Taking down the Tower of Babel: languages in retreat?
When I was a student, not that many years ago (or so I would argue), it was taken for granted that languages were major tools for success, and language programmes in universities were highly popular. In Ireland, the still rather new membership of what was then the European Economic Community had created a much greater awareness of European languages, and it was widely accepted that language instruction and the development of scholarship in the literature and culture of our EEC neighbours were now vital.
How much this perception has changed is evident when we now see that, in the context of higher education funding cuts in several countries across the world, a frequent response by universities is to discontinue language courses. This is one of the steps being contemplated by Glasgow University in its current difficulties, but it is in no way unique. Across the United States, for example, several universities are scrapping languages (or at least some of them) from their curriculum.
It is sometimes suggested that the cuts are mainly affecting continental European languages, and that Mandarin Chinese in particular is replacing courses in German or Italian. And indeed, English language (and even literature) courses across the non-English speaking world are still thriving, as English remains the lingua franca of global business.
In fact, even if we were to dismiss the significance of languages as communication tools and assume that a command of English is all that matters today (a view I have even heard expressed by a number of Chinese people), languages are a gateway to our understanding of other cultures, which in turn is important for the purposes of political interaction and business and trading links. If we deplore (as we should) the decline of mathematics and science in education, we must take the same view of languages. Thinking of them as less important and therefore targets for cuts in times of financial stress is unlikely to be sensible. But for that to be persuasive to a wider public, political and business leaders need to put more effort into making the case for a much great language proficiency. Doing so is now a matter of urgency.