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A male, back to camera, points a pen at a screen displaying a globe and 'hello' in different languages

Our Vice-Chancellor, Professor Karen O'Brien, makes the case for languages education

Knowledge of languages is the doorway to wisdom, as the medieval English philosopher Roger Bacon is reported to have said. Bacon’s achievements were such that he was known as ‘Doctor Mirabilis’, and he is widely credited as one of the earliest European advocates of the modern scientific method.

Languages, scientific discovery and knowledge are closely intertwined and of mutual benefit and, I would argue, this is even more true now than it was then. In a globalised world, one that is turbulent and unpredictable, the ability to talk with others who may have different ideas and interests is critical. There is also evidence, most recently from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded Creative Multilingualism project, that language diversity and creativity are mutually reinforcing. 

As we approach A-Level results day (Thursday 17 August, 2023), there are familiar stories in the press about the decline of language learning in the UK – most recently this past week when new figures showed the number of pupils in England sitting German A-level has almost halved since 2013. French has also suffered.  The British Council recently reported that two thirds of state secondary schools in the UK teach just one language.    

Some will say this is simply not of concern: nearly a quarter of the world’s population speaks English, and English is the dominant language of scientific communication. Moreover, the languages ’lobby’ in the UK have been battling hard, since languages ceased to be compulsory at GCSE in 2004, with often diminishing returns.  Has the time come to embrace increasingly sophisticated translation software, and concede defeat on the matter of language learning?

The value of language learning

I, and my university, Durham, take a different view. Language learning benefits its students culturally, in opening their mind to a different world view; socially, allowing them to compete or collaborate with peers across the globe; and economically, in demonstrably enhanced earnings and career outcomes. In the future world of work, graduates who can live and operate across language areas will have the advantage.

Our School of Modern Languages and Cultures is ranked among the best in the world partly because of the breadth we offer (Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Hispanic Studies, Italian, Japanese and Russian); our chronological and thematic range (we have a thriving community of medieval and early modern scholars, for example); and the integration of language and culture – a very deliberate approach, enabling our students to explore the world including and beyond its languages.

Employers are looking for languages

We need to do everything possible to keep flying the flag for languages wherever we can. Earlier this year 180 leading language scholars gathered here at Durham to explore the vibrancy of language study, its diversity, best practice and its future, at a conference we called ‘Where Are We Now?’ Two months later, we installed as our new Chancellor Fiona Hill, the leading foreign affairs specialist and US Presidential adviser, whose rise to a position of international prominence began with her studying German and French at a school in County Durham.

Fiona has commented: “Having spent my career in universities, think tanks and government, I know that leading employers are looking for travel and a foreign language, as well as sporting prowess and interesting hobbies. These are the marks of a well-rounded, highly accomplished student, who they will want to hire as an intern or entry level employee.”

Never more important than now

It could well be argued that there has never been a more important time for language study than the present. Cultural diplomacy, the bedrock of which is the ability to range across languages, is crucial, forming a bridge between the pressured and fragile democracies of our world.  Moreover, just as we are now acutely aware of biodiversity loss on our planet, we must also be mindful of the current cultural diversity loss that is not good for mutual human respect and human rights.  Linguistics specialists tell us that 40.4% of the world’s population are native speakers of only 0.1% of the world’s languages.  English is the ’hypercentral’ language in a global language system that increasingly marginalises the fifth of the global community who speak over 80% of the world’s languages. Without a commitment to language diversity and language learning, we risk having monopolies of thought, broken connections to the richness of the past, and a depleted resource for innovation for the future.

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has made important interventions in this area, notably the 2020 report A Languages Crisis?, from which the 15 recommendations merit careful consideration.

As the British Academy and others said in their 2020 call to action ‘The Importance of Languages in a Global Context’: “A renewed commitment to multilingualism within society, and to languages within education, is critical to preparing present and future generations of citizens who will be responsible for building international collaborations and fostering harmony at home.”

We back their call for governments, policy makers, educators, business and industry leaders and others to protect and widen capacity for, and promote the opportunities of, widely accessible languages education, to ensure students from all socioeconomic backgrounds reach their full potential.

Find out more

- This blog was first published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI). Read it here
- Explore our School of Modern Languages and Cultures
- Find out more about our Vice-Chancellor