Bridging the language gap to bring foreign shores closer

More students are choosing combinations of subjects - including French with biology, writes Diana Appleyard
Languages courses normally offer three main options - a single subject degree often based on literature and language; a European studies course; or two-language courses which can often include languages different from those available at school, such as Scandinavian studies, Russian and the languages of Eastern Europe, the Middle and Far East. There is also a trend for languages such as Japanese, as trade develops. Cambridge is regarded as the top university for languages, followed by Queen Mary's College, Hull, Birmingham and St Andrew's.

In general, the entry requirement for the course would be the highest grade in the relevant language, although language courses are now available at university which have not been studied at A-level.

Courses generally include emphasis on literature and linguistics or a wider study of the country concerned and its culture. Many modern language courses now combine business and marketing with the study of the language and history of the country, and some universities even offer separate degrees for interpretation.

All courses would include a period of time to be spent in the country concerned, usually through links with a foreign university.

More and more students are opting for combinations of subjects. Bangor, for example, now offers 12 joint honours courses with French, and Bath offers French with Italian or Russian, as well as combinations with international management and engineering. At Greenwich, French is offered with applied biology and applied chemistry.

Many universities report that they are struggling this year to recruit on to single honour degrees, whereas courses which link a language with business are fairly buoyant. At the University of Northumbria, Professor Davis Head, the senior administrator in the department of modern languages, says they are currently half-way towards their target of 92 students for modern languages. "I think a lot of students have us down for insurance, and so we're still waiting to hear from quite a few," he says. "But we are getting a lot of inquiries in. We insist that students try to come to see us before making a decision through Clearing, and we interview them."

Interviews are now being held. "It it well worth making the effort to do this," says Professor Head. "Last year we had a student who seemed to be too weak for us, but we invited her up for interview any way. It turned out she had had a bereavement, and the estimated score for her A-levels had been much higher than the eventual results. Having talked to her and shown her round, we realised she was a very talented girl and we offered her a place. She's now doing extremely well."

Professor Head is vehemently against the practice of accepting students without even asking their names and grades. He says it is always wiser to go and see a faculty rather than simply accepting offers over the phone.

"Three years on a course can be a very long time, and dropping out is neither good for the student nor the university," he said.

At Northumbria, the university offers French, German and Spanish with a range of combinations including economics, politics and information studies. All of the courses include a year abroad, and students can split the year thanks to partner arrangements with European universities.

Many of the exchange visits are organised through the Socrates-Erasmus programme, which offers funding for students through the European Community. For a number of years students have been able to acquire dual qualifications from their exchange university and now Northumbria is also offering triple qualifications if students, for example, spent their year at French and German higher education institutions. Many employers with international links find these additional qualifications very attractive.

Although many modern languages courses are under-recruited this year, Professor Head believes these courses do offer excellent job prospects. "The applied courses in particular offer not just fluency in the language, but also nation studies, society, politics and the business environment of the relevant country."

Many modern language students end up in the business field, usually with an international company, or they go in to teaching.