State of the Subjects: Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies in the UK today

Author: Michael Kelly


What is covered by the three subject areas of languages, linguistics and area studies? What kind of programmes are available? And how many students are currently studying them? This overview looks at some of the things which are changing in these subject areas, including student numbers, the increased importance of career implications, shifting disciplinary identities, globalisation, and the impact of government policy shifts. It refers to the report of the Nuffield Inquiry in shaping current thinking about languages in particular.

Table of contents

1. What do the subjects cover?

Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies comprise a wide range of interconnected studies, aimed at understanding language, culture and society and the relationships between them in particular countries or areas of the world.

Languages usually involve studying a specific language or culture. The most widely taught languages or language groupings in the UK have traditionally been French, Hispanic, Germanic, Italian, Slavonic and English as a foreign language. But there is growing interest in Japanese, Chinese and Arabic, as well as other less widely taught foreign languages. The main UK heritage languages (Welsh, Scots Gaelic, Irish) are undergoing a revival in some areas. Higher education has not yet developed much provision for other indigenous languages, particularly community languages, nor for sign languages.

Linguistics involves the study of language as such. It is traditionally formed of two main groupings: pure (or theoretical, or general) linguistics, and applied linguistics. Each of these groupings has further sub-groups. There are also areas of linguistics, such as sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, or computational linguistics, that do not fall conveniently into one or the other grouping.

Area Studies involves the study of a specific country or region, drawing on a number of disciplines to achieve the fullest possible understanding of that area of the world. The notion of Area Studies originated in the U.S. in the post-war period, when the division of the world into distinct spheres of influence sparked academic studies of those areas, characterised by an emphasis on policy issues. In the UK, the term is used in two different ways:
i. to mean the interdisciplinary teaching of the social, political, cultural and linguistic aspects of a particular country or area;
ii. to mean the strand within languages that focuses on the social and political (but not cultural or linguistic) aspects of the countries where the language is spoken.

2. What is studied in the subjects?

The three subject areas offer a huge variety of courses in UK HE. The following summary is based on the list of degrees or degree components advertised for entry in October 2000 by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). Figures in brackets indicate the number of institutions listed as offering programmes under that heading.

Programmes in Languages

Language studies are taught in 126 UK higher education institutions. Some 54 languages can be studied. Individual languages include the following (ranked by the number of institutions offering programmes):

French (121)
German (121)
Spanish (106)
Italian (66)
Russian (48)
Japanese (31)
Welsh (21)
English as a Foreign Language (16)
Portuguese (16)
Arabic (13)
Chinese (13)
Gaelic (9)
Hebrew (7)
Irish (7)
Modern Greek (6)
Catalan (5)
Turkish (5)
Czech (4)
Dutch (4)
Hindi (4)
Oriental Languages (4)
Scandinavian languages (4)
Swedish (4)
Danish (3)
Korean (3)
Polish (3)
Croatian (2)
Indonesian (2)
Serbian (2)
Slavonic languages (2)
Sign language (2)
Slovak (2)
Thai (2)
Urdu (2)

21 languages are offered by only one institution: Amharic, Aramaic, Bengali, Bulgarian, Burmese, Finnish, Georgian, Gujarati, Hungarian, Icelandic, Iranian, Nepali, Norwegian, Occitan, Proakrit, Romanian, Swahili, Tamil, Tibetan, Ukranian, Vietnamese.

Some languages can be studied as a degree subject on their own, or combined with another language, or with other disciplines. There are some degrees combining up to three languages, and many which integrate a language with a broader topic, such as International Business or European Studies. There is a growing tendency for students to take a language as a minor component, or an option over one or two years, as part of a degree in another discipline. Most of the optional language study is aimed at the early stages, from ab initio to approximately A-level. It is also largely focused on the most popular languages: French, German, Spanish and Italian.

Programmes in Linguistics

Some 34 programmes are available in Linguistics, including programmes in Computational Linguistics, Psycholinguistics and Socio-linguistics. To these may be added programmes in Speech Studies or sciences of various kinds (15), Translation and Interpreting (10) and programmes in the teaching, as distinct from the learning, of English as a foreign language (14). Linguistics is also widely taught as a component of other programmes, especially but not exclusively in language degrees.

Programmes in Area Studies

There are no degree programmes called Area Studies, though there is one Diploma level programme. Its close cognate, Regional Studies, (3) is occasionally mentioned in programme titles. Instead, programmes are generally identified by the name of the particular area, or of the linguistic or cultural group studied. The following programmes are available (ranked by the number of institutions offering programmes):

(Contemporary) European Studies (78)
American (or US) Studies (46)
Hispanic and Iberian Studies (19)
Latin American (or Spanish- or Ibero-American) Studies (16)
Scottish Studies (9)
Islamic Studies (9)
Jewish (or Israeli) Studies (9)
Middle Eastern (or Near Eastern) Studies (8)
Irish Studies (7)
Celtic Studies (7)
East European (or Soviet) Studies (7)
Persian Studies (7)
South and South East Asian Studies (5)
British Studies (4)
Central European Studies (4)
African Studies (4)
Asian Studies (3)
Asia Pacific Studies (3)
East Asian Studies (2)
Black and South Asian (1)
Afro-Portuguese Studies (1)
Australian Studies (1)
Brazilian Studies (1)
Canadian Studies (1)
Caribbean Studies (1)
Commonwealth Studies (1)
Sikh Studies (1)
Sinhalese Studies (1)

In some respects, Development (or Third World) Studies (39) may be included as a cognate area.

In addition to specified degree programmes, Area Studies units are widely taught as part of degrees in other subjects, especially in Modern Languages and English, but also in Geography, History, Economics, Politics, International Relations and Sociology.

3. How many students are there?

There are probably around 130,000 students studying languages, linguistics and area studies as some part of their degree, often quite a small part. Some of them are studying in more than one of the three subject areas. Together they make up roughly 6.5%, or one in sixteen, of all UK students. It is not possible to give precise numbers, but reasonable estimates can be drawn from figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), including a detailed breakdown of 1998-99 figures, and from information in Teaching Quality Assessment reports (TQA) of the mid- or late-1990s. (See additionally the overview of student numbers published in this Guide.)

In languages there are approximately 120,000 students studying at least one unit of language. Of these, rather less than half are following degree programmes that include language study, and more than half are studying a language as an additional subject, outside their main discipline. This does not include students studying a foreign language as a non-accredited unit, or studying English as a foreign language in pre-sessional and in-sessional courses. Facilities for these studies are available in most institutions, but since they fall outside accredited programmes, no figures are available. (Source: HESA, and Nuffield Languages Inquiry (1998).)

In linguistics there may be up to 20,000 students (including perhaps 3000 postgraduates) studying some element of linguistics. At undergraduate level, the vast majority study it as part of a degree including one or more other disciplines, usually in the area of languages. Only 150 or so students take Linguistics as a single honours programme in the UK (HESA).

In Area Studies there are perhaps 14,000 students taking some component of Area Studies, apart from courses integrated into language degrees. Some 3,500 of these study American Studies, which does not typically include language or linguistic studies. The rest are mostly accounted for by European Studies (c 5,500), Middle Eastern and African Studies (c 2,000), Asian Studies (c 1000) and Latin American Studies (c 1000), many of whom are also studying languages (HESA).

4. Current developments

In the last five years or so the subject domains of Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies have been particularly affected by the international context, and by domestic responses to it. They have also been affected by specific government initiatives. As a result, the subjects are going through a rapid process of change, often painful, which requires them to respond to a number of broad issues. At national level this process has been taken forward by groups and subject associations and, in the case of Languages, by the work of the Nuffield Languages Inquiry and of the Nuffield Languages Programme that sprang from it.

4.1 Levels of demand

Linguistics courses have grown healthily, with total student numbers up by two thirds over the last five years. This reflects among other things the growth of English language A-levels, the interest in language sparked by the literacy strategy in UK primary schools, and the rising demand for English language teaching internationally. However, the numbers of students applying to study language and area studies degrees have declined noticeably since the mid-1990s. This has not affected all degree programmes or institutions equally. For example, there has been some buoyancy in Spanish and in American Studies, while French, Russian and European Studies have declined by 20-30% over five years. The older universities have been less dramatically affected than the post-1992 institutions.

A key factor is the steady decline in overall language A-level entries since 1996. This trend looks set to accelerate if the government carries out its intention to make foreign languages optional after three years in English state secondary schools. The underlying reasons include complacency over the growing international role of English language, and the persistence of Euroscepticism in national attitudes. The cost of an extra year of degree study (the "year abroad") may also be a significant factor.

Conversely there appears to be growing demand for languages as subsidiary or optional components in degrees in other subjects. Knowledge of foreign languages and cultures is recognised as a key skill enhancing many programmes of study.

4.2 Connecting to careers

Students have become more conscious of the career implications of their studies, and teachers have increasingly recognised the need to build explicit career benefits into academic programmes. In languages and area studies, globalisation is a dominant issue in courses, and many students wish to take advantage of career opportunities offered by global developments. Teachers have responded by emphasising the value of key skills embedded in these programmes, particularly language and communication skills, intercultural competence, and personal resilience in mobility. This has been emphasised increasingly in the attempt to stem the decline in recruitment, and the strong position of language graduates in employment is now well documented. (The latest figures on employment are published under student numbers in this Guide.)

Perversely, this emphasis appears to have reinforced the move away from languages as a specialist subject. On the one hand, there are relatively few specific professional career outcomes, apart from teaching (which has tended to become less attractive to graduates) and translation and interpreting (which are relatively small and specialised professions). On the other hand, the emphasis on skills may have overshadowed the inherent value and interest in studying other languages, cultures and societies.

4.3 Loss of established identities

Academics in languages, linguistics and area studies have been very active in innovating and in re-defining their subject(s). This is partly a response to falling student numbers and partly a response to rapid changes in knowledge, social priorities and consequent shifts in disciplinary boundaries. As a result, there is less certainty about where the core area of the subject(s) lies.

At the same time, cognate disciplines in the humanities and social sciences are tending to move away from area-specific or applied studies towards more theoretical and generic studies. For example, there has been a 'theoretical turn' in literary and cultural studies in many degrees where there is a strong focus on literature or film. This has increased the use of English-based work, often displacing the focus on foreign languages and cultural contexts. Or, as another example, most programmes in Area Studies draw on multi-disciplinary staff from different departments, and these teachers are increasingly focused on the more theoretical aspects of, for example, economics, politics, or geography, and less interested in how they might be applied to a particular country or area.

4.4 Globalisation

The internationalisation of trade has given greater importance to the skills and knowledge provided in languages and area studies. However, globalisation has also reinforced the dominance of English-speaking American influence in the economic, political and cultural spheres. The interplay between globalisation and localisation provides both opportunities and threats to these subject areas. The academic communities are anxiously looking for ways to develop their programmes that would take advantages of the opportunities and avoid the worst consequences of the threats.

4.5 Impact of government policies

Government policies work through with surprising speed to change the way academics think and work. Direct intervention in the content of academic programmes has traditionally been light touch, typically offering marginal incentives to take advantage of opportunities, for example, to increase the links with industry or to give greater emphasis to encouraging enterprise. In languages and area studies there have also been intermittent initiatives aimed at protecting or promoting some subjects. A clear example is the less widely taught languages and cultures, and subjects regarded as having strategic importance, such as Russian or more recently Chinese studies.

During the later 1990s, government started looking for more input to its policies in the form of advice and consultancy from academics. This has had direct and indirect effects in feeding government priority topics into academic programmes. For example, theoretical and applied linguists have advised on the national curriculum in schools, the literacy strategy and the development of key skills. In the medium term, this will affect the profile of students entering university, but in the meantime it is giving a new impetus for academics in linguistics to work on grammar, and on second language acquisition, and to include these areas in their teaching.

4.6 The Nuffield Report

The Report of the Nuffield Languages Inquiry in 2000 has had a major impact on national policy in languages. The eighteen-month inquiry sprang from a proposal from the languages community. Sponsored by the Nuffield Foundation, with tacit support from government, it had a membership of prominent public figures, chaired by Sir Trevor McDonald. Its preliminary consultative report (1998) contained a chapter on Higher Education, written by Prof. Richard Towell, which provides a great deal of valuable information. The Final Report (2000) has since fed into government and EU policy on languages. The section of the Report dealing with Higher Education provides a statement of key issues in the area of languages at that date, which have been largely confirmed in the intervening period.


Fay, M. & D. Ferney (2000). Current Trends in Modern Languages Provision for Non-Specialist Linguists, London: CILT.

Head, D. et al (eds) (2003). Setting the agenda for languages in Higher Education. London: CILT, forthcoming

Nuffield Languages Inquiry (2000). Languages: The Next Generation. London: Nuffield Foundation

Nuffield Languages Inquiry (1998). Where are we going with Languages? London: Nuffield Foundation

Related links

HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency)

TQA (Teaching Quality Assessment reports)

UCAS (the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service)
Home page:
Statistics section:

Nuffield Languages Programme, including online version of Nuffield Languages Inquiry

Sigma Report on languages in higher education in Europe (1995)

Thematic Network Projects on languages in European higher education (1996-present)[

University Council of Modern Languages

For general information on Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, the best starting point is effectively the home page of this Guide.

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