Forget the cultural stuff, just give them the lingo

July 7, 2000

Languages are threatened by a new perception of them as just a skill for getting a job, says Michael Kelly

Few people doubt the value of learning foreign languages. Surveys show that about 85 per cent of the population is convinced of their importance. This is the result of a major shift in public attitudes over the past ten years or so. But the consequences have been distinctly painful for university language departments, which are struggling to cope with the learning revolution that has followed.

The shift in public attitudes has been widespread across many disciplines, and it has consisted in seeing the role of higher education as a matter of acquiring skills rather than knowledge. In part, this stems from the pace of change, which reduces the shelf-life of any particular body of knowledge. In part, it stems from the extension of higher education to a much wider section of the population and the closer connection between study and subsequent employment.

In the case of languages, their social role as a key skill has overtaken their cognitive role as a means of access to cultural goods. A foreign language is now often seen as a skill that anyone ought to acquire, rather than a specialist area of study in its own right. Along with enabling people to operate in a foreign culture, language study does wonders for their communication skills. This is also a huge asset for employment prospects. Not surprisingly, language students are among the most employable, ranking only a little way behind medicine and dentistry for graduate employment rates, and there is no doubt that having a language qualification on the CV is a distinct asset.

A minority of language students see their future in the direct language industries such as translation, interpreting and teaching. So the logic of employability inexorably leads the majority to view language as a supporting subject. They can maintain or acquire language competence while pursuing qualifications in, for example, business, international affairs or engineering. In this way, students can get the best of both worlds.

But the outcome for teachers has been a steady drift away from the knowledge-based courses that offer a wider study of the cultures and societies to which foreign languages provide access.

On the one hand, most academics have welcomed the breaking down of the aura of elitism that has often haunted languages. But on the other hand, they have been taken aback by the narrowing perception of languages as being purely an instrument of communication.

University decision-makers have begun to argue that if languages are merely a skill, they must therefore be easy to learn and cheap to teach. But anyone who learns a language knows it is not easy, and that the bag of language tools cannot be separated from a knowledge of the social and cultural universe in which they make sense. Anyone who teaches a language knows that it also requires a lot of time, ingenuity, human contact and material resources.

The success of the skill-oriented approach means that ancillary language courses are booming, but knowledge-based language degrees are declining sharply. And, since ancillary courses are usually funded at a significantly lower level than main degree courses, the results have been little short of disastrous for those teaching languages.

In the past year, a succession of universities has withdrawn language degrees, with an accompanying spate of staff reductions, redeployments and departmental closures. Several others have quietly restructured, teaming languages with other disciplines that may be better able to ride out the current difficulties.

The calls to extend access to a more diverse student body, to improve students' employability and to foster transferable skills have been taken up enthusiastically by teachers and learning support staff in languages. But the resources allocated have not matched the verbal encouragement. Au contraire. The skills-oriented approach has too often been used as a cost-cutting device.

Some academics are now thinking against the prevailing discourse and asking whether they would not be better off focusing on the academic elite. Some will no doubt try to do so as a strategy of retrenchment under pressure.

But most language people want to pursue a more inclusive agenda, offering a blend of skills and socio-cultural knowledge that will stimulate students, whether or not they have chosen to specialise in languages at degree level. To achieve this requires a resource allocation regime that makes it possible for them to sustain effective teaching programmes with sufficient academic breadth to deliver both high-quality skills and cutting-edge knowledge in languages, cultures and societies.

Michael Kelly is professor of French at the University of Southampton, a member of the Nuffield languages inquiry, which reported in May, and director of the new Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies in the UK Learning and Teaching Support Network. Details at:

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