Modern languages departments and scholars should look at how Classics has reinvented itself since the 1980s in order to boost its appeal to undergraduates, a scholar has argued.
It success was reflected, noted Roderick Beaton, Koraes professor of modern Greek and Byzantine history, language and culture at King’s College London, in “a large enough undergraduate cohort in over 20 higher education institutions to sustain a robust and internationally envied research culture”.
His argument was among many at a debate held at the British Academy on May on the study of languages in the UK, which discussed the dramatic decline of modern languages in the nation’s higher education sector, the implications for employment and security, and strategies for reversing the trend.
Opening the third in a seminar series arranged by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, Michael Moriarty, Drapers professor of French at the University of Cambridge, said that more than a third of UK universities had given up offering specialist modern European languages degrees in the past 15 years.
Welcoming recent efforts to widen the curriculum, Professor Moriarty went on to warn against the “grotesquely impoverished” notion that courses in modern languages should focus on “conferring a merely instrumental skill, the most important point of which is to foster interpersonal oral communication, perhaps for practical (including commercial) ends”.
Pamela Moores, professor of modern languages at Aston University, agreed that “anglophone cultural complacency is intact and deeply entrenched…recruitment to modern foreign language degrees [dropped] by 14 per cent on the introduction of the new fees regime in 2012”.
This was after a decade in which “the numbers of specialist modern language students increased by 11 per cent in pre-1992 universities, but fell by 24 per cent in post-1992 universities”. Professor Moores said many of the programmes lost were the applied courses “prioritising the linguistic and transferable skills which employers value”.
Elisabeth Kendall, senior research fellow in Arabic at Pembroke College, Oxford, noted that Arabic “has not in general seen a decline in take-up at degree level”, although she observed that demand was not matched by a sufficient cohort of “adequately qualified instructors”.
While her discipline attracted substantial external funding, it was “normally linked to specific research or social projects” to the exclusion of the “nuts and bolts of language teaching”. For reasons of “national strategic interests” among others, there remained an urgent need for “a sustainable long-term strategy that is proactive rather than reactive (think back to the scramble for Arabists after 9/11)”.
A more optimistic picture was painted by Gerda Wielander, head of the department of modern languages and cultures at the University of Westminster. Unpublished research in her own field indicated that Chinese “has been bucking the trend of declining numbers, maintaining small growth even in the most difficult last two years”.
Unlike other languages, Chinese attracts almost as many male as female students. Dr Wielander assumed this was because of business opportunities, and “the excitement and adventure embarking on a degree in Chinese promises as opposed to the bourgeois gentility a degree in French may imply”.
Yet it also led her to wonder “whether the ‘crisis in modern languages’…has got something to do with the fact that it is a predominantly female discipline…Are modern languages considered less important because it is women who tend to be good at them?”