Monthly Archives: November 2013

Decline in Students Studying Foreign Languages in UK Universities

Here we go again — the UK has had problems with its students learning (or not learning) foreign languages in K-12 but now it’s the undergraduates who are encountering similar issues. What can be done? How can this decline be curbed?

Following article from The Telegraph, November 8, 2013:

A slump in the number of students studying foreign languages at university has been revealed, sparking fears over the UK’s ability to compete with other nations.

In total, 4,842 people were accepted on to UK degree courses to study the subjects in 2012 a drop of 14% on the year before.

The figures were cited by Steve Egan, interim chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) at the organisation’s annual meeting.

He said: ”One thing that everybody seems to raise with me is modern foreign languages. That’s seen a reduction of 14%. That’s not just to do with the tuition fee regime, it may be do with reforms that have happened in the school system, it may be to do with other factors.

”But there is an issue with modern foreign languages. To what extent do we think it’s right that our country should be producing 14% fewer graduates in modern foreign languages? Is that a good thing? Is that a bad thing? Should we care? And if we care, what should we do about it?”

Statistics published by admissions service Ucas show that as of August 30, 3,980 people had been placed to study degrees related to European languages, compared with 4,050 at the same point last year and 4,580 in 2009.

Around 1,250 people had been placed to study subjects relating to non-European languages, compared with 1,220 last year and 1,460 in 2009.

Last year was the first year of the tuition fee hike, and fewer people applied to university overall.

The figures come amid concerns that some university language departments are being forced to close amid a lack of demand.

In the last decade there has been a steady decline in the number of pupils taking languages at GCSE, a fall that began soon after the last government abolished the requirement for teenagers to study a language to GCSE in 2002.

The coalition Government has brought in a new requirement for seven to 11-year-olds in England to be taught a language in primary schools and introduced the English Baccalaureate, which recognises students who gain at least a C at GCSE in English, maths, science, history or geography and a foreign language.

This summer, the slump in uptake of modern languages in schools halted, with an increase in the numbers of pupils taking GCSEs in languages such as French, German and Spanish.Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said: ”If students are not studying relevant subjects in secondary education, they are unlikely to choose to follow these subjects into higher education.”

She added: ”There is clear evidence that graduates in these subjects make a substantial contribution to the economy, and that assuring provision in these areas is strongly in the national interest.”

John Worne, director of strategy at the British Council said: ”However much as an English-speaking nation we might want to avoid it, languages are vital for the UK’s future in the world.

”All the global trends mean we need many, many more students to learn – and get out and use – many more foreign languages. If that doesn’t happen, employers are consistently telling us they won’t have what they need – and this can only be bad news for the UK’s competitiveness and ability to connect with the world.”

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Do Different Languages Confer Different Personalities?

This is the question that a reporter for The Economist posed in the November 5, 2013, issue. Here’s his findings:

LAST week, Johnson took a look at some of the advantages of bilingualism. These include better performance at tasks involving “executive function” (which involve the brain’s ability to plan and prioritise), better defence against dementia in old age and—the obvious—the ability to speak a second language. One purported advantage was not mentioned, though. Many multilinguals report different personalities, or even different worldviews, when they speak their different languages.

It’s an exciting notion, the idea that one’s very self could be broadened by the mastery of two or more languages. In obvious ways (exposure to new friends, literature and so forth) the self really is broadened. Yet it is different to claim—as many people do—to have a different personality when using a different language. A former Economist colleague, for example, reported being ruder in Hebrew than in English. So what is going on here?

Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist who died in 1941, held that each language encodes a worldview that significantly influences its speakers. Often called “Whorfianism”, this idea has its sceptics, including The Economist, which hosted a debate on the subject in 2010. But there are still good reasons to believe language shapes thought.

This influence is not necessarily linked to the vocabulary or grammar of a second language. Significantly, most people are not symmetrically bilingual. Many have learned one language at home from parents, and another later in life, usually at school. So bilinguals usually have different strengths and weaknesses in their different languages—and they are not always best in their first language. For example, when tested in a foreign language, people are less likely to fall into a cognitive trap (answering a test question with an obvious-seeming but wrong answer) than when tested in their native language. In part this is because working in a second language slows down the thinking. No wonder people feel different when speaking them. And no wonder they feel looser, more spontaneous, perhaps more assertive or funnier or blunter, in the language they were reared in from childhood.

What of “crib” bilinguals, raised in two languages? Even they do not usually have perfectly symmetrical competence in their two languages. But even for a speaker whose two languages are very nearly the same in ability, there is another big reason that person will feel different in the two languages. This is because there is an important distinction between bilingualism and biculturalism.

Many bilinguals are not bicultural. But some are. And of those bicultural bilinguals, we should be little surprised that they feel different in their two languages. Experiments in psychology have shown the power of “priming”—small unnoticed factors that can affect behaviour in big ways. Asking people to tell a happy story, for example, will put them in a better mood. The choice between two languages is a huge prime. Speaking Spanish rather than English, for a bilingual and bicultural Puerto Rican in New York, might conjure feelings of family and home. Switching to English might prime the same person to think of school and work.

So there are two very good reasons (asymmetrical ability, and priming) that make people feel different speaking their different languages. We are still left with a third kind of argument, though. An economist recently interviewed here at Prospero, Athanasia Chalari, said for example that:

Greeks are very loud and they interrupt each other very often. The reason for that is the Greek grammar and syntax. When Greeks talk they begin their sentences with verbs and the form of the verb includes a lot of information so you already know what they are talking about after the first word and can interrupt more easily.

Is there something intrinsic to the Greek language that encourages Greeks to interrupt? Consider Johnson sceptical. People seem to enjoy telling tales about their languages’ inherent properties, and how they influence their speakers. A group of French intellectual worthies once proposed, rather self-flatteringly, that French be the sole legal language of the EU, because of its supposedly unmatchable rigour and precision. Some Germans believe that frequently putting the verb at the end of a sentence makes the language especially logical. But language myths are not always self-flattering: many speakers think their languages are unusually illogical or difficult—witness the plethora of books along the lines of “Only in English do you park on a driveway and drive on a parkway; English must be the craziest language in the world!” What such pop-Whorfian stories share is a (natural) tendency to exoticise languages. We also see some unsurprising overlap with national stereotypes and self-stereotypes: French, rigorous; German, logical; English, playful. Of course.

In this case, Ms Chalari, a scholar, at least proposed a specific and plausible line of causation from grammar to personality: in Greek, the verb comes first, and it carries a lot of information, hence easy interrupting. The problem is that many unrelated languages all around the world put the verb at the beginning of sentences. Many languages all around the world are heavily inflected, encoding lots of information in verbs. It would be a striking finding if all of these unrelated languages had speakers more prone to interrupting each other. Welsh, for example, is also both verb-first and about as heavily inflected as Greek, but the Welsh are not known as pushy conversationalists.

Neo-Whorfians continue to offer evidence and analysis that aims to prove that different languages push speakers to think differently. One such effort is forthcoming: “The Bilingual Mind” by Aneta Pavlenko, to be published in April. Ms Pavlenko speaks to François Grosjean here. Meanwhile, John McWhorter takes the opposite stance in “The Language Hoax”, forthcoming in February. We’ll return to this debate. But strong Whorfian arguments do not need to be valid for people to feel differently in their different languages.

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Fairfax County, Virginia, Looks to Axe Foreign Language Program

Yet again foreign language programs in a county’s public school system is looking to wield its budgetary axe — and the victim is — foreign languages! Haven’t school systems learned the importance of teaching young students another language?! Not only does it encourage them to be better ‘global citizens’ but it also stimulates their cognitive abilities. Isn’t it about time foreign languages stop being the whipping boy for budgetary cuts in school systems that fail to keep their house in order?!

Here’s the article by Kate Yanchulis for Fairfax Times, October 31, 2013:

Foreign language instruction at 46 elementary schools has been targeted as a possible budget cut by the county school system to help make up a projected $140 million budget deficit.

Sandy Knox has been through this before. In November 2009, a budget shortfall also put the Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools program at risk, but the work of passionate parents such as Knox ensured that its funding remained intact.

“It’s an exhausting effort,” Knox said. “And it’s a shame that this has to come up so regularly.”

Superintendent Karen Garza and the county School Board last week held the first of many discussions on next year’s budget, and eliminating FLES was just one of many possible cost-saving measures being evaluated. Garza estimated that more than $100 million in cuts would be needed.

Cutting the foreign language program would result in an estimated $5.5. million in savings, but also would impact students in one-third of the county’s elementary schools. Through FLES, students receive two to three 30-minute periods of language instruction per week. Of the 46 schools, 30 provide instruction in Spanish; the others teach either Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Italian or French. Six schools’ programs just started this year.

For Knox, advocating for this program is about more than just the importance of foreign language instruction, though she does believe that it benefits students.

“We really want to advocate for money for the schools,” Knox said. “Yes, we want to keep our programs, but it all comes down to getting money for the schools.”

Knox co-founded the group Fairfax FLAGS — Foreign Language Advocacy for Grade Schools — when FLES last was threatened by budget cuts in 2009. She had just fought to bring the program to Brookfield, her children’s school, the previous year, and she did not want to see it disappear.

She organized a group of FLES parents and banded together with parents whose children participated in the county’s foreign language immersion programs, which then also were at risk. At its height, the Fairfax FLAGS online mailing list reached 3,000 parents, and the group helped save both programs from the chopping block.

“We feel like these things are what make Fairfax County schools unique and better than other school districts,” Knox said.

However, in the years since then, as FLES has remained safe and even expanded, Fairfax FLAGS dropped off. It still has an active Facebook group, but its website went offline and many parents moved on to other issues.

Now, with news of the budget deficit possibly endangering the program, parents have started contacting Knox and Fairfax FLAGS again, and the organization is working to get its website and numbers back up.

School Board member Ryan McElveen (At-large) wants parents to know that despite the cost-crunching situation it faces, the board still is dedicated to foreign language learning. The board has formed a working group focused on internationalization efforts in schools, and one of its main priorities is to investigate how FLES could be restructured and improved.

“Parents need to know, we still do view it as an important part of our curriculum,” said Ryan McElveen, School Board member (At-large). “In some counties in the country, that program would be the first thing to go. But I don’t think that’s who we are in Fairfax County.”

Still, the threat to the program remains, and Knox worries that Fairfax FLAGS will not be able to muster as much energy as it once did.

“It’s really an exhausting effort,” she said. “I think parents just get tired of having to fight this battle.”

With her youngest child now in sixth grade and moving out of the elementary school program, she has started looking for FLES parents to take her place as a leader in advocating for the program.

“I’ve done this for six years, and I don’t have the energy for it anymore,” Knox said. “It’s not that I don’t care, but we need to have new faces and new energy.”

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