The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

The allure of languages

In a world where graduate opportunities are limited, it seems little wonder that people seek out language degrees


As a former languages student, it doesn’t seem particularly shocking to me that this is one the most common areas of course change in the University.

Picture the scene, a green eyed first year, presented with the possibility of learning so many languages, from so many distant lands, more choices than most students have ever had before in their short academic careers.

 At Manchester, we have a really wide selection of courses to choose from, and within the various language departments of the University many cultures and countries are represented.  It doesn’t seem wildly incomprehensible that people find it pretty hard to decide, when such a plethora of options are presented before them.

 The great thing about language degrees is that you get not only the skills found in most humanities degrees, but you get the added employability of competence in foreign languages, which are incredibly desirable to employers given that successive governments of our nation have entirely neglected languages in the curriculum. It is hardly news that we are one of the worst nations in Europe, indeed perhaps the world, when it comes to language learning – and most of our neighbours put us to shame.


In an era when humanities at university level are no longer getting any funding from the government, many feel that ‘just a Humanities degree’ is no longer a sensible option, particularly when students are having to spend, or at least put themselves into debt, £9000 just for tuition per annum. Aside from how distressing the trend of not valuing the Humanities is, it could certainly potentially lead people who are not natural linguists into studying languages, as to many it could seem the most attractive option within the humanities – apart from vocational degrees such as law and education. Not only has the funding been cut altogether, but the wider culture of Humanities being seen as lesser in comparison to Sciences has had a negative effect. With a language degree, people feel they can at least get employment without having to study science subjects.

 When you start learning a language, particularly if it is your first time learning one more properly than year nine ‘Bonjour! C’est bien merci!’ level French, it can certainly be a shock to the system. Having to break language down to its most basic principles of construction, rote learning vocabulary, studying grammar textbook after grammar textbook can not only be dry but also, excuse the pun, entirely foreign to the average British undergraduate. In most British schools, grammar is not taught as thoroughly as it is elsewhere in the world – whilst you might know your ‘their’ from your ‘they’re’ you probably shan’t be able to recognise present progressive verbs, for example. When language teachers not only have to explain the grammar of the foreign target language, but also the concept of conjugations in the mother tongue this leads to a problem. For most beginner level languages, which can be taken as core parts of your degree at the University, whilst it is advised as preferable to have studied a language previously, it is not deemed essential.

 When it comes to the more ‘exotic’ languages such as those within the Middle Eastern Studies department (Arabic, Persian, Hebrew and Turkish), Chinese and Japanese offered at the University there are more problems than those within just the European languages. It is markedly easier to learn a language when it is from the same language group as your own or another you are familiar with, as it relies on similar structures in its construction and similar grammar patterns. Not only are there different alphabets to be learned when you go further afield (which one of the simpler hurdles to overcome, generally speaking) but the very way in which the languages are made is different. These sorts of differences are perhaps not made plain enough to people, or perhaps the lure of added employability makes people forget just how tricky they can be. When you are a student who is interested in business and you hear of the benefits available to Mandarin speakers, you may try and do a degree in the two areas – without perhaps having the necessary skills to fully and successfully grapple with what is one of the hardest languages to learn.

 Language degrees should not be something that people enter into on a whim, as they require a great deal of particular skills that are not common within the average British undergraduate student – but the blame for that reality does not lie at the feet of students.