Why are languages still so foreign to us?

A new report will recommend reforms to transform Britain's appalling record in learning languages
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The Independent Online

Admitting to not being able to speak a modern language is a bit like admitting to not being very good at maths: something the educated classes know they ought to be ashamed of but can't quite summon up the necessary guilt. Of course the older generations have scraped by without these skills, but the signs are that our children will not be able to. Just as literacy and numeracy are vital for the 21st century, so are skills in foreign languages.

Admitting to not being able to speak a modern language is a bit like admitting to not being very good at maths: something the educated classes know they ought to be ashamed of but can't quite summon up the necessary guilt. Of course the older generations have scraped by without these skills, but the signs are that our children will not be able to. Just as literacy and numeracy are vital for the 21st century, so are skills in foreign languages.

Early next month the Nuffield Language Inquiry, which has been considering the problem of Britain's appalling record in learning languages, will report. It is expected to come up with a raft of measures to improve the present situation right through from primary schools to postgraduate study.

If postgraduate courses find it hard to recruit language graduates this is in part because undergraduate course applications have slumped over recent years. And this situation is partly the responsibility of schools which find it difficult to enthuse young people to take languages at GCSE or A-level in sufficient numbers, or to recruit enough language teachers - because of the paucity of postgraduate trainees, and so the vicious spiral whirls on.

So the Nuffield Inquiry could not be more timely. Last week Education Secretary David Blunkett announced that he will pay salaries to student teachers in shortage subjects, which include modern languages. That is just one attempt to break into the vicious circle before Nuffield reports.

Higher education has not been ignoring the crisis either. As numbers have fallen on language degree courses the slack has been taken up to some extent by courses which combine another subject with a language at undergraduate and at postgraduate level. Graduates in law and French, accountancy and German, or marketing and Spanish are welcomed by employers, and undergraduates on "joint" courses now outnumber those on "pure" language degree courses. But some universities find themselves in difficulties over funding if the language is seen as an "add on" to another course. Teaching which is provided by a language department for another main subject department may be difficult to organise and underfunded as the source department gives priority to its own full-time undergraduates.

The trend towards joint courses extends to postgraduate level. Liverpool University's department of modern languages is this year launching postgraduate courses for language graduates which take them into the study of business, the arts (European cinema, for example) and cultural studies.

Some universities have protected their minority languages - some of them like Japanese, Arabic and Chinese languages, of great commercial value - by recruiting undergraduates willing to learn them from scratch. Others have put together attractive packages involving study at universities abroad to attract students. But overall the trend in language applications has been steadily downwards.

The Higher Education Funding Council (HEFC), through its £4m Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning, is supporting no less than 10 collaborative projects in universities which are intended to improve the quality of language degree courses and boost the numbers staying on for further postgraduate study, either as prospective teachers or on masters' courses. The projects cover five key areas which have been identified as vitally important to developing the quality of language teaching in higher education. These include a project looking at residence abroad which seeks to optimise student learning during the time they spend in a foreign country as part of their course and a parallel scheme to set up a database on good practice.

Three projects will look at the integration and effectiveness of open and/ or independent learning, especially when it is supported by information technology. These are strategies which might encourage into further study students who do not find it easy to attend a university course full-time or at a distance from their homes. With the expansion of the internet the possibilities in this area are expanding rapidly.

Other HEFC-funded projects will look at the development of language staff in HE, the training of language assistants, and the development of transferable skills among students who combine language with another subject.

Those who have been involved in the Nuffield Inquiry, which is expected to launch a 20-year plan for better language teaching and learning, are quite clear what the country needs. As Peter Downes, a former comprehensive headteacher and an inquiry member says, there is a major mismatch between the needs of industry, commerce and the professions, particularly teaching, and what the schools and universities are producing at graduate and postgraduate levels. And even among the dwindling number studying languages, he says, there is an imbalance in what is studied. French still dominates the school and undergraduate curricula with German and Spanish some way behind. But the languages commerce needs, including Japanese and Arabic, come almost nowhere.

"The present situation is not sustainable," suggests Alan Moyes of the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research, which has been organising the Language Inquiry on behalf of the Nuffield Foundation. "It is not only industry and commerce which is being put at a disadvantage but our own young people who must survive in future in a mobile and unprotected labour market.

"Large companies will buy skills in from abroad if they need them and they are not available here. Meanwhile, small and medium companies who may need linguists in future to develop new markets will not find them and young people themselves will be excluded from jobs abroad."

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