Mind Your Language(s)

To quote Yogi Berra, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” At least when it comes to reports of the demise of foreign language teaching.

UK universities are “abandoning” European language courses, according to the Guardian. Over the past 15 years, more than a third have “given up offering specialist modern language degrees.”

The same figure was quoted in a remarkably similar article just two months ago when the Guardian warned that 40% of existing university language departments could soon be closed.

Both pieces quote academics worried about the state of language teaching in schools.

First they blamed Labour’s (admittedly foolish) decision in 2002 to scrap compulsory foreign language GCSEs, which made a steep decline in numbers taking language exams inevitable. But that decline has now been reversed.  According to the universities minister David Willets, foreign language learning at GCSE is at its highest level in five years.

So now the blame’s being pinned on over-rigorous A level marking. “Unfair” grading is putting off gifted linguists. Apparently the best and the brightest are dropping German like hot kartoffeln and saying non merci to French as soon as they’ve done those GCSEs.

But what about the departments offering those “specialist” European language degrees? They must take some responsibility for their own predicament.

University College London enthusiastically offers an “emphasis on film and literature studies” in its list of “degree benefits” if you study there for a French BA.

At Oxford you have the pleasure of “prose and drama from 1890 to 1933” as a compulsory first year subject for a German degree.

These are wonderful, fascinating subjects in their own ways and I’m all for university being a great place to expand cultural horizons.

But in an era of £9,000-a-year fees and diminishing graduate employment prospects, these institutions might want to re-think the content of their “specialist” degrees.

Because buried deep in that Guardian article about the “abandoned” European language degrees is some rather more positive news.

There’s evidence that students are still signing up for languages when they’re linked with another subject. Numbers studying “law and French or business studies and Spanish are stable” the article says.

Similarly, students are still interested in taking language modules as additions to their main subjects.

Chinese (Mandarin) while studied by relatively small numbers is growing rapidly in popularity. And the government’s backing a British Council campaign to send 15,000 British students to study or gain work experience in China by 2016.

Russian and Arabic departments are still going strong and there’s a continuing niche market in Japanese.

It would be great if, as with my generation, the state would fund young people to stay on in education for the sheer pleasure of learning and broadening the mind.

But those days are gone. Students go through University racking up debt. If they can see employment benefits of studying a language then they’ll do so.

“Specialist” language departments should take note and stop blaming our schools.