Modern (Foreign) Languages: time to rename? | University of Oxford
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Should the modern languages subject area be renamed?

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Modern (Foreign) Languages: time to rename?

By Professor Katrin Kohl, Professor of German Literature in Oxford's Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, and Director of the Creative Multilingualism project.

The report on the results of the Language Provision in UK MFL Departments 2018 Survey deserves to be read by everyone interested in the future of our discipline. It is the outcome of a collaboration between the AHRC-funded research programme Language Acts and Worldmaking, the Association of University Language Centres and the University Council of Modern Languages, and this in itself indicates welcome movement towards greater dialogue within the higher education system. The report is important not least because it highlights a conundrum that currently faces Modern Languages departments across the country (those which remain after years of attrition): what should our discipline be called?

The tradition of designating it ‘Modern Languages’ is rooted in the need to distinguish the young upstart from the ‘Classical Languages’ that provided the model for studying languages until well into the 20th century. Meanwhile schools prefer the name ‘Modern Foreign Languages’ – a designation appropriated in the title of this report. Is this what is being suggested as the solution? The focus on ‘foreignness’ buys into an agenda of ‘them’ and ‘us’ that is arguably unhelpful in a climate obsessed with borders designed to keep foreigners out.

Across the secondary and tertiary sectors, it is implicit that ‘ML’ or ‘MFL’ includes the cultures relevant to the languages taught, much as has always been the case with Classics. In universities, this distinguishes ML departments from Language Centres, which tend to focus especially on teaching practical language skills to students across disciplines. The difference in academic purpose often goes hand in hand with differences in perceived status and types of employment contract, and the picture is rendered more multi-faceted still by the fact that some Language Centres provide language teaching for ML departments. In schools, the tradition of teaching literature as part of MFL has weakened, and unlike university departments, which teach much of the cultural ‘content’ through the medium of English, school syllabuses focus on teaching in the target language.

And the complexity doesn’t stop there. Departmental names reflect not only academic traditions but also traditional hegemonies and colonial histories. To take Oxford as an example: the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages teaches only European languages and cultures, but it also embraces those countries in South America and Africa where the lingua franca is Spanish, Portuguese or French. Meanwhile a wide range of Asian languages is taught by the Faculty of Oriental Studies – a name that is justifiable only with reference to tradition and pragmatism. An African Studies Centre was established in 2005, but it does not offer undergraduate courses. And the Language Centre contributes significantly to the more than 50 ancient, medieval and modern languages taught across the University. 

In schools, too, ‘Modern (Foreign) Languages’ is traditionally associated only with European languages, although qualifications are available in a wide variety of ‘other’, ‘less-taught’ languages (fortunately, these qualifications were recently rescued from abolition). But the picture is beginning to change as schools become more obviously multilingual, and it is growing palpably illogical to distinguish between ‘Modern Foreign Languages’ as mainstream, and ‘community languages’ or ‘home languages’ as peripheral. Playgrounds are now audibly multilingual spaces where children are speaking languages from right across the world. This is not just the case in large cities – a local Oxford school has pupils speaking over 100 languages. Moreover, Mandarin is now supported by a prestigious government-funded Excellence Programme, and the report highlights that the ‘other’ languages, when combined, now show the highest numbers for A-level ahead of French, Spanish and German. This is not because they are ‘foreign’ languages but because they are rooted right here, in the UK.

So what’s in a name? Ultimately the identity, health and destiny of our discipline.

More than any other academic subject, Modern Languages suffers from a fragmented identity, unhelpful hierarchies and an inability to garner a true spirit of cohesion across sectors and language groups. If the discipline is to survive and make a vibrant contribution to schools, universities and society as a whole, the sectors and languages need to identify not just some common ground but a joint foundation. The discipline needs to address its identity crisis, reinvent itself, and find a unity that is strong enough to embrace diversity without falling apart.

Unpalatable as Brexit may be to many of us, it does provide incentives for promoting the value of all those languages that are spoken both beyond western Europe and within the UK. This need not mean sidelining the teaching of European languages for which we have the teaching expertise, and which underpin many of our closest intercultural relationships. Evidence suggests that fostering competence in one language will bring benefits for learning others, and indeed for one’s native language as well. But to enable our young people to enjoy those benefits, we need to promote language learning as such, and create a context in which every language matters, and can be a means of enriching one’s life, one’s career, and one’s potential to understand others. Languages are relevant to young people not because they are needed for booking a hotel, but because they are all around us, and fundamental to human relationships.

What, then, should be the name of our discipline? The Executive Summary of the report on Language Provision in UK MFL Departments concludes with a tentative preference for  ‘Languages’, and eloquently spells out the arguments for that choice:

“In an increasingly multilingual landscape, the survey responses present us with an invitation to reconceptualise our discipline, possibly under a unitary ‘languages’ label, dropping ‘modern’ and ‘foreign’ from its title to strengthen an agenda of inclusion and diversity, integrating all languages, ancient and modern, foreign and local, for those with and without disabilities, as well as a single voice for MFL and IWLP.” (p.7)

Settling on ‘Languages’ as the joint name and common denominator for the reconceptualised discipline would establish the foundation for a strong profile and vigorous public presence. The name would lend itself to embodiment in a website dedicated to promoting the interests of the discipline, providing essential information about ‘Languages’ across sectors, and establishing a hub for initiatives such as ambassador schemes and competitions.

Our model should be STEM – a unified concept coalescing around the promotion of the relevant disciplines in the education system, and formed from extreme diversity. It was invented in the 1990s, became established only in the 2000s and is now so successful that it is sweeping through schools and government policy-making as the only subject area worth studying. There is much that Modern (Foreign) Languages can learn from www.stem.org.uk. The first lesson is to rebrand itself with a simple name. ‘Languages’ even comes with the benefit of stating what’s in the tin.