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.

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10 Comments on “Taking down the Tower of Babel: languages in retreat?”


  1. […] “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 …” (more) […]

  2. anna notaro Says:

    In October 2010 THE published an article by Michael Worton (vice-provost of University College London) following his research for the Review of Modern Foreign Languages Provision in Higher Education in England. Worton’s report recommended that there should have been ‘a national forum of all stakeholders that would work together to provide a clear and compelling identity for the study of and research into languages in the highly competitive world of the globalised 21st century’. The forum was set up and co-chaired by David Lammy, then minister for higher education, and Diana Johnson, then parliamentary undersecretary of state for schools, I suspect it is no longer active since the new lib-con coalition took power.
    To my mind the most interesting aspects of the report have to do with the argument that intercultural competence is not only one of the essential skills for modern life and work, (i.e. with an emphasis especially on its relevance for business) but is in itself exciting, pleasurable and rewarding. As Worton rightly acknowledges, we all learn to enjoy and play with languages, either with jokes, puns etc. this pleasure in learning to use and creatively manipulate language is always latently with us – learning another language enhances this innate characteristic opening up for us a different culture in its fullest creative complexity and its most playful and joyful form.

    Another key argument regards the role that learning a foreign language plays in fostering a sense of ‘global citizenship’, that according to Warton is marked ‘by a sense of responsibility, both individual and collective, and by a commitment to living in and with difference, in all of its complexity, ambiguity and challenge.’
    This is why, he concludes ‘universities have a vital role to play and should act urgently and boldly, taking on the responsibility of leadership that other bodies seem unable to do.’
    It is a rather sad state of affairs to realize that universities have, so far, acted urgently and bodly only to shut departments of modern languages down😦

  3. Ernie Ball Says:

    And of course it goes without saying that all knowledge must serve some extrinsic, utilitarian purpose. I mean, isn’t that the very idea of a university, to pursue all knowledge as long as it serves the interests of the people of this time and this place?


    • ‘Because it’s there’ seems to me be a good enough reason to study something – I stop (just) short of a purely utilitarian view. But if it’s purely knowledge for knowledge sake, then you’ll always struggle for funding compared to departments that can promise (even if they don’t deliver) a garden of return on investment delights, IP and so forth, back to the funding bodies.


  4. I have to say I don’t get modern languages departments. I don’t understand their role. Why not just go and study in the language home country?
    I’ve expanded my response in a blog post
    http://tertiary21.blogspot.com/2011/03/why-languages.html
    Feel free to enlighten me!

    • anna notaro Says:

      because there is more to a language that just speaking it, i.e. acquiring linguistic competence, Robert, maybe if you had read my comment above carefully if not exactly ‘enlightened’ you would have got at least a glimpse of what is entailed..

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      I tried to write this post to your blog, but blogger wouldn’t let me with either my wordpress ID or OpenID, for whatever reason:

      “As regular readers will note, I find it more educational to display my ignorance.”

      Oh, we’ve noted it alright. Thing is, most ignorant people refrain from pontificating on subjects about which they know nothing.

      A case in point: you clearly haven’t the foggiest notion what it is that people in what you, wrongly, call “language” departments actually do. Here’s a hint: they’re part of the liberal arts.

      Not getting it? OK, what do they do in the English Department? Do they teach English? No, they don’t: they teach about literature and other cultural artefacts written in English. Well, guess what? That’s what they do in the Italian Department, too. Only, in order to make that possible, they also teach the Italian language. Do you get it now? These departments, as part of the liberal arts core, teach about some of the answers that great writers and thinkers have provided (you know, in that far off land called “the past”) to profound questions surrounding what it means to be a human being, questions the answers to which you seem to think you’ve already answered in one of your bullshit “brainstorming” sessions.

      So if similarly benighted bumpkins decide to abolish “language” departments, where will your daughter go if she wants to learn about Montaigne (who?) or Goethe (who?) or Cervantes (who?) or Dante (who?). Oh, I know, none of those people matter anymore because all of the questions that exercised them were answered with the arrival of the iPad or the Interstellar Orgasmotron or whatever other new toy you’ve discovered this week.

      No, but seriously, do you ever think that maybe you might want to learn even the most basic facts about the things you discuss before you hold forth on them like you know something?

      Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.


  5. Thanks for your response Anna. I did read your comment, and to be clear, in my post, I make no argument with the value of studying languages. Whether for linguistic competance (so I could translate Ernie’s German remark) or broader cultural appreciation. (As a minor aside, here’s an nice example of where language knowledge helps understand the significance of something which would otherwise be missed http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2905). I can even grasp why learning the language helps to access the cultural heritage – I have some Pablo Neruda here to hand, even in English it’s worth reading, in Spanish it must be very lovely.

    The question I am asking is whether the linguistic competance and broad cultural appreciate is best gained formally in University Language department, or In Country (semi or informal). It seems to me intuitive, as a layman, that a total immersion, In Country experience would be superior. Regardless of my opinion, it’s a point that can be proved either way. There must be any number of studies using pseudo randomised control groups to compare the language and cultural understanding gained by both approaches which could settle the matter.

    If you put those first two elements aside what you are left with is, as Ernie points out, something like an English Deparment, where the main focus is academic study of the cultural artifacts in the language (cultural – so Goethe as poet yes, but Heisenberg or Kant, probably no) with only a little bit of actual language training (style, the usual undergraduate remedial grammer and so forth). I don’t believe English departments in English speaking countries generally do TEFL, or admit students who don’t already have some level if linguistic comprehension, although perhaps the Arts I cohort may make it seem that way.

    It that’s the model were looking at, then the language departments stand on the same ledge as the English department, and stand on the same rationale. If we accept that the academic study of these cultural artifacts is worthwhile, these departments are equally valid. I could raise the question (and it is only a question, so please remain calm) of whether someone wishing to study the cultural artifacts should do so in country also – if I wanted to really grasp Joyce at a fundamental level, should I not try and study him in Dublin?). If my daughter, as Ernie asks, wishes to study Geothe seriously, would she not be better to do so fully immersed in his language, in Germany?

    Another model that seems to exist is to roll in some other disciplines (historians, geographers and so on) and have a broader ‘[region] studies’ department, where the focus seems to be away from those first two layers of basic linguistic competance and cultural awareness. That seems agreably holistic, and no doubt flies well with trade minded funding bodies. It might make a lot of sense at postgraduate level, for students who already have acquired the basics in the country or region under study.

  6. anna notaro Says:

    ‘The question I am asking is whether the linguistic competance and broad cultural appreciate is best gained formally in University Language department, or In Country… It seems to me intuitive, as a layman, that a total immersion, In Country experience would be superior. ‘
    Robert, in my opinion this is not an ‘either /or’ question, I’ll respond by mentioning my personal experience, I know this is anecdotal, hopefully it will illustrate my point though. My BA back in Italy was in Modern Languages (English, German and Spanish Language & Literature) when I moved to the UK for my PG studies (in Yorkshire of all places!) I could not understand much as far as the linguistic competence/fluency was concerned (the Yorkshire accent took a while to master🙂 still I never felt completely alienated from the culture of the country I was living in, in some important respects the cultural knowledge acquired in the academic department Italy facilitated my cultural integration and the acquisition of better language skills, a process that has not yet ceased since.

  7. Aidan Says:

    Robert,
    While language acquisition is generally best done in a country where the language is spoken you seem to ignore the fact that it is not economically feasible for everybody to study Japanese in Japan or French in France.
    Moreover, with modern technology it is a lot easier to expose yourself to your target language from home. As much as I would like to travel the world picking up languages I do have a life in my home country too. Learning what you can in your home country is what the Dutch nicely term ‘dry swimming’. By the time you get to the target country you can just dive in and swim.
    Another point here is that native speakers of a language may not be the best teachers of it as a foreign language. If you are French and speak fluent English you might understand what skills are needed for a French person to make the transition to vocalize English correctly. In learning Japanese script I have found that foreigners use all kinds of tricks to remember Kanji that would be anathema to Japanese people who learn Chinese characters by rote in school. Basically a foreign perspective on Italian language is as valid as an Italian one, Italy does not have exclusive expertise on its own
    language.
    If you look at foreign universities teaching Irish (I have heard interviews in Irish with Russians, Spanish, Czech people) they seem to have a fresh attitude to the language devoid of the cultural prejudice some anglophone Irish seem to have gainst their own language. Again, an argument for making language teaching somewhat independent from the home location.
    As for studying literature I can think of few pleasures in life as wonderful as reading work in the original rather than translation. Language is a window into the soul after all. In translation by the nature of the process you have to lose something of the original. Reading what people say about your country in their language will tell you a lot more than what they tell an English speaking reporter.
    Language departments prepare people to work at the interfaces between countries and cultures. They take into account a home culture and the culture of the country whose language you are learning.
    A Dutch student of Japanese will learn about the rich history of trade and cultural exchange between NL and Japan. Would a French student of Japanese learn about this? Would they be interested?
    There are always two sides to take into account, your language and culture and that of the other country. I am an Irish person learning Japanese, I bring my own cultural baggage and experience to the table, it is not a one-dimensional process.


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