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Published: 09 October 2013

Comment: The paradox of language study in the UK

Dr Lucy Bell looks at the availability of language degrees and a model for meeting the increasing demand for experienced multilingual graduates.

The recent article in The Guardian (‘Modern languages: degree courses in freefall’, 08/10/13) underlined a glaring paradox. Now more than ever, the globalised business world calls for multilingual graduates. Yet applications for modern languages degrees are in freefall and departments are closing all over the country.

Education Guardian reports a 40% drop in universities offering specialist language degrees in the last 15 years (from 93 in 1998 to 56 in 2014-15). More worrying still is that, as the report points out, the pace of decline is increasing. In the case of French, for example, whereas between 1998 and 2007 there was a 15% drop, there are now 29% fewer universities offering that language. The same trend is true for German, Italian and even Spanish, which held up well between 1998 and 2007: the number of universities offering Spanish degrees has fallen by more than a third over the last seven years.

According to the former Treasury economic adviser, James Foreman-Peck, the poor language skills in the UK effectively constitute what he terms a ‘tax on trade’. The figures are striking: in 2011, he estimated that this language deficiency was costing the UK at least £7.3 billion per year, equivalent to 0.5% of our GDP.

The drop in language graduates is no doubt a principal contributor to this ‘language tax’. Certainly, it is possible to learn a language without doing a languages degree. However, studying one or two languages to degree level not only equips you with linguistic skills, but also with a whole host of other qualities and competencies: a deep insight into cultures other than your own; invaluable intercultural awareness; and an ability to communicate effectively in more than one language, whether in written or oral form.

At the University of Surrey, this has been our approach for the last 40 years. Rather than focusing on literature like most other British universities, we place an emphasis on language acquisition, intercultural communication and professional skills. We teach almost all our modules in the target language from day one, allowing our students to gain near-native fluency in one or two languages (French and German, German and Spanish, or Spanish and French). Moreover, we work in close collaboration with partners all over the world. This allows our students to work and/or study in one or two foreign countries during their third year, which we call the Professional Training Year (PTY). In the School of English and Languages alone, we have contacts in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Colombia, Madagascar and the USA. We have links with internationally renowned companies and institutions such as EDF, Johnson and Johnson, Lloyds Banking Group, Eurosport, Hilton Hotels, Volkswagen, Mazda Motor Europe, Ernst & Young and the German Academic Exchange Service.

The PTY is fully integrated into the degree and supports the transition between student life and professional life. In the second year, our students take a module entitled Personal and Professional Development, which enables them to prepare for their year abroad, secure a placement and reflect on the process of getting a job as well as on the specificities of professional life. Throughout their placement, the students’ progress is overseen by a placement tutor, who visits them two or three times to ensure that they are having the best possible experience. Lastly, the compulsory final-year dissertation (equivalent to two modules) often develops as a result of their experiences on their year abroad.

The professional focus of the degree, combined with the academic rigour of the courses, means that our students are very attractive to prospective employers. We have an excellent track record for graduate employment, with many students securing jobs before finishing their degrees and some being hired by the actual placement providers.

Regarding the quality of the students admitted onto languages degrees, the Education Guardian report suggests that a contributing factor to the decline in students may be the seeming difficulty of language A-levels: whereas 8.4% of students studying science A-levels achieved an A* this year, the figure was only 6.9% in languages. To be sure, the entry tariffs for language students are necessarily high. At the University of Surrey, we ask for a B in the target language because we need students with good linguistic ability and critical minds, as well as excellent communication skills. Our degrees are challenging but, as the students invariably acknowledge, rewarding and worthwhile.

Dr Lucy Bell is Lecturer in Spanish and Translation Studies in the School of English and Languages.