Why students are speaking in tongues

The great British indifference to learning languages is starting to change at university level, says Liz Heron
The first signs of a major shift in British attitudes to learning foreign languages are emerging in universities, where students of all disciplines are opting in large numbers to study a language on top of their main degree subject.

Professor Gareth Thomas, dean of languages and European studies at the University of the West of England in Bristol, says uptake of optional language courses is growing at around 10 per cent a year nationally. This follows a 26 per cent rise in uptake of university language courses in 1992 - due almost entirely, he says, to growth in optional courses - revealed in a survey he has made of 101 universities.

Most universities are now offering some optional language courses in addition to language degrees and about half are offering optional courses to all students. The courses are tightly focused on practical language skills and usually lead to vocational qualifications such as the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry Foreign Languages at Work Scheme or an in-house equivalent.

In new universities, the typical pattern is for courses in four or five European languages to be offered from the beginning as optional modules accredited towards the student's degree.

The University of Westminster, for example, offers day-time courses in French at five levels, German, Spanish and Italian at four levels and Japanese at three levels across four sites, plus accredited evening courses in 16 other languages. Hilary Footitt, head of the school of languages, which delivers the institution-wide programme, says: "About 1,000 students are taking part. They can take one language module per year and we have a large number of students continuing with the programme over several years."

The old universities tend to offer courses tailored to particular degree subjects and provide hi-tech language centres, where students can follow independent study courses, backed up with audio and video tapes, computer- based materials and satellite broadcasts.

Cambridge University's pioneering language centre offers courses in more than 100 languages through independent study. A full-time language advisor interviews all interested students and gives detailed advice on suitable materials, study skills and strategies.

The advisor has an e-mail address on the Granta Backbone Network, the university's computer network, and will answer students further queries on-line or in person. She also pairs up students with other learners or native speakers at Cambridge for "blind date" language exchanges.

A third of all Cambridge undergraduates now use the centre, which was originally set up to service the language department. Dr Edith Esch, director of the centre, says: "If you want to teach everybody languages, you must be absolutely radical about how you think about language learning."

The policy is to take languages to the learner. The centre is developing a computer-based French course to run over the GBN. Students will perform language exercises with a partner using e-mail and take part in business simulations in French through computers.

The engineering department provides French and German courses for all students. Despite a demanding workload, 50 per cent of engineering undergraduates take a language.

Engineering department courses are an optional extra - assessed through National Vocational Qualifications - for the first two years, while the third and fourth years, which involve an engineering project in the foreign language and cultural extension studies, count towards the degree.

Matthew Cooksley, a third-year engineering student taking French, says: "It's a plus from a career point of view, and its a relief from engineering, especially the oral side." Most students were building on the course through visits, placements or student exchanges in France or Germany.

Gaining a competitive advantage at work is also the primary motivation for Laila Kahn, a business information technology student at the University of Westminster who is taking Italian. "I've looked into a number of fields and they all seem to want languages," she says. "But its also about getting a better understanding of another culture. Knowing Italian should enhance my appreciation and understanding of opera and classical music, and make it easier to travel in Latin-speaking countries. I have quite a few Italian friends."