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Modern foreign languagesSecondary - The degree dilemma

If language proficiency is the aim, is university the answer?

If language proficiency is the aim, is university the answer?

The pound;9,000-a-year tuition fees at most top universities from next year and a fee for the year abroad should give A-level students intending to study modern languages a cause for real reflection on whether they have the skills needed to embark on a degree.

Sadly, most students now arrive at university rather poorly equipped in terms of language skills - obvious examples are the widespread use of translations of set texts and the struggle with grammar. Ideally, students would arrive with levels of competence that would enable them to read set texts in the original from the start and write about them in the foreign language.

Many prospective students will be motivated by the idea that studying their chosen language at a university will lead them from the B2 A-level standard (in Common European Framework of Reference terms) to C1 and then the C2 of the highly proficient user. This may be different from what many university modern languages departments have in mind, which may be more to do with literature, area studies, translation and essay writing in English. Recent research by Vera Busse ("Why do first-year students of German lose motivation during their first year at university?" Studies in Higher Education, 2011) found that in two leading universities there was a significant gap between students' level of competence and their high expectations of rapid language development and the opportunities for substantial language development within the syllabuses offered.

Students' expectations of developing near-native competence are usually deflected to the year abroad (which tends to take on a mythical role not matched by experience). If I were in their position, I would prefer to spend the equivalent of a year's tuition fee on a good language course in the country of the language to get my skills up to a good level before starting a degree course. For example, to improve my French, for about pound;9,000 I could enrol on a 24-week course in Aix-en-Provence, have about 15 hours' French tuition a week and stay half-board with a French family. This would also have the advantage of showing me whether what I really wanted was to be proficient in French or to study the language and literature in an academic setting.

Higher tuition fees, even if they are on the "never-never", bring the functional aspect of learning at a university into sharp focus - especially in learning foreign languages. If what you really want is to learn a foreign language at a high level, is a university the place to do it? Do you need a degree in it? And what is it for, in the end?

Dr Robert Vanderplank is director of Oxford University Language Centre

What else?


Try sagramor's presentation on the benefits of learning a language - useful for a parents' evening or classroom discussion

On the forums

Teachers discuss whether languages should be made compulsory at KS4

See for all links and forum discussions in this issue.

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