Sunday, March 13, 2011

Dwindling Scottish foreign language programs leave modern linguists few choices

(photo courtesy of

By: Gina Edwards

Edited by: Alex Stuckey

Every day, Mhairi Duncan teaches English in Wroclaw, Poland. A native of Glasgow, Scotland, she spends the day discussing grammar and vocabulary with Polish students.

Sometimes she stays after class to tutor all types of people, from little kids to pensioners wanting some extra help, continually thankful for her fluency in Polish to aid her.

But recent cuts to foreign language programs across Scotland make Duncan fears she and those like her may be a dying breed.

Garnering the most recent media buzz, the University of Glasgow has announced proposals that would greatly affect language courses among other programs in an attempt to save about £20m ($32 million USD) in the next three years.

“I think it’s unthinkable. I don’t understand how a university like Glasgow could possibly even consider cutting modern languages,” Duncan said. “They’re so vital—especially in this the economic climate.”

Students at the university have also raised their concerns about the proposed cuts, in the form of massive protests—the largest the university has ever seen, with over 2,500 in attendance of one.

Amy Mackinnon, who is studying of Russian, politics and Slavonic studies at the university, has participated in the movement.

In addition to the protests, she said students and faculty have written letters to Scottish politicians and the media. The responses from the university heads have not alleviated their concerns.

“We get a generic e-mails with a lot of words but not saying anything,” Mackinnon said.

She and other Scots worry that the proposed cuts to foreign languages at Glasgow will only perpetuate their reputation of being unilingual, putting them at a disadvantage in an increasingly globalized world, especially in international programs.

“I think it will have a dire impact on Scotland as a whole. Glasgow is one of best centers for language in Scotland, and the loss of one of its main language centers would be dreadful,” Mackinnon said. “Foreign languages are becoming increasingly important.”

Some programs, such as one called Erasmus, allow for students within the European Union to attend universities in other countries free of charge. These programs often draw students interested in immersing themselves in a foreign language.

British students lag behind in comparison to other EU countries, according to a November 2010 British Council news release.

“The take-up rate in the UK lags far behind France and Germany where the figure is nearly three times higher. The UK comes second after the USA as a destination for foreign students but ranks 22nd in terms of the numbers of its own students it sends abroad,” according to the release.

During the 2008-09 school year, the UK sent more than 10,800 students abroad, accounting for only about five percent of the total number of Erasmus participants. It receives about twice as many students.

David Hibler, program manager for Erasmus in the UK, said that other some of the students who participate in the program are modern linguists.

He added that not knowing the language of a host country could cause students to hesitate when deciding whether or not to participate in the Erasmus program.

“In countries where foreign language teaching is not so widespread, then it’s a critical factor in students’ decision making,” he said.

Studies of the Erasmus program state that unfamiliarity with the language is one of the most widely cited problems in its upward mobility — but some universities have language labs or buddy students that can help others to familiarize themselves with a foreign language before they go abroad, he added.

Even students who do not know a foreign language can participate in the program, he said.

“There are opportunities for students who are not enrolled in language courses, to at least start a basic learning of the language,” he said. “It’s not uncommon now-a-days for outbound UK Erasmus students to do their academic courses in English,” Hibler said.

Yet Scots, such as Duncan, think that knowing the native tongue of the country you plan to visit can make the experience better and longer lasting.

“If I came here without knowing anything about the language, I wouldn’t have stayed this long,” she said.

Even though many people speak English in Poland Duncan said she would have a hard time in her day-to-day interactions without speaking Polish, she said, adding that Scottish students can sometimes fall into the ‘I know English so I’ll get by just fine’ mentality.

“[Foreign languages] should be a compulsory part of our education,” Duncan said. “It would foster a better attitude toward learning languages.”

However, not all students feel the same way she does.

Connor Hawkins, who is studying economics and accounting at the University of Edinburgh, said because the UK had to make huge cuts in education, foreign language programs was an obvious place to cut.

Students have a hard time managing to undertake all of the topics they are told they “should” learn, he added.

“Everyone seems to have an argument these days of why students should be taught everything under the sun from languages to knife crime to religion,” he said. “We can't possibly learn it all.”

David Hill, a retired director of the Edinburgh Project on Extensive Reading—a project promoting the use of graded readers to enable students to learn English— said he has an alternative suggestion to the problem.

“The time has come to strike out and do a parallel system,” he said. “We should develop language centers based on the successful Spanish model.”

These publicly funded centers would allow students who wanted to learn foreign languages to attend classes outside traditional public schools, where mixed-ability classes can hold them back.

In the midst of dwindling funds available for language programs, those close to the struggle worry about the effect the cuts will have on Scottish students wanting to venture abroad, and the larger impact it will have on Scotland as a whole.

Jan Čulík, a senior lecturer of east European studies at the University of Glasgow, suggested that the cuts to modern languages might actually force students to leave Scotland for the education they desire.

“It may well be that in the future, young people will leave the UK for their education,” he said. “But the question is, if they will ever come back.”

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