Recognising the value of language learning

26 September 2017
Fiona Waye

Fiona Waye

Policy Manager
Universities UK

Why should we celebrate languages? Because languages matter!

Bernadette Homes, Director of Speak to the Future states that, 'Language holds the key to our knowledge, our understanding, our memory, our culture and our identity'. Languages open doors. Learning a language is important because the UK is a multilingual and multicultural society. And, languages help young people gain an understanding of other countries and cultures in preparation for life as global citizens.  

Languages also matter for trade and business. In 2014, Professor Foreman Peck estimated that a lack of foreign language skills and cultural understanding was costing the UK up to £48 billion a year. As the UK negotiates its exit from the European Union and its subsequent position in the wider world, the role of languages and having graduates with linguistic skills and cultural agility will become even more important for the UK economy. Not only in terms of our 'soft power', but in supporting businesses to break into international markets, developing new trade agreements and positive relationships.

And yet, if we look at the latest round of UCAS applications to study languages at UK universities, the number continues to fall, reflecting a longstanding trend. On one level this is not surprising as languages seem to be consistently undervalued by policymakers, media, public, parents, and students. On another level, this is surprising as there is a wealth of evidence which demonstrates the value of languages to individuals, society and the economy.

To counter this decline, universities are thinking more creatively about how to draw more young people into the language learning community. For example, SOAS runs 'The Languages Outreach Programme', this provides schools and students with opportunities to learn, taste, and experience the languages and cultures of Africa, Asia and the Middle East.  

The University of Cambridge runs Transition Days for KS3 and KS4 students considering languages which provides students with the experience and a flavour of university-style language teaching in one of their current languages of study and a taster session in a lesser taught language such as Arabic, Russian or Mandarin. 

Alongside outreach activities by individual institutions, there is a national programme called Routes into Languages which aims to both increase and widen take up of languages through cooperation between universities and secondary schools. Although funding from Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has now ceased, Universities UK International is now acting as custodian for the programme.

The University of Newcastle is a member of the Routes into Languages Programme. In 2016-17 the university trained 30 student ambassadors from the Modern Foreign Language department and four 'super' student ambassadors to work with a range of schools to encourage the uptake of languages among school pupils in the region. The outreach work undertaken by these students varies from giving motivational talks in schools to participating in festivals and other cultural events to deliver language taster sessions.

This form of outreach is worth noting as it is beneficial to the pupils in schools and the student delivering the outreach activites. As well as receiving financial remuneration, each student also gains important transferable skills.

Recognising the value of language learning to any student, many universities offer courses to students not studying a language degree. These can be both credit and non-credit bearing programmes and taken alongside an undergraduate or postgraduate degree programmes. A survey of language provision across the sector by the University Council of Modern Languages/ Association of University Language Centres (UCML-AULC) in 2016 revealed there were over 60,000 enrolments nationally. Typically, universities offer between 6 and 11 languages to students, around 60% of whom are learning them as credit towards their degree courses, with the remainder taking them independently of their degree.  

To support universities in internationalising their next generation Universities UK International (UUKi) has developed a UK Strategy for Outward Student Mobility. This aims to double the percentage of UK-domiciled, full-time, first degree students who undertake international placements as part of their degree by 2020. Specific emphasis is placed in widening participation in the strategy; a recent report shows that take up is particularly low among disadvantaged students.

Alongside UUKi there are a myriad of language organisations and bodies such as the British Council and the British Academy all of whom promote the value of languages. For example, Born Global, the British Academy's project on language skills for employability trade and business, showed how language degrees equipped students with technical linguistic competence as well as qualities of rigorous thinking problem solving and resilience all of which are useful to employers. 

Although many bodies have been working to promote the strategic importance of languages, it is timely with Brexit to explore how we can raise the visibility of the full impact of language learning.  Languages benefit the economy, society, communities and the individuals learning them.

Our team


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