Studying languages at university might soon be a thing of the past. Over the last decade, more than ten universities in the UK have closed their modern languages departments. There is a steep decline in the uptake of languages at GCSE, A Level and at university. Are we too late to reverse this trend? How can we empower teachers to feel confident about exploring languages? Can we enthuse pupils to love learning languages from an early age? In Episode 19, I talk to Sascha Stollhans, who teaches German at the University of Lancaster. He works closely with schools through the outreach programme and the Linguistics in MFL project. Here we talk about how to join up our efforts to ‘save’ languages, and how linguistics might be the key to the sustainable future of language education.
Beginning with some statistics about the alarming decline in the study of languages at university, Sascha issues a clear call to action. We need to join up our efforts across education, from early years to higher education. Let’s start to look at languages differently and reframe how we ‘sell’ languages to teenagers at school. As I discussed with Charlotte Ryland in Episode 14, translation is a creative puzzle and builds cultural knowledge as well as language skills. Yet at A Level it can feel more like a test of grammar and vocabulary than a creative activity. The GCSE curriculum is also very transactional, as discussed at length with MFL Transform in Episodes 15 and 16. So what does Sascha propose we do?
Look at languages differently
Language is a fascinating, complex subject with links across the curriculum, and yet we tend to see it touted as a transactional tool. The ‘usefulness’ argument belies how interesting the subject is and many students do not know what to expect from a languages degree. Sascha explains how 75% of the undergraduates in one study he carried out said they chose to continue studying languages because they love the culture, politics, history and society of the countries as much as the languages themselves. This is really at odds with the constant focus on employability and usefulness, and perhaps it is time to retire that argument and focus instead on what the students might find more intrinsically motivating.
What is being done to reverse the decline in languages at university? Well, the short answer is ‘not enough’. Whilst there is an All Party Parliamentary Group for languages, and the British Academy et al published the Towards a National Languages Strategy document in July 2020, not enough is being done at a political level to promote the importance and relevance of languages. However, there are many excellent grassroots initiatives and partnerships between universities and schools, competitions, mentoring programmes, and a lot of energy and enthusiasm from the sector.
We could also genuinely value UK multilingualism and multiculturalism more visibly. Perhaps a good start would be changing the census question on languages spoken to reflect our multilingual society accurately, rather than promoting English dominance, as Thomas Bak explained in Episode 3?
What to expect from languages at university
Another issue is that studying languages at university is quite different to studying A Level or GCSE languages. University departments are made up of specialists with a broad range of interests, and lecturers teach their speciality subject, such as 19th-century novels for example. There is a broader ‘menu’ on offer at university level, with knowledge of culture, politics and critical thinking skills valued just as highly as being able to use the language(s). First year students are often surprised, Sascha says, that essays are written in English, or that there is no prescription for the number of tenses and pronouns to use in a translation. Students have more agency, creativity and freedom to experiment because universities set their own assessments, whereas school languages departments have external exam boards to answer to.
Since the curriculum at school is unlikely to change any time soon, Sascha suggests that teachers get in touch with local universities to work together to show pupils what studying languages at university is like. Outreach really matters and universities will be keen to work with schools. Lancaster has a YouTube channel, for example, with sample lectures to help students take the first steps towards imagining themselves as language students at university.
Language is a cultural, political and sociological phenomenon. It is about people and it is a fascinating subject with almost infinite angles. The ‘Mount Everest of subjects’ as David Crystal calls it. Sascha and I believe that introducing concepts from linguistics into schools, from early on, could really help build conceptual bridges between language acquisition (learning French or German etc) and the humans who use those languages. The fantastic Linguistics in MFL project is working with schools to introduce linguistics topics linked to the A Level languages topics. Pupils in the pilot studies have loved learning some linguistics, finding it really motivating to understand some of the history, etymology, phonology, und so weiter of the languages they are studying. Teachers, please get in touch with Sascha and the team if you’d like to learn more, and follow @inmfl on Twitter.
Seeing languages differently is why my own Twitter handle is @lomo_linguist, as Lomo cameras have all sorts of cool lenses to give us new perspectives. I am, like Sascha, hopeful that by joining up our efforts and continuing to talk about our passion for languages, we can help the next generation fall in love with languages too. But in a way that works in the 21st century.
Listen the podcast on iTunes, Spotify, and online below. You can also read the Multilingual is Normal anthology, sixty collected voices talking about talking that I published on 10th August, online on Kindle, Apple or Barnes and Noble, and in paperback here.