Storm clouds with a silver lining: New opportunities for language programmes

Author: Tim Connell


Although university language programmes have undergone many difficulties during recent years, there have also been success stories. In this paper, the author balances the negative and the positive, encourages institutions to face the commercial argument head-on and provides a list of perspectives which language course providers can use to promote take-up.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Navigating the new landscape for languages conference (, 30 June - 1 July 2004.

1. The new landscape for languages

The changes wrought in languages in recent years have undoubtedly created a landscape, of the sort often left by a tidal wave or tornado. Language departments have proved to be vulnerable to change, and the cynical might argue that the subject has been an easy one to pick off, firstly by limiting recruitment to lesser taught languages such as Russian or Italian, then putting pressure on resources in order to raise group sizes so that languages cannot be offered at particular levels, then by the non-replacement of staff in key curriculum areas. In recent years, the level of casualisation has been relatively high among language tutors, which has also made the subject vulnerable to cutback and change, not to mention additional cost as those tutors have been moved onto fractional contracts in order to comply with EU legislation. Internal rivalries between traditional departments with a research profile and the language centre (which often has an income-generating brief) have not helped. Nor has the undoubted success of English as a Foreign Language with its direct link into overseas recruitment and income-generating potential.

There have been external factors such as the decline of Joint Honours in Languages, caused (amongst other things) by changes at secondary level, with the drop in language enrolments at A-level and the near disappearance in the state sector of the candidate with two languages to offer. The move away from Literature has offered scope for cultural and area studies, but higher level work has been affected in turn by the switch between languages (the decline in German being offset to some extent by the inexorable rise of Spanish) and the growth of non-traditional languages at sub-degree level. All this, before the advent of top-up fees alters the profile of the university sector in ways which have not yet been fully grasped.

There have been success stories, hence the silver lining: the growth of Joint Honours with other subjects, such as Business, Law or Social Science; the massive growth of the Institution-Wide Language Programme (IWLP); and languages are now covered by the major research boards such as the ESRC and AHRB.

Languages have always been in the forefront of innovation and technological change. There are opportunities currently with more flexible modes of delivery, possibly backed up by the use of virtual learning environments or on-line systems of the sort being promoted by LearnDirect. The European Languages Portfolio provides challenges in terms of a wider range of provision, and developments with the National Language Standards and the Languages Ladder indicate that the market could well extend beyond the traditional ones covered by conventional undergraduate courses. Equally, it would be advisable to be cautious with regard to new developments. Two major government initiatives have failed in recent years Individual Learning Accounts and E-Universities UK.

So we need to box clever: face the commercial argument head on (inside and outside the institution). Recruit across the University (while not getting sidelined as a servicing department!) Get involved in marketing and recruitment and not just for your own subject. Keep the English language link to maintain a high profile in the institution (and draw on good practice and methodology). Be prepared to offer languages in as many flexible ways as possible. Look for local initiatives; find commercial contacts via the Regional Languages Network and the development agencies; get involved in Third Wave Funding and bids to HEIF (the Higher Education Innovation Fund); cultivate the local Chamber of Commerce, and look for partnerships with local schools.

2. Top ten topics

A) Languages & Recruitment

1) Languages it's your choice

  • The position of languages post-16
  • IWLP vs traditional language departments
  • Hybrid degrees with a language component
  • External options: part-time and flexible modes of delivery
  • Income-generating activities

2) Take a year out to get ahead

  • The importance of practical experience abroad
  • Sell the Year Abroad. Socrates funding.
  • The need for English native speakers with foreign language skills.
  • Skills gaps and skills shortages
  • Multi-lingual and multi-cultural working

B) Languages & Careers

3) The 3 Es

Languages in the workplace:
Where languages are essential
Where they enable people to go further
Where they enhance performance

4) Learn more to earn more

  • The effect on careers of language skills
  • Language degrees and job take-up
  • The earnings capacity of language graduates
  • Flexibility and more to offer

C) For departmental planning

5) It's not just French & German now

  • Trends in language learning
  • Changing pattern of need and demand
  • The post-14 gap. The post-18 position
  • Public Service Interpreting

6) They all speak English or do they?

  • Customer relations in a global market
  • Strategic questions: NATO and out-of-theatre operations
  • Multi-cultural working at home and abroad

7) Signing is not a disability

  • Do not lose sight of British Sign Language (5th largest language community in UK, second most popular evening class after first aid)
  • BSL is a language and not a disability
  • Interpreting needs between signers of different languages

D) Widen your appeal

8) It's never too late to learn

  • Lifelong Learning
  • Adult Education
  • In-house company training
  • E-learning
  • The BBC webpage
  • LearnDirect

9) So who's not good at languages?

  • The value of language as a transferable skill
  • A way of enhancing communication skills
  • New occupational areas: dubbing, subtitling, call centres
  • Horizons and enhancement: employer interest in overseas experience
  • Widening participation, social exclusion and equal opportunities
  • The value of a multi-lingual society in both commercial and cultural terms. (Don't forget the Olympic Bid!)

10) Just get out there and sell

  • The global perspective: competitiveness in the modern world
  • Cultural awareness for social and economic purposes
  • Strategic languages (Ministry of Defence, MI5, GCHQ etc)
  • Skills gaps and skills shortages to be filled
  • The need for English language speakers to offer foreign language skills
  • The ultimate flexible subject

Related links


European Languages Portfolio

National Language Standards

Languages Ladder

Regional Development Agencies

Regional Languages Network

HEIF (Higher Education Innovation Fund)