Posted on by Vicky Lewis
Back in August 2023, Durham University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Karen O’Brien, wrote a piece for the Higher Education Policy Institute, which argued that the current need for cultural diplomacy means there has never been a more important time for language study.
This inspired me to put out a call on LinkedIn to any languages graduates and speakers of multiple languages in my network. I asked them the following question:
‘What skills has language learning given you that you apply in your job?’
This blog takes as a starting point the many insightful responses I received.
It then delves into some broader issues relating to learning and using other languages, which I had great fun discussing with Professor Chris Hill and Professor Judith Lamie on their Think Education podcast in October.
This is all quite topical in light of the publication of the latest International Higher Education Commission report, ‘Is the UK developing global mindsets?’.
Following my LinkedIn post, I did a rough and ready job of collating the skills and attributes, derived from language learning, which people believed made them better at their job.
Some of the skills were linked to time spent in another country and culture; others were associated more directly with the process and experience of learning another language.
The skills people highlighted went beyond the expected ones such as improved communication skills; broader horizons; and ability to build cross-cultural friendships, connections and networks.
There was also reference to:
Of course, there are other ways to develop these skills and attributes, but I think we often overlook just how useful language learning can be.
Some have argued that AI will make language learning obsolete, but most serious studies seem to reject this idea. While AI-supported translation is a valuable and time-saving tool, mastering languages remains culturally and socially important, developing skills and attributes that enhance human interactions and break down cultural barriers.
Where AI can come into its own is in enhancing the language learning process. AI technology is already producing interactive content that is tailored to a learner’s ability level and interests. If this can boost the fun and relevance of language learning and encourage more people to do it, that’s a positive development. Virtual Reality assisted language learning (VRALL) has also been shown in this article by Hua and Wang to have cognitive and affective benefits.
One of the topics I discussed with Chris and Judith on their podcast was the decline in school level language learning in the UK.
Nearly twenty years ago, in the same year as publishing the excellent 2004 UK international education strategy, Putting the World into World Class Education, which included a goal ‘to transform our capability to speak and use other languages’, the government took the bizarre decision to scrap having a compulsory foreign language GCSE, which led to a massive drop in uptake that has persisted ever since.
In 2002, 76% of pupils took a modern language GCSE. By 2011 it was only 40%. It has risen again slightly but remains below 50%. Two in three state schools teach just one foreign language. The number of pupils in England sitting German A-level has almost halved in the last 10 years.
The challenge starts at primary school, where the curriculum is so focused on English and Maths (and SATS results) that there is little opportunity to spark an interest in learning other languages (despite the fact that many classrooms include high numbers of pupils who speak another language at home).
Where schools are open to it, there’s an opportunity for universities to get involved. One option is to connect international students with local primary schools, where they can run activities to open pupils’ eyes to other cultures and languages.
At the secondary school level, there was a government-funded pilot project in 2019, designed to reverse the decline in take-up of GCSE languages. It took place in Sheffield and involved undergraduate languages students at the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University mentoring year 8 and 9 school pupils (targeting those who said they would probably not select a language at GCSE) in the run-up to making their GCSE choices.
After 5 weeks of in-person and online mentoring, more than half of the participating pupils said they now intended to study a language GCSE. Uptake among pupils who were not mentored also improved, with a 43% boost in GCSE entries for languages across the schools that took part in the pilot.
The Sheffield pilot was based on a similar scheme in Wales, in collaboration with Cardiff University, which was also successful. Mentoring helps to tackle pupils’ anxieties about languages being ‘difficult subjects’. University students who are passionate about language learning (and have direct experience of the benefits) are well-placed to spark interest in younger pupils.
Although calls were made for wider roll-out of these pilots, this didn’t happen. However, universities that are serious about linking their internationalisation, civic engagement and outreach agendas could establish their own initiatives along these lines.
Interestingly, there’s a significant blind spot when it comes to mention of language learning in UK university internationalisation strategies. This was evident when I undertook an analysis of university strategies in 2021.
It led me to pen a thought piece for Times Higher Education called ‘Language learning is at the heart of internationalisation’, where I argue that anglophone universities should actively support development of the skills and cultural understanding that learning foreign languages instils.
I make the point that ‘within UK universities, there is widespread acceptance that graduates need intercultural competencies if they are to work effectively in a global context. However, students who try to acquire these without ever having experienced the challenge of communicating in a foreign language are doing so with one hand tied behind their backs.’
In most other parts of the world, it would be unthinkable not to have a 'foreign languages' strand within a university internationalisation strategy.
The October 2023 report from the International Higher Education Commission (whose purpose is ‘to develop recommendations for a new “International Education Strategy 2.0” in partnership with the higher education community’) is entitled: Is the UK developing global mindsets? (link to pdf).
I was delighted to see that the report, having highlighted the dire state of modern languages provision at universities (and schools), recognises the value in supporting language learning as part of the Internationalisation at Home (IaH) agenda; and recommends the active promotion of Institution Wide Language Programmes (which can be offered as a co-curricular activity and include a far wider range of languages than the handful of European ones typically available at school level in the UK).
The IHEC report notes that such programmes ‘sit attractively between the formal and informal dimensions of IaH, both fostering interest in global engagement and facilitating and enabling it’ (p. 20).
Universities have a valuable opportunity – through outreach activities with schools and through their own Internationalisation at Home initiatives – to use language learning to develop in future generations those much-needed global mindsets and cultural diplomacy skills that have the potential to make our world a less troubled place than it is today.