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.

Researching university outreach with schools in modern and community languages – 10 useful sources

Languages outreach activities usually have two main aims: to motivate young people to continue with their language learning and to broaden the social profile of language students. The following is a selection of reports, conference papers and research publications, which cover UK-based languages outreach involving universities and schools in modern and community languages (it’s not an exhaustive list). This is a small but growing field, which is largely practical rather than theoretical.

Numbers 1-8 are openly accessible online.

1     Outreach in Modern Languages: A Dfes funded report mapping cross-sector collaboration  – Davis (2006)

Davis surveyed the field of cross-sector collaboration between universities and schools on behalf of the then Department for Children, Schools and Families, following the recommendations of the Footitt Report (2005) on the National Languages Strategy in Higher Education. Davis’ findings are based on the results of a questionnaire study of schools and universities, case study interviews and web-based research. She found evidence of considerable cross-sector collaboration, much of which was aimed at promoting languages. Initial teacher training was reported to be the most frequent reason for collaborating. However, Davis concluded that outreach activities were ‘ad hoc, uncoordinated and dependent upon enthusiastic staff and students’ (p. 4).

2       Cross-sector collaborative activities to promote modern languages in Scotland – Doughty (2008)

The Davis report was replicated in Scotland on behalf of the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies. Doughty (2008) set out to identify good practice in cross-sector activities in Scottish schools, universities and FE colleges. Information was collected from questionnaire surveys, interviews and web-based research. As in England, promoting languages was found to be the most common aim of outreach activities. Presentations to school students were the most frequent example of universities working with schools. Doughty also reported that outreach was dependent on the good will of individuals and that lack of time acted as a significant barrier.

3        Routes into Languages: Report on Teacher and Pupil Attitude Surveys  Canning, Gallagher-Brett, Tartarini & McGuinness (2010)

This report presents findings from a questionnaire survey with teachers and two pupil questionnaires in 54 schools in England, which have participated in Routes into Languages activities. Routes is a national outreach programme in England and Wales which aims to increase participation in language learning through collaboration between universities and schools. The questionnaires sought to find out about pupils’ attitudes to language learning; teachers’ perceptions of their pupils’ attitudes and their views on the impact of Routes into Languages. Teachers were overwhelmingly positive about the impact of Routes. In particular, they stressed that it had increased pupil motivation and uptake of languages, improved teaching and learning in specific areas and raised the profile of languages in their schools. Pupils were found to have largely favourable attitudes to languages and there were indications of positive attitudinal change between the first and second questionnaires (following engagement with Routes into Languages activities).

4       Promoting the study of languages in the South East through school and university partnerships: the Aim Higher Kent and Medway Languages Project – Gallardo (2008)

This paper describes a project, which brought together two universities, eleven schools and an FE college, local authorities, children’s services and Aim Higher (sadly no longer with us) in the Medway area of Kent.

The project set out to promote language learning and intercultural awareness and to raise aspirations of progression into higher education among students aged 14-19 in schools in an area of socio-economic deprivation. A wide range of project activities were designed, including workshops delivered by undergraduate student language ambassadors and sixth form mentors. Evaluation of the project showed a positive impact on students’ attitudes as well as favourable feedback from teachers.

5    University of Southampton’s Score in French Project: Football-related materials and pupil motivation    – McCall (2009)

Score in French is a Routes into Languages South outreach project, which aims to motivate year 8 students through the use of football resources and an inter-school tournament. Participating teachers were provided with a resource pack, including activities designed to increase integrative motivation. Local French players from Southampton Football Club also got involved. Post-project questionnaires revealed that Score in French was enjoyed by both boys and girls and teachers perceived that it had helped improve pupil motivation.

There is a more detailed write-up of the project in the Language Learning Journal, 39 (1), 5-18, which discusses project outcomes in the light of language learning motivation research.

6     Promoting less-widely-taught languages: The outreach experience of the Foreign Languages Awareness Group for Schools   – Polisca (2007)

Polisca describes a project at the University of Manchester, which aimed to promote languages of the wider world and to enhance links between the university and schools and colleges in the locality. The idea was for student ambassadors to go into schools and deliver taster sessions in Italian, Portuguese and Russian and a careers presentation to sixth formers. Ambassadors then continued to mentor the sixth formers by means of WebCT. Feedback from the project was encouraging and there were indications that it had the potential to increase uptake. Polisca discusses a range of problems that arose and also highlights the transferability of the project to other contexts.

7       Widening Participation: A case studyWatts (2006)

Watts reports on a small case study involving language studies students from the University of Brighton and pupils from a South London secondary school. The university students hosted two exploratory visits for the school pupils, all of whom had English as an Additional Language and refugee status. The visits were aimed at making the school pupils more familiar with the university environment and at providing the undergraduates with experience of working with EAL learners.

The project was considered to be successful for all parties. The school students enjoyed visiting the university facilities and commented on the usefulness of the information they received. This then led to the establishment of a series of widening participation projects across the University.

8     Keep Talking  – Wyburd & Chadha (2006)

Keep Talking was a University of Manchester outreach project, which was aimed at motivating learners in KS3. It started out as a collaboration between the University and those local schools, which were finding it difficult to persuade their students to take languages at GCSE.

The project had three strands and involved sending student language ambassadors into schools, providing workshops for KS3 learners and organising mini-conferences for teachers. Outcomes of the project were found to be encouraging for both learners and teachers. In particular, participants reported having a more positive view of the University.

9       Promoting community language learning in the UK – Handley (2011) Language Learning Journal, 39 (2), 149-162

This article reports on the work of the COLT Project (Routes into Languages North West), which provides outreach activities for schools, which specifically aim to promote community language learning. The project team has organised Language Enrichment Events for school pupils in Arabic, Chinese, Italian and Urdu at the five partner universities in North-West England. They also developed a teacher education module for teachers alongside. Pupils were surveyed by questionnaire before and after events and then they also subsequently completed a longer-term tracking questionnaire. Findings showed an improvement in attitudes towards these languages, which was sustained over the longer term.

10     My UniSpace: applying e-mentoring to language learning – McCall (2011) Language Learning Journal 39 (3), 313-328

This article describes a project in which a group of university language students provided online mentoring to school students in years 10 – 13 (aged between 14 and 18 years). The aims of the project were to help young learners (the mentees) develop their language learning skills and to boost the employability of the university mentors.

Most mentors and mentees were found to benefit from the programme although this was not universally the case as a few of them did not work well together, especially if the school student was in year 10. However, overall findings were encouraging.

More sobering research findings for languages: low confidence & low motivation – Research Reviews (5)


Influences on students’ dispositions in Key Stage 3: Exploring enjoyment of school, popularity, anxiety, citizenship values and academic self-concepts in Year 9 – DFE Research Brief 184c January 2012 (Sammons, Sylva, Melhuish, Siraj-Blatchford, Taggart, Smees, Draghici, & Toth)

This is a fascinating longitudinal research study with lots of interesting findings. The report focuses on findings related to year 9 dispositions in key areas such as enjoyment of school, academic self-concept, popularity, citizenship values and anxiety. It also compares previous research findings which involved the same participants when they were in years 2 and 5 so it very much looks at the way young people’s attitudes develop over time. A mixed-methods approach was used. It reveals worrying findings relating to confidence and motivation in languages.

The authors report largely positive findings. Most year 9 students were found to enjoy school and were confident about their overall ability. Alarmingly however, modern languages was found to be the least popular subject area. It is very sobering how consistently the relative unpopularity of languages has been reported in generic research studies over a long period of time (e.g. Francis, 2000; Colley & Comber, 2003). Students were also less confident about their ability in modern languages than in any other subject. This very much fits in with what I found in my PhD research when I looked at motivation in speaking in KS3.

Most students had high aspirations, wanted to go to university and believed that they were liked by their peers. Students from richer socio-economic backgrounds were more likely to enjoy school and to believe that they were popular than those from poorer backgrounds. Girls generally reported higher levels of anxiety than boys and also seemed to have lower academic self-concepts in some areas.

Over time though, learners were found to be less positive about school than when they were younger (in years 2 and 5) and also to be less keen on answering questions in class.

Many interesting similarities and differences were also found in relation to family background, home learning environment etc.

This research is well worth a read even if it is depressing for linguists.