Languages need a single voice to command attention, says review

Scholars advised to unite to win vital support from institutions and Government. Melanie Newman reports

October 20, 2009

Academics in modern languages are suffering from a crisis of confidence because of a perceived lack of support from their bosses and Government, a review of language provision in England says.

Part of the problem stems from academics’ refusal to view modern languages as a single discipline and their lack of consensus about the future of foreign languages in the academy, according to the review’s author, Michael Worton, vice-provost of University College London.

“One of the most significant outcomes of the consultation was the number of respondents who wished to stress the disadvantages of presenting or thinking of modern foreign languages as a collective discipline, given the diversity across the sector,” said Professor Worton, who was commissioned to carry out the review by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. “However, there was no consensus whatsoever around the issue of what the future could and should be.”

He concluded that modern languages teachers needed to work together “more proactively and more creatively” to persuade the Government that language study and research is as important as science, and to convince their own institutions of the value of their work.

Professor Worton noted that while languages had suffered a funding cut because of the Government’s ring-fencing of cash for science and technology, there was “no compulsion whatsoever for institutions to mirror Hefce’s allocations, be this in terms of teaching or research funding”. Vice-chancellors could allocate more funds to languages if they wished to do so, he said.

The review found that at a strategic level, senior managers have to start seeing languages as both an important graduate skill and as a humanities discipline with a particular role to play in furthering institutional reputation. It is vital, the review added, that management teams be clear about how their languages provision underpins their individual educational missions and international and regional strategies.

The review identified a “false dichotomy” between language departments and language centres. Language centres were seen as simply providing “basic” language teaching, when in fact most of their teachers were trained specialist language teachers and their courses often contained high levels of academic content relating to culture, business and politics. At the same time, language departments made substantial use of foreign language assistants who had little or no formal training in teaching their language as a foreign language.

Centres and departments should learn to work together more effectively to promote foreign languages as a discipline, both internally and externally, the review said.

Finally, Professor Worton called on the Government, universities and professional associations to do for languages what they have done for science. They should all work together to “formulate and disseminate clear messages about the strategic importance of modern foreign languages and what they represent and do within the UK”, he said.

Michael Kelly, professor of French at the University of Southampton and director of Routes into Languages, said: “Professor Worton has wagged a timely finger at the languages community and told us that we shouldn’t expect salvation from on high. We now need to find a shared vision and work together to make it happen.”

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