Will UK soon be lost for words on world stage?

December 10, 2004

Charles Clarke stresses the importance of minority languages, while key modern languages are allowed to decline. Anthea Lipsett reports on mixed messages

"No one could speak Arabic in the Central Intelligence Agency's Middle East office until after 9/11," says Michael Kelly, head of Southampton University's School of Humanities and a specialist in French culture.

It is a shocking revelation and one that highlights an important political fact, namely that predicting strategically important areas is notoriously difficult.

Yet, Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, attempted to do just that last week by setting out a list of university courses the Government deemed to be of national strategic importance. He instructed the Higher Education Funding Council for England to work out how to protect these listed subjects.

Minority foreign languages - Arabic, Turkish, Japanese, Chinese and Mandarin - and the area studies attached to them, are included in the list, alongside courses relating to the Eastern European accession countries. But linguists say the Government should be wary of being overly selective.

"It's difficult to predict what's going to be strategically important," said Professor Kelly, who is director of the languages, linguistics and area studies subject centre. "At the moment, it's fairly clear that a large country needs some capability in pretty much any country or language in the world where we are going to be involved, and nowadays that's everywhere."

Western European modern languages are noticeably absent from Mr Clarke's list and should not be, according to Roger Woods, chair of the University Council of Modern Languages and professor of German at Nottingham University. "In general, language departments are very proactive, but we do need some support from central Government. If Mr Clarke had given some indication of the importance of modern languages in general, that would have been a better way to do it."

While he welcomed Mr Clarke's list, Professor Woods said he was uneasy with it. "The list suggests the British are quite happy with ourselves the way we are and we need languages only for specific purposes. The US is learning that you cannot just rely on an inward-looking view but have to understand other cultures. Charles Clarke's initiative is a faint echo of that."

Frank Finlay, head of the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at Leeds University - the largest higher education provider of modern languages in the country - agreed.

He said: "If the Government recognises all the benefits to be derived from intercultural awareness, then it ought to extend that. Why restrict it to only certain countries? More than half our trade is with Europe, Germany is the major economy and 20 million people speak German in Eastern Europe, many in the new and candidate states of the European Union."

For Professor Finlay, the list contradicted the Government's decision to make the study of languages optional beyond key stage 4 in schools.

"I think the Government has not thought this through. The political statements are really very contradictory," he said. "We have a national predicament in this country. There aren't enough students or qualified linguists to satisfy strategic needs. On the Government agency side there aren't enough Arabists to carry out vital intelligence work. Languages are under threat in smaller institutions and there might be regional issues there. Leeds bucks the national trend but there will be parts of the country without adequate language provision."

The East Midlands Universities Association has set up a teaching and learning task group to look at possible closure of departments and to make sure this does not result in gaps in provision across regions.

But according to Professor Kelly, if the Government was more European-minded, sharing expertise with EU countries would be a solution.

"We ought to be talking to European partners. For instance, France has lots of expertise in Arabic. A group of countries the size of the EU should be able to manage," he said.

Mr Clarke's advice letter to Hefce talks about the strategic importance of "vocationally oriented courses of particular interest to employers in industries that are of growing importance to the UK economy".

Professor Finlay said: "In the age of globalisation, languages are almost by definition employment oriented." He said that language graduates had the best employment record after medics.

Professor Kelly said: "There's very clearly a crisis in languages at degree level. Languages are portrayed as a career advantage and an additional skill, rather than as academic subjects of value in their own right. Of course, they are both but the number of people choosing to do languages has continued to decline."

Professor Kelly said that the difficulties in languages were the result of English's status as the world language and the fact that fewer children pursued languages to A Level. He also thought the problems were a reflection of a society that saw language and area studies as luxury subjects for those who could afford to do them.

"Choosing to do Middle Eastern or Chinese area studies is seen as slightly eccentric and impressive rather than being a standard thing," he said.

There is certainly financial pressure on university language departments.

Hefce raised languages to a higher funding band recently to address this problem, but central and individual university funding formulae mean that departments do not always receive extra income as a result. A review of Hefce's fund for minority subjects will report in January and this could be widened to include the new list of subjects.

Professor Kelly added: "A number of universities have withdrawn their degrees in languages and a number of those remaining are slightly buoyed up by that. There are fewer students but there are also fewer places offering courses, so some departments are riding out the storm."

Manchester University is doing well according to Stephen Parker, head of its School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures. The university is redeveloping existing areas such as Russian and planning is at an advanced stage for a £2.5 million development of Chinese studies across the faculty of humanities, with Mandarin Chinese a key element.

"Arabic is also doing well at the moment, we have lots of takers but it's all very cyclical. Russian is endangered nationally, undoubtedly," Professor Parker said.

The size of the institution and support given to languages is key. But, despite Manchester's buoyancy, Professor Parker is under no illusions about the condition of languages in UK universities. "The picture is grim," he said.

Professor Parker said that if Hefce had no money to support languages, it could help by changing the climate of opinion towards languages and culture. "I think there's an anglophone insularity that has certainly contributed to a reduction in the numbers of people taking languages," he said.

The situation is worse in Scotland. Ian Revie, head of Edinburgh University's School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, said: "The unit of resource is ridiculously low for languages."

He said that the expense of teaching a language was ignored, particularly for languages that students start from scratch, such as Chinese, Japanese and Arabic.

"All of these languages are being started ad inicio , so teaching needs to be far more intensive to get students to the same level of ability at the time they graduate," he said.

anthea.lipsett@thes.co.uk   

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