Attention, s'il vous plaît

June 1, 2007

Lecturers are responding creatively to the challenge posed by language students who are more diverse than ever, says Michael Kelly

Le changement dans le calme? I don't think so, not in languages. There is a lot of change, but not much calm. The environment for languages is in ferment, and higher education is responding with energy and ingenuity. It is a plaisanterie in Europe that no one is more innovative than the British in language learning because no one stands in greater need of it.

The upheaval in schools is headline news as the Government struggles to stem the haemorrhage of languages in post-14 education while kick-starting language learning in primary schools. The result for higher education is that language degrees are becoming the preserve of the few, while the many crowd into beginners and improvers language classes alongside their main subject to beef up their CVs. Eighteen to 22-year-olds are joined in class by older learners. Some of the most enthusiastic foreign-language learners are international students, and the profile of those learning languages is more diverse than ever.

Policy-makers have noticed this and recognised that languages are both strategically important and vulnerable. The Department for Education and Skills has developed a National Languages Strategy for England and has set up a group to implement it in higher education. The Higher Education Funding Council for England is funding the Routes into Languages scheme to raise take-up of languages through collaborations across the sector and in partnership with schools. Initiatives are under way in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland with the same concerns.

Today's language students have different expectations from their parents' generation. They work hard and expect a first-rate learning experience and a good degree at the end of it. They also expect their degree to open doors for a career in which they may not use their language but will use the skills they have acquired. They have had these expectations repeatedly confirmed by the message that languages give them an edge in the jobs market.

Students arrive in university with a different skillset, too:more savvy with IT and new media, more fluent and well able to communicate. But they often struggle with grammar and accuracy and find it hard to read longer texts in that language. Even among language majors, students tend to be much more fascinated by the language itself, rather than seeing it as a means of access to the cultural riches it can unlock. Single-honours students are now a small minority in language degrees. Most specialist linguists study two or more languages or combine a language with another discipline. As language learning occupies a higher proportion of their time, there is less scope for cultural and social studies.

Teachers have responded creatively to the new expectations and new skill requirements. They have developed strategies to address the wider spread of language attainment among students, as two examples from my own university will illustrate.

At Southampton University, students are no longer taught in year groups (first-year German and so on). Instead, they are placed in one of seven language stages, from beginner to expert, according to their initial level of attainment. The stages are mapped against UK and European standards.

Students advance by at least one stage a year and typically find themselves in the same classes as more junior or more senior students.

At stages 3 or 4 (post-A level), students undertake a programme of integrated language-learning skills. This gives them grounding in needs analysis, action planning, task design, resource selection and critical evaluation. It emphasises the practical application of these techniques and equips students for future language learning as well as giving them valuable life skills.

Other universities take a different tack. Some of the most challenging innovations come from, to borrow a phrase, Vorsprung durch Technik . Wide use of mobile phones, laptops, iPods and hand-held devices means that languages can be learnt on the move. Of course, this "virtual mobility" is only a partial substitute for spending time living in a country where the language is spoken.

Their parents' generation will easily recognise the value of the multimedia material delivered by DVDs and some online services, but post-school language students are likely to be equally at ease with messaging, texting and social networking, including MySpace, YouTube and social bookmarking - technologies that are often suited to language learning. Aficionados claim you haven't lived until you've used a foreign language in Second Life.

The world is changing fast, with lots of uncertainty about the future. But there are also many opportunities, and languages are on the move to grasp them.

Michael Kelly is professor of French at Southampton University and director of the Higher Education Academy's Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies.

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