Don't just talk the talk

June 9, 2000

Universities are closing language departments nationwide, but some professors are fighting back with exotic courses designed to appeal to reluctant students. Anne Sebba reports.

To speak a language is to bear the weight of a civilisation," proclaimed the Caribbean activist Frantz Fanton. It is a statement Michael Worton, professor of French at University College London, uses to illustrate his contention that, despite deep concern at the dramatic decline in applications to study modern languages in British universities, there is a determined fightback by many of his colleagues to set languages in their broadest cultural context.

"Competence in a modern language involves not simply acquiring linguistic skills - we are not just trying to enable students to order a cup of coffee in impeccable Spanish or French - but also understanding the cultural connotations of the language," Worton says. "If you take chrysanthemums to a Japanese house they might be pleased, but take them to a French home and they will ask, 'Why are you bringing me the flowers of death?'" Worton argues that there is a wider agenda to modern-language studies today. With older, more traditional degree courses there was a belief in the value of studying literature in itself, but nowadays studying the international social context in which the literature was written is equally important. "It's no longer possible to say that a degree in French deals only with metropolitan France, because you miss out on so much else - such as Canada, the Caribbean and Senegal, all of which have influenced France. We should be looking at the issue of ethnic diversity in any country that has had a colonial past."

According to statistics produced by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, entrants to modern-language degree courses dropped from 4,418 in 1996 to 3,744 in 1999. A recent report from the Nuffield Foundation refers to a deep crisis as underfunded universities shut both language and language teacher-training departments. The report calls on the government to initiate a national strategy for language learning and to insist that all university entrants have a post-16 language qualification.

It is a bleak scenario. "It is a depressing picture across the whole country to see the decline in numbers as well as in quality of applicants in an area that was so buoyant ten years ago," says Malcolm Cook, head of Exeter University's French department. Yet Mike Kelly, another head of French - at Southampton University - and a member of the Nuffield committee, believes there is some cause for optimism. He argues that while it is true that demand for specialist language courses has fallen steeply, there is a rise in the number of students taking a language module as part of a degree - "French for lawyers, Spanish for chemists, German for engineers".

According to Kelly, 21st-century students are not interested in reading generally, let alone poring over a fat 19th-century novel, "so there is a sharp move away from traditional literature-based courses". Successful departments have responded by putting on courses that grab the students' attention - in film studies or contemporary social culture. Kelly says:

"Universities are market-led, involved in designing attractive courses that lure students. If we do not do that, we are dead. If you tell students they must do medieval French because it is good for them, all that will happen is that they will leave."

Cook disagrees. He views the country-wide decline in literature studies as a great sadness. "If you were at a dinner table in Paris and had never read any Racine, Rousseau, Corneille or Voltaire you would feel rather silly, like not knowing about Shakespeare in England."

Exeter is one of many universities that runs a successful language centre offering a variety of courses to students from other disciplines, as well as crash courses. But there is a feeling that university language centres are being used as a last-chance saloon for those who have not learnt languages at school.

Hilary Footitt, chair of the University Council of Modern Languages, says:

"There is a paradox here in that there is clearly under-recruitment in terms of A-level students coming forward to study languages, yet most universities find themselves choc-a-bloc with students, once there, wanting to learn a language (as an extra option)." She wants languages to be made compulsory in schools until the age of 18.

"The problem is that what is happening is not a policy. It is unstructured and fragmented. Language must be recognised as a key skill throughout the curriculum."

One of the few languages that appears to be bucking the trend is Spanish. In Cambridge alone, total applications have doubled in the past ten years. Paul Julian Smith, head of Cambridge's Spanish and Portuguese department, believes this is partly because Spanish is a phonetic language, unlike French, and has no case endings, unlike German. "Although Spanish is not 'easy' at higher levels, students can speak and write correct sentences from the beginning. Spanish is both a Euro language and a global language, with more native speakers than English."

In addition, Hispanic popular culture is globally dominant. "There is no French equivalent of Puerto Rican singer Ricky Martin, no German equivalent of Spanish dancer Joaqu!n Cortes. I think the growth in Spanish around the country has in part been because of the dynamism of some departments and syllabus innovations, especially the introduction of film studies. We have been fortunate that there is a great student interest in Spanish film, especially Pedro Almod"var. There are no French or German equivalents of All about My Mother, Almod"var's recent prizewining film," explains Smith.

But while Spanish flourishes, the situation in German, Russian and East European language departments is dire, with several earmarked for closure or contraction.

Rosalind Marsh, professor of Russian studies at Bath and president of the British Association for Slavonic and East European studies, says that although she has raised the issue with the Higher Education Funding Council for England, it claims not to be able to interfere in the internal affairs of universities. "Vice-chancellors are taking unilateral decisions to close Russian courses because of the drop in student demand, mainly due to the bad image of Russia in the media during the late Boris Yeltsin period."

But since fluctuations in demand for Russian have always depended to an extent on the political situation, Marsh believes this is short-sighted. She forecasts a bleak future unless prompt action is taken. "There is a need for a national plan for Russian in higher education because so few schools now teach the subject. Also, many of the members of Russian departments are coming up to retirement in the next five or ten years, so if they are not replaced, the stock of expertise in Russian and East European languages will soon be sharply reduced."

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