Why languages are going the way of the dinosaur ...

With applications for modern language degrees already in decline in universities, plans to make languages optional after 14 could be the death of teaching French, German and Spanish, writes Lucy Hodges
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Like maths, the study of languages has been declining on university campuses throughout the UK. Last week, Education drew attention to the looming crisis in maths. This week, we talk to language experts about the disappearance of French, German, Spanish and Italian from our universities.

Languages could go the way of classics and be reduced to a rump, taught only in a few places, according to the experts, particularly if the Government forges ahead with its plan to make the learning of a foreign language voluntary for 14-year-olds. That, in turn, could affect British exports and British attitudes towards other countries, and to the way we see ourselves in relation to the rest of the world.

"If languages are axed from the core curriculum at GCSE, then they could go into free fall," says Professor Mike Kelly, director of the subject centre for languages at Southampton University. "All languages will suffer but it could be the death knell for German."

Susan Bassnett, pro vice-chancellor of Warwick University, agrees. "It could spell disaster," she says. "We have a very good French department at Warwick, with excellent staff, but we're not getting the students to stay on and do taught Masters and PhDs. It's a wasteland and the Government's proposal will accelerate the process."

Lord Watson, chairman of the English-Speaking Union, agrees that the Green Paper plan will have "a detrimental impact" on language departments. "Far fewer students will take languages to A-level, which will mean fewer doing them at university," he says. "Fewer graduates will mean fewer people training to teach languages. Instead of having a positive spiral, there will be a vicious circle."

As with maths, university language departments are being closed or downsized in response to falling demand for language degrees. Ucas figures for 2001 show applications for all subjects going up slightly, but applications for languages declining. Specifically, there were drops in demand for French, German and Russian, though demand for Spanish increased a little.

Like endangered species, languages are disappearing from swathes of the country, according to Hilary Footit, who chairs the University Council for Modern Languages. There are no Japanese degrees north of the border, Wales is becoming a no-go area for Russian, and there are sightings of Dutch only in pockets of England.

A snapshot survey of 30 universities last year found 73 per cent had cut one or more languages or courses. Languages chopped included Portuguese, Arabic, Russian, Polish and Hungarian. Courses cut included single honours French and European studies. As many as 93 per cent reported major staffing changes, with 130 posts going since 1999. Fewer than 30 per cent reported any discussion of national strategies when taking these decisions.

Does this matter? Some academics argue that it doesn't because, although fewer students are opting for single honours degrees in languages, more are studying a language as part of a degree in business or law or engineering. Why get worked up about the demise of specialist language degrees when so many young people are interested in keeping a language alive, albeit alongside a separate subject?

"I have gained the impression that the language community is split right down the middle on this," says David Head, who runs the department of international business at Plymouth University. "Some people are very alarmed because they feel it looks as though languages are being reduced to a frill, rather like music." (Indeed, in the languages document put out by the Department for Education and Skills at the same time as the Green Paper, there is talk about grading language skills in the same way as music.)

But other experts believe the figures do not paint such a pessimistic picture, pointing to the GCSE statistics that show participation in languages up to 16 has been going steadily upwards. In 1965, only 225,848 children took O-levels and CSEs in languages; by 2001, that figure had climbed to 581,594. Surely that does not point to a failure?

"The problem is what is going on between the ages of 16 and 18," adds Professor Head, who chairs the Standing Conference of Heads of Modern Languages. "The numbers taking the subject at 16 have not been translated into an increase at A-level."

The Education Secretary Estelle Morris's recent Green Paper on the 14-19 age group was posited on the notion that we need greater flexibility in the curriculum to tackle one of the highest OECD post-16 drop-out rates. Young people are voting with their feet and leaving school at an early age because they don't enjoy it. One reason is that they have to do a foreign language, which is considered difficult.

Ms Morris's solution is to introduce "an entitlement" to language learning for primary school children, who are thought to find language-learning much easier, and make it optional for 14-year-olds. "I have great sympathy with the Government's desire for flexibility, but that does not mean dropping languages," says Ms Footit. "There is already a major crisis in language provision in higher education, with piecemeal and unplanned cuts all over the UK. The message that this Green Paper sends out to young people about the importance of languages is negative.

"And the message it sends out to vice-chancellors is that they can do what they like, and that languages, a bit like tatting and embroidery in the 18th century, are OK as accomplishments for those who can afford it, but are by no means essential to the nation's future."

This sets us apart from our European neighbours, according to Derrik Ferney, associate dean of languages and social sciences at Anglia Polytechnic University. All of them are promoting languages, he argues. In France, the education minister, Jack Lang, wants to make the study of languages compulsory throughout schooling. Moreover, you can't do a business-studies degree in France without learning a language. At baccalauréat level, you have to study at least one language.

Michael Warton, Fielden professor of French language and literature at University College London, points to the irony of discouraging students from learning languages when we're living in an era of increasing Europeanisation and globalisation. And he worries that dropping languages from the core curriculum will squeeze the inner-city comprehensives most. "There's a real issue here of privilege," he says. "And scientists will have no incentive to take a modern language. It goes against the admirable notion of taking contrasting subjects in the sixth form."

Languages could start to disappear from English and Welsh schools quite quickly, the experts believe. When schools are no longer compelled to run languages for 14-year-olds, they will stop trying to find language teachers, which is already hard enough. Most will try to keep going with some French. "I don't think things will meltdown totally," says Professor Kelly. "But I do think it's quite serious. Already secondary schools are starting to plan that next year they are going to reduce their language provision. Where German is concerned, that will tip class sizes below the level of reliability.

If the Green Paper is implemented, the timing could lose us a whole generation of linguists, say the experts. That's because the Government cannot deliver its primary-school language entitlement before 2012. The first cohort of these new young linguists will not reach 14 until 2019. So, if languages are removed from the core in 2003, there will be a 16-year gap, a lost generation. The experts are calling on the Government to engage in some joined-up thinking on the subject. According to Hilary Footit, it should be part of a national languages strategy that languages should be seen as a graduate skill for all. Such a strategy will be published in the autumn: university leaders need to be involved in this strategy, she says.