Thursday, June 20, 2024
HomeCulture WarModern languages – an obituary

Modern languages – an obituary


I NEARLY fell off my chair when I opened my copy of the Times to discover that the University of Aberdeen, one of Scotland’s top institutions for language teaching, is seriously considering taking the axe to modern languages. 

The rot had set in a long time ago with my own department at Dundee University. The institution had scored bottom of the pile in the latest national assessment of universities, and it duly committed the same sacrilege as Aberdeen is now contemplating on modern languages, discarding a thriving and successful group of staff and students because we were the low-hanging fruit and vastly outnumbered by those in the medical, technical and scientific departments. Now Aberdeen’s potential closure is being driven by low numbers of applicants because of cuts in the classrooms, a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one.

But it didn’t take long for the university to back-pedal and suggest that, given the extent of the protests the decisions have engendered, joint language degrees might still be on offer. It is not made clear what impact that would have on the proposed staff cuts, nor where the non-existent students and financial resources for these courses would materialise from. The decision-making skills of the university management leave a lot to be desired, particularly since shutting down a department tends to be a non-reversible process with a direct negative impact on the lives and careers of staff and students alike. I note with a rueful smile that the Green MSP Maggie Chapman, commenting on the proposed axe-wielding, stated that it would mean that Aberdeen could no longer call itself a ‘comprehensive university’. Now there’s a thought.

A quiet war of attrition on modern language teaching has been waged for many years within the educational establishment. It is a discipline which has flown in the face of the ‘modern’ trend away from subjects perceived as perversely difficult, including Classics and language generally. There had been half-hearted attempts to introduce French, German, Spanish, Mandarin and more in primary schools, but the lack of qualified staff and the absence of a suitable initial curriculum which laid the foundations and segued seamlessly into the secondary classrooms caused the movement more or less to peter out.

Let me raise the dreaded D words – languages were Difficult, Demanding and Disciplining: you had to learn stuff by heart and suffer the indignities of getting something wrong, and you had to work your way step by step, with each stage becoming more challenging than the one before, until pupils gave up and voted with their feet for subjects with the comfort word ‘studies’ in them. With potential learners finding their attention spans whittled down to a few moments watching a YouTube short, why expect the poor dears to challenge their brains with more demanding material taking years to master, if ever? Lower the standards until it meets the dwindling aspirations of the clientele – that’s far easier than challenging them to rise above themselves. Anyway, here comes AI riding to the rescue, completing the de-skilling process. Why bother?

I won’t bang on about the future career benefits of studying one or more languages; I’ll simply remind you of all those Cassandra-like warnings about the detrimental shock to the jobs market of the advent of computing years ago. Sure, the kind of jobs changed, but it was simply a matter of adjustment and fitting in to rapidly evolving new patterns of employment. My argument lies in a different area: interpersonal skills, the ability to think on one’s feet, and an awareness of the interrelationships between one language and another – just three of the many benefits of learning a foreign language. We have already given up on the benefits of learning Classical Latin and Greek, and whole generations have been culturally kneecapped by having lost the ‘Open Sesame’ password to the linguistic and cultural Aladdin’s cave those ‘dead’ tongues can yield up. That deprivation took a long time to occur, and like with modern languages, it started in the schools, where the dreaded myopic drive for ‘relevance’ saw language learning as irrelevant (everyone speaks English, don’t they?) too hard (mustn’t strain the brains of the tender young) and old-fashioned (the taboo word) in the face of the white heat of technology. I recall, as a pretty raw lecturer in the 1960s attending the annual conference of Germanist lecturers at universities in the UK, being present at a discussion on Classics teaching or its absence. The speaker asked those of us who had studied the discipline at university to raise our hands, and I was one of the red-faced few who tentatively did so. Soon modern languages, now circling the educational plughole, will follow suit, and our children’s education will be all the poorer for it. Bonne chance, as they used to say.

This article appeared in Scottish Union for Education Newsletter No 49 on January 11, 2024, and is republished by kind permission. 

If you appreciated this article, perhaps you might consider making a donation to The Conservative Woman. Unlike most other websites, we receive no independent funding. Our editors are unpaid and work entirely voluntarily as do the majority of our contributors but there are inevitable costs associated with running a website. We depend on our readers to help us, either with regular or one-off payments. You can donate here. Thank you.
If you have not already signed up to a daily email alert of new articles please do so. It is here and free! Thank you.

Rex Last
Rex Last
Rex Last was Professor of Modern Languages at the University of Dundee from 1981 to 1991. He has written several novels.

Sign up for TCW Daily

Each morning we send The ConWom Daily with links to our latest news. This is a free service and we will never share your details.