Opinion | Language students are becoming few and far between. Teaching non-European languages is the solution

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Mark Ross, Opinion Editor

Language students are an increasingly rare breed on university campuses in the UK, according to a recent UCLA report. But don’t despair – if language departments adapt to the demands of our up and coming linguists, the UK can retain its multilingual status.

The UCLA noted that the number of language courses offered by uni’s fell by 12 per cent, applications by 17 per cent and acceptances by thirteen per cent between 2012 and 2018.

On top of this, out of the universities that accepted language students ten years ago, over a half now have 50 per cent or more fewer students starting similar degrees

This is a bleak and worrying assessment of language learning in the UK. But, if we translate the numbers from the UCLA’s report into action, there is hope for the future.

Firstly, we need to change the format of courses. The report reveals that single honours language courses, for example, decreased in popularity by 30 per cent, and multiple language honours by 22 per cent.

universities should be redirecting resources towards the courses that students want to study

Meanwhile, the combination of a language and a social science soared in popularity. Applications for a language and politics, for example, increased by over 50 per cent. Joint translation and teaching courses also expanded.

This trend may reflect students’ desire to acquire a broader education for their increasingly expensive fees. Alternatively, students may be widening their appeal to multiple job sectors in response to the notoriously competitive UK job market.

Whatever the reason, universities should be redirecting resources towards the courses that students want to study. Failure to do so will result in empty lecture theatres and overstaffed, under-used departments.

An important caveat is that not all joint honours are created equal. Applications for joint language honours with English, for example, fell by 32 per cent, and those with economics by 34 per cent.

It is therefore universities’ responsibility to research which courses are in demand and to act accordingly.

Secondly, we need to change the languages themselves. Acceptances for French, German and Russian all fell by around 30 per cent.  On the other hand, acceptances to read Japanese grew by 71 per cent, and Korean has tripled in popularity.

Perhaps the cultural relevance of Europe is fading in the minds of students

This is largely the result of the cultural zeitgeist emigrating to the east. East Asian culture – previously popular only in dinner party conversation and children’s TV – has become mainstream.

K-Pop dominates global charts, with Korean boyband BTS being the ‘Most popular band in the world’ by most measurements. In 2019, the girl group ‘Blackpink’ became the first all-female K-pop group to headline Coachella.

Korean cinema and TV is also finally gaining some well-deserved recognition; Parasite for example, became the first south Korean film to win an Oscar in 2020. Squid Game – the Korean Netflix series and ‘Cultural sensation’ – is Netflix’s most watched show to date.

Perhaps the cultural relevance of Europe is fading in the minds of students. For a package-holiday generation with more interest in Boon Joon-Ho than Bridgitte Bardot, Europe is no longer as exotic and alluring as the likes of Korea and Japan are proving to be.

For language departments across the country, the answer is clear: teach more of the languages that students want to learn. Redirect the resources saved in the scaling back of less popular languages, such as Italian, towards employing Arabic, Japanese and Korean teachers.

universities need to listen to their audience

Not only will this keep the study of languages alive on campus, but it will secure an income stream for increasingly squeezed universities.

And this shift would diversify universities’ curriculums. Europe, understandably, is the focus of most humanities subjects; studying occidental languages would help to broaden students’ learning possibilities.

To replenish the drying talent pool of linguists, universities need to listen to their audience. Tomorrow’s students demand diverse courses in culturally significant languages. Romance languages have lost their shine, and universities’ failure to accept this may result in Britain losing its polyglot population.

Featured image: Unsplash/Hannah Wright


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