Start speaking their language

September 3, 2004

It will take more than lower fees to boost enrolment on demanding courses, says David Baguley.

Recent A-level results have confirmed the drift in student choice towards certain so-called "fashionable" subjects such as media studies at the expense of supposedly more demanding science subjects and languages, prompting Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckingham University, to suggest that higher fees be levied for the more popular subjects when top-up fees are introduced in 2006.

Beleaguered language departments may be tempted to welcome such a proposal, assuming that the differential would be neither too slight to provide a real incentive to students nor so substantial that it could be used as a further excuse for closures of language departments for lack of sufficient income from fees. But the proposed measure would do little to solve the fundamental causes of declining enrolments in language programmes in many British universities.

The problem is not limited to this country. Well before Freedom Fries were invented, enrolments in French were plummeting in the US. Yet in Australia, student recruitment in foreign languages is holding firm and everywhere Spanish is on the upswing. There are clearly specific factors in Britain that explain why languages have come to be perceived as too difficult.

Departments can do little about the ingrained indifference in Britain to language learning. But they can do much to counteract the forces of linguistic sectarianism by creating a micro-ambience in which the language is used and the culture absorbed outside the classroom through ancillary activities. The traditional year abroad would become more effectively a part of a continuum rather than a disconcerting culture shock.

Unfortunately, national attitudes tend to be reflected in universities, which declare themselves ready to support diversity and multiculturalism, but only, it seems, in the English language. Modern language departments have become favourite targets for closure or for amalgamation into the ghetto of the language centre or for assimilation into general literature, language and culture departments, where English dominates. As a satirical student publication in Durham recently announced, in the midst of a cull of Eastern languages, the vice-chancellor abolished all foreign-language programmes in the university and replaced them with courses on how to shout at foreigners.

The case and the cause for modern languages is not helped by the persistent ethnocentrism of certain traditional teaching practices in some modern language departments, often in the most prestigious universities, where "content" courses (on literature, history and culture) are taught in English and where the medium of language instruction remains translation, allowing only brief excursions into the alien territory of the so-called target language. Thus, the rather unpalatable business of using the language spontaneously still tends to be entrusted to temporarily imported "native speakers". Significantly, one of our best finalists in French last year had turned down an Oxbridge place to study at Durham, where she could receive virtually all her instruction in the target language.

Is it time to revive the ideal that mastery of another language is a hallmark of the educated person instead of deploring the diminishing numbers of specialist linguists? Students in all fields would acquire invaluable skills from the experience, though our rigid degree programmes and arcane system of degree classification, both conducive to excessive specialisation, would make this difficult to achieve. Thus, however welcome tangible measures such as the one suggested by Smithers might be, I would instead advocate a re-evaluation of the status of languages in universities and some invigorating reforms.

David Baguley is professor of French at Durham University.

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