Modern languages as a discipline has been in crisis for many years now. Enrolments for GCSEs, A Levels and university degrees are in an apparently inexorable decline; 40% of university language departments have been closed; the Russell Group has become the bastion of the discipline and, even there, provision continues to be reduced with Birmingham University and Nottingham University currently planning to shrink provision.
Many attempts have been made to rekindle interest in languages. While the Government’s 2002 decision to make languages optional for pupils after the age of 14 is widely regarded as having triggered the decline, more recent Government policy decisions have sought to strengthen the place of languages, notably the decision to make languages compulsory for all 7 to 11 year olds from 2011, the inclusion of a foreign language in the EBacc, and the 2012 announcement that from 2014 languages were to become a statutory part of the national curriculum at KS2 (ages 7-11 years).
In higher education, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the British Academy and HEFCE have all consistently supported modern languages over the past twenty years through vital special funding schemes, policy analyses and policy initiatives, and strong advocacy, and have also, just as importantly, often challenged the sector to re-organise, to reconceptualise and even to reinvent itself.
Born Global is the British Academy’s latest contribution to this ‘support and challenge’ network for modern languages. The result of a two-year policy research project into the extent and nature of language needs in the labour market, the Born Global report shows how many of the long-held assumptions made by the sector about the employability of languages graduates and about the nature of the labour market are false and need to be updated and rethought.
The report gives some re-assurance that there continues to be demand in many areas of the private sector for the specific linguistic and interpretive skills and intercultural understanding that come from language learning. This evidence could, if well promoted, encourage more young people to undertake languages degrees. However, it also recognises that this demand is often met by employing multi-lingual candidates with excellent English from outside the UK.
This message might not appear particularly positive. However, where it may offer a lifeline to the languages community is through the report’s focus on the many other skills beyond the specific linguistic and cultural ones that a languages degree helps to develop, skills such as analytical rigour; mental agility; resilience; general communication skills; global mindset; maturity and independence, especially as developed in time spent studying or on work placements overseas; team-working e.g. on research projects.
The argument here is that these ‘other’ skills are currently under-appreciated by both students and employers, even though these skills are especially relevant to employment and, indeed, to life and citizenship in today’s complex globalized world.
Language departments are understandably wary of using instrumental arguments to justify the degree-level study of languages, as these could lead to language departments being relegated to being only language-focused departments rather than continuing to be the highly multi-disciplinary departments committed to analysing language and culture from a variety of perspectives that they have become. However, if we think more creatively about the skills that we are seeking to develop in our students, it should be possible finally to turn the tide and to re-establish a language degree as an ideal preparation for the world of work – and for a life of effective global citizenship.
Crucially, when considering, as we must, the ‘global mindset’ which is so prized by employers, we need to stress how the study of other languages and cultures enables students not only to learn about particular languages and cultures but, much more importantly, how to live in and with difference – which is the human condition.
Like all the humanities, the discipline of modern languages is ultimately concerned with trying to explore, to articulate and, above all, better to understand the human condition and what Martin Heidegger calls Dasein, being-in-the world. This is its essence; this is what drives us constantly on to study and research the cultural and linguistic specificities of our chosen languages.
So, recognising our responsibility towards our students to prepare our students for life beyond their degrees, we can perhaps reconceptualize our discipline by unifying the ‘intrinsic’ and ‘instrumental’ reasons for studying languages, by seeing an understanding of Dasein and the development of employability as twin goals which are actually intertwined.
Globalization has radically changed the world and the ways in which we inhabit it – as has technology. Inevitably, the labour market, especially in the private sector, has undergone significant changes too, transforming itself and transforming many of the ways in which we work and relate to co-workers. Born Global’s analysis of the changing landscape of employment leads to the forecast that large numbers of today’s undergraduates will be self-employed at some point in their lives, will start up or work for a micro-business (employing 9 or fewer co-workers), or will work for an SME employing fewer than 250 employees. Of course, significant numbers (though no more than 40%) will work for large organisations, including the major multinationals which operate globally, but it is patent that our assumptions about what the world of work is need rapidly to be adjusted.
The world is very different than it was 15 or 20 years ago. It is also in a state of constant change and flux economically, politically, socially, morally. Forecasting is increasingly difficult, but one thing is certain: the world will go on becoming different, locally and globally, and life (and work) will also go on changing. In this context, the expertise in difference that comes from studying a foreign language must surely be one of the most essential life-skills, vital to all individual lives, to all societies, to all economies and to all international relations.
The challenge for the languages sector now is to digest the findings, forecasts and recommendations of Born Global and to review curricula and ways of teaching and assessing. Furthermore, and crucially, university departments need to review and redefine their own identities and motivations and seek ways to maintain in a relationship of dynamic but ultimately creative interdependence the intrinsic and instrumental arguments for the study of languages. Maybe then, languages will claim their rightful place at the core of education for the modern world – and, finally, flourish again.
Michael Worton CBE is Emeritus Professor of Arts at University College London.
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