Reflections on the Language Futures Conference and the Welsh multilingual Spelling Bee final

I attended the first day of the LLAS Higher Education Language Futures Conference in Edinburgh recently. It was a really inspiring day with so much interesting input about what is going on in languages in HE and, as always, it was great to meet up with old friends.

I chaired a couple of sessions – firstly Liz Andersen and Nick Johnston from the Routes into Languages North East team talked about the development of the student language ambassador module at Newcastle University and then Sarah Schechter and Mary Brittain from Routes into Languages East and East Midlands presented findings from a sustainability audit, which covered a range of themes, including the contribution of Routes into Languages to the student experience and employability in languages and the role of Routes in widening participation and fair access (the full sustainability report is available here –  www.routesintolanguages.ac.u/impact). The second session I chaired involved Fiona Graham from the European Commission who drew attention to the role of, and demand for, translators in the Commission. Fiona was followed by Anne Marie Graham who reported on research she has been doing for Routes into Languages examining public service interpreting and translating provision in English HE. She also presented a new website, which will be a repository and community of practice for teaching and learning materials in PSIT – http://www.psit.org.uk/.

Afternoon plenary sessions included Ros Mitchell from Southampton University who spoke about residence abroad for languages students in a globalised world – she was referring to an ongoing research study, which looks as though it has fascinating findings about linguistic progress and the use of the target language in different settings. The day’s proceedings finished with a really informative presentation on language policy in Scotland by Sarah Breslin, Director of Scottish CILT. The languages picture in Scotland is looking optimistic at the moment with the new 2+1 policy for primary schools.

All good stuff – I was only sorry not to be able to stay for the second day. Conference presentations will appear here soon: http://www.llas.ac.uk/events/archive/6404

Onto the Wales national final of the languages Spelling Bee…

Last week I set off on a long train journey to Aberystwyth with my colleague, Claire Wilkins for the Welsh Spelling Bee final. As it was graduation week at Aberystwyth Uni, we couldn’t get accommodation there so ended up staying in Welshpool, which was lovely and very scenic. We continued by train to Aberystwyth the next day and had a conversation with a teacher who was taking one of her pupils to the Spelling Bee! The venue for the final was the superb National Library of Wales. The event kicked off with the 4 year 7 finalists in Spanish, followed by Welsh second language, French and finally German. Performances were really impressive – the standard of spelling was very high throughout. Afterwards I did a bit of sightseeing in Aberystwyth …..

I was then joined by my husband and we spent the weekend walking in the very beautiful Elan Valley….

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Reflections on an inspiring Modern Languages research in progress workshop

Research in and for Languages was jointly organised by the LLAS Centre for languages, linguistics and area studies at the University of Southampton and Scottish CILT, Scotland’s National Centre for Languages at the University of Strathclyde http://www.llas.ac.uk/events/archive/6541. It was held at Strathclyde on 27 April 2012.

As one of the workshop organisers, I was overwhelmed by the large number of high quality proposals that were submitted following our call for papers. We were quite literally spoilt for choice. Presentations on the day were really wide-ranging in content and theme:

  • Research on Languages, Cultures and Systems in an era of Complexity – Professor Richard Johnstone (University of Stirling)
  • An innovative approach to teaching Chinese to beginner teachers – Dr Jane Medwell and Katherine Richardson (University of Warwick)
  • Is English enough? Language Management in the UK financial sector – Dr Mary Fischer (Edinburgh Napier University)
  • A study of young learner motivation: adding an affective dimension to the ‘younger = better’ debate – Louise Courtney (University of Southampton)
  • Translation in intercultural health settings – Teresa Piacentini (University of Glasgow)
  • One of us’ – a case study of language and identity in two mixed-race (white and South Asian) Britons – Sheena Kalayil (Manchester Metropolitan University)
  • Teaching successful spoken requests in an EAP context Christian Jones & Nicola Halenko (University of Central Lancashire)
  • Crowdsourcing research and corpus planning for lesser-resourced languages – Mark McConville (University of Glasgow)
  • Assessing the work placement abroad – Laurence Giraud-Johnstone (University of the West of Scotland)

All these speakers were reporting on really interesting findings. We were also fortunate enough to have three excellent poster presentations at lunch-time:

  • E-learning methodology in Austrian adult education based on English e-grammar for adult ESL learners – Christina Auerbach
  • Creating resources for the development of reading skills in Polish at ab initio level – Marta Becquet (University of Glasgow)
  • Introducing students to methods of digital humanities and text analysis – Richard Whitt and colleagues (University of Strathclyde)

It was great to get a flavour of the wide variety of research that is going on in languages and was a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking day. Presentations are now available online at the above link.

Reflections on the bad news in this week’s UCAS figures

So the long-awaited UCAS figures are finally out and have been met with a somewhat muted response from the media, as was commented on in the THE http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=418893&c=1. Applications from prospective UK students are down by 8.7% on 2011 and, given that 2011 was a bumper year before increases in tuition fees, some commentators are interpreting these figures as not too bad. Charles Levy’s blog post for the Work Foundation suggests that we should not be too worried about the headline figures although he does concede that there may be cause for concern about the fate of individual institutions http://www.theworkfoundation.com/blog/659/99-fall-in-undergraduate-applications-time-to-panic. Meanwhile, the Guardian focused on the relatively small drop in the numbers of applications from school leavers http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/jan/30/uk-university-applications-drop-ucas. However, in a period of mass unemployment, would it be usual to expect a drop in the applications from this group?

Tuition fees are clearly a key factor in the 9.9% drop in applicants from England when compared with the relatively small decreases in other UK countries not affected by these increases (Scotland -1.5%, Wales -1.9% and Northern Ireland -4.4%). The suggestion that there has been a more significant decline in applications from affluent rather than from deprived prospective students appears to have been viewed as comforting. This was queried by the Guardian’s Reality Check http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/reality-check-with-polly-curtis/2012/jan/31/higher-education-tuition-fees?intcmp=239. Apparently, UCAS have only provided deprivation data for school leavers – there has been a big drop in applications from mature students and these very often come from non-traditional backgrounds. So the jury is out on the impact of increased fees on deprived students.

For linguists the statistics make depressing reading. European languages are down by 11.2% while non-European languages suffered the biggest drop, a whacking great 21.5% fall. This has been viewed with dismay by Adam Roberts, President of the British Academy who proposes that it is bad for the UK’s global standing http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=418901#.TyqZjIeTy0g.twitter. Like many others, he feels that languages are suffering because they require an extra year of study (i.e. the year abroad). In the current climate it is not difficult to see why a four-year degree might be considered unattractive. On a slightly more positive note, applications for languages tend to have a relatively good conversion rate to acceptances. It will be interesting to see whether data is forthcoming on whether languages students are heading increasingly for the low-fees regimes of the European Union. Let’s hope they are out there somewhere.

Useful references on student mobility

Thoughts on HE Languages News: Student mobility and strategically important subjects


There have been 2 interesting reports with implications for languages over the last week. The Eurobarometer Survey – Youth on the Move and the HEFCE evaluation of support for strategically important and vulnerable subjects.

1        Flash Eurobarometer Survey: Youth on the Move. Analytical Report- May 2011

http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/flash/fl_319b_en.pdf

This is a fascinating report about young people’s attitudes to vocational education, higher education and work and study abroad across Europe. Encouragingly, the survey indicates that most young people regard both vocational and higher education as worthwhile. Just over half of those surveyed suggested that the main reason for going to university was to improve job prospects. The UK and Ireland were found to have the highest proportion of young people motivated by employability concerns and my guess is that this finding will come as no surprise to academics at UK universities.

Over half of young people who participated in the survey also indicated that they would be willing to study or work abroad for a period, which seems to be another encouraging finding. The most significant benefits of spending time abroad were considered to be improved foreign language skills and increased cultural awareness. Although UK respondents acknowledged greater awareness of culture as a benefit, they were among the least likely to believe that foreign language skills would improve as a result of spending time abroad. This seems rather strange given the reputation of UK citizens when it comes to foreign language skills but it may reflect a possible tendency amongst UK participants to view Anglophone countries as their likely destinations.

The survey reported that the most significant barrier to studying and working abroad was lack of money. Additional barriers for UK respondents were family commitments and lack of interest in travel.

The findings of this report will undoubtedly be of interest to anyone in higher education who is involved in persuading students to go abroad.

2        Evaluation of HEFCE’s programme of support for Strategically Important and Vulnerable Subjects – A report to HEFCE by Curtis + Cartwright Consulting – May 2011

www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/rdreports/2011/rd05_11.pdf

This report is an evaluation of HEFCE’s initiatives to support strategically important and vulnerable subjects, notably STEM subjects and languages.

Initiatives to support languages have principally been the Routes into Languages project www.routes.ac.uk which is a partnership of universities working together with schools and colleges in their regions to increase uptake in languages and the language-based area studies centres (LBAS for short), which have provided intensive language training for postgraduate researchers www.ahrc.ac.uk/FundingOpportunities/Pages/LBASInitiative.aspx.

The evaluation found that HEFCE’s support for SIVs was absolutely crucial and that it represented good value for money. The partnership working in languages that has developed as a result of both the Routes into Languages and LBAS projects was highly commended in the report. As I have been involved in Routes into Languages myself as a member both of the project steering group and the resource development team based at the University of Southampton, I hope that HEFCE will continue to provide some support in languages as we go through into the uncharted territory of the new fees regime.