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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Recruitment Genius: MIS Officer - Further Education Sector

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Operating throughout London and...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: Project Manager

£35000 per annum + Pension+Bupa: The Jenrick Group: We are recruiting for an e...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K - £45K: SThree: SThree Group have been we...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015