-based degrees. That elitist image has been further cemented by the particularly alarming rate of closure of language departments at post-92 universities.

The coalition government did reinstate languages as core academic subjects through their inclusion in the English Baccalaureate school performance measure (EBac), which probably accounts for the sudden increase in GCSE numbers in 2013, mirrored in this year’s AS-level numbers. But more recently other measures informing league tables have overshadowed the EBac, and the risk must be that schools driven by performance statistics may again marginalise languages.

One positive trend is the number of university students taking language courses alongside a specialism in other disciplines. There is some evidence that many are realising the extent to which school policies and guidance have let them down. Increased competition in the jobs market has led them to recognise the instrumental value of languages, while many postgraduates understand their necessity in research – whether for using sources in other languages (yes, they do exist!) or for fieldwork abroad.

However, this trend should not be regarded as compensation for the decline in the deeper, more specialist study of languages, cultures and societies, and the accompanying linguistic and intercultural competence acquired through language degrees, residence abroad and postgraduate research in language-based disciplines.

The British Academy and the Arts and Humanities Research Council are concerned about the damage to scholarship, yet universities do not ask for qualifications in a second language other than for entry to language degrees. Employer bodies and economists regularly highlight the damage to the UK’s economy and diplomacy from a lack of language skills, yet graduate recruiters rarely seek language skills or degrees either.

To thrive in a globalised world, we need a serious policy commitment to languages as key skills at all levels of our education system, as called for by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Languages in July. It is time for ministers and employers to act.

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