Monoglot researchers are damaging UK competitiveness, says British Academy

Report recommends introduction of foreign language requirements for university entry to address the problem of ‘linguistic impoverishment’, writes Zoë Corbyn

June 3, 2009

Scholarship is being damaged by a lack of “essential” foreign language skills among UK- born and educated researchers, a report from the national academy for humanities and social sciences has warned.

The study by the British Academy, which is due to be released this week, says the decline of foreign language provision across the UK’s education system is threatening not only the health of arts and humanities research, but also the whole of the UK’s research base and, in turn, the contribution it makes to the economy.

It calls for action to address the problem, including the introduction of foreign language requirements for university entry at more institutions.

The report, Language Matters, follows a year-long study into the effect of the lack of foreign language skills on humanities and social sciences research, but the British Academy believes the findings have wider relevance.

“The particular bit of research we commissioned focused on the humanities and social sciences, but we think the problem is actually more broadly based,” explained Robin Jackson, chief executive of the British Academy.

“The key message is that we think there is linguistic impoverishment and therefore a weakening and lowering of quality in the research community, and it is probably going to get worse… Linguistic impoverishment limits the capacity of the research base across the board to engage with the research agenda internationally,” he said.

He added the impoverishment was “already evident” and “probably accelerating”.

The report includes the results of a study by RAND Europe, an independent consultancy, which was commissioned to assess the problem.

It shows that while demand for foreign language skills within the humanities and social sciences is increasing, the supply of UK-born researchers with such knowledge is decreasing. This divergence is the result of both deficits in language teaching at school and the perceived global dominance of English, it adds.

The British Academy report also highlights that humanities and social science departments are increasingly importing the skills they need from abroad, rather than helping UK researchers and academics to “upskill”.

It outlines the consequences for humanities and social science research in the UK, including the warning that British academics are becoming less able to compete with overseas counterparts for international project funding; that certain topics requiring advanced knowledge of other languages are not being studied; and that career opportunities are being lost.

“These developments have a potentially harmful impact on the ability of UK humanities and social science research to stay at the international leading edge. The academy is concerned that certain areas of research may either be neglected or not done well,” the report says.

Professor Jackson cited history research in the UK as an example. It previously had a very strong international flavour, but was now increasingly focused on English language topics “because young researchers don’t have the skills to go off to Germany and work in the archive”.

The report outlines a series of recommendations to universities and the Government to address the problem.

In addition to a language requirement for university entry, already introduced by University College London, it says universities need to provide language training to meet the needs of their researchers, potentially by pooling language provision.

It adds that the Economic and Social Research Council, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy itself should encourage the development of language-training programmes for postgraduates, and that universities’ provision of language training should be taken into account when postgraduate grants are awarded.

Finally, the report calls for a review of language teaching at all levels.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

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