Why learn what?

The university language-teaching community has devoted  much effort in the past 10 years to promoting language study to its potential students – and more importantly to anyone with an interest in our future capacity as a nation to deal competently with other cultures.  As part of this, I think we have spent too much time talking up the individual economic benefits.

It is time to take another tack.  If we start from the premise that is good for any society if its citizens have as rounded an education as possible, then we should perhaps reflect how knowledge of a foreign language fits in with what we expect from an educated person.

This isn’t a subject that has much traction these days, as the notion that people once learned foreign languages simply because it was expected, even normal to do so, now seems to belong to a world as remote from most people’s experience as public school Latin or the eleven-plus entrance exam to grammar school.

I came across the following definition of what a student _should_ learn by the American philosopher John Searle.*  It was written as part of a review of polemics bemoaning the state of American universities in 1990 and is worth requoting:

The student should have enough knowledge of his or her cultural tradition to know how it got to be the way it is. This involves both political and social history, on the one hand, as well as the mastery of some of the great philosophical and literary texts of the culture on the other. It involves reading not only texts that are of great value, like those of Plato, but many less valuable that have been influential, such as the works of Marx. […] However, you do not understand your own tradition if you do not see it in relation to others. Works from other cultural traditions need to be studied as well.

You need to know enough of the natural sciences so that you are not a stranger in the world.

You need to know at least one foreign language well enough so that you can read the best literature that that language has produced in the original, and so you carry on a reasonable conversation and have dreams in that language. There are several reasons why this is crucial, but the most important is perhaps this: you can never understand one language until you understand at least two.

You need to know enough philosophy so that the methods of logical analysis are available to you to be used as a tool. One of the most depressing things about educated people today is that so few of them, even among professional intellectuals, are able to follow the steps of a simple logical argument.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you need to acquire the skills of writing and speaking that make for candor, rigor, and clarity. You cannot think clearly if you cannot speak and write clearly.

As a linguist, I take heart in Searle’s assertion that learning another language is part of understanding your own.  And that the level to aspire to is one which enables you to do three things – to read the best literature in its original words, to hold a reasonable conversation, but also to dream…  Not just to ensure higher lifetime earnings then?


*John Searle, “The Storm Over the University” (New York Review of Books, December 6, 1990)


Ein Herz, zwei Seelen … One heart, two souls

Im Rückblick fällt es mir ein, dass ich nun seit 40 Jahren Deutsch lerne. Ich schreibe “lerne” nicht, weil ich irgendwie bescheiden erscheinen möchte. Ich weiss wohl, dass ich Deutsch in Wort und Schrift einigermaßen beherrsche. Sonst wäre es mir während etwa 25 Jahre nicht gelungen, Unterricht in deutscher Sprache zu erteilen.

Ich sage es aber mit Absicht.  Ich lerne noch.  Nach so vielen Jahren.  Wenn mir das richtige Wort nicht rechtzeitig einfällt, macht es mir mittlerweile wenig aus.  Das passiert mir sowieso in der Muttersprache.  Und meine deutschsprachigen KollegInnen haben  im Laufe der Jahre das wiederholte Hin und Her zwischen den beiden Sprachen auch toleriert.*

*Thinking back, I have realised that I am now coming up to my fortieth year of learning German. I put it this way not out of any false modesty. I know perfectly well that my spoken and written German are pretty good. Otherwise I couldn’t have got away with teaching the language for the best part of 25 years.

But I say it quite deliberately. I am still learning the language after all this time.  If the right word doesn’t occur to me at the right moment, I no longer worry. That happens often enough in English anyway.  And my German native-speaker colleagues have been tolerant enough over the years – with my switching back and forth from one language to the other.

Mocking the afflicted… I know you shouldn’t but…

They say you shouldn’t mock the afflicted.  But I say it depends on the affliction. If the condition is self-inflicted and derives from overweening self-importance and the narrow vision of  a monoglot Anglo-American corporate capitalism, I say you are fair game.

So here we have Professor Amanda Broderick, launching the University of Salford‘s “Passport to Foreign Money Global Citizenship”:


It’s on pages 6 and 7.  Do read it, if you have the time.

600 words of the usual grandiose waffle, with bits that don’t even make sense, such as the poorly edited line: “”We need to be accountability for our impact on our environment”.  And the dreadfully phrased:  “and recognise that we live in an interdependent economy and society, and the importance of recognising our responsibilities towards each other”.

But one word is conspicuously absent.  The word “language” – or, God forbid  “foreign language” – does not appear once.

Intercultural skills and knowledge?  Check.  Globally-connected world?  Check.  But the notion that anyone in this glorious vision of hubs, international engagement and sustainability speaks anything but English?  Er… Not a mention.

PS: And is it me, or does the picture of Martin Hall in the Abu Dhabi “hub” look like a man lost in an international departure lounge grateful to the first stranger he can talk to?


Deck chair reshuffling Or: Is Martin Hall the worst VC in UK HE?

titanic sinking

Let us just recap the events at Salford relating to the closure of modern languages.

In April 2013 a leaked internal memo outlined a damage limitation strategy to be pursued following a planned announcement that a number of subject areas were under threat and that recruitment to languages in particular was to stop.

In June 2013, an announcement was duly made in the peculiarly ponderous tone adopted by Salford’s leadership that, as the university would no longer recruit, after 2013, to modern languages, linguistics and areas of politics and contemporary history (except postgraduate security studies programmes), the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences would eventually be disestablished”.   Is it me, or is that parenthetically posed “after 2013” firm evidence of windbaggery, or not?

VC Martin Hall then appeared in THES with a hand-wringing mea culpa that was – of course – nothing of the sort.  He had just sacked his powerful deputy Adrian Graves for gross misconduct.  He had also lost a £150k court case claiming his reputation, his predecessor’s reputation and the said deputy’s reputation, and therefore that of the university, had been besmirched by a feeble internal satirical broadside and a web site read by almost no-one outside the university.  At that point,  Martin was at least embarrassed enough by petitions from the ITI, UCML and 2600 signatures from former students and others to institute a review.

That review (chaired by an external academic) evidently did not report what Martin and his management wanted, so a second review was instituted.

You can read the details of this on a special FAQ.  I won’t quote it in full but there are some points that will tell you all you need to know.  Here are numbers 1 and 2:

1. What did the World Languages Task Group review recommend?
The review endorsed the University’s original decision to withdraw single language undergraduate degree courses. It also recommended the retention of specialist language study within joint degrees (e.g. LLB Law and Spanish) and of a revised form of the postgraduate translation and interpreting degree.

In addition, the review proposed that all undergraduates should have the opportunity to study a foreign language module as part of their degree course to help them compete in the global marketplace.

2. Why was a second review undertaken?
To investigate in more detail specific proposals for joint foreign language degrees based on analysis of forecast student numbers and financial projections. The review’s conclusion was that, while there is a market in the UK higher education sector for joint degrees, such courses would not be viable for the University of Salford in the medium term.

In other words, the first external review reported that there was a future for language degrees at Salford – and that despite the enormous damage done by negative PR and disastrous HR interventions.  The second internal review said the opposite.  If you struggled to get that point, then I would argue this is deliberate and typical of the obfuscation and obscurity so beloved of Salford’s management.

The second review also sounds entirely reasonable until we read point 4:

4. Can I see the reports?
We do not plan to make the reports available. (i.e. No  – i.f.) The decision made is final.  Our focus is now on ensuring that our students successfully complete their studies, throughout the teach out

If the evidence is so compelling, why are those who will lose their jobs over it not allowed to read it?

I won’t rise to a Zola-esque j’accuse over this, but it seems to me Martin Hall is a leader who is a) more interested in his public image as a decent and reasonable man (see endless blog entries…) than anything else and b) has presided over a disastrous blood-letting of senior staff in a three year period, much of which he has kept at a convenient arm’s length.

He has also done me a service by proving my observation on 6 September last year correct.  He writes in a recent email to staff:

 As a University with a powerful global reach, we remain resolute in our commitment to the value of global citizenship and internationalisation outlined in our Strategic Plan. As a result, from September 2014, as part of our distinctive Passport to Global Citizenship strategy, all students will be able to study an optional Modern Foreign Languages module.


From vibrant and widely respected modern languages degrees to “optional Modern Foreign Languages module” in less than five years?  I would say that permits me to pose the question in my subtitle above.  Or not?


PS.  Baroness Coussins specifically mentions Salford in her speech in the House of Lords on 9 April:

In the case of Salford, the announcement is not only  a body blow for languages, for prospective students and for those who would have been teaching them; it is also disastrous for international bodies such as the EU and theUnited Nations, which have in the past seen Salford as one of their principal recruiting grounds for specialist linguists.

She goes on to say pretty much what I have said above:

As for universities, I hope that more of them will acknowledge that to survive in the 21st century means more than just using fine words in the mission statement about being an international institution and producing global graduates but that in practice this means fostering languages, not abandoning them.


She is of course far too polite to name names.

What is marking for?

Or more precisely – why do we mark students’ language work?  Why do we spend so much time on a task that is often mechanical?   That a spell-checker function used at the right moment might do as well?

All language teachers spend time annotating language learners’ written output.  Many of us devise elaborate sets of initials and codes to tell our charges precisely what is amiss with their efforts.  In a sense, this is something we all accept. We believe implicitly that marking like this will help our students improve.

Arriving at university from school, students too expect that their work will be marked. For the last two years at Bristol I have asked a random, anonymised sample of our 250+ modern languages freshers a series of questions to invite them to think about how they learn.

One question I ask is “Do you like a teacher to write a correction of every mistake in your writing?”

This is what their responses look like:

answers to question

Detailed correction is what they want.   So to a large extent, that is what they get.  And in an age where the student has been invited to think of her/himself as a consumer, giving students what they want seems a sensible strategy.

Or maybe not?

There is a school of thought – going back to Steven Krashen’s Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition (1981) – that all this explicit instruction does little good.  True, marking student scripts is not quite what Krashen had in mind when he distinguished between “acquisition” and “learning”, but there have been arguments back and forth on this and similar points for more than 30 years — including absurd angels-on-pin-head notions of a difference between a “mistake” and an “error”, that we can somehow always separate errors that come about through lack of knowledge from “natural” mistakes.

So if the pedagogical function of marking (in my understanding of the term here as “annotating student’s written work”) is disputed, then what is marking for?

  • Just to reassure the language teacher that she is doing a good job?  I’ve known plenty of colleagues mark in such exhaustive detail that I feared for their sleep or their sanity — or both…
  • Or is it to reassure the student that she/he is learning something? When repeated mistakes might indicate otherwise…?
  • To reassure the student that the teacher “knows” what is right and what is not?  And that transmitting this confidence is “learning”?

I don’t have an answer to these questions.  But I know that in practice I mark at a sustainable level of detail and that I am frustrated enough by the lack of improvement that follows from such efforts that I will ring the changes, vary the forms of feedback, use rubrics, audio-visual recordings — anything to shift the fixed dynamics of what inevitably follows from my labours.


Salford Languages: What Martin Doesn’t Mention OR The Company You Keep

In his latest blog post Salford VC Martin Hall has exceeded his already prodigious weekly word count (just where does he find the time?) by detailing the reasons why languages are to be “phased out”. This has now replaced “disestablished” in his managerial vocabulary. Progress of a sort, I suppose.

But there is something rather suspicious about Martin’s account and the timeline he draws.

His post focusses on the economic unviability of languages degrees in the new financial climate. From this account it looks as if Salford has been the victim of unfortunate circumstances that it has only just learned about. “Not our fault, gov, national policy don’t you know?” is his defence.

However, the concentration on present and projected undergraduate numbers means Martin neglects to mention a number of things that the reader should know.

Firstly, Salford had until very recently thriving MA courses in Translation and Interpreting and Teaching of English as a Foreign Language that attracted over 100 students a year, more than a third of them from overseas. It also had more than half of the total PhD students in the entire School of HuLSS. And many of these were paying overseas fees.

Secondly, the downsizing strategy pursued under Huw Morris and Adrian Graves began a long time back and has caused irreparable damage to the university’s image.  I have remarked on this before, but here are a couple of quotes from potential applicants discussing whether to accept a place at Salford on The Student Room during this summer:

I don’t want to be at a Uni that’s running down its courses and which will probably be in more trouble soon.

I’m not going to be on board the Titanic when it sinks.

Is it just me that’s worried about Salford University’s worsening financial situation, they’re planning like the 12th round of staff cuts in over one and a half years and are planning on discontinuing some courses in several departments.

So we arrive at September 2013 and, after three years of negative publicity and public climb-downs in a desperate attempt to save face: surprise, surprise, not many students are attracted to the courses still running. I’ll leave you to decide whether this is just down to being in the “squeezed middle” or has more to do with the lack of support and at times outright wilful under-investment from senior management over a longer time.

Martin,  after all, has to find a way to fund the crushing rents due to Peel Holdings at Media City and to meet the university’s loan repayments for more new buildings.

Another striking aspect of the prolific Vice-Chancellor’s blog post is his choice of comparators. He mentions Bradford as another university that closed its languages provision. This is interesting, and at least relevant, in that Bradford and Salford have similar origins and had applied languages courses that were comparable. But he neglects to mention that Bradford’s demise lies more than half a decade back and had more to do with management decisions and the fallout from the Bradford riots in 2001.

He explicitly does NOT mention Aston, Heriot-Watt or Bath.  All three are universities of the same plate-glass generation as Salford.  All three still have well-regarded language programmes of a similar flavour.

What he does cite is the University Alliance Group’s policy proposal for Targeted Support for Modern Foreign Languages* .  Barely any of the Alliance Group members mentioned (with the exception of Bradford) had a substantial degree-level language programme before 1992.  Only a few of them built up departments to rival Salford in scale and scope over the boom years of the late 1990s. None of them had substantial research interests or postgraduate students in Translation and Interpreting Studies. Most of the programmes cited on page 16 of the document are degrees in which language is very clearly a minor component. At least one Alliance Group member had already abolished its language degrees some time back (UWE).

I would put it this way.  Salford University, as a result of poor decisions, extravagant spending on glory projects and lack of a coherent strategy, has fallen ever lower on the various league tables to the point where its overall profile is closer to that of the post-1992 universities than of Aston, Bath or Warwick.

Hence the decision to join the Alliance Group.  The Alliance Group is not interested in offering degrees in modern languages. Most of its members would like the window-dressing of a university-wide language programme to avoid the accusation that their international strategy is just about maximising overseas student numbers.  But the kind of language degree programmes that Salford runs do not fit this picture.  This explains Martin’s hand-wringing.  He’d really like to be thought of as a nicer, more liberal leader than he needs to be.

As a former staff member, who had to listen to the absurd mantra about Salford aiming to be “top quartile” by 2017 as a justification for wholesale butchery of established courses, it sticks in my throat.


* In a way the use of the secondary school acronym MFL (Modern Foreign Languages) tells us the authors of this document lacked the courage of their convictions.

Salford Languages: what does this tell us about UK university groups?

Manchester University is seeking to recruit additional expertise in French and German Translating and Interpreting, just as a few miles away Salford closes disestablishes Languages.

A number of people have noted that expertise in modern languages and European cultures is increasingly concentrated in Russell Group institutions.

But the Russell Group are not the only universities to prioritise language study as a key part of the curriculum.

As John Holford of Nottingham points out on Twitter @john_holford, the message regarding language study at the 1994 group is rather different:

Nuanced for Salford’s sensibilities? “@1994group non-European languages @SOAS help boost http://bit.ly/15lthGX @soascareers

So by closing disestablishing Salford Languages are we saying an entire class of universities will not have any of the benefits the Russell Group and 1994 institutions so clearly see?

If the answer is yes, then the Alliance Group of Universities (to which Salford belongs) will effectively  reinforce the worst outcomes of  language policies in state schools over the past decade.  They will proudly produce monolingual graduates for a workplace that is increasingly multilingual, multicultural and transnational.  What possible defence is there for this?  A “Tragedy”?  A farce more like.

Albert Mansbridge, the founder of the Workers’ Educational Association, ended his account of the aspirations and ideals of that movement in 1906 with a quotation from Matthew Arnold:
Culture requires us to know ourselves and the world, and, as a means to this end, we must have the best that has been thought and said in the world and the harmonious expansion of all the powers which make the beauty and worth of human nature is incumbent upon every man.
How far we have fallen.