Should You Study A Language At University?

November 5, 2021

The last decade has delivered a pandemic, financial crises and inflated tuition fees. (If you’re not old enough to remember that fateful day ten years ago when it was announced that the cost of an undergraduate degree in the UK would be tripled, believe me, it was not a happy moment.) All this has meant that we’ve had to take a long hard look at the value of a university education.

What should you do with a passion for foreign languages?

Imagine the following scenario: you’re 17 and have just fallen deeply and madly in love with the French language. You skip into French classes and spend your weekends consuming all the francophile cliches you can think of, from Godard to Gainsbourg (with plenty of macarons thrown in). But soon you’ll be leaving school and you don’t want to give up learning the language formally. So, what do you do?  

This was my dilemma, but, at the time, the answer seemed simple. Having developed a passion for French in Sixth Form, the logical next step appeared to be to go to university and study the language within an academic context. The structure that a degree would provide seemed to me a perfectly natural one: study French in depth for two years, soak up some culture and solidify my speaking/listening skills for a year in France (preferably Paris), and then return for another year to complete my studies.

To thousands of MFL graduates across the country, this flow will be a familiar one as it was the frame in which we were initially taught to think of language learning. But what if this path was, in fact, not the best, most efficient way to optimise our language skills? While I’m very grateful to have built up my level of French during my student years, I have often wondered if pursuing the academic route was the right way of going about it.

Why do you want to learn this language?

People study languages for radically different reasons. Some will be looking to deep dive into a particular country's literature and cultural output with experts in the field. But many language students will be motivated, first and foremost, by the prospect of gaining confidence conversationally and being able to converse at a high level with natives of their chosen language. This was certainly the case for the majority of my fellow French students. 

It is pretty undisputed that the quickest and most effective route to this particular goal is immersion in the country where your target language is spoken as it provides you with constant exposure to the language coupled with the ability to practice it on a daily basis. This can, of course, be done with or without pursuing a language degree. It is, however, generally acknowledged that a foundational understanding of grammar and formal structure will allow learners to make the most meaningful progress when the time comes for immersion. In other words, if you plan on living in Italy for a year, it’s best to have a solid grasp of the basics of Italian before you leave instead of turning up in Rome armed with only ‘buongiorno’ and hoping for the best. But do said basics really need to be acquired in a university setting?

Many would argue that they don’t. Grammar is a technical area and can be taught equally well by a solid language tutor as by a professor. The same goes for conversation practice; to improve their speaking skills, all students really need is a native speaker who can competently correct them. So, unlike with a more overtly academic subject, such as English Literature or History, to progress in the way that many prioritise when learning a language - i.e. conversationally - access to an academic is not specifically needed. Private tuition is a very persuasive alternative.

Doesn’t university keep language students motivated?

It’s important to acknowledge that the type of teaching offered by degree courses is not the only thing at play here; the psychological and structural factors also need to be considered. It’s all too easy to become demotivated when learning a language. Committing to a three-year course (four if we include a year abroad) that promises a degree certificate at the end of it can provide the structure and discipline necessary to make significant progress. Students often hope that completing assessments and having a certain number of hours per week timetabled in to devote solely to the language will propel them towards fluency much more productively than if they choose to go solo in their studies. In theory, this sounds plausible. But what does a language degree actually consist of? 

UK language degrees are, for the most part, structured like any other humanities degree. I.e. contact hours are kept to a minimum in favour of independent study. The breakdown of the University of Exeter’s French course, for example, states that contact hours make up only 21% of the course (of which around a third would be exclusively speaking practice). To some extent this makes sense; as with any humanities degree, a heavy amount of weekly reading is required and it’s important that students have time for private study. 

On the other hand, language learning is very different to the study of, say, History or Philosophy. Building language skills is, in many ways, far more practical than academic, as, to progress in any meaningful way, copious speaking practice is needed. The idea should be to mirror immersion as closely as possible, which means a maximum number of hours being devoted to direct exposure to the language. In this sense, languages should be treated more like the sciences when it comes to contact hours. Just a couple of hours of conversation per week will most likely not provide the discipline and momentum necessary to reach fluency with any kind of speed.

What about the academic side of language learning?

Of course, perfecting conversational skills in a short space of time isn’t everyone’s priority when they decide to pursue a language at degree level. But it isn’t even guaranteed that those looking for a more academic approach to studying the language’s culture and history will be satisfied either. Speaking from my own experience, the literature modules that I took as part of my French degree consistently lacked academic rigour. I was surprised to learn, for example, that my university didn’t even require students to write essays for these modules in their target language; every essay that I wrote on French Literature as an undergraduate was, believe it or not, in English.

Not everybody will share my opinion, and, of course, every university is different, with standards varying from degree to degree. But, learning French as part of a joint honours degree - I studied English Literature in parallel - gave me the chance to compare the two types of course, meaning I could review the experience of studying a language alongside a subject with a more academic leaning. My French literature modules simply did not equip me with the same analytical tools that English Literature did, most probably because the majority of students studying French were there in pursuit of fluency instead of academic discovery, so were not seeking the same level of theory as my fellow English scholars were. 

This half-hearted nature of my French culture modules repeatedly led me back to the question: maybe UK language degrees are trying to do too much. Attempting to cater for too many diverging reasons for studying a language means they perhaps spread themselves too thin and leave many students unsatisfied with the education they’re receiving. 

Isn’t it just better to have a degree, whatever it’s in?

If there’s an elephant in the room within this debate, it’s the higher level of credibility - however justified it may be - that a university degree will give a language learner’s claims to fluency. It would be naive to ignore the reality that a degree will help advance a fledgling career in a way that alternative language learning methods, such as private tutoring, alone might not, if simply due to the value of formal qualifications in the job market. This is particularly true if a graduate hopes to go into vocational areas such as translation. 

However, we need to be questioning what a university degree has come to represent within the working world, and the true value of having one. If there are people spending £27,000+ on gaining skills that they could access for half the price (and in half the time), the matter deserves our attention. Maybe higher education holds too great a monopoly over our drive towards learning and self-improvement. As important as it is for young people to be ambitious, it’s also vital that we are informing our teenage language buffs from the start of their learning journey that a university context isn’t the only one in which fluency can be achieved.

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Ella Burgess

Ella is a content writer at Tutor House and explores a range of education centred topics, having previously spent time teaching English while living abroad. A foreign language enthusiast and lover of text art, she is devoted to words in all their forms. She'll happily immerse herself in anything wordy from conceptual art to vintage murder mysteries.

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