“It must be recognised that, far from sporting a lack of interest in languages, society and education at large are witnessing a shift”

The end of the summer allows us time for some stocktaking in our sector. JCQ data have revealed that languages have been fairly stable in the last A-Level and GCSE results cycle overall (with Chinese on the way to claim the ‘third most spoken language’ spot over German nationally).

Such news gave the languages community some respite after the doom-and-gloom news of recent years. However, recently TES posted an article which claims that the actual losses for languages are higher than originally thought; conversely, the gains appear to be lower. Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL claims that ‘[the current languages situation] is a downward spiral and unless we take action to reverse this trend these subjects will continue to decline.’

Although it is agreed that ‘we need a strategy about language provision in general,’ UCML would like to champion the positive results languages achieved in recent times. As pointed out in Language Trends 2018 (a yearly report on language teaching in primary and secondary schools), despite the current challenges, in particular the ‘growth of interest and demand in Spanish negates the proposition that language teaching in English schools is in fatal decline’ (p.17).

UCML believes that the rise in interest in Chinese and ‘Other languages’, in Secondary and Higher Education, ought to be added to the gains in the overall picture. It must be recognised that, far from sporting a lack of interest in languages, society and education at large are witnessing a shift in the interest of some languages over others – reflecting the current changes in political and economic world trends. Current statistics suggest that interest in both Spanish and Chinese is expected to rise further in the next few years with possibly some of the lesser spoken languages mirroring the same trend.

The claim that languages are in a dire situation seems thus one-sided: languages are going through a stable phase which is highlighting a societal and educational change. Such situation should be supported, alongside the call for a more robust national language policy already in place in Wales and Scotland.

Elena Polisca, VC Education

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  1. Thank you Elena for this interesting article! At today’s executive meeting, the question of ab initio student intake, and the requirements of language competency, came up. We are wondering if departments require students to demonstrate language competency in a language when they are applying to a degree programme as ab initio students?

  2. The School of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Royal Holloway University of London relaxed the language requirement a few years ago. This was to give all students on what was at the time our new degree in Liberal Arts the opportunity to study a language at ab initio level. We were apprehensive at the time and we had to adjust our beginners language classes. However, our experience has been very positive. Student with very little language learning experience cope well; they enjoy the fast pace of our first year classes and some, who in the old system would not have been able to join our classes, become passionate linguists. If I reflect on my discipline area, Italian Studies, I also see a positive picture: Italian has traditionally been taught successfully to non-experienced linguists. The structure and pace of the curriculum may need to be adjusted in year 1 and 2, but by the final year students do brilliantly.

  3. I very much agree with Giuliana. I think we should make Languages more open to non-linguists across the nation. Recruitment in Language + Non-Language degrees seems to be on the rise and anecdotally these students tend to do very well and achieve a very respectable level of accuracy and fluency by the time they graduate. I think that, as a sector, we will soon have to revise what we understand as ‘traditional language degrees’. Students are still interested in learning languages but they also seem very interested in other non-language disciplines, too. We should welcome access diversity and adapt our courses based on what we deem is achievable within a joint four-year degree span for students who come in as non-linguists. Pure linguists do exist and will continue to do so; however, if we were to restrict our focus solely on them, we would be missing out on a growing sector which, without a doubt, will greatly contribute to keep our numbers afloat (and potentially growing).
    Different universities have different admissions policies. Ideally, a background in languages would be ideal (at least up to a good GCSE level) but I doubt this is very realistic. Having said that, it remains very difficult to strike a balance which works for everyone. What I suggest is that we do open our courses to non-linguists with little or no language experience: everyone deserves a chance and explore their potential for learning a language. Perhaps joint degrees with minors are the way forward and I can see why Giuliana’s institutional offer proved popular and successful. Who says that, for instance, STEM students cannot be brilliant language learners? My personal experience suggests otherwise.

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