Languages are Important, Despite What Scottish Universities Think

I like to think of myself as a relatively fun person, so yesterday I spent two hours analysing the skills I had garnered from my French language and literature degree. 

Like I said, I’m a hoot. Six months into unemployed life, I have been delving back into the depths of my degree to discover every morsel of skill it bestowed upon me over four years.

As it turns out, I learnt quite a lot, so when three Scottish Universities announced major cuts to their language programmes last month, I was more than surprised. 

From 2021, Napier and Dundee universities will reduce the number of language programmes available at their institutions. The changes will see Napier slash French, Spanish and German and Dundee axe German. The most shocking announcement, however, came from Heriot Watt. The Edinburgh based university, who receive global recognition for their translation courses, are set to launch an external review of their highly esteemed language programmes. 

As ever, funding is at the source of the problem, with all three universities citing pandemic-induced economic hardship as reason for the drastic cuts. 

It makes sense: language courses are amongst the most expensive courses to teach, owing to the heavy contact time and the small practical classes. I can vouch for this; in final year, my friends studying sociology, politics and history all had a measly four contact hours per week, while I was frequently in classes of six for at least triple that time. 

I will put my hands up and say that on a very basic and immediate economic level, I can just about see where they are coming from. It is easiest to hit the big spending first; I myself am an expert in this method, frequently downgrading from Heinz Ketchup to Lidl’s own brand. 

At first, it seems like a great idea; I have saved a pound and assured myself it won’t taste any different. For the first couple of meals, I am still basking in the glory of money-saving, the euphoria masking the slight vinegary edge. However, by the time I extract the brownish bottle from the fridge for the third time, the euphoria has worn off, leaving a bottle of sub-standard tomato sauce which lowers the quality of my entire plate. Eventually, I stop using it. It never gets finished, but I can’t justify replacing it with a bottle of Heinz, think of the waste! The multi-dimensional tasting experience departs with the lack of sauce, leaving behind a life of one-dimensional dry chips. 

Languages are the universities’ Heinz Ketchup. Initially happy to make the savings, their mistakes surface over time. Without languages, the multi-dimensional culture of our society will be rendered one-dimensional. Without languages, we are just one big “dry chip”.  

At this point, I considered simply inserting my skills-based CV to demonstrate with flourish the benefits of languages.  However, just like I hope none of my university friends ever find my personal statement that got me there, I would rather you did not make your judgments on the most pretentious version of myself. Instead, I will run through a brief overview of the skills that a language qualification squeezes out of you.

When I arrived at university as a spritely 17-year-old, my capacity for analysing The Very Hungry Caterpillar was limited, let alone an entire French text with a colonial subtext. Four years later and numerous literature essays to my name, I had perfected my analytical skills – my presentation on La chenille qui fait des trous (the French translation of The Very Hungry Caterpillar) went down a storm. 

You may scoff, but the ability to analyse a translated children’s book helps more in life than you may think. To analyse and translate language, you must be able to read context and when you can read context, you can understand the how, what and why infinitely better. With context grasped, you are well on your way to understanding the most complex issues, having already established the backdrops to these problems. 

It isn’t just about an understanding of the “big stuff”. Language learning is beneficial to everyday mundanities too. Having spent so much time analysing the language and context of another culture, you are in turn more in tune with the language used by your peers in the mother tongue.  Subtle social cues will not go amiss, ensuring that you can employ empathy and sympathy as and when required. If my Hungry Caterpillar anecdote didn’t convince you, perhaps the knowledge that learning a language made me a better person will inspire a Duolingo download.

As much as I have harped on about the skills of analysing foreign texts, language learning is not and should not be about the literature. We all use language every minute of every day, literature lovers and despisers alike. Learning a language is about communication, the very foundation upon which our society is built. It’s not about fluency, rather saying “Merci” in the shop in France or ordering a beer in Spanish when in Spain. This simple act is a mark of respect between two cultures. It is a recognition that each is as important as the other, a recognition that travelling Brits often neglect to proffer. 

Of course, I don’t believe everybody should study languages at university. What I do believe is that everyone should understand the importance of languages in our lives and have the opportunity to learn basic language skills. The Scottish Government seem to think so too; they have made a commitment to ensure that every child has the opportunity to learn a second language from primary 1, with a third language introduced in primary 5. Following this incentive, the number of pupils taking languages beyond National 5 has finally stabilised in Scotland after years of decline. 

I am concerned that universities rejecting languages will reignite a downward trend in the motivation to learn languages. By cutting their programmes, these universities have marked languages as the least important of their degrees. In a country that puts so much emphasis on higher education, the decisions made by these institutions have major influence. If they themselves have lost faith in the power of languages, it is only a matter of time before this message permeates society further.

Let’s embrace language learning with the same enthusiasm as we do Heinz ketchup. Download one of the sixty translations of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, say Bonjour to French man in the boulangerie and get competitive on Duolingo. In return, I promise never to compare our nation to a dry chip again.

Words by Sophie Parsons 

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