Languages are on the decline in British secondary schools. This is well known and barely counts as news these days. It started long before the Covid pandemic and Brexit added further pressures.
This had a ripple effect on the universities. The University of Hull is the latest in a growing list of institutions to announce the closure of language degrees. A Times Higher Education article last week with the alarming headline ‘Language decline sees numbers drop to zero at UK universities’ added to a long series of articles warning of impending doom.
But the figures originally quoted for the universities of Warwick, Southampton and Newcastle baffled colleagues at the three institutions as they bore no relation to the reality on the ground. Why then did the article – and the Ucas figures on which it was based – suggest that acceptances had declined so much?
The answer lies in a shift in student applications away from single-specialization degrees to combining specialist language learning with a non-linguistic subject. The figures do not take into account that students are now much more likely to study two or three languages alongside another subject than to focus on one language.
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Of course, this term “alone” is itself misleading. Even a single honors degree will involve studying the linguistics, literature, film, politics, art, and culture of the countries where that language is spoken. Warwick, in fact, pioneered this type of interdisciplinary degree in the late 1960s. Its founding teachers of French (Donald Charton) and German (Dick Hinton Thomas) wanted to create a new type of language degree that focused on much more than old novels by canonical writers and exercises in abstract translation. Warwick students examined language in context, incorporating philosophy, history and politics, as well as literature. Our most recent additions to our catalog of modules are Postcolonialism, Transnationalism and Ecocriticism.
It is a measure of this original vision that departments across the country have adopted similar approaches, so that all language degrees now have a broad and interdisciplinary basis. And yet we have all seen a shift from the (already) inherently interdisciplinary and in-depth study of one language to the study of two or three, and away from honors in the humanities in favor of combinations with the social sciences and Sciences. At Warwick, for example, you can now study combinations ranging from Italian and Art History to German and Business Studies or Hispanic and Global Sustainability.
Warwick students were always encouraged to go to other departments to take modules. But the dual degree programs that such arrangements portend have, over the past 10 years, largely supplanted one-to-one courses – despite constant adaptations by university language departments in terms of who, what and how they teach. Why?
In my view, it is no coincidence that this change coincides – in England, at least – with the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees and the concomitant discourse on the relevance and usefulness of degree subjects. The trend is also linked to a broader decline in the number of humanities students (potentially driven by similar utilitarian thinking).
But it is also linked to the increasingly limited opportunities for language learning in schools. At Warwick all of our languages can now be taken from scratch as students have not always had the opportunity to pass an A level in the language they wish to study. And beginners are still required to study another subject, so there’s something to fall back on if their efforts to learn the language aren’t working.
It is also important to note that the transition to ab-initio joint studies and degrees has been accompanied by an increase in the number of students studying a language as an optional module throughout the university. The Warwick Language Centre, part of its School of Modern Languages and Cultures, is teaching 1,400 undergraduates and 900 masters students this year – and enrollment is growing steadily year on year.
The impact of Covid and Brexit on the next generation of language specialists will mean that language departments will continue to evolve and diversify. We will support schools more than ever through outreach, impact and widening participation, and we will further evolve the curriculum to better reflect the global and diverse contexts in which languages are spoken. Languages are dynamic, after all, so it’s only natural that degree models have changed.
The decreasing number of students taking the traditional single-entry route means that students with specialist language qualifications may now have fewer cultural modules to choose from, but they are increasingly multilingual and cross-cultural and are more likely to have a specialization in another discipline alongside their in-depth study. layers and contexts of the countries where the chosen language is spoken. This makes them more employable, more flexible and better equipped to adapt to a global working environment.
More than ever, the UK needs specialist language graduates to navigate an increasingly cross-cultural, cross-cultural and transnational world. For many language departments, including Warwick’s, this is a time of transition rather than despair.
Katherine Astbury is Professor of French Studies at the University of Warwick.