Modern (Foreign) Languages – a fractured identity?

Katrin Kohl

Over the past decades, English has become a linguistic passport that gives people from countries with a different dominant language access to a global conversation, and it also helps them to achieve success in the job market. Learning English automatically provides the learners with a command of at least two languages, an enhanced ability to learn further languages, and the cognitive and cultural benefits of expanded linguistic horizons.

Meanwhile people in English-speaking countries enjoy the advantage of knowing English already. The downside is that no second language delivers equivalent usefulness, and ‘soft’ benefits provide a less immediate incentive for putting in the hard graft that language learning requires.

Teaching of languages: an uncoupling

In UK schools, the decline in the obvious practical usefulness of languages other than English has paradoxically gone hand in hand with an increasing limitation of Modern Foreign Languages to the study of practical language skills. As universities increasingly withdrew from the examination process and therefore also from involvement in school curricula, the teaching of MFL in schools became uncoupled from the teaching of Modern Languages in universities.

In university departments, Modern Languages has continued to be embedded in the humanities. Literature and increasingly also film form an important part of the syllabus, and to a lesser extent also the history and political life in the relevant countries.

As the subject has been drained both of its usefulness and its intellectual interest, pupils have voted with their feet. Numbers taking qualifications in Modern Foreign Languages have plummeted to such an extent that a dearth of applicants has caused many universities to close their Modern Languages departments.

Promoting the benefits of language learning

The crisis of Modern Foreign Languages in schools is the most high-profile issue currently facing multilingualism in the UK. A key question is how it should be addressed. Champions of the subject have continued to focus on emphasising that language learning is a facilitator of career success, and important for plugging the UK’s trade deficit. While those arguments aren’t wrong, they’re not suited to attracting children, or sustaining learners over the many hours and years it takes to learn a language. More importantly, the utilitarian focus masks the intangible rewards of using parts of our brain that other activities don’t reach, and it precludes appreciation of the rich dimensions that open up if we explore Languages as a world that encompasses cognitive processes, textual and performative art, and the vibrancy of social communication.

Maths isn’t compulsory at school just because it enables us to count the pounds, shillings and pence in a shop, and the study of Maths doesn’t just consist of learning Applied Maths. History would have disappeared from school curricula if it were evaluated purely as a useful skill. It’s time to open up the concept of Modern Foreign Languages and reconnect the subject with the Humanities, especially English and History, open up the links with General Linguistics, and exploit the huge interdisciplinary potential that comes with the fact that every academic subject can be studied through the medium of a foreign language. In short, it’s time to develop a richer model of what the study of Languages is about.

Image credit: By Faulds, Henry, 1843-1930 [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons