Like maths, the study of languages has been declining on university campuses throughout the UK. Last week, Education drew attention to the looming crisis in maths. This week, we talk to language experts about the disappearance of French, German, Spanish and Italian from our universities.
Languages could go the way of classics and be reduced to a rump, taught only in a few places, according to the experts, particularly if the Government forges ahead with its plan to make the learning of a foreign language voluntary for 14-year-olds. That, in turn, could affect British exports and British attitudes towards other countries, and to the way we see ourselves in relation to the rest of the world.
"If languages are axed from the core curriculum at GCSE, then they could go into free fall," says Professor Mike Kelly, director of the subject centre for languages at Southampton University. "All languages will suffer but it could be the death knell for German."
Susan Bassnett, pro vice-chancellor of Warwick University, agrees. "It could spell disaster," she says. "We have a very good French department at Warwick, with excellent staff, but we're not getting the students to stay on and do taught Masters and PhDs. It's a wasteland and the Government's proposal will accelerate the process."
Lord Watson, chairman of the English-Speaking Union, agrees that the Green Paper plan will have "a detrimental impact" on language departments. "Far fewer students will take languages to A-level, which will mean fewer doing them at university," he says. "Fewer graduates will mean fewer people training to teach languages. Instead of having a positive spiral, there will be a vicious circle."
As with maths, university language departments are being closed or downsized in response to falling demand for language degrees. Ucas figures for 2001 show applications for all subjects going up slightly, but applications for languages declining. Specifically, there were drops in demand for French, German and Russian, though demand for Spanish increased a little.
Like endangered species, languages are disappearing from swathes of the country, according to Hilary Footit, who chairs the University Council for Modern Languages. There are no Japanese degrees north of the border, Wales is becoming a no-go area for Russian, and there are sightings of Dutch only in pockets of England.
A snapshot survey of 30 universities last year found 73 per cent had cut one or more languages or courses. Languages chopped included Portuguese, Arabic, Russian, Polish and Hungarian. Courses cut included single honours French and European studies. As many as 93 per cent reported major staffing changes, with 130 posts going since 1999. Fewer than 30 per cent reported any discussion of national strategies when taking these decisions.
Does this matter? Some academics argue that it doesn't because, although fewer students are opting for single honours degrees in languages, more are studying a language as part of a degree in business or law or engineering. Why get worked up about the demise of specialist language degrees when so many young people are interested in keeping a language alive, albeit alongside a separate subject?
"I have gained the impression that the language community is split right down the middle on this," says David Head, who runs the department of international business at Plymouth University. "Some people are very alarmed because they feel it looks as though languages are being reduced to a frill, rather like music." (Indeed, in the languages document put out by the Department for Education and Skills at the same time as the Green Paper, there is talk about grading language skills in the same way as music.)
But other experts believe the figures do not paint such a pessimistic picture, pointing to the GCSE statistics that show participation in languages up to 16 has been going steadily upwards. …