Speaking in tongues

September 2, 2005

Language learning will thrive if the Government promotes it as a core discipline, argues Roger Woods

Foreign languages - are we worried yet? Over the past week, leading articles in the national press have expressed their shock at the latest statistics, which reveal massive falls in the number of candidates taking languages at GCSE level: 64,000 fewer for GCSE French, German and Spanish this year compared with last year.

Teachers' leaders have spoken of a catastrophe, and headteachers are seeking a review of the Government's decision to scrap compulsory language study for 14 to 16-year-olds. The mood among educationists has changed from mild disquiet to considerable alarm, and figures from the business world such as Sir Digby Jones, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, have realised that something is going badly wrong.

We can expect more bad news. We already know that the decline in the numbers of GCSE candidates will continue for the next two years, and universities are certain to cut language provision as the number of applicants continues to drop. Looking further down the track, four-year language degrees will seem less attractive compared with three-year degrees once variable fees come online. As independent schools become ever more important trainers of linguists, and as languages in the state secondary sector shrink, the class divide will deepen. Whole regions and types of institutions are ceasing to offer foreign languages at higher education level, at the very time when rising student debt forces more students to live at home, which makes government policies on access ring hollow.

Hard-working colleagues in charge of the European Union's Socrates-Erasmus programmes in the UK complain that they do not get enough UK students coming forward to study at European universities. British undergraduates with little knowledge of foreign languages are ill-equipped to take advantage of this opportunity. This is in stark contrast to the enthusiastic take-up of Erasmus places by students from elsewhere in the EU.

Strangely enough, Schools Minister Jacqui Smith seems calm. She points out that she was expecting a drop in the numbers studying languages at GCSE and argues that "there are other ways in which you can be inspired to learn languages". Maybe so, minister, and in the meantime we can't wait for the National Languages Strategy - which entitles all primary school children to learn a foreign language from 2010 - to bear fruit. No, we really can't wait. The Higher Education Funding Council for England can seem relaxed about the problem, too. It included all foreign languages on its list of strategically important and vulnerable subjects, but it has quoted statistics that mask the dramatic fall in student numbers for French and German, and it has repeated its mantra on non-intervention in the internal affairs of universities. Universities can chop away at languages with both eyes on the need to balance the books, instead of having one eye on what is important for the country's economic and cultural future and the other on trying to internationalise their own. (Funding for languages in Wales is worse than in England, by the way, and we can expect even more pressure on language departments there.) University language departments have long stopped moaning about their lot and dramatically stepped up their work with schools to boost demand for their subject. When it comes to initiatives to promote languages, you name it, and they are already doing it. And there are signs that, despite all the pressures on their time and their finances, university students see the ability to speak a foreign language as a mark of being a proper graduate.

Students may not be ready for the full monty of an Erasmus year, but about 75,000 non-linguist undergraduates take some language modules as a minor part of their degree or as extracurricular activity. They have understood what surveys of employers confirm ever more clearly: that monolingual graduates will not occupy senior positions in the business world of the future.

University language departments are looking for a strong commitment from the Department for Education and Skills and Hefce to support their many efforts at boosting demand. Now is the time for them to back languages by developing all the imaginative local schemes to promote languages into national programmes, by enabling students to take four-year courses without taking the full hit of variable fees, and by declaring knowledge of foreign languages an essential part of being a graduate. And while they are being bold, the DFES could have another think about putting languages back into the core curriculum for schools.

Roger Woods is professor of German at Nottingham University and chair of the University Council of Modern Languages.

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