Speaking in tongues: how to save modern languages?

Matthew Reisz reflects on the role of universities in overcoming monolingualism

February 22, 2017
Source: iStock

I have long been following the somewhat depressing saga of what has happened to modern languages in British universities.

I studied languages at university, so I hardly needed convincing, but there have been a whole series of reports from institutions such as the British Academy setting out the huge benefits of learning languages. Individuals acquire vital cognitive skills and intercultural awareness (and may even, it seems, delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease). Countries with high levels of language competence can engage far more effectively with the rest of the world, which is crucial for research collaborations as well as trade, influence and diplomacy. For anyone willing to be convinced, the case for modern languages has surely been made.

Yet anyone reading these reports can’t help feeling dispirited. Many of them are honest enough to admit that they are essentially reinventing the wheel, calling for policy and attitudinal changes that others have called for before. Meanwhile, university departments of modern languages keep on closing and student numbers keep on declining. Similar stories are told right across the English-speaking world.

Even in many countries where most educated people speak English, fewer students are studying languages at university or acquiring additional foreign languages. Among other factors, short-sighted government policies have often removed some of the incentives for pupils to continue with languages at school. While it is obviously possible to pick up a language by watching television, travelling or falling in love, the decline of university provision is surely a worrying sign in an era of increasing xenophobia.

So how can this almost universal trend be reversed? A multi-authoredTimes Higher Education feature explores what has been done – and what should be done – by modern linguists in Australia, Denmark, the UK and the US. The writers point to a number of important initiatives: lobbying governments; engaging more effectively with schools in order to improve the “pipeline” into universities; embracing cultural forms such as cinema and graphic novels; coming up with more imaginative joint degree programmes; reaching out to other disciplines to demonstrate the crucial impact of linguistic factors in medicine, international development and even engineering.

Research agendas have shifted from the largely literary to more policy-relevant fields and researchers are finding new ways of showcasing their findings to the general public.

Strangely enough, one of the strongest and most unexpected defences of traditional linguistic studies that I have ever heard came from a businessman. Negotiations are a bit like flirtations, he explained, relying on ambiguous phrasing, promises implied but not quite stated and a subtle combination of cajolery and seduction. Non-native speakers required to do a deal in Spanish, therefore, require an in-depth knowledge of the subjunctive. But they also need the kind of linguistic skills that one can more easily acquire through reading Spanish love poetry than taking a course in “business Spanish”.

At another recent conference, I heard an academic reflecting on Brexit and Trump’s electoral victory and citing the views of the linguist George Lakoff: if you want to convert people, emotion is a lot more powerful than rationality. Most of the reports arguing that more people ought to learn foreign languages very much appeal to the head rather than the heart. It is probably true that Britain’s linguistic deficit means that the country is unable to play its full part in research and debates about international water policy, for example, but I can’t see this argument spurring a single extra person to sign up for a languages degree or even having much impact on policymakers.

So how might one convert more people to the idea of studying modern languages? I have only one semi-serious suggestion of my own. The many novels and television series about forensic pathologists have apparently (and rather surprisingly) managed to make that profession “sexy” and helped attract students to the field. Couldn’t someone produce a less ghoulish but equally gripping drama about the role of interpreters behind the scenes at peace conferences or the role of forensic linguists in solving crimes?

Read our in-depth feature looking at the state of modern languages

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Reader's comments (1)

This is daft scaremongering, trying to find connections which don't exist. In this increasingly 'populist' world, students will still continue to learn English as the international language, since it is extremely common to require a certain proficiency in English in order to study any kind of advanced degree. As it happens, I have several acquaintances who have graduated from English universities with language degrees who still have a less-than-perfect command of their chosen languages, whereas others have reached a much higher standard through living in the country and learning the natural way. It could be argued that language degrees with the literature taken out are an awful waste of time, and that students ought to be encouraged to take languages on the side instead.