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Thoughts on life after A level results

In much of the UK today, young people finally came to the end of their agonising wait for their A level results.  Every year - and this year is no exception - there is much discussion and analysis in the media about the grades achieved, the scramble for university places and job prospects for those not going on to further their studies.

According to the BBC, there were 867,317 candidates for all subjects at A level this year. Of these, 13,196 (1.5%) took French, 7,610 (0.9%) took Spanish and 5,166 (0.6%) took German. Other languages including Welsh and Irish accounted for even smaller percentages.

Over the past 20 years, the number of candidates for French has dropped from nearly 30,000 to its current level - a decrease of roughly 17,000 entrants. Candidates for Spanish have increased slightly and candidates for German have decreased slightly - and this is despite German being the language most in demand by employers, according to a report by the University Council of Modern Languages. The Guardian reports an increase in candidates for Chinese - but does not report how many passed.

A quick glance at the UCAS website advertising unfilled places (clearing) at universities on modern languages degree courses indicates that there is a vast choice available to those wishing to pursue their studies. It seems there are over 269 courses ranging from Italian with Marketing offered at the University of Hull, to Computing with Hispanic Studies at the University of Kent to Electrical Engineering with a foreign language at the University of Sheffield and Translating and Interpreting courses at the University of Salford.

With so few students taking A level languages I wonder if all these places will be filled? And if not, will the courses or even the departments eventually be closed down?

Translations - a play by Brian Friel

Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of BBC Radio 4 and here is an opportunity to listen to a version of Brian Friel's play, Translations, which was written in 1980, and adapted for radio.

The setting of the play is British Ordnance Survey of Ireland in 1833, a process of mapping, renaming and Anglicising Ireland. This background is used by Friel to portray the clash between languages, and the use of education as a method of resolving the cultural and unequal relationship between colonised and coloniser.

From a linguist's point of view, it does not make for comfortable listening as little respect is afforded to Gaelic with mono-lingual English officers riding roughshod over the country's traditions and history. There is a discussion at one point about translating a place name enshrined in the mists of time. The proposed English translation of it would be completely bland and lose all the local flavour. Does this matter?

The character of Owen, who is the interpreter between the two cultures, is put in a very difficult position towards the end of the play when having to deliver some very unpleasant news with which he does not agree, to his countrymen, and this situation highlights how difficult it can be for professional interpreters to remain neutral and emotionally detached in highly-charged situations.

The play is available on iPlayer until Saturday 11 September. Click here

'A' level results and gap years for linguists

Yesterday, the nation's 'A' level students were released from their agonising two-month wait for their results. Inevitably, there were the usual comments and discussions about whether the exams have become easier over the years, the introduction of the new A* grade, reports on school-leavers who did not get the grades they needed for their chosen university having to apply to other universities through Clearing and whether government policies causing cuts in university funding and caps on admissions were cheating suitably qualified students of places.

Of all the statistics and analysis I heard, I was interested to learn that there was (once again) a decrease in the number of pupils taking modern languages at 'A' level. Of those who did take one or more languages, most took Spanish, with French and German the next most popular subjects. I wonder how many of these young people will be reading for degrees in Modern Languages?

I am also curious to know how many would-be language undergraduates did not achieve the grades they had hoped for and are now wondering what to do with the rest of their lives. Do not despair, young linguists. There is hope and a future! Although you may be understandably disappointed that all your hard work has not been rewarded in the way that you had anticipated, all is not lost.

Mary Curnock-Cook, the chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), is reported in an interview in last week's Sunday Telegraph as saying that 'the golden age of the gap year is over," and wants to change the name to "bridging year". By the "golden age" it seems that she means 'acquiring life experience on an extended holiday'. Speaking from my own experience, I would advocate that a gap year for linguists is invaluable.

When I left school, gap years were relatively unusual (in fact, I don't remember them being called gap years then, we used a less snappy phrase: "deferred entry to university" - perhaps this would suit Ms Curnock-Cook better?) and my teachers were not enthusiastic about the idea. I've never really understood why they took this stance. When I returned from a year abroad in Germany I found that a couple of other fellow students on my course had followed a similar route. We discovered that by having been immersed in the language and culture we had a huge advantage over our fellow students. Where they were still struggling with grammatical structures in their spoken language, we were able to converse fluently; where they were having to work hard at reading the set works in literature, we were able to read with ease and understanding. We had absorbed the language almost unconsciously; our translations were more idiomatic and we did not collapse in a quivering heap when confronted with Middle High German (although Old High did present its challenges!!).

My advice to any post-A-level student, with or without their required grades, who is thinking of reading Modern Languages at university, is to consider spending at least six months in the source language country/ies and to soak up as much of the language as possible. It's much more fun, not to mention easier, to acquire fluency this way than slogging through language seminars. University admissions officers worth their salt must surely recognise that a student who is fluent in the language, has a genuine love for the country, its literature and culture, is acquainted with its customs, and counts its citizens as personal friends will bring far more to their chosen course than undergraduates who at 'A' level acquired a whole galaxy of A stars? 


A voice for a bereaved Russian father

Avaaz, which means "voice" in several European, Middle Eastern and Asian languages, was launched in January 2007 with a simple democratic mission: organize citizens everywhere to help close the gap between the world we have and the world most people want.

It holds regular on-line campaigns to fight for justice for people throughout the world. These campaigns range from climate change and environmental issues to human rights concerns.

I have just received an e-mail from the organisation highlighting the plight of a young Russian woman (whose father is a member of the Avaaz community) who was tricked by unscrupulous men into leaving her homeland to follow her dream of becoming a translator/interpreter.

This is part of her father's appeal to the Avaaz community.

"My daughter Oxana was a beautiful, wonderful girl, gifted in languages. She left our home when she was 20 to take her dream job as a translator in Europe. We were so happy for her. Three weeks later, the police told us she died falling from a 5th story window, trying to escape men who fooled her about the job and forced her into a sex club. I died when she died. Now I live only to stop this from happening to other girls. Please, help me."

Avaaz states: Oxana was killed by a brutal and growing global industry - the rape trade. A major part of this trade is girls taken in Russia and sent to Europe and the US where they face an awful future of daily rape and brutality.

Oxana's father Nikolai is appealing to Russian Prime Minister Putin to sign a powerful new convention requires strong laws to stop the rape trade. If you would like to sign a petition to encourage Mr Putin to sign the convention, then please click this link to visit Avaaz's website. And give Oxana's father and young women like Oxana a voice. 

Compulsory modern languages to the age of 16?

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It is embarrassing to admit on a blog dedicated to language matters that since 2002 the British government has not required foreign languages to be taught as compulsory subjects to all children up to the age of 16.  This policy has resulted in a dramatic fall in pupils taking these subjects. 

It is not easy to understand why there is a perception of foreign languages as being "difficult". They are no more difficult than mathematics or chemistry and, where I can understand there may be some who find numbers and formulae more exciting than words, learning a language to GCSE level surely cannot be more taxing on the brain cells.  Arguably, being able to introduce yourself, ask your way around a foreign city and buy items at a market are surely more useful to most young people than being able to apply Pythagoras' theorem or solve quadratic equations. (I know I have never found any practical application for such things!)

Those of us who benefit from our knowledge of languages other than English are at a loss to understand why our government undervalues language skills. It seems to be generally acknowledged that it is easier for the young to learn languages; it becomes increasingly more difficult as one grows older. Although there is a fair amount of enthusiasm for learning languages at evening classes, this method does not allow the learner sufficient regular practice to gain a reasonable level of fluency (particularly if one does not have prior knowledge of other foreign languages) and leads to discouragement and high drop-out rates.

Taking an evening class is not only a slow and laborious way of learning a language, it also does not address the country's need for using languages in business. Perhaps our young people are reluctant to learn foreign languages because they do not see any practical application for them. There is the constant bleat "There is no point. Everyone speaks English".

This is not true. There are millions of people, potential customers, who do not speak English. Perhaps the people we meet on holiday speak English but this is because they recognise the benefit of the tourist dollar/pounds to their economy. They have been employed precisely because of their foreign language skills (hotel receptionists for example often speak two or three languages in addition to their own). These people have learned English because they understand what Willy Brandt once said, "You may buy from me in your own language, but sell to me in mine."

If the UK wishes to sell its goods and services to foreign markets it is surely only polite to speak the language of those we are appealing to. Nationals of other countries speak to the Russians, Chinese, Arabs, Germans, Spanish (etc.) in the local language and so should we. It's a competitive world out there!  By not taking foreign languages to a higher level, our young people will find this country at a great disadvantage in years to come.

There are many other points I could make on this subject but I think I will save them for another day ;-) In closing, I would like to draw your attention to a petition held on the Downing Street website for all those wishing to see a return of the compulsory teaching of modern languages to school pupils up to the age of 16.

Will you be signing?