Linguistic isolationism

The decline of modern languages in the UK threatens our place in the European conversation, writes Anthony Bushell

May 13, 2010

Europe is disappearing fast from British universities. Many institutions are simply getting out of offering modern language degrees.

The University of Cambridge is withdrawing its provision in modern Greek and Dutch. Provincial universities are going further. Large civic institutions, such as the University of Leicester and Queen's University Belfast, have abandoned long and distinguished traditions in German. While some seats of learning now teach only French and Spanish, others have quit language degrees altogether, especially in the former polytechnics. Present cuts will almost certainly lead to a further crop of language closures by the end of the year.

We now find whole regions of the UK where there is no provision in certain key language areas. Russian degrees and Scandinavian language options have gone entirely from Wales. The reasons are not difficult to discover: languages are complex and time-consuming to "deliver". Economic needs have forced universities to take more students taught in bigger classes. This is not, however, a model that language teaching can imitate readily when quality can be guaranteed only by tuition in small classes.

Ending provision is only one kind of loss. Even where languages are still taught, a more insidious form of depletion has been taking place, one that is disconnecting this country intellectually from Europe.

Put it this way: how would you react if you met somebody from the Continent claiming to hold an English degree who had never heard of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens or T.S. Eliot? Such have been the changes in our modern language degrees that we are producing a generation of linguists who often have little acquaintance with the major cultural achievements of the target language. The decision not to insist that all students of German, for instance, read at least some work by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe or Thomas Mann has consequences.

The modern language syllabus has absorbed other disciplines in recent years, such as media and film studies, law, history and sociology. They have made their own claims on the modern languages' timetable. This explains in part the demise of a solid grounding in the great works of European literature. To this must be added the fact that a diluted A-level syllabus no longer requires pupils to serve an apprenticeship of close reading in at least three texts, a task that gave students the initial tools for reading extensively and intensively in the target language.

This brings us to a question that many have preferred to leave unanswered: what is a degree in a European language from an English-speaking university supposed to do? In our modern language departments, we simultaneously respond to the great works of European literature and observe how today's native speakers respond to their own cultures. Our students are ill-equipped to deal with, say, educated Germans or Italians if they lack the slightest acquaintance with the cultural products, especially the texts, that have gone into forming their world views.

At the linguistic level, our students are not acquiring the rhetorical devices that make up the speech resources of those with whom they supposedly would wish to exchange ideas. At the intellectual level, our students are not encountering the material that has informed the development of their opposite numbers in Europe. What has shaped our fellow European Union citizens over the centuries is becoming a closed book, and we will be impoverished by this loss. It is only a matter of time before the slogan on a modern languages' hoodie gives the game away: "No texts please, we're British."

As European languages disappear from the subject lists of even our elite universities, we will no doubt hear the claim that the market has merely moved on. Already, preposterously optimistic visions of large numbers of British students acquiring fluency in Chinese, Japanese or Arabic can be encountered. But anybody who has attempted a non-European language will know of the dedication this requires. In the meantime, Europe has not gone away, and if the UK prides itself on working in institutions of European standing, is it not a nonsense that we are jettisoning the tools that make sense of that context?

Anthony Bushell is professor of modern languages (German) at Bangor University.

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