Academics in Modern Languages are used to seeing statistics that might be read as the writing on the wall.
No German spoken here?
A couple of years ago, five council education departments in Scotland recorded no National 4 or 5 exams in German at all. Across the border in England the year before, three local authorities made no entries for German from state schools whatsoever. Year-on-year changes appear to be modest: the latest figures from the UK government show a small 3 per cent uptick in German GCSE entries nationally, but the number sitting the subject for A Level fell by 2 per cent. This June, the German Foreign Office published its figures on those who know their der from their die from their das. Learners of German are on the rise, but generally in the global south. Not in Britain. At British universities, one growth area despite the overall decline is the uptake in German by international students.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, though, we know the headlines about those cohorts all too well. Of course, there are lag-times in data (this set accounts for numbers up to 2019), the “demographic dip” of school leavers is near the end of the trough, and on a granular, departmental level, the story is different from institution to institution. There are local success stories. Nevertheless, the recent report on German is not really news in the sense of being unfamiliar.
The need for linguists
Although Brexit, and now coronavirus, present obvious challenges for subjects underpinned by travel, migration, and cross-cultural exchange, current events actually underscore the importance of Britain reflecting on, and renewing, its relationships with other countries. There is greater practical need for linguists than ever, so academic colleagues and cultural institutions have been building capacity. Sheffield staff and students joined a Cardiff University-led scheme funded by the Department for Education that mentored local school children in learning foreign languages. A concept of German regional networks, linking universities, schools, businesses and the wider community, was developed in Oxford, was supported by the German Embassy, and was rolled out across the country. The idea has also turned thematic, with one such network specialising on German film.
Beyond student recruitment, modern linguists are also active researchers – as literary scholars, historians, film critics, theoretical and applied linguists, sociologists, and much else besides. The AHRC had a Leadership Fellow in Modern Languages to ensure the subject area could make the most of grant income, and the funding body splashed the cash on its Open World Research Initiative. Academics contribute to REF with publications and impact, with scores converting into valuable income streams. (A good Impact Cast Study alone covers a lecturer’s annual salary.) And when it comes to internationalisation, collaboration abroad is linguists’ bread and butter (or should that be croissant au beurre?) All in all, then, I’m not handing ammunition to managerial monolinguals who might like to cut Modern Languages. There are good reasons for optimism about their value and longevity as a useful, intellectual, and financially sustainable subject.
But the statistics suggest we have to keep thinking creatively. Above all as linguists, we might be expected to expel clichés from our critical repertoire. Yet sometimes these can be useful, especially in order to react to like with like. That languages, or the humanities, are in crisis is itself a well-worn trope by now. I am not the sort to keep calm and carry on; when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Even if that saying leaves a sour taste in the mouth. With that, the German government’s report gives a reason to try setting out a new kind of stall.
The study closes by counting the number of online learners in 2019. The picture is partial, as this group was examined for the first time; and the content of only three providers was analysed, among them the Goethe Institut and Deutsche Welle. Figures for page visits, unique visitors, and registered users for virtual courses both with and without a tutor were calculated. There is no year-on-year comparison yet, though common sense would say that in 2020, demand has increased dramatically. During lockdown, people have watched more multilingual Netflix series, ordered copies of The Magic Mountain or War and Peace, and many have downloaded or updated DuoLingo.
Learners might be new to the subject, or they might be students, teachers or parents looking for new resources to replace lost classroom time. After lockdown, if not post-pandemic, this second need may continue. Plans for getting pupils into school include scaling back options like languages in favour of core subjects: a short-sighted idea that follows an existing (and increasing) trend of “disapplying” some students in favour of extra literacy support, which came to light in the most recent British Council Language Trends report.
The reasons for language learning, and doing so online, are various. They may be vocational – using downtime to upskill – or driven by dreams of that delayed vacation. Although a socially distanced pint (or litre) in a crowded tent at Munich’s Oktoberfest seems as unlikely as a grammatically accurate sentence when you’ve had a few too many. Anecdotally, people are also turning to languages simply out of boredom in quarantine. Now is surely the moment to capture that interest.
The market for online language tuition is a crowded space. But instruction need not be our niche. After all, Modern Languages at university is about research. And that means stories. Stories we are discovering and telling, anyway – only mainly for our conventional audiences at the moment. The addition of an online section to the study of German language learners comes at a time when academics are more au fait with digital delivery than ever before. Isn’t there an opportunity here for story-led, culturally interesting, and more public-facing online content that arises from our reading and writing to date?
It could be commercialised, and in that universities already have some experience. In my own department, colleagues in Translation Studies are working with partners in business on improving subtitling techniques for streaming services. Another works with an Argentine publishing house, shaping its marketing by delving into its history. Or we might make cultural material available for free: either because the creation of digital material could be co-created with students as part of enhancing their employability skills, or because free content helps us in an indirect financial sense. Being more prominent helps our reputation, complements the mission of a civic university, and hopefully boosts student recruitment as well.
What’s more, the agenda of the Knowledge Exchange Framework offers a ready avenue for investment in any new initiative. The “KEF” is the least established within the holy trinity of processes for university appraisal and funding allocation. But the moment has come, I think, for Modern Languages to talk about the KEF as much as the REF and TEF. Knowledge Exchange helps facilitate a wider range of activities than just work that will produce income through research impact. And it makes the most of the work we already do well. Looking to the longer term, as higher unemployment and underemployment unfortunately looks more likely in our post-pandemic society, online public provision by university departments could turn out to be – sadly – a sustainable model.