Modern languages are far from dead

Reports of the demise of Modern Languages are premature, says Andrea Wilczynski, Head of the School of Modern Languages at Newcastle University. But universities need to continue to innovate and adapt their programmes to changing demands

Andrea Wilczynski is the Head of the School of Modern Languages at Newcastle University.

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We often hear reports that modern languages provision is in decline. However, modern languages degrees are evolving.

The last decade has seen modern language degrees change significantly. Newer courses are much broader, offer more options for study, and give undergraduates more transferable skills than ever before.

Most institutions now offer joint honours modern language degrees, rather than single honours courses, such as BA French or BA German. We have seen a very definite trend towards the study languages as part of a joint or combined honours degree, to the extent that this is probably the dominant mode of study now.

The perils of high-level data

But these changes are not reflected in UCAS data. Students on combined degrees don’t count as part of the modern languages in the high level statistics we usually see. It is fair to say this gives a misleading picture of how the subject is faring in 2021. Colleagues in the School of Modern Languages at Newcastle University were surprised to find out that, according to UCAS data, Newcastle only had 15 students studying languages, when we count ourselves among the healthiest and most vibrant Schools of Modern Languages in the country.

The confusion around student intake goes back to the way in which data for languages is represented in UCAS. If misread, this can lead to full cohorts being invisible. For example, readers may just consider what UCAS call the ‘R ‘ Group within a degree programme (‘Non-European languages, literature & related’) which will automatically eliminate all students of European languages at the provider.

Challenges for languages

Given the fundamentally international nature of our subject, it is fair to say that both the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit have posed significant and particular challenges to us and to our students. Some students have seen their study abroad cut short, delayed, and even (in a few cases) cancelled. We are still waiting to see what the new Turing Scheme will mean for overseas studies once it is implemented.

Necessarily, these challenges have led to more innovation and closer collaboration with fellow institutions. Online teaching over the past year has brought a lot of stress and anxiety but also offered the chance to try exciting new developments. It has opened up new opportunities and virtual exchanges have benefited students of modern languages more than any other discipline.

Our students have been involved in virtual study and virtual year abroad placements. Remote interaction with native speakers all over the world now takes place as part of curricular and extra-curricular activities. For example, students at Newcastle interviewed Italian researchers in Antarctica, and descendants and representatives of the Desaparecidos of the Argentinian military dictatorship. Remote interpreting is more important than ever and it is now a part of the curriculum for future interpreters. These are unique, enriching experiences. Much of what we have learnt over the past year will be taken forward as digital modern languages evolve in the future.

The next generation of students

The work we do needs a wider focus. If we want to attract students from diverse backgrounds we need to consider how we reach out to them, how we inspire them and make them think that languages are an option for them. Initiatives such as digital mentoring where students work with school children are vital for that.

And we need to build on the success of Routes into Languages – languages must be part of the lifelong learning agenda. Events such as the North East Festival of Languages this month are vital in bringing together people from all areas of life to share their experiences and their joy for language learning. For the student ambassadors who will be part of this – leading sessions for secondary and sixth form students in Portuguese, Mandarin, Welsh or Spanish – it will be another angle to their study, and another opportunity to pass on their passion for languages to the next generation of language learners.

Modern languages is a creative and evolving discipline which gives students a wide range of transferable skills. Contrary to reports, it is very much alive and well equipped for the transition to the digital era.

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