Department of French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies
The University of British Columbia
797-1873 East Mall
Vancouver, BC
Canada V6T 1Z1

This is a draft: please do not cite without author's permission


Paper given at the Spanish and Portuguese Research Seminar, Manchester, October 2001. A much revised version of this piece was later published as "Why I. . . Think the Languages Crisis is Helpful."  Times Higher Education Supplement (26 September 2003): 18.

"Modern Languages are in Crisis: and it's a good thing, too"


The influential Nuffield Report on Languages puts it succinctly. In its section on Higher Education, the Report states that "Languages are in crisis. Most university languages departments are regarded as operatin deficit, and an increasing number are under threat of closure or reduction. Some have already closed." This judgement was published only last year, but if anything the situation has only continued to deteriorate since.

Despite general expansion of the tertiary sector, the numbers of students admitted to most languages degrees has been fallen steadily in real as well as in relative terms. Some languages are more affected than others: Spanish has mostly grown, and Italian held its own; but student numbers for the two languages most studied in British universities, French and German, are more or less in freefall (especially for German). Russian and "minor" European languages such as Dutch, meanwhile, seem fast heading for virtual extinction as far as higher education is concerned.

Yet this crisis has only to be welcomed. Modern Languages have long been in desperate need of overhaul, and now both the opportunity and the will are present to re-think their role in the context of globalisation and the increased porousness of both disciplinary and national boundaries. On the other hand, however, some of the cures prescribed for this sickly patient are worse than the original illness: they will surely kill it off in short order.

Modern Languages are built around the modern European nation state, and its colonizing project. They are "modern" not simply because they are opposed to the "ancient" languages such as Latin and Greek, but also because they are opposed to the "premodern" languages of those colonized or those outside the European colonial system. Thus French, German, and Spanish are taught as modern languages, while Welsh, Quechua, Swahili, or Mandarin Chinese are not. Modern languages have been taken to convey high culture and to be the medium for literary and philosophical excellence; other languages have been taken to convey culture in its anthropological sense, the exotic customs of people who are not like us.

To be cultured has traditionally meant to have some passing acquaintance at least of Montaigne, Goethe, or Cervantes, and to use and understand the mot juste in whatever language, just as Latin tags were once the cultured sine qua non. Modern Languages departments centred on the literatures that sustained a sense of national identity while also encouraging the notion of a decidedly Eurocentric, but allegedly universal, common culture. Even today, it is not merely pragmatics that dictate that language instruction textbooks usually prioritise above all the skills that enable cultural tourism: how to order in a French restaurant, how to find your way to the Prado.

If this Eurocentric elitism is what it is to be modern, then it would be best if Modern Languages were no more.

At the same time, the modern language that dare not speak its name, the most successful language of European colonialism, is our own. But in that English has almost always been taught as a separate discipline, by contrast Modern Languages have also become the storehouse of the particular, of the exotic. Indeed, as soon as modern languages came to be taught in schools and universities (rather than simply "picked up"), and so democratised, so language was also seen as a barrier, as marking a difference.

Traditionally, Languages departments had little to do with language, or at least with language teaching. They existed, after all, to study the common tradition of European literature and thought. Once language teaching came to be central (and this transition came as late as the 1960s or 1970s in the most traditional universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge), modern language teaching came to be an exercise in studying the other, and an anthropological conception of culture came to dominate. This process coincided with the increasingly obvious frailty of the nation state, and as non-European literatures and cultures came for almost the first time to be the purview of Modern Languages departments--first Latin American literature, and more recently with the rise of Francophone Studies.

If this assertion of difference is at the heart of languages, then again it would be best if Modern Languages were no more.

Globalisation induces the definitive crisis of Modern Languages. It is not simply that students and potential students consider English to be the new lingua franca. As the Nuffield Report observes, the increasingly multicultural nature of modern Western societies also means the spread of many other languages. Rather, as national borders lose their force, so does the notion of national languages. Likewise, increased hybridity and mixture on all levels also complicates the attempt to divide civilized self from exotic other: in an era of political convergence, package tours, and cheap airfares, Paris, Havana, or Munich no longer seem quite so foreign to most British young people.

In the face of this crisis of Modern Languages, one solution above all seems to present itself to academics and university administrators. In that globalisation brings with it the increased intermingling of languages, such that those who are bilingual or even trilingual will have a comparative advantage in a world of ever more ruthless international competition, so "specialists" should break out of their discipline and disperse throughout the curriculum to teach languages to all. This, essentially, is the conclusion of the Nuffield Inquiry. Hence, among other things, the proliferation of programmes in "Management and French," "Business Studies and a Modern Language," and so on. Here, language becomes simply technique--a means to an end, a way of "getting to 'oui'" (or ja, or sí) in your Lille, Berlin, or Mexico City business meeting.

This fits well with the concept of transparency promoted by the neoliberalism, which argues that there should be no visible barriers to capital's expansion, and that technocracy has now dispensed with ideology. The architecture of Modern Languages then disappears altogether.

Beyond what some might regard as the political perniciousness of subordinating university teaching so wholly to market priorities, this proposal also means surrendering critical thought to the pragmatics of technique. And beyond the way in which its technocracy is itself ideology, or the fact that the notion of linguistic transparency it promotes is only ever illusory, the problem with this approach for those currently teaching within Modern Languages is that it is suicidal.

Modern Languages lecturers and professors are generally not very efficient teachers of language. They tend not to be native speakers, are very seldom trained in second-language instruction, have been produced by a system that tends to denigrate language-teaching over literary and (now) cultural studies, and are paid much more than are the lectors and lectoren who do the bulk of the oral teaching that this type of curriculum demands. If there is one sure way to kill Modern Languages completely, it is this.

For the crisis of Modern Languages to become productive, the disciplines that constitute it must divorce themselves from both modernity and from language-instruction. Of course, it is only to the good if our future businessmen and women, our future computer programmers and chemists are able to speak one or more European (or, even, non-European) languages. But this should not be the task of Modern Languages. The current crisis (which, it should not be forgotten, is a political and a theoretical crisis as much as it is a crisis of numbers and finance) is perhaps the best thing to have happened to Modern Languages for a long time. But the crisis (and its causes and contexts) should become the very substance of what (what were once) the Modern Languages teach: it should be a spur to thought, rather than the death of thought. The point would be to amplify the crisis, to propagate it in disciplines that have yet to feel it fully. Modern Languages, more affected than most by globalisation and the practical and political problems it raises, is also best placed to study and teach these same processes.

And in the end, recruitment can only benefit if Modern Languages can put together degree programmes that examine, trace, and critically engage with the various ways in which globalisation, and the modern world in general, mean that borders are breached, and disciplinary and national boundaries overrun. In other words, degree programmes that engage with the world that students and prospective students inhabit.


University of British Columbia

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last updated October 22, 2004