Why are we so tongue tied in the face of being silenced?

December 24, 2004

Speak up, modern languages academics, enjoins Malcolm Cook. We must make the same noise about closures as our chemist colleagues

When a university decides it will close chemistry there is a public outcry - the Royal Society of Chemistry is vociferous and governments seem to listen, eventually. There is no doubt that many of the sciences are in crisis, but what is happening in modern languages is perhaps even more worrying. At school and university level, modern languages and sciences share the fate of being perceived as "difficult" or "academic" subjects: it is no accident that the crisis in school teaching is found in maths, physics, chemistry and modern languages.

The Modern Humanities Research Association, whose members are mainly academics working in modern languages, is not a campaigning organisation, but the time may have come when we need to speak with a louder voice, since it is clear that our present Government cannot be relied on to defend the provision of foreign-language teaching in the UK. Perhaps the Higher Education Funding Council for England will come to the rescue with extra funding when it is too late - in line with its somewhat tardy decision to reband modern languages.

What we need to address first is the fact that most of our university colleagues, and certainly most university administrators, do not understand what we do. That must partly be our failing. I know of only one modern linguist who is a vice-chancellor in the UK. No wonder, perhaps, that there is such widespread ignorance about our contribution and activity. Contrary to what some think, we do not spend most of our time teaching language skills to our students. Most of us are specialists in literature and cultural history,or culture - we do what English and history do, but also open doors to a foreign culture, to a world where the very nature of humanities can be explored and defined. We tend to teach longer hours than our colleagues in neighbouring disciplines and our subjects are more demanding for students since they require time spent on language acquisition and improvement. Our students typically spend four years doing their degrees - although clearly, such a structure will be at risk in a high-fee environment.

There is clearly a crisis in modern languages - just look at the number of departments that have closed or been threatened with closure in recent years. Many modern language departments are small and therefore vulnerable and it is easier to close departments than to go back to the drawing board and build up bigger centres of excellence and regional groupings.

Furthermore, the Government has decided that modern languages should not be compulsory after the age of 14. The result: two-thirds of state schools have dropped compulsory foreign language provision after 14 compared with 97 per cent that offer it in the independent sector.

Those of us who studied Latin in our state schools will recognise the scenario. How many state schools now offer the study of classical languages? We are becoming educational paupers, insular and parochial.

Languages are not easy and cannot be made any easier, and schools faced with league tables may well encourage their students to opt for less demanding subjects. We are in this respect the laughing stock of Europe, where, typically, students are learning two foreign languages. We live with the myth that everybody speaks English. The Government's reply to criticism of its policy by the French, German, Italian and Spanish ambassadors was to introduce modern languages in primary schools. As an example of joined-up policy, this leaves something to be desired.

Apart from department closures, there are also concerns about whole areas of research that are in danger of being ignored and about the future of publishing modern languages research. It has become difficult to recruit colleagues to work in certain areas. For example, one of the major publications used by modern linguists, The Year's Work in Modern Language Studies , had to postpone 36 sections in its last volume because no contributors could be found. The reason: heads of school or department do not believe that research in some areas will be rewarded by the research assessment exercise. And they are probably right.

Thankfully, the Arts and Humanities Research Board has provided the funding for some major projects that the MHRA, as a relatively small charity, cannot. The British Academy has also helped. The MHRA publishes some of the top journals in modern languages as well as bibliographies, monographs and other research aids - we are prepared to lose money on many of our publications since we believe that our purpose is to support research of the highest quality and promise.

Commercial publishers do not agree and even at some major university presses many series have closed because they are deemed to be unviable - the squeeze on university library budgets has meant that research monographs in modern languages are no longer a feasible commercial proposition. Other publishers will publish only with a large subvention from university departments or scholars - who themselves are struggling to make ends meet. The MHRA's response has been to expand our book publishing programme, but we recognise that we cannot hope to fill the gaps on our own.

The British Academy's report shows how humanities subjects such as modern languages enrich societies and produce individuals who are critical, humane and hopefully tolerant. But we have failed to persuade many universities and certainly the Government of the contribution we make to culture, to life and to the future of our world. It is time to go on the offensive and to lose no opportunity to show that we are a vibrant community. We may have been seduced by trends and movements and, on occasions, forgotten our core activity - but we have failed, thus far, to convince our critics that what we do is valuable and important and that the future without it is bleak.

And when a university decides to close a language department, we must make sure that we share the front pages with chemistry.

Malcolm Cook is professor of French 18th-century studies at Exeter University and chair of the Modern Humanities Research Association. The Modern Languages Association's annual meeting in Philadelphia, December -30 , will host a key debate on the future of the humanities.

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