Exploring the evolving role of HEI language centres in the context of national and international languages strategies

Author: Danielle Barbereau


The UK appears to be at odds with the rest of Europe in terms of the application of language policies. Whilst the rest of Europe is promoting linguistic diversity, the UK has paradoxically seen a drop in the uptake of languages at Secondary School level. This trend has a detrimental effect on student recruitment in the HE sector. However, this situation may work in favour of University Language Centres. The purpose of this paper is to explore the changing roles of Language Centres, primarily in research-led universities, and within the national and international context, and to argue that the discourse on languages must be reconfigured.

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Table of contents

Conference 2006

This paper was originally presented at our conference: Crossing frontiers: languages and the international dimension, 6-7 July 2006. Download print version: this paper is also available as a pdf (65Kb)

Language policies

1 - EU

In March 2000, the EU Heads of States and Governments agreed to make the EU "the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-driven economy by 2010" (The Lisbon Process). Even if this ambitious target is not reached, the EU is undoubtedly committed to a new strategy for multilingualism which stresses the importance of language skills to worker mobility and the competitiveness of the EU economy.

The EU is actively developing initiatives to encourage multilingualism and exchanges between nation states. Many EU policies focus on languages and technology in order to facilitate multilingual communication. They also recommend the creation of national action plans "to promote bilingualism, to improve teacher training to provide early language learning" and even to foster the concept of teaching school subjects through a foreign language. All initiatives are designed to promote transparency and foster student and staff mobility within Europe.

2 - UK

By contrast, in the UK, language planning appears to be going against the European trend. In secondary schools, where languages have become an entitlement, numbers of pupils learning a language have actually dropped and some language departments are closing. In HE, there is a decline in the number of UG students taking traditional language degrees. In addition, in the key findings of her report, H. Footitt found that "undergraduate numbers in strategically important languages such as Arabic, Chinese and Japanese have also fallen" (2005). She also stated that "language degrees attract a smaller percentage of students from the lower social classes than the average for other subjects" and feared that the situation would only worsen with the introduction of top up fees.

By contrast, the CILT website copied below details the action points of the National Language Strategy which appears to indicate a real commitment from the government to fostering language learning at all levels of education:

"The Government is determined to ensure that languages take their proper place at the heart of initiatives and activities to further the wider social, economic and political agenda. A key part of this is communicating the importance of languages, both at a national and local level. We will identify and expand opportunities for language use in printed, electronic and broadcast media and communications. We look to our key partners to play their part to build success". (CILT Website, downloaded 27/4/06)

Judging from the quotation above, there appears to be a huge gap between the discourse of the government and the reality on the ground in the UK. For instance, it is hard to see how making languages an 'entitlement' in secondary education can help meet the international language needs of globalisation and of the UK's economic growth.

However, in her report, Hilary Footitt also observes that a new trend is clearly emerging in HE: students are taking up languages as part of their degrees, instead of studying stand alone language degrees, offered by traditional departments. This is confirmed by the AULC which reports an increase in the number of non specialist students taking language modules as part of their degrees, which is obviously excellent news for UK Language Centres if they know how to maximise this opportunity.

Language Centres

The key words used in the European discourse such as multilingualism and diversity actually represent key opportunities for Language centres. For instance, Language Centres can capitalise on the stated concepts of economic mobility, employability, diversity, internationalisation, professional practice, widening participation and lifelong learning, to name a few.

My argument is that time has come for Language Centres to come into their own, to help re-configure languages and to offer new models to policymakers. I believe that Language Centres now have the potential to reinvent themselves as 'hubs' of professional and innovative teaching. They can also play a pivotal role in many other areas including: internationalisation, personal development, intercultural communication, outreach activities, lifelong learning, e-learning, widening participation, employability, inter-disciplinarity and cross sector co-operation. I believe that the rapidly evolving global context provides new opportunities and that it is up to Language Centres to reinvent themselves and to propose new models to policy makers.

We can begin by proposing a new definition of what is meant by language professions, language professionals and language departments. Are language professionals solely teachers and researchers in pure linguistics or are they actually translators, subtitlers, localisers, multilingual content managers, intercultural communicators, international mediators? Also who are the majority of language students? As stated above, the majority are now non specialists who seek to enhance their chances of employment by learning a language. So language policymakers may want to look at the way our language modules now fit in mainstream degrees. This will also go someway towards ensuring that the status of Language Centres is raised at institutional and national level.

Similarly in my view, Language Centres must claim their uniqueness. Firstly, they have to fight the derogatory label of "service department", especially in research-led universities. Language Centres are not merely service departments; they service other departments, yes, but their core function is teaching. High quality teaching informs all aspects of Language Centres, which frequently are at the forefront of language pedagogy and of e-learning.

At the same time, Language Centres must actively deal with students' perceptions, so the discourse concerning languages can be given a new impetus. In particular, languages are proven to lead to better jobs and language skills are linked to the growth of the economy. At the moment, although the employability and transferable skills aspects of language learning are well known among language professionals and employers alike, the message does not appear to be heard properly.

Language Centres are often highly innovative in the provision of the courses they offer and in the pedagogies they use. In fact, Language Centres are already creating unique and exciting portfolios of courses. Many of these promote employability and facilitate lifelong learning. In fact, it can be argued that Language Centres have a function of interface between universities and the outside world. Furthermore, many Language Centres are innovative in the partnerships they instigate and for instance play an active role in Knowledge Transfer and Third Stream activities. Consequently, they are vitally important to the local economy and importantly they also generate income for their institutions.

Finally in terms of reinvention of the function and perception of university Language Centres, there is a strong case for giving proper recognition to the research carried out by their staff. For instance the areas of pedagogy, e-leaning, language policy, PDP, lifelong learning and learner autonomy are in my view as valid as those of pure Linguistics. Moreover, many research areas which are directly meaningful to Language Centres such as ethnicity, identity and intercultural communication, are often being researched in other disciplines, such as Social Sciences. In my view, it is important that the Applied Linguists in Language Centres should at least participate in these particular fields of research.


I have argued that in view of the national and the international context, Language Centres in the UK are in a unique position to reinvent themselves. In my view a key aspect is for Language Centres to be 'engines' of change and in particular to propose changes in the way languages and language professions are configured. It is essential that Language Centres in the UK be proactive and challenge institutional and national cultures. The discourse and the ideas generated will determine the range of activities, the role, the perception, the direction, the management structure, the activities and the vision of Language Centres. This process will arguably affect national language planning and policy in the global environment.