Sorry, non comprendo, I'm British

Modern languages should be a passport to life, so why are so few students queuing up to learn them? In a special report on Britain's linguistic skills gap, Matthew Reisz discovers that, globally speaking, we are missing out

October 21, 2010

Andrew McDermott is a third-year student of international business and modern languages at Aston University currently spending a year with Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt. In a recent blog post, he reflects on what studying German has meant for him: "summer courses abroad, meeting countless new foreign friends, including my girlfriend, a chance to really get to know a culture and society foreign to that of my own, greatly increased employability, a foreign job market to look at...

"A good friend of mine is working for a very well-respected recruitment consultancy in London - and what is one of the most sought-after skills in all branches of business right now, according to him? Ah, that would be language skills."

Despite all he has gained from his studies, McDermott understands why so many British pupils are put off. Languages were taught at school "in such a mundane and soul-destroying manner that it didn't really surprise me when everyone quit them at the earliest opportunity", he recalls. It was not so much the fault of the individual teachers as "the rigid specification of the exam boards that paralysed the language staff from making their lessons more exciting".

A simple comparison revealed the disastrous result: while McDermott's family's German exchange student "was carving her way through a library of English language books in my house and discussing solutions to the world's problems with my parents", he could still "barely ask someone where the toilet is auf Deutsch".

Instead of the discouragements created by British educational policy, McDermott wonders "why the overwhelming advantages aren't explained, drilled in even, to the pupils learning, or thinking of learning, a foreign language at school. I would show them countless examples of how far people can go and have gone with their language skills. I would show them what doors it opens up and what doors it certainly doesn't close."

A similar appreciation, from the other end of a career, appears in Glyn Hambrook's personal testimony on the merits of language learning on page 40.

Such individual perspectives have been backed up in a number of official reports. Learning a language or two, notes a 2008 report entitled Community Languages in Higher Education: Towards Realising the Potential (see box below), tends to help develop skills such as "problem solving, critical thinking, communication, team work, interaction". Particularly when combined with working or studying abroad, it gives learners a valuable opportunity to see their own culture from the outside, increases their mental flexibility and may even delay the onset of Alzheimer's.

Pulling all this together, we can say that languages are empowering, provide a passport to a more varied and adventurous life, open up a wider pool of friends and sexual partners, and slow down the ageing process. While the skills they promote tend to be personally enriching, many are also sought by employers and so enhance job prospects. Who could ask for anything more? Although it may seem like hard work to struggle with irregular verbs or one of Proust's trickier subordinate clauses, the rewards should amply repay the effort.

Yet if the case for learning languages is so strong, we would expect young people to be queuing up to study such subjects at university or to acquire them by other means (including non-credit-bearing extracurricular courses). Language departments and academic linguists should be flourishing. Yet that is very far from what we find.

The grim reality was clearly set out in last year's Review of Modern Foreign Languages Provision in Higher Education in England, commissioned by Hefce from Michael Worton, vice-provost of University College London. It cited a report from 2008 that "as many as a third of university language departments had closed in seven years". More generally, we have witnessed "a gradual but apparently inexorable reduction in provision nationally (over the past decade), with modern language departments now being located essentially in pre-1992 universities and, indeed, mainly in Russell Group universities". One of the predictable results, noted Worton, was that "languages would increasingly become the preserve of the middle-class (and privately educated) student".

The community of university-based linguists, meanwhile, "feels itself to be vulnerable - and, indeed, beleaguered". This is partly the result of limited finances. Modern foreign languages are, Worton writes, "more of an undergraduate subject than many other humanities disciplines". This naturally has an impact on income, magnified by "a wide-spread perception that the language disciplines performed less well than other disciplines in the research assessment exercise".

The most basic worry is that this leaves the largely monoglot British people, at a time of economic crisis, without some of the skills essential for flourishing in a competitive global marketplace.

Even factoring out "the English-language effect" - the reality that many people from other countries manifestly do speak English - one researcher estimated that raising British standards of linguistic competence to the world average would generate extra income of at least £9 billion a year.

The damage inflicted by the linguistic skills gap can be seen on all sides. Last year's British Academy position paper, Language Matters, showed that British researchers find it difficult to join teams that address major challenges such as terrorism or climate change through a comparative or international approach. Politicians fret that few British civil servants get jobs within European institutions.

"The GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) and defence establishments need more linguists," says Pamela Moores, executive dean and head of the School of Languages and Social Sciences at Aston University. "There are more people wanting to learn Arabic than places available."

So are there any signs that the seemingly very compelling case for languages is making headway? Have there been any significant improvements since the publication of Worton and the British Academy's urgent reports? Worton himself responds to this question on page 38, but can we spot any other straws in the wind?

What happens in universities is obviously affected by the supply of students emerging from schools. There seems little prospect of reversing the previous government's decision to make languages optional for pupils at Key Stage 4 (ages 14-16) or for the coalition government to reintroduce an abandoned proposal to make languages compulsory in primary schools.

Newspapers led a certain amount of hand-wringing when French dropped out of the top 10 subjects studied at GCSE this year. A more promising sign is Education Secretary Michael Gove's plans for an "English Baccalaureate" for anyone who passes five GCSEs including a foreign language. If such a qualification acquires real status, it will offer at least a small spur in the right direction.

Although last week's report from Lord Browne of Madingley's review of higher education funding and student finance is widely regarded as posing a threat to the arts and humanities more generally, it explicitly mentions "strategically important languages courses" as among those that deserve "additional and targeted investment by the public".

Worton's report called for the creation of a forum, including representatives of universities, schools and employers, Hefce, the departments for Business, Innovation and Science and for Children, Schools and Families, "to formulate clear, coherent messages" about languages in higher education and "to develop a communication strategy for these messages". The first meeting was somewhat inconclusive, not least because it took place only 10 days before the general election; the second - chaired by Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex - was on 12 October.

"Modern languages have not sufficiently made their case as a discipline to government," Riordan says. "At a time when we have to replace 5 to 10 per cent of lost income and reinvigorate our status as an exporting nation, we need to integrate into government and public discourse a sense that - just like the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects - languages are key to the future prosperity of the country. We also need better coordination between schools and universities policy. The forum will focus on getting the attention of ministers."

Another response to Worton's report is being developed by the University Council of Modern Languages (UCML), which also represents the interests of linguistics and cultural and area studies throughout the UK. This is being led by Moores and is due for completion in April 2011.

It aims to create "a powerful general case for language study by spelling out the assets our graduates develop" - and to take the message to official stakeholders, students and their families, and academic colleagues.

"We are a small and fragmented group compared to the STEM lobby," explains Moores. "Some people working in the field are most interested in language and linguistics, others are traditionally literary or focus on contemporary, multidisciplinary themes." The crucial thing is to find a way for them all to speak with one voice.

The "impact agenda" should favour language departments, in so far as many of their academics publish in the foreign languages where their findings are likely to be most relevant and influential. Research councils, however, tend to be much more interested in "impact" within the UK.

Over and above such technical questions, Moores puts British apathy towards languages down to "a combination of complacency and disempowerment. Those outside our discipline say that people who come here speak English much better than we could ever speak their languages - so why bother?"

The UCML initiative will no doubt make many of the same points as a depressingly long series of reports urging the British to escape from their monoglot ghetto. Those who care about our economic prospects, or like the sound of McDermott's lifestyle, would be well advised to sit up and take notice.


There were no degree courses available for the four most widely spoken community languages in England - Urdu, Cantonese, Punjabi and Bengali - according to a 2008 report.

This was despite the fact that these languages have been established in Britain since at least the 1960s and that large numbers of secondary school children have studied them to A level.

Community Languages in Higher Education: Towards Realising the Potential, published by Routes into Languages, went on to recommend "the establishment of at least one degree course in each of the main community languages".

Its lead authors are Joanna McPake, vice-dean (knowledge exchange) at the University of Strathclyde, and Itesh Sachdev, professor of language and communication at London's School for Oriental and African Studies.

They warn against using the term "community languages" as a euphemism for languages of non-European origin - since Britain is also home to, for example, French-speaking "communities" from both Europe and elsewhere.

The key distinction, rather, is between a language someone learns from scratch within an academic setting and one he or she has acquired elsewhere, such as within the family.

Nonetheless, it remains clear that the teaching of Gujarati and of German raise rather different issues for universities.

So why should institutions offer degree courses in, say, the languages of the Indian subcontinent?

Sachdev and McPake point to issues of social cohesion and widening access, the need to reach out to communities that often get the message that "their languages, apart from English, are not useful or valued here ... people from these communities are not really encouraged, at school or university, to build on their existing linguistic talents".

Furthermore, their report suggested, developing markets often offer "greater potential than mature markets for economic growth". Many of the most useful languages "are widely used as community languages in the UK, and there is thus potential to reach high levels of competence very quickly, giving British businesses the chance to be at the forefront of commercial development...(its linguistic diversity) provides the UK with a head-start, particularly in relation to languages such as Chinese, Hindi/Urdu or Arabic".

Degree courses would provide one way of transforming informal (and often essentially oral) linguistic knowledge into a real commercial asset.

They would also help develop a cadre of interpreters and secondary-school teachers with degree-level competence, as would be normal for French or German.

"There is no reason to think that numbers (for such courses) would be small in the long run," Sachdev and McPake argue, although "it will take time to raise awareness and recognition of the value of what is offered".

So what is currently available? "Soas is now the only university in the country which offers undergraduate (joint) degree courses in Hindi, Bengali and Nepali," says Francesca Orsini, the head of Soas' department of the languages and culture of South Asia. In her native Italy - rather surprisingly, given its history and demography - Hindi is far more prominent on university syllabuses than it is here.

Today's "market", continues Orsini, "consists of British students who have been to a country of South Asia earlier in their lives or as part of their gap year, second- and third-generation British Asians, as well as significant numbers of European students and, increasingly, students from South Asia itself".

At Soas, she says, different constituencies are accommodated through a flexible system offering four different levels of teaching in Hindi and courses such as one in Urdu literacy that enables those with oral fluency to develop reading and writing skills.

Elsewhere, unfortunately, the standard model is for languages (other than the major European languages) to be taught ab initio at university, so people who have spoken them at home are implicitly discouraged from signing up - or even explicitly excluded because they already "know too much" or use the "wrong" version of a language.

Many language teachers, observe Sachdev and McPake, seem "unable to use the existing talents of their students in their teaching and learning - it is a bizarre state of affairs!"

If Britain needs more Chinese or Arabic speakers, McPake told a conference last year, "there is something perverse about trying to persuade people who are not community language learners to study these languages ... and yet to prevent people with existing interest, commitment and competence from taking this forward".

As well as being unfair to the students concerned, this surely represents a significant waste of individual and national resources.

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