A few reflections on modern languages and elitism

I was recently asked to speak at a widening participation workshop organised by Routes into Languages East Midlands about why we need to widen participation in language learning, which is one of the key objectives of the Routes into Languages programme. In preparing my presentation for the event, I started out by simply googling ‘languages an elitist subject.’ What came up was a wide variety of media headlines from the last decade – a few of these are listed below:

These headlines do seem to indicate that there really is a media discourse about languages as socially elitist in the UK which will be challenging for those of us in the languages community to break down.

When it comes to the evidence about what is actually going on in this area, the most recent Language Trends survey (Board & Tinsley, 2014) paid some attention to this and reported that among its respondents, fee-paying independent schools were more likely than maintained state schools to offer continuity of language in the transition from Key Stage 2 to 3 and more likely to offer more than one language in KS3. Additionally, as has been much publicised, exam entries in languages at both GCSE and A level include disproportionately high numbers of entries from the independent sector. Most recent GCSE figures show a 15% gap in favour of independent schools, for example. Post-16, the situation is even more pronounced with 32% of all A-level entries in 2013 coming from the independent sector according to Language Trends.

And what of universities? Well, languages tend to be located in the more traditional universities in the UK, i.e. the Russell Group. The UCAS 2013 Application Cycle: End of Cycle Report  in December 2013 made for depressing reading and reported that students from independent schools made up 9.58% of applicants across all subjects compared with 28.34% for European Languages. A few years ago, my former University of Southampton colleague, John Canning published statistics on the social and background of language applicants in UK HE and these highlight the problems in a bit more detail and can be seen on his website.

So in answer to the question, ‘are languages elitist subjects?‘ Yes it would seem so. It is important to emphasise, however, that to some extent they always have been. Languages were traditionally taught in grammar schools and not to the whole cohort. And in the languages community we are still grappling with this aura of elitism that surrounds our subject.

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