Language degrees: when the words are not enough

Seminar debates conflicting trends in the discipline as industry figures look beyond fluency

December 11, 2014

Source: Alamy

Dull days? One speaker questioned the value of teaching ‘business Spanish’

A deep understanding of foreign languages is often essential to the combination of cajolery and seduction many companies require in their international negotiators.

That was the argument of Richard Hardie, chair of investment bank UBS, at a Westminster Higher Education Forum seminar on “Priorities for foreign language learning: participation, resources and progression” last week.

Since the introduction of the new fees regime, explained Chris Millward, director (policy) at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, there has been “a substantial decline in single-honours degrees” in modern languages and “a less marked decline in joint-honours”, a trend “distinctly different from other subject areas, which have broadly held up”. Yet, paradoxically, there has also been “an apparent increase in the demand for language learning”, as revealed by the number of people attending university language centres.

Although “the career benefits of modern languages are beginning to be understood”, suggested Michael Kelly, director of Routes into Languages (and head of modern languages at the University of Southampton), academics still needed to do more to publicise “the new careers where languages are crucial” and “the delayed-action benefits for some careers”, as when someone is sent to an overseas office two or three years into a job.

Ian Lyne, associate director of programmes at the Arts and Humanities Research Council, talked about their new Open World Research Initiative, designed to distribute more than £20 million to at least five separate language projects, for which they hope to “draw extensively on partnerships outside the academic sector”.

A speaker from the floor described a long-standing battle with his university about the value of teaching “business Spanish” and similar subjects, when what students really needed was Spanish pure and simple. Those taking business courses, he continued, were often responding to parental pressure or assumed employment benefits and found their core modules very dull. They liked nothing better than the opportunity to discuss culture, literature and film as part of their language courses.

Speaking from an employer’s perspective, Mr Hardie stressed that businesses needed graduates with more than conversation skills and a good technical vocabulary. The really valuable negotiators, for example, were those able to produce the combination of cajolery, seduction and subtly ambiguous phrasing often necessary to “persuade someone from another culture to do something they would not otherwise want to do”.

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