Ulster University’s decision to close its Modern Lamguages department is not totally ludicrous – and I say that as a committed linguist.
Firstly, as I have written many times before, language teaching in schools is totally inadequate (using techniques which are utterly outdated), meaning that Universities arguably do not have a supply of advanced linguists to make departments worthwhile; secondly, if the fundamental purpose is to learn a language proficiently, this does not require a University course (it really is one for FE colleges); and thirdly, the government’s focus is entirely on “STEM” subjects. In other words, if the University has to save money (and, let us be clear, it is an outrage that it is being asked to), closing its Modern Languages is not a ludicrous thing to do.
This focus on STEM, however, is understandable but slightly flawed. Northern Ireland’s monolingual status has serious consequences – language learning directly improves the potential for trade and exchange of knowledge, and indirectly improves the ability to be culturally aware and tolerant of different ways of doing things. Closing a School of Modern Languages sends out the wrong message, of course – indicating that we are closed to trade and to the wider world. Nevertheless, the solution to our monolingualism is not a School of Modern Languages, but a reformed approach to language learning. University is, in fact, too late to make a real difference here – but Universities could help.
The biggest problem Northern Ireland has faced language-wise in the past decade is not the closure of German at Queen’s or of Modern Languages at Ulster, but the withdrawal of funding for the introduction of languages in primary schools. As with musical instruments, the time to learn languages is early. No successful country, linguistically, leaves it any later than age 8 to start; given our relative lack of exposure to different languages on TV and radio, we would if anything need to be earlier than that.
It is for that reason that Ulster University should perhaps have considered not closing the School entirely, but radically revising its purpose. Universities are research centres, and the way we learn languages in schools is obviously a complete failure. A School of Language Learning, where new techniques could be trialled, would be a valuable contribution to solving that problem – at very little cost, with potentially significant benefits.