UCAS Listings Focus On Language: Speak the right language

Britain has a shortage of talented linguists, but universities and colleges are working on a solution.
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Someone once said that you may buy something in your own language but you must be able to sell in your customer's language. Yet, with economic competition becoming tougher day by day, Britain remains a nation of lazy linguists, unable to string together even the simplest of sentences while on a day trip to Boulogne or a holiday in Berlin, Bologna or Barcelona.

The figures speak for themselves. In 1992-93, there were 22,509 entries for A-level French. By 1995-96 the number of entries had dropped to 20,004; and in 1997-98 it had dropped still further to 18,152. It was a similar story for German, with A-level entries declining from 8,618 to 8,589 to 8,233 over the same three-year period. Only Spanish showed a more encouraging trend, even though the total was sparse: from 3,176 entries in 1992-93 to 3,661 in 1995-96 to 4,074 last year.

It is already known that girls lean more towards languages than boys, and the entries back this. Only 5,384 males sat A-level French last year, compared with 12,758 females. It was the same all round - 2,414 males entering for German (1,138 for Spanish) compared with 5,819 females (2,936 for Spanish). And yet those boys who did enter performed better in general than the girls.

And how can things improve if there are not enough teachers to meet our desperate need? Even the Prime Minister has recognised this plight and last month (July) proposed cash incentives to attract more language teachers into the profession. Again, just look at these appalling figures: in 1996- 97 a total of 1,890 students entered universities and colleges to be trained as secondary school language teachers - 80 more than the previous year - an increase in real terms of 4.5 per cent. Good? No, bad. Because the entry target - in other words the real number needed for language teaching - was 2,780. So those who enrolled were more than 32 per cent below target.

Professor Richard Towell, head of Salford University's School of Languages and immediate past chairman of the UK University Council of Modern Languages, blames the national curriculum for the current dilemma. "It has enabled everyone to take one language to the age of 16 but it also increased the number of compulsory subjects," he said. "The effect has been to encourage more people to drop languages once they've passed 16 and fewer people are now doing two languages."

Employers are searching for decent graduates to send abroad and universities are in an excellent position to help. Greenwich University runs the University- wide Languages Programme which gives all students, regardless of their degree course, the chance to learn a foreign language either ab initio (from scratch) or as a follow-up to their A-level. Each semester, some 750 students are studying one of the languages on the menu: French, German, Spanish, Italian, Polish and Russian. An increasing number of combined studies students now graduate with a joint-honours degree in their first named subject and the studied language.

"The University of Greenwich offers students a passport to successful European employment at the start of the new Millennium," said Stephanie Hughes, senior lecturer and University-wide Languages co-ordinator.

Greenwich is not alone in combining modern languages with other subjects. At Huddersfield University the trend is away from single subject degrees. It offers joint degrees in music or marketing and a modern language, or in French and media studies. Malcolm Pollard, head of languages, said that courses were being revised to develop the vocational skills needed by students in their careers. And he recalled Stephen Byers, Trade and Industry Secretary, spelling out the cost to British Industry of employees' lack of language skills. Contracts worth millions were being lost. "This is the message I try to get across to people whether they are taking a language degree or a language option within another degree programme," Dr Pollard said.

Many students at the University of Luton come from countries as far apart as Portugal and Brazil, Greece and China, so English is taught as a foreign language and part of a vocationally relevant course, such as business communications. Luton's BA in intercultural communication not only trains students in a foreign language but also in professional cross-culture communication. A goodly proportion of graduates will become business people and teachers in China and are given a helpful push up the ladder by learning Chinese in the university's Chinese Centre.

The University of Northumbria at Newcastle, whose Department of Modern Languages was awarded 23 out of the maximum 24 points by the Higher Education Funding Council for England for education quality, offers not one but three degree qualifications in its Applied Languages Europe programme. This includes an intensive study of two modern languages to a high level of proficiency together with an in-depth study of society in France and Germany or Spain as well as knowledge of the social, cultural, political and economic life of the two target language countries. Students spend half the course in universities in two host countries - the Fachhochschule Koln (Cologne Polytechnic); the Universite de Provence at Aix-en-Provence; and the University of Granada, Spain. This triple qualifications scheme gives the worthy student not only a BA Honours degree in Modern Languages from the University of Northumbria but also a Diploma in Interpreting from Cologne, a Maitrise LEA-Europe from Aix and a Licenciatura from Granada. Now that's bound to open a few doors.

But it is not just our language students who spend time abroad. At the Royal Holloway College, University of London's beautiful outpost at Egham, there is a heartening international mix. Take Sophie Gilbert-Desvallons, a young French woman in London to study Spanish and German; or Caroline Frykman, a Belgian, born in Zambia, who came to Royal Holloway from the International School in Geneva to study Spanish, Management and Politics under the European Studies umbrella. Charlotte Lundgren from Sweden is reading French, Management and Spanish. And there are plenty of similar stories to tell.

Some universities have even joined forces to ensure that residence abroad is properly integrated into the learning process. A consortium based at Oxford Brookes University has drawn in Anglia Polytechnic University, Thames Valley, the University of the West of England and Middlesex University, whose year-abroad provision has been warmly praised by external assessors. The Middlesex degree in information technology and languages has also proved successful. One of its graduates is now Toshiba's European Marketing Director.

Languages can be fun. They can also be extremely useful. I never regretted studying German at the University of Nottingham many moons ago and returned to the department during the university's recent Golden Jubilee celebrations. German was taught at Nottingham long before it reached university status 50 years ago and the department, which received a Five (top mark of excellence) from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, is therefore justifiably proud of its long track record.