Why aren't languages a more popular choice at university?


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The Independent Online

It seems as if languages are not a popular choice of course at university nowadays. Once upon a time, learning a language and studying its literature was considered a solid choice of degree, but now there's a perception that they might be a bit of a waste of time.

I'm in my second term of studying Spanish at university and whenever I tell people, they reply "oh, how nice... so what are you going to do with that?" It's almost as if people have made languages degrees less important in their minds. Are languages really ‘dead’ as a degree choice? Is it impossible to get a career with a language degree? I wanted to find out.

Professor Michael Basker, Dean of the faculty of arts at the University of Bristol, admits that the popularity of language courses has indeed decreased generally, however not so much at Bristol.

"There are still a vast number of good applicants for our language courses," he says, "certainly no plans to wind down anything, quite the opposite, I hope!"

So, even though there have been closures of departments and cancellations of language courses across the nation, Professor Basker reveals that his department does in fact want to make languages more available to other students at the University of Bristol.

So why is it that people always give the same reaction on hearing that one will be studying a language? Why is it that society chooses not to change their views on the importance of language degrees?

Catherine Clark, deputy director of the Royal Commonwealth Society, emphasises the importance of language degrees: "Languages, to me, are about an all rounded individual who can communicate clearly and who are more globally minded than their mono-lingual counterpart. Nine times out of 10, a language graduate that I interviewed as a recruiter would be an outgoing, engaging person, by dint of needing the confidence and energy to communicate with others."

Clearly, graduates with language degrees are sought after by recruiters, but for whatever reason, our society nowadays is determined to ignore this fact. Surely we need to change this stereotyping of language degrees being thought of as ‘useless’. Alex Kelly, founder and director of The Access Project, a charity which helps students from disadvantaged backgrounds achieve their potentials, suggests that languages aren’t promoted enough in schools, especially state schools.

“It’s a much bigger ‘thing’ in independent schools than state schools,” he says. “Every independent school student that I’ve seen the applications of has got at least one modern foreign language, like French, Spanish or German.”

Perhaps the issue is all about the promotion schools provide? Perhaps the education system needs to change their approach to languages? Britain relies on the fact that English is such a widely spoken language, but this does not give any excuse for languages to be considered as less important. If anything, for our place in the ever-growing business world, where every day there are more international companies, surely we need people with language qualifications. 

Unlike many other degree courses, when studying a language spending a year abroad is a necessity in most universities. Either studying or working during the year abroad helps language students understand fully the culture in the country/countries, improve their spoken and written language and also meet new people.

Sarah Fakhro, director of The Research Base, points out that ‘the skills one learns being 'dumped' in an alien country are invaluable’. The opportunities the year abroad presents are incredible, and they can open doors to so many new experiences and even careers.

Fakhro reveals that, in fact, years after her degree and year abroad, she ‘landed a role in Berlin through a contact’ she had made in Germany in her year abroad. Catherine Clark supports this: "French is always a talking point on my CV and in interviews". This is a whole new way to look at language degrees. Especially in the economic situation our country is in at the moment, even graduates from the best universities struggle to find jobs, and what they really need is something that makes them stand out.

And to stand out, what is better than being fluent in a different language? There are a lot of people who are native speakers of for example Spanish, French, German, Arabic, Mandarin and Japanese, however the business world at this time needs English speakers who can speak one or more of the other languages listed. And there is really no better way to do this other than studying one or more language at university, learning about its culture, the language itself, and actually spending a year there.

Fatos Nacakgedigi is in her first year at the University of Bristol, studying Spanish.