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Why I decided to learn languages; photo by Matthew Burpee under Creative Commons licence

Studying a language: where will it take you?

The BBC recently published an article entitled Languages may be passport to Oxbridge, data suggests, saying that acceptance onto an Oxbridge language undergraduate degree course seems to be easier because there are fewer applications for these courses.

This is a startling revelation that poignantly reinforces the vulnerability of Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) in the UK and within the British school system. If Oxbridge are struggling to recruit or attract students for these courses, what hope do other institutions have?

At the University of East Anglia we have been fortunate to be able to hold our tariff rates and increase the number of applications on our language undergraduate degree courses. This cannot be said of some of our competitor institutions, which have struggled to meet admission targets even with lower tariffs.

The strength of the language programme at UEA is reflected in the overall ‘package’ of student education and experience, which includes the practical nature of the courses we deliver, an established year abroad programme, and the amalgamation of employability skills into all our modules. We also allow students to begin language degree course as complete beginners.

Yet, how long can we hope to increase our student numbers with less and less students having the necessary skills and drive to study a language?

What does the future hold for language study in the UK?

Currently, it is not compulsory for young people to take a language at GCSE unless directed by the individual school. This means that in general those schools that do ensure that a GSCE in a language is compulsory are either from high participation/attaining areas or are public schools; as these schools have the funds and motivation to provide facilities for languages.

A gap is emerging in the attainment rates of schools and whether or not their students leave school with a GCSE in MFL. This could set a dangerous precedent for languages becoming only accessible to those from more privileged backgrounds. The Government so far have been reluctant to engage with the issue of languages in our secondary education and revoked measures put in place under Labour.

However, the Conservatives included in their pre-election manifesto that they would make a GCSE in a language compulsory for all students in the UK. The realisation of this pledge is yet to be determined, and it seemed an odd addition to their education reforms, having not addressed the issue in their first term.

Under the Coalition Government, the emphasis was placed on universities to alter admissions procedures, making a GCSE a requirement for qualifying for an undergraduate course.

Yet, if support of languages is primarily taking place at high attaining schools, how does this impact on widening participation and ensuring access to HE?

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Modern Languages suggests that universities use Widening Participation (WP) funding to pay for language classes for students lacking a GCSE in MFL. Therefore, languages instantly become an identifying factor between those students from high participation neighbourhoods and those from low participation neighbourhoods, reinforcing a classist attitude towards languages and discouraging WP students from applying for university.

None of this of course takes into account the A level reforms and the unknown impact this will have on applicants to HE.

So, in a world of potentially declining applicants for undergraduate language courses, and the possibility of a classist divide in attitudes towards languages, how can universities positively influence this landscape in a manner that is inclusive?

UEA is committed to supporting language study as well as ensuring that university is accessible to all. We work in partnership with a consortium of universities under the Routes into Language banner to support and promote language study in school from primary level upwards.

Surely long-term, sustainable and positive promotion of languages in schools is a better way to spend WP funding, rather than on language courses once students have already decided to attend university. This is no way helps to recruit students to language degree courses, for this the long-term promotion of languages is needed, something that can only be achieved through working collaboratively with local schools.

At UEA we approach this in two ways:

  • by providing classroom support and mentoring to students, including a MFL summer school
  • by providing support and resources for MFL teachers, who often feel unsupported by senior management in their schools.

There is a general lack of understanding surrounding the importance of MFL on the secondary curriculum, especially concerning the career pathways for those studying languages. This is something that universities can support, using their influence to highlight the benefits of language study in schools and for the future of young people in the UK.

Posted by Kim Ridealgh on Thu, 2 Feb 2017

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With experience working in several different universities across Europe and Asia, Kim completed her PhD in Egyptology at Swansea University. Currently she is a lecturer of Sociolinguistics at UEA, specialising in historical politeness in epistolary texts from ancient Egypt. Kim also oversees language-based Outreach activities, including the Language Ambassador Scheme and Language Teachers’ Network.

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