[lg policy] UK: Give languages a fair shout

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Thu Sep 4 15:27:16 UTC 2014

 Give languages a fair shout

4 September 2014

We need policy to foster foreign language study at all levels of education,
says Jocelyn Wyburd

[image: Language spelled in wooden blocks on pile of books]

The reform ran against the tide of language policy on the Continent, which
aims to equip young people with two second languages

We live in an age of globalisation, and UK universities have embraced this
in many different ways. Yet the perception remains that the status of
English as the global lingua franca makes learning other languages
unnecessary, with potentially disastrous consequences for language
disciplines in our universities.

The continuing decline of foreign language study in higher education was
highlighted in a recent *Times Higher Education* article (“Demand for STEM
subjects holds up in wake of fees hike
21 August), following a warning from the Higher Education Funding Council
for England that student numbers in 2013-14 could be at their lowest level
for a decade.

Language study is about more than just the acquisition of a means of
communication. It brings numerous cognitive and educational benefits and
is, crucially, a gateway to understanding the world through the words,
thoughts and cultures of others. The question we must ask ourselves is
whether, as a nation, we can afford to lose such international insight –
for that is the certain consequence if language departments continue to

We cannot ignore the role played by education policies at secondary school
level. In 2004, the Labour government reduced the number of mandatory
subjects at Key Stage 4 (GCSE level), removing languages. The reform –
designed to give pupils the power to decide their own curriculum and to
curb truancy – ran against the tide of language policy on the Continent
(and now in Scotland), which aims to equip young people with two second
languages, and resulted in a dramatic decline in language learning in the
UK beyond the age of 14.

At least, it did in the state sector, which allowed pupils to vote with
their feet, or dissuaded them from studying languages in favour of the
“easier” subjects more likely to enhance the school’s league table
position. Independent schools largely maintained the obligation to study a
language, resulting in de facto elitism, with state school pupils
particularly under-represented on language-based degrees. That elitist
image has been further cemented by the particularly alarming rate of closure
of language departments
at post-92 universities.

The coalition government did reinstate languages as core academic subjects
through their inclusion in the English Baccalaureate school performance
measure (EBac), which probably accounts for the sudden increase in GCSE
numbers in 2013, mirrored in this year’s AS-level numbers. But more
recently other measures informing league tables have overshadowed the EBac,
and the risk must be that schools driven by performance statistics may
again marginalise languages.

One positive trend is the number of university students taking language
courses alongside a specialism in other disciplines. There is some evidence
that many are realising the extent to which school policies and guidance
have let them down. Increased competition in the jobs market has led them
to recognise the instrumental value of languages, while many postgraduates
understand their necessity in research – whether for using sources in other
languages (yes, they do exist!) or for fieldwork abroad.

However, this trend should not be regarded as compensation for the decline
in the deeper, more specialist study of languages, cultures and societies,
and the accompanying linguistic and intercultural competence acquired
through language degrees, residence abroad and postgraduate research in
language-based disciplines.

The British Academy and the Arts and Humanities Research Council are
concerned about the damage to scholarship, yet universities do not ask for
qualifications in a second language other than for entry to language
degrees. Employer bodies and economists regularly highlight the damage to
the UK’s economy and diplomacy from a lack of language skills, yet graduate
recruiters rarely seek language skills or degrees either.

To thrive in a globalised world, we need a serious policy commitment to
languages as key skills at all levels of our education system, as called
for by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Languages in July. It is time
for ministers and employers to act.


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