Dropping Languages

Did that title make you think – WHAT? If ‘Hilary’ and ‘dropping languages’ in the same sentence made you incredulous, then that is because the prospect of me dropping languages and thereby limiting my ability to speak (cue jokes from my Dad here) is ludicrous. Aside from my unwillingness to do so, I can’t unlearn language. Even if I made a mind-bogglingly ridiculous decision to go the full monoglot, it would be financially ruinous given that my work is dependent on my ability to speak more than one language. Without them what would I do to earn a living? Live off thin air?

“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”
― Ludwig Wittgenstein

So really, the full title of this blog post should have been: ‘Dropping languages makes no economic sense’, but following tips from my former mentor and colleague Professor Paul Fleet at Newcastle University,1 if I make my blog titles catchier and or controversial, I’ll give them more of a hook, and theoretically, that will yield more readers. The stats on that hypothesis are now duly pending, so Paul, I’ll let you know in due course … Anyway, after this meandering pre-amble let’s get down to the point of this post, explaining why dropping languages, as Leeds Beckett University recently announced they intend to, makes no economic sense.2 To do so I ask that you bear with me a bit, as this explanation requires both time travel and fiction. Specifically, we’ll go back anecdotally about 8 years in time, and then take a diversion via the TV classic The West Wing, specifically Season 5, Episode 16, before bringing you back to the present as I tease out my points.

Here’s the time travelling bit. It was 2014 (I think) and I was on a train up from London to York. Waiting at the doors on our approach into the station, I was joined by two young women. They were recent graduates. Not that they told me this, rather they were talking so loudly I was unwillingly privy to their conversation. They were bemoaning the fact that their colleague was in fact paid more. An understandable complaint on the face of it. Now factor in the other point these two were making; said colleague had foreign language skills that they did not, moreover she used them in her job. It was unfair, they complained. I was tempted to join the conversation but refrained. If I had I would have been inclined to say, actually, it is fair that your colleague earns more than you – she has, by your own admission, comparatively more skills than you do by dint of the fact that she has more than one language at her disposal, so she has more to offer the company you all work for, can generate more business for them, and let’s not forget that she also invested time and money in gaining those skills. Put it another way, why should she earn less when she’s got a wider skill set? She made a decision way back when, and so did you both; you chose not to learn, and she chose to.

But let’s take a moment here and consider that concept of choice. What may have been true eight or so years ago, isn’t necessarily so today. Back then there were more language departments in UK universities, teaching languages at degree level, in combination with other subject areas such as engineering and business, or as language courses for students on non-language degree pathways, but who were either wanting to pick up a new language or continue with one they’d already begun learning. Also, more schools taught languages or taught a wider range of languages, so students had greater access to language learning opportunities. Yet, that isn’t the case anymore. My own secondary school, where I had excellent teaching in German, and which laid the foundation for all that has followed, no longer offers the subject. I’ve been told German was deemed too difficult to get a good grade in so it was dropped for the sake of the school league tables and stats. At the same time, more and more universities are also closing their language departments, meaning there are fewer and fewer opportunities to study a language. So, if that conversation on the train were taking place today, I’d be questioning whether the two women were even able to study a language, and not whether they had been willing. That conversation, and my responses to it, have stuck in my mind for two reasons over the intervening years. Firstly, the value of learning one or more other languages is not as prized as it should be in the UK. Secondly, language ability has economic value, irrespective of any misconceived ideas about economic value versus cost; in fact not having languages is financially disadvantageous on an individual and on a national economic level. It is not just me, and people like myself with a vested interest in language learning who note this, but business and industry, too, but more on that later.

Let’s segue here from our current reality to the fictitious White House of The West Wing, and to Season 5, Episode 16 “Eppur Si Muove”.3 Bear with me, there is a point to this, even though it might initially have you asking – what? – again.

The West Wing is one of our go-to shows to escape today’s world, but as I was re-watching this episode the other evening, parallels between that particular plotline, and what’s happening with languages in the UK, struck a chord. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the series, it has nothing directly to do with languages, rather it follows the ups and downs of President Bartlet’s period in office. This episode focused on the value of research, specifically in the field of medical science. To give the briefest of synopses, Republican congresswoman Barbara Layton sets out to challenge the Democratic government of the day. What is initially positioned as Republicans doing due diligence in questioning whether the correct process was followed in public funding being awarded to a research project on STIs amongst sex workers, turns out to be nothing more than political gaming. Layton pontificates to the media, questioning the value of this particular research, and whether public could be better spent on ‘more worthy’ research, or rather areas she thinks would appeal better to her judgmental voter base, who see sex workers as less worthy of medical research. In so doing reveals her own values and prejudices. Yet, all of this is a smokescreen for what is really just an attempt to discredit President Bartlet, insinuating the process of awarding funding was corrupt because one of the postdoctoral researchers on the project just happens to be his media-shy daughter Ellie. Medical research, supposed questions of ethics, and the President’s daughter, are all pawns in the wider political game. The President’s team duly come to Ellie, and the project’s defense. In one scene, the cerebral director of communications, Toby Ziegler, explains how a non-specialist is in no position to judge the project, (hurrah, we love Toby).4 He goes on to describe the process of research, and how it also leads to incidental findings which may not have been anticipated at the outset; in this case the research found a link with cervical cancer and the team are subsequently working on a vaccine. By the end of the episode truth and reason win out as Ellie holds a press conference, explaining the project and its value.

So, what does this have to do with languages, their decline and their worth? Unlike medical science, an ability to communicate across languages won’t cure deadly diseases (though translation of medical findings plays an important role, surely). The first thing that jumped out at me was the attempt by non-specialists to define what has value, and what, is seemingly unworthy of being anything other than cast aside. What is deemed of value is an issue in education generally and in languages specifically. Even as I write this blog, the media is full of stories of education, including supposedly low-value degrees. Under proposals by the conservative leadership candidate Rishi Sunak, low value degrees or as he puts it, degrees that don’t lead to financial gain (presumably nursing, teaching and most likely languages amongst them), are set to be culled. This was swiftly followed by The Times’ hack headline piece on university reading lists, an article that showed as much political malice as it did plain ignorance of how courses, not to mention the on-going publication of books, actually work. So, we have the at best mis-informed judgementalism in the episode and in our reality. In both ‘value’ is judged on materiality, on a profit and loss accounting scale, or, in other words, simple greed.

In the fictional world, reason won out and the research could continue, but therein end the parallels with the present reality in which we live. Some politicians use education as a battering ram, and the media perpetuate brain-achingly dull-witted myths about so-called ‘low-value’ or ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees, which some readers duly lap up and with the puffed up confidence and conviction granted by confirmation bias, they regurgitate said myths at family gatherings, down the pub, or out with friends up and down the country, reinforcing said myths ad infinitum. Yet, the bloviators are not alone. To some extent universities, and even language departments can buy into the rhetoric of value, and what therefore is and isn’t worthy. This is perhaps one of the most uncomfortable features of the decline in language learning in the UK; even language advocates can inadvertently, or intentionally buy into the rhetoric in an attempt to shore up languages, without recognizing they are condemning them further down the line. Let me explain.

Much of university marketing, of open-day pitches, hinges not only on what you can study but on what graduates are doing now, where they are working and what they are earning. This, you could argue, marks the value of the course you’ll be paying £9,000+ a year for. Now there is a practical element. If you’re investing or rather if you are getting yourself into debt, you do want to know that you can get yourself out of it in the end, so there is a tightrope to walk here, I recognize that. But let’s think back to that overheard train conversation from eight or so years ago. The two young women’s complaint was ultimately an economic one that was predicated on their inability to speak a language other than English. Without realizing it they were effectively making the case that learning other languages has economic value for the individual, for the industry in which they work, and the economy as a whole. Yet, here we are in 2022 with language learning opportunities cut at schools, and at universities, meaning that even if a student misses an opportunity to learn a language of their choice at school, they’re now more likely to miss out on that opportunity at university whereas previously they could have compensated for the language learning deficit at secondary level. With this in mind, we can reflect on what message universities are really conveying to their current and prospective future students about the degrees they can graduate with when they cut language learning provision. Universities might not recognize this but what they are saying is without languages our degrees offer less value than those of our competitors and will make you less competitive in the global marketplace.

As prospective students weigh up where their degrees may take them, entry grades permitting of course, they look with an ever more critical eye on the longer term. So if a prospective student is considering a course at X university which doesn’t offer language learning opportunities and is also considering a similar course at Y university which does offer language learning opportunities at both degree level and alongside non-language degrees, which university course is the prospective student more likely to opt for? Seen over the longer term, how will that impact other courses – will more and more universities see a decline in student numbers, leading to redundancies and closures – as prospective students opt for the institutions that promote greater future economic prospects for them because they enable them to communicate without being solely reliant on English? Of course, any decision to close a language department and a later decision to close, say a business school because its monolingual students are less appealing in a globalized marketplace than their bi-/multi-lingual counterparts, will be temporally distant from one another and the cause and effect likely unrecognized, yet look closely and that causal link will be there.

Even individual language departments would do well to think about the messages they convey. I know of no language department in the UK that intentionally undermines itself, they all promote languages actively, but it is the subtle messaging that is the potential problem, it is the appropriation of what I’m terming here the rhetoric of misplaced value, which will ultimately be the same rhetoric of misplaced value that will be wheeled out in the rationale for departmental closures. This all sounds very vague, I know, so let me put it into context. In the usual summer activity for the precariously employed I have been looking into getting my next job. I considered one that, on paper, may have looked good. It had the term ‘permanent’ in the job description after all, although as we know, nothing is permanent really. Yet, that wasn’t what caused me concern and made me think whether this would be the kind of place I’d like to work, ultimately deciding against applying even though at that point I had no job to go to. What bothered me so much was the subtle messaging I was picking up about what had value and what seemingly did not.    

Looking at the job description, one of the first aspects I focused on was teaching load and scope. That’s logical – you always have to ask yourself, would I fit, and can I offer the subject-level expertise required? The teaching covered many areas I’d previously taught, but it did not cover literature. In and of itself that is not an issue. I’m a cultural specialist rather than a literature specialist per se, although I enjoyed teaching a variety of literature in the past. It is also important to be clear – as an individual and as a department – about what you do and do not offer. I’ve worked in departments that do not teach Goethe, for example, not because they don’t value his works but because staff expertise lies elsewhere. So far, so good. Yet, as I looked around the website, read student testimonies, the point that made me uneasy was the rationale for choosing to study there, and the specific reason being that they didn’t teach literature as part of the language degree (my paraphrasing here). That brings us back to choice. Yes, it is the individual’s choice about what or what not to study, but there’s a subtle, or not so subtle, value positioning in that particular rationale. To me that suggests literature is deemed less worthy, or rather as not having any value. Of course, one student testimony, written no doubt with enthusiasm and the best of intentions from someone clearly enjoying their particular course, should not be reason alone to judge a potential workplace.

As I looked into the job further and into the university, I looked at what else it promoted which in due course took me to their year abroad options. Here they promoted work placements. Practical, paid experience is good, but, as I learned from numerous conversations, work placements were promoted over and above the other options of study abroad or British Council placements in schools. That narrow focus on what is deemed of value then seemed to be much wider than just the individual student testimony had suggested to me. All of this placing what seem to me to be arbitrary values on subject areas and opportunities ties into that rhetoric of value, or rather the misplaced rhetoric. That in turn is tied to general market trends, and knee-jerk reactionism. What is of value today is worthless tomorrow. Moreover, that’s a strategically dangerous place to put yourself in, because at some point that same misplaced rhetoric will be used to say X department no longer has value but by then even the departments themselves will have long bought into and promoted that very same misplaced rhetoric.

Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way, indeed we need it not to be. Industry has long been decrying the lack of language graduates and its negative economic impact for the UK. This was made clear, once again, in light of Leeds Beckett’s announcement recently, as regional papers picked up the story.5

Business and industry experts recognize the value of speaking multiple languages, and moreover, they invest in it, too. Take David Binns of Sanako UK as an example. I’ve known David for several years now, ever since we got chatting at a conference at Newcastle University. David is a passionate advocate of language learning and how it is economically valuable. As part of being the Director of UK Operations at SANAKO Digital Language Systems, based in Leeds, he regularly gives talks in schools promoting languages (see his profile at the end of this blog post).6 He’s an engaging speaker, and doubtlessly has encouraged students to continue with languages. He also speaks for industry and the economy’s need more widely – we need languages so let’s switch our focus away from the rhetoric of misplaced value. Instead let’s go back to the message at the beginning of this blog post and reiterate as often and as widely as possible that that dropping languages makes no economic sense.


  1. https://www.linkedin.com/in/drpaulfleet/
  2. https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/12453/UCU-condemns-closure-of-modern-languages-at-Leeds-Beckett-University
  3. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0745617/
  4. https://westwing.fandom.com/wiki/Toby_Ziegler
  5. https://www.pressreader.com/uk/yorkshire-post/20220721/282252374261132
  6. : https://www.linkedin.com/in/david-binns-3aa4b434?lipi=urn%3Ali%3Apage%3Ad_flagship3_profile_view_base_contact_details%3BBzIsgtNvRlKD7QLnC8Z2Bg%3D%3D and https://twitter.com/David_Sanako/status/1554371598890696706

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