Why I... think the languages crisis is helpful

September 26, 2003

The effects of the recruitment crisis in languages other than Spanish are manifold. Drawing increasingly from the independent-schools sector, languages are more socially exclusive and academically marginalised than ever.

Contrary to popular belief, language study is easier than ever: more A grades are awarded and university entrance is a buyers' market, with "standard" Universities and Colleges Admissions Service offers a fiction.

The effects percolate upwards. Publication records that would barely be adequate for senior lecturer status in, say, English or history are routinely sufficient for professorial promotions. The crisis is not only numerical and financial - it also undermines the intellectual rationale and credibility of modern European languages.

And about time, too. Modern languages have long needed an overhaul. The disciplines that make up modern languages have all to gain and little to lose from their crisis.

Modern languages were built around the modern European nation state and its colonising project. They confronted the "premodern" languages of those colonised or outside the European colonial system. Modern languages conveyed high culture and were to be the medium for literary and philosophical excellence; other languages conveyed the exotic customs of people not like us. But this fiction of a difference between modern and other languages became unsustainable. Modern languages themselves became the storehouse of the exotic. Ironically, with 1960s university expansion, language teaching came to be central for students unversed or uninterested in Racine or Goethe. This process coincided with decolonisation, and some non-European literatures and cultures entered the purview of modern languages, notably Latin American.

Globalisation induces the definitive crisis of modern languages. As national borders fade, so does the notion of national languages.

Transnational hybridity undoes the separation of civilised self from exotic other. Languages are sold in terms of enhanced commercial competitiveness.

Joint programmes with management and business studies proliferate. Language becomes technique - a way of "getting to ' oui '" (or ja, or ) in your Lille, Berlin or Caracas business meeting. But beyond the political perniciousness of subordinating university teaching so wholly to market priorities, this approach is suicidal on those very terms.

Modern-languages lecturers and professors are inefficient teachers of language. They are underequipped, undertrained and overpaid compared with the lectors who do the bulk of the oral teaching such curricula demand.

Our future business leaders probably should speak one or more European or non-European languages. But this should not be our mission. We need first to break the link with A-level competence - a language A level should not be a requirement for university entrance. Then, confronting the straitjacket of modernity, the provincialism of Eurocentrism and the ideology of language's transparency, the critique of modern European languages could also become its lifeline. The crisis, its causes and contexts should become the very substance of modern languages. We should amplify and propagate the crisis, exposing the complacency of disciplines (English and history, again) that carry on as usual. Modern languages, more affected than most by globalisation and the practical and political challenges it raises, are also best placed to study these processes.

So far, unfortunately, there has been relatively little progress. Spanish and Latin American studies have most embraced the rethinking required.

French is slowly turning to Francophone studies; German still has far to go. Viewed as a financial liability and intellectually insignificant, modern languages continue to be marginalised. We can and should turn this to our advantage.

Jon Beasley-Murray is lecturer in Latin American studies, University of Manchester.

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