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Vice-Chancellor news

Have we turned the corner on languages?

22 May 2015

That was the thought running through my head when I attended the launch of the Cardiff University Languages for All scheme in the Students’ Union on Thursday 21 May. The British propensity to avoid learning languages is well known, and indeed languages in schools and universities have been in long-term decline. For a Germanist like me this has always been a cause of concern and puzzlement. The usual reason put forward is that English is such a dominant world language, and to be frank the decision by the Labour government in 2004 to end compulsory language learning after age 14 didn’t help. Be that as it may (and in fact that decision was recently reversed in England though not in Wales), it would be a surprise – if a welcome one – to learn that our students are keen to learn other languages.

Well I had exactly that pleasant surprise when I learned of the take up of our new Languages for All scheme. It turns out that in its first phase of operation 2500 students took part and – importantly – 71% completed the course. For anybody who knows about language teaching that is a remarkable figure. At the launch event students who had taken part spoke with great passion about their experience, and others appeared in a video which you can see here. Their enthusiasm, motivation and commitment are palpable, and I can certainly recommend learning a language for the sheer joy it brings.

I wanted to introduce a Languages for All scheme in support of one element of our Way Forward strategy, which is to get 17% of our home students working, studying or volunteering abroad by 2017. True, you don’t need a language to go abroad if you pick a country where the native language is English, or where English is widely spoken. But part of the richness of living in another culture is experiencing the world through the prism of another language, and getting to know people on their own terms. Linguistic skills are sought after in the job market of course, and are a definite bonus even though spending structured time abroad in itself will on average lead to better academic outcomes and better employment prospects. Learning a language is hugely worthwhile, and I’m very heartened by the response of our students, including those not originally from the UK.

Dr Catherine Chabert of the School of Modern Languages and her team have created an exceptionally well-organized programme covering French, German, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Italian and Japanese. The courses are available at different levels and are very much tailored to the needs of students. They are open to all students and are provided free of charge. We think this makes us unique in the UK; and we’re probably also unique in having recently opened a School of Modern Languages under the outstanding leadership of Professor Claire Gorrara, rather than having closed one.

The excellent performance of the School in the Research Excllence Framework vindicated that decision; the success of Languages for All cements it. I’m very pleased that we are giving our students great value for money for the fees they pay, and perhaps even more importantly, that we’re preparing them to be global citizens for the 21st century. The language skills they acquire with us will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives, and give them life chances they would not otherwise have had. That’s something to be proud of.​