High on languages

14th February 2003 at 00:00
Open the box and persuade pupils to keep studying longer, says Carolyn O'Grady

A languages box of tricks brought into schools by visitors from university departments adds clout to answering the question: "Why study languages when everyone else speaks English?"

Aimed at sixth-formers - though it can be used for lower years as well - the Languages Box includes a PowerPoint presentation (which also comes in transparency form), videos showing professionals explaining how they use languages at work, and other material on languages and careers.

The pack includes information which will be updated annually from the French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch embassies about language learning, careers and culture. A choice item is a CD compilation of contemporary French music.

The package has been produced by the Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Subject Centre at Southampton University.

Professor Mike Kelly, the Centre's director, says: "Universities tell us there are not enough students coming through to study modern languages and when they do they are giving up early. They have also told us they don't have enough time or expertise to do a proper job of promoting language studies in schools.

"The Languages Box gives them a very professional presentation which they can customise to include information about their own language provision, with a lot of up-to-date information for schools."

He says: "Overall the numbers of students taking modern foreign languages at degree level in the UK fell by 18 per cent over the four years 1997-98 to 2000-01 and that annual decline of around 5 per cent seems set to continue."

Carol Bellard-Thomson, director of language learning at Kent University, took the pack to the Weald of Kent Grammar School for Girls in Tonbridge.

She was accompanied by John Partridge, lecturer in German, and two language students from the university.

Her talk to about 160 students, most of whom would go to university but had still to decide which subject to take, was backed by the PowerPoint presentation. It was colourful and clear and embroidered with some useful, easily understood graphs and charts.

It was also incisive and persuasive. The question "Why study languages when everyone speaks English?" was answered with statistics about Spanish and Chinese and research which suggested that graduates of French came third in terms of employability and graduates of German fourth.

The personal benefits of living abroad were noted as well as the boon of having access to other cultures through language.

What did many adults regret later in life? Not having learned a language, it was claimed.

Surprisingly at a school such as the Weald of Kent, where such a presentation might be considered preaching to the converted, (girls tend to opt for languages in greater numbers than boys and it's also a specialist language college), many students were unaware of combined or joint degrees (language with business studies or law, for example). One student asked:

"Which is better career-wise - a single or dual language option or a combined degree?"

"Combined," answered Carol Bellard-Thomson, without hesitation. For example, she said, "law firm managers have often said to me: 'You can make a lawyer out of a linguist, but you can't make a linguist out of a lawyer'".

Most Year 11 and 12 girls were impressed. They enjoyed the professionalism.

It had tipped the balance in favour of doing languages, said a couple or, if not, it had certainly made them think.

Carol Bellard-Thomson said: "In the Languages Box the work of finding, collating and preparing materials and information has been done very comprehensively, with clear information presented in a bright and dynamic way. At the university we want to encourage all our students to take up or continue language-learning, and showing school students the potential value of that in their chosen career, as well as its importance to the future of the country, is a very necessary exercise."

The Southampton Centre is building up a "matchmaker" service on its website to help schools get in touch with universities and organise a visit with the Language Box, which is available to all higher education institutions with modern languages departments.

Southampton University Subject CentreTel: 023 8059 4814 Email: llas@soton.ac.ukwww.lang.ltsn.ac.uk

SAMPLE THE LANGUAGES BOX

* Students can take a languages degree with other modules such as film and media, drama, linguistics, politics, and popular culture. It is also possible to take a language option within another degree, such as law.

* While unemployment among UK new graduates in 2002 (source Higher Education Statistics AgencyKeith Marshall) was: media studies 9.8 per cent, computing 8.4 per cent English 6.6 per cent, for all modern languages together it was 5.3 per cent. (Although medicine and education new graduates fared better.)

* Hotels and restaurants take about 4 per cent of language graduates - but business services take 27 per cent.

* UCAS, the universities admissions service, lists more than 7,000 language degree courses on its website.

* Employers say qualities they value in language learners include problem-solving, team working and presentation skills.

* Degree students on using their languages abroad:

"The most basic things can be different."

"Meeting other cultures you start to think about your own country and background."

"I really enjoy meeting people with different perspectives on life."

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