Why study languages at university?

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.


Why study languages at university?
Studying languages at university opens up culture, politics and sociology for students.
But do they know that’s what to expect?

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.

Building bridges

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.

Why translation is important.

Wondering how translation works, or why translation is important? Won’t Google Translate and AI take over from human translators soon anyway? In Episode 14, I talk to Dr Charlotte Ryland, director of the Stephen Spender Trust and Queen’s College Translation Exchange, about what translation is, and why it just might be the answer to the UK languages ‘crisis’ in schools.

Let’s talk about talking!

What is translation?

Given that both Charlotte and I studied languages at university, we were amused to learn whilst preparing this podcast that neither of us had really known what ‘translation’ was until we started our degrees. Is it just a test of whether you understand the grammar and vocabulary of the language you are learning? Or is it more creative and dynamic than that?

Spoiler alert: we think translation is a creative and dynamic process, involving a good grasp of grammar and vocabulary but not merely testing that knowledge. It is about making choices and considering your reader, as well as thinking about the choices the writer made for their readers when writing the text in the source language. Translation opens up cultures and worlds to us by removing travel and language barriers too.

Translating as a creative writing process

I ask Charlotte how we know when we’ve written a ‘good’ translation, and this opens up a discussion about the process of creative writing that we go through when taking a text that exists in one language for one audience, and transposing that text into another language for another audience. It’s incredibly exciting and nuanced. The role of the translator is to co-write the new text. It is writing with your elbows fixed to the arms of the chair. You’re not changing the plot or dreaming up the characters, but you are bringing the text into being in the language you (usually) know best. There is a lot of editing, and feeling how words sound when you come back to them after a couple of days away, just like Michael Rosen and Kate Clanchy described in earlier episodes.

Translation as outreach

The Stephen Spender Trust runs creative translation workshops in schools, bringing translators into classrooms (just as you might invite a writer in to do a poetry workshop, for example) and empowering teachers to integrate elements of translation into their everyday classroom practice. The idea is to move away from a one-off event where a visitor is parachuted in and then disappears again, and towards a model of sustainable enjoyment of languages in classrooms all the time.

This approach has much success in both primary and secondary schools, with lots of energy and excitement, ideas and suggestions buzzing around classrooms as children tackle authentic texts. Pupils get a lot of pleasure and joy from using their language skills in the moment, rather than (as Charlotte explains) in some traditional outreach models where students or language experts stand at the front and tell children about the pleasure they will get from learning languages in five or ten years.

Charlotte’s role involves organising the Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation, where adults and children (in four age ranges) are invited to submit a poem translated from any language into English. They can win £1000 and all winning entries are published. Running a creative translation workshop in school could be an excellent entry point for those teachers or pupils interested in the prize, as well as a good introduction to the world of literary publishing.

Stephen Spender Prize poster for poetry in translation
The Stephen Spender Poetry Prize. Click photo for more details.

Along similar lines, Charlotte’s work with the Queen’s College Translation Exchange involves school workshops but the ambassadors are university languages students.

Creative vs ‘normal’ translation

As I believe Charlotte’s work in schools with both organisations shows, taking a creative approach to translating really opens up children’s linguistic repertoires. It permits them to be multilingual or plurilingual, and to use all their knowledge of ‘language in use’ as they tackle the texts together. I love the parallel with Kate Clanchy’s approach to teaching her multilingual students how to write poetry (listen to her talk about it here) and think there is real potential to bridge the gap between the ‘camps’ of EAL and MFL in schools. Every child is ALREADY a linguist, and a translator. Perhaps our role as educators is to show them the exciting possibilities that open up when they develop the skills involved even further. Could it even be the answer to the UK languages ‘crisis’ and help us break free from the shackles of teaching to a marking scheme?

Creative Translation workshop in Oxford primary school
Creative Translation Ambassadors at a primary school in Cowley, Oxford.

Teachers do not have to be language experts to engage with the translating process either. Charlotte gives an excellent example, known as the Multilingual Monsters activity, that any teacher could use, in any classroom, with any mixture of languages present. We discuss how to empower teachers to enjoy the process too, regardless of their own language backgrounds.

Dare we mention Google Translate?

Finally, what about the future of translating? Are humans going to be redundant once Artificial Intelligence takes over the translation process completely? We discuss whether there really is any opposition between technology and humans. After all, isn’t a dictionary a kind of analogue version of Google Translate?! Discuss.

Join Charlotte Ryland and Cate Hamilton on The Language Revolution Podcast, Episode 14: Why translation is important, here: