With the recent news that Aberdeen University are planning to remove their single honour undergraduate language degrees, it feels like there is no better time to discuss the importance of language learning. The decision, which has been controversial and has been condemned by union staff and Gaelic singers who have called it ‘A staggering act of cultural vandalism’, reflects a broader trend in the United Kingdom. As a language student myself, I feel that I can advocate for the importance of language learning in higher education.
This decision that has been taken by Aberdeen University may come as a shock to many given the relevance of globalisation, but it is far from the only cut back on modern language education in recent years. In the UK, language learning in schools has halved in the last 15 years. There are a variety of factors that have caused this including lack of interest and perceptions that languages are difficult subjects. However, another different, more frustrating issue is that in some cases students are unable to learn foreign languages at school. Many schools have to make the difficult decision to cut modern language courses if there are not enough students choosing these due to budget restrictions. While this is understandable, it is equally upsetting. Language learning should not be a privilege reserved for the best funded schools but an opportunity for everyone.
One of the biggest issues that needs to be addressed is the connection between access to language learning and economic status. In a recent study, it was found that schools with greater numbers of students receiving free school meals had less access to language learning. While this has begun to be addressed with programmes such as the Language Hubs programme which aims to have 90% of year 10 students studying languages by 2025, the deeper root of educational disparity is a much more expansive problem. Furthermore, the programme created by the government is failing and it is not on track to achieve this goal. This signals that there could be other reasons for the lack of interest in learning languages.
One potential issue is the rhetoric that surrounds foreign languages in the UK. There is an idea that there is no need to speak a second language if everyone else around the world speaks English. This idea is perpetuated in media and politicians such as the fact that most interviews on the red carpet or in sports events take place in English as the common language. Currently, I am on a year abroad working as an English teacher in Alicante. Here, the teaching and discussion around languages is different due to the large number of tourists that are present. The students and the teachers both feel that learning English is necessary and a useful skill for their students. Given this, learning English as a second language is compulsory throughout the education system. Compared to English or Maths in the UK, at Key tage 4 language learning is not compulsory and therefore given an inferior status within our education system.
There are real benefits to learning a language, especially in an academic environment. Students who study a language at GCSE are more likely to maintain this interest in the future. The academic environment is also the most structured way that students will have access to learning a language. In my own experience with learning languages, the only way that has stuck for me is being in a course where I have the necessity of passing. Being able to speak a second language, even to GCSE level opens up greater opportunities. Researchers have found that multilingualism boosts economic growth given that languages can boost trade relations. Furthermore, the same researchers also found that individuals have the potential to earn more than their counterparts if they speak a second language.
However, learning a foreign language is also an amazing experience in other ways. Once you progress past the basics, a whole new world of media, people and places becomes available to you. I have had the opportunity to live abroad for a year due to my studies in a foreign language and without this, I doubt that I would have taken the opportunity to live abroad. For me living in Spain and not bothering to learn even a small amount of the language also feels disrespectful. I wonder how different my experiences here would be and if I would have been received so warmly if I made no effort to speak Spanish.
The closure of Aberdeen’s language degree programme signals to me a lack of importance placed on other languages and cultures in the UK. The future of language learning is so important for how the UK will progress on a global scale and this step is one of many that indicates we are going in the wrong direction.
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