Undergraduate Language programmes: A personal perspective

Author: Jill Llewellyn Williams


Undergraduate language programmes that lead to qualified teacher status may be an interesting, alternative route into teaching, especially for students who do not match the typical profile. Such students, who tend to be older and to have interesting work and life experiences, are a valuable addition to our languages classrooms

This article was added to our website on 12/01/05 at which time all links were checked. However, we cannot guarantee that the links are still valid.

Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Navigating the new landscape for languages conference (www.llas.ac.uk/navlang), 30 June - 1 July 2004.

1. Introduction

In this paper I shall refer to the undergraduate language programme offered by the School of Education at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff (UWIC). This two-year programme, B.A. (hons) in Secondary Education, French Pathway, leads to qualified teacher status (QTS).

Although my knowledge and experience is limited to this particular programme, there are specific, generic issues that it would be useful to air.

2. The course

Some brief details about the course will allow these issues to be set into context. The course is aimed at a specific type of student. The entry requirements are: minimum age of 20; GCSE Mathematics and English or Welsh; one year or equivalent of Higher Education. Many students are able to meet these criteria. They do, however, need a solid base of language skills in order to be able to complete this extremely demanding and intensive two-year course, where academic development and professional experience are so closely interlinked.

During this period they must cope with a considerable amount of language and methodology study, yet they are out in the classroom only a few weeks after beginning the course. During these two years they spend time working in four different secondary schools, developing their continually improving language and professional skills.

At the university, they study much the same modules that students on traditional degree courses would encounter: grammar, oral skills, literature and cultural studies to name but a few. These students, however, tend to differ greatly from typical language students in that many left school years ago and find the task of adapting to studying an especially demanding one.

3. Student profile

In promoting this course, we frequently encounter some common concerns, namely that these students, being undergraduates, will be young and inexperienced; will have poor language skills; and will not be as good as PGCE students.

In fact, the average students tend to be in their thirties, if not older, and they therefore have considerable work and life experiences. Many have spent extended periods working in French speaking countries or for French companies, while others may be native speakers. These skills are tested at interview. As for the charge that they may not be as good as PGCE students, in our experience their quality is comparable. In other words, it is very mixed. Some develop extremely well, others need more support to realise their potential.

As one would expect, mature students face different, more complicated challenges. They may have families, partners, children or elderly parents to worry about. They have different needs such as paying the mortgage or financing career breaks. Many come for interview but are unable to start the course, once they have had time to sit down and work out the financial or personal commitment they will need to make. However, the cost implications of a two-year course are attractive to students such as these and their life experiences which may include interesting work background or close experience of teenage children make them attractive candidates to the teaching profession. These people tend not to drift into teaching; they have had to make sacrifices and hard decisions and as such their commitment can rarely be questioned. They have tried other career pathways and have decided that what they really want to do is to teach.

4. Conclusion

In the world of languages learning, we are faced with a grave dilemma. There has been a long erosion of the numbers of students opting to study languages at school. This decline in numbers has had a serious effect on the viability of many languages departments in universities, where fewer students choose to follow language degrees. Inevitably, this has led to acute shortages of language teachers, which takes the problem straight back to where we do not wish it to be, to our schools.

Those of us who are involved in the promotion of language learning have been exercising our brains for solutions to this problem for many years. We need to accept that there is not one answer but many answers to this problem. Out in our communities there are people who are committed to languages and who want to play their part in putting languages into a prominent position in our society. Traditional language degrees have their place but for a 30 year old who has spent a long period working in France but now has a settled home and family, such degree courses may not be a practical option. For such a wide range of students, we need to seek alternative routes into the profession, to ease their way on a path that is bound to be difficult. The time has come to think laterally, to find ways of opening doors to language learning, especially to people who have a wealth of skills and experience that would be of such value in our classrooms.