This article is more than 2 years old

Where next for modern languages?

How will the perennially "in crisis" modern languages deal with life after Covid-19? asks Seán Williams.
This article is more than 2 years old

Seán Williams is Senior Lecturer in German and European History, and Impact and Engagement Lead in the School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Sheffield.

Academics in Modern Languages are used to seeing statistics that might be read as the writing on the wall.

For example, fewer school children have been learning German. And, more generally, few take an A Level in a foreign language.

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.

Lockdown learning

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.

Knowledge Exchange

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.

5 responses to “Where next for modern languages?

  1. At school in the 1990’s we were taught German because Germany was the obvious strongest economy in europe but I always wanted to learn Japanese so I could plan imported videogames!

    I can’t help but wonder if we are headed in the wrong direction with foreign languages? French and Spanish are widely spoken tongues but the prevailance of English speaking across the world means they are rarely needed for the average traveller outside of remote countryside areas.

    What we should instead be doing is offering training courses for primary school teachers in Mandarin and Hindi and hiring specialists to teach it at secondary level. China and India are the economic powerhouses of the 21st Century and there is a gap in our education system to align our students with where and who they might be in future. Offering foreign languages as electives alongside existing degrees might also increase the uptake as it would help students planning on working abroad.

  2. I dropped German before O Level in 1980 (against my wishes; someone decided I was doing ‘too many humanities’ and I had to take Chemistry instead) but I can still decline the definite article.

  3. As a German graduate, completing my studies at Reading in 2010, there is sadly a lack of meaningfully interesting job opportunities for language graduates, particularly if you only have advanced skills in one foreign language, despite the fact that we are constantly told that Britain desperately needs linguists. I would have loved the chance to utilise my German language skills in my career but the opportunity simply didn’t arise. When I was looking for entry-level graduate roles the vast majority of openings involving German were either for customer services or recruitment consultancy. The thought of working in a call centre did not become any more appealing just because I’d be speaking German! Apart from a few people that went into secondary MFL teaching, I’m not aware of any of my course mates that are actively using their language skills either. I know of people working in finance, quantity surveying, HR, marketing, publishing and migrant support (she may occasionally use her French language skills) but by and large, I’m not aware of anyone from my cohort that uses their German language skills in an interesting role on a daily or regular basis.

    I always wanted to study German at university as I knew that in the British system it was the only way I would become fluent and the Year Abroad was one of the best and most transformative experiences of my life and I don’t regret it all, particularly as I did joint honours with Management but for many, there isn’t a desirable job that will allow someone to use their language skills after they graduate.

  4. It seems very obvious to me that what we need is graduates from a wide variety of degrees who can speak other languages, not merely graduates who have studied languages (or literature/film/cultural studies) exclusively. Carl’s point about languages as electives is surely the way forward. However, the recent British Council/UUK report sadly does not mention this and focuses only on language degrees. A missed opportunity.

  5. And economics is clearly the wrong motive for learning a new language. Yes, it is useful and sometimes crucial to know another language for one’s job. But do we learn mathematics, literature or history because we want to get a job? Of course not! It is the skills we acquire by doing those subjects and the discipline we develop along the way that make us better candidates for the job market. The same applies to language learning. But again there’s so much more to learning another language or two or more than to the becoming equipped to make ends meet. And you, who are reading this, know that.

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