The University Challenge

Language learning isn’t particularly popular in the British Isles. Fewer and fewer people are studying languages at schools, which subsequently has had an adverse knock-on effect for universities. Many departments across the UK are dispensing with their language curriculum; the most recent being Ulster University in Northern Ireland. Since 2007, many ex-polytechnic universities, such as Brighton, Liverpool, John Moores and Anglia Ruskin, have also dropped language courses. Just reading this 2013 Guardian article shows the current bleak and alarming picture; there were 105 universities offering modern languages in 2000, and in 2013, there were 62.

This is, quite frankly, an atrocity.

I could rave here about the benefits of learning foreign languages and argue against the bigoted, small-minded notion that ‘everybody speaks English anyway’, but this is too basic. I want to emphasise the complexity of a language degree, to highlight that it is not just learning the language itself. The benefits of learning languages are not merely that that you can converse in another code, so to speak, but that you can open up your cultural and philosophical perception of the world, and even of your own country.

Inside the opera house, where thousands and thousands of people frequent year on year and the best of the best play their repertoire. Kim Kardashian also woz 'ere.
A picture from the Viennese opera house, a place and cultural venue I could never, and would never, have attended without broadening my horizons through a language degree.

When you have a deep understanding of the different culture, literature, politics and economics associated with a language, as you learn at university – and even somewhat at A-level – you have learned so much more than just conjugating certain verbs. A language degree teaches you the skills necessary for so much more than you would expect: my knowledge of English, for example, must be exemplary for me to grammatically understand another language. Furthermore, there’s public speaking, creative writing, travel, a year abroad: all of which are invaluable skills and experiences. To say that a language degree is limiting is paradoxical – I have many skills similar to English and History graduates, with the additional benefit of being bilingual.

Sadly, fewer and fewer people will have access to this.

Languages are also becoming more and more elitist in the UK. As mentioned above, many polytechnic universities are culling courses. This is not only a severe problem for academia (there are fewer jobs), but it cuts off many students who would have enjoyed and benefited from languages but did not make the grade. Indeed, with the exception of Oxford, Cambridge and possibly Durham, there are no other places that hold the A*AA/AAA entry requirements for a French and German degree in the UK, simply because there is not enough competition. While this may mean candidates with lower grades can access Russell Group universities, German is becoming a niche, yet the benefits of learning German are ample.

Ulster University shut down their languages department this year, which is a saddening disgrace for Northern Ireland. All Northern Irish students now may only have access to one university (Queen’s) in their home country to study. Having met three people in my year abroad who studied French and German at the Coleraine campus, the reality set in that, had I been a few years younger, I would never have had the chance to meet them. Northern Ireland is already the most insular country of the UK – motions like this simply seem backward and not at all progressive. We must remember, however, that it is not the institutions that should take the blame, but the lack of funding and regard for languages in the UK.

Two language graduands at Ulster University (Thanks to Anna for the photo!)
Two language graduands at Ulster University (Thanks to Anna for the photo!)

So what can we do about this? How do we reverse this shift? How do we make people listen?

For one thing, I implore you to sign this petition to save Ulster University’s language department, but moreover, I ask you to look at the root of the problem. When GCSE languages stopped being compulsory, the drop was inevitable. In fact, two years ago I wrote a blog post on why the teaching does not encourage students to learn; especially by focusing on grammar as an unknown, terrifying entity. Additionally, our island mentality and the fact that English is a worldwide language has led many Brits to disregard foreign languages. We must constantly encourage studying languages in schools, or else higher education establishments will equally suffer.

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3 thoughts on “The University Challenge

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Language education in this country is terrible and it’s only going to get worse as more and more universities scrap their language programmes. I’m lucky enough to be part of an outreach group encouraging school children to pursue languages. If only more such programmes existed!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your comment! That’s a great outreach group – can you tell me more about it? Where are you based? Is it helping at least on a small scale to reverse the shift?

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      1. Of course! The programmes is called Routes into Languages and connects universities with schools to encourage language learning in higher education. They run a lot of workshops and school visits in various regions throughout the country. Whether statistics are shifting or not I couldn’t say, but there is certainly a lot of enthusiasm amongst the students that I have been involved with.

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