Broad courses give 'dying' subjects new lease of life

Aberdeen students buck trend and grab chance to study foreign languages. Hannah Fearn writes

December 23, 2010

Students have an appetite for languages and "dying" subjects such as Classics if they are offered the opportunity to explore them, enrolment trends at the University of Aberdeen suggest.

First-year undergraduates at the institution are for the first time following a broader curriculum that allows them to study subjects from outside their disciplines either as a taster or in depth.

The curriculum was launched in September, and enrolments to language courses are up by 61 per cent, compared with the previous year.

The total number studying French, Gaelic, German and Spanish has risen to 1,726, with the overall number of first-year language course enrolments increasing to 2,115 when Latin, Arabic and Mandarin are taken into account.

The figures come during a period of general decline in the number of students studying language degrees in the UK. In 2009, Michael Kelly, director of the UK Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, estimated that just 2 to 2.5 per cent of students chose modern language degrees.

Including those who opted to study a language as an additional subject, he said that less than 7 per cent of British graduates left university with "survival skills" in a foreign language, while just 5 per cent could operate more fluently in another tongue.

However, while language study is declining in the UK, enrolment on language courses in the US remains strong. The results of a survey conducted by the Modern Language Association of America, published this month, show that the number of enrolments grew from 1.57 million in 2006 to 1.68 million in 2009, a 6.6 per cent increase.

Despite the declining trend in the UK, figures for the first semester of study at Aberdeen suggest that British students are interested in modern languages, despite not choosing to study them as their primary discipline at university.

Bryan MacGregor, vice-principal of Aberdeen, said the figures showed that there was untapped demand for subjects that students often did not have the chance to study at undergraduate level.

"There is demand from people who want to do languages because they have done them at school, and among those who have not had the opportunity before," he said. "It is a combination of both wanting to explore, and actually having the opportunity to explore, languages."

Professor MacGregor said the institution was also pleased that half of the first-year cohort had chosen to sign up to one of 11 Sixth Century Courses launched by the university, aimed at addressing the broad issues of the day, including "science and the media" and the "health and wealth of nations".

He said that the enthusiasm for the broader curriculum showed "an understanding among students of the value of doing these subjects in addition to their own disciplines".

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