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Bosses don't rate languages

Modern languages are in trouble in further education because employers do not rate them, according to a study by a former FE lecturer.

Hannah Doughty, now a research consultant with the Scottish CILT - the languages centre at Stirling University - has reinforced the message in her research published last autumn that employers focus primarily on short-term needs within their own company.

Her study, based on evidence between 2000-2002, was highlighted at the recent Royal Society of Edinburgh special conference on language teaching.

Speaking to The TES Scotland, Dr Doughty said: "Since I have finished my research, language provision in Scottish FE by all accounts has declined further."

She added: "Because FE provision is supposed to respond to local demand from business and from the community, language provision in FE has been doubly disadvantaged because there appears to be little or no demand from local employers, which reinforces people's perception that language skills have no vocational relevance.

"This in turn appears to justify the curtailment of language provision in vocational qualifications which again reinforces negative perceptions."

Her study showed that employers do not grasp the commercial benefits of language and cultural skills and therefore say there is no skills gap. They believed they could buy in services if they needed them.

"On the other hand," Dr Doughty says, "a number of businesses which are now experiencing difficulties in retaining foreign-born workers have become more concerned about the longer-term implications arising from the lack of language skills among young people in Scotland.

"The links between languages and economic performance have recently received closer scrutiny, as evidenced by the British Chambers of Commerce survey of export companies and the CILT reports, Talking World Class and Talking Sense, a study of language skills management in major companies.

Certainly, there is a need for a better understanding as to what labour market statistics are actually telling us, what assumptions they make and what their limitations are."

Her study highlighted the widely held view that English is the dominant language of business and that young FE students tend not to attach much importance to language study. Mature students were more likely to recognise the social benefits of languages and tended to study in the evening, which represents only a small proportion of college funding.

Her research showed that employers also categorised students with lower level qualifications as suitable for certain tasks, which to their minds did not need modern language skills. Low levels of literacy impeded further language study.

Within colleges, senior managers and programme leaders said there was little or no evidence from local employers that modern language skills were either essential or desirable. Compulsory language elements were largely restricted to tourism courses.

Even there students did not see the relevance, which one lecturer attributed to their academic ability and view of self-efficacy.

Previous research also showed a number of language teachers in schools deliberately discouraging lower ability students from continuing languages post-16. This had direct implications for the FE sector, Dr Doughty pointed out in her study.

Aside from the perceived vocational dimension, Dr Doughty, a native German speaker, believes languages "should be seen as an essential part of social exchanges and interactions" in an increasingly international world.

"Language learning should be a 'practice for life'. That is the real challenge," she said.

Critical Perspectives on Modern Languages in Scottish Further Education 2000-2002. By Dr Hannah Doughty. Available online from the Scottish CILT.

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