Foreign Languages (Universities)

Oral Answers to Questions — Innovation, Universities and Skills – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 26th June 2008.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC (Leader of the House of Commons)), Leader of the House of Commons 10:30 am, 26th June 2008

How many students are studying foreign languages at universities in England.

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Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Minister of State (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education), Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

There were 46,100 students studying languages at English higher education institutions in 2006-07, the latest year for which figures are available. Through the national languages strategy, the Government aim to transform England's language capability by creating an appetite for language learning and enriching the opportunities available to learners of all ages.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC (Leader of the House of Commons)), Leader of the House of Commons

The trouble is that not enough people are studying foreign languages at universities today, which means that it will be more difficult for children to learn foreign languages at school because there will be no teachers for them. I know that the Minister is a fine linguist. May I urge him to be a little less laissez-faire and a bit more dirigiste in his approach to modern languages, to encourage more youngsters to study foreign languages, and to encourage people on other university courses to add a foreign language element to them?

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Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Minister of State (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education), Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

As a French graduate, I entirely understand my hon. Friend's arguments. Our national language strategy focuses on important relationships between the world of higher education and the work being done in schools. The single biggest change we can make to promote the take-up of foreign languages is to ensure that, by the end of the decade, every young person in every primary school will have access to a modern foreign language.

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Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Shadow Chief Whip (Commons), Opposition Chief Whip (Commons)

But how many foreign students are studying English in our universities?

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Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Minister of State (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education), Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

A significant number of overseas students are studying at our universities, which is of considerable benefit to those universities. Throughout my discussions with Conservative Front Benchers, I have been led to believe that the Conservative party supports the promotion of such opportunities for overseas students—and they do speak English: there is no reputable evidence to suggest that people embarking on United Kingdom university courses do not have an English language capability and cannot benefit from such study.

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Photo of Gisela Stuart Gisela Stuart Labour, Birmingham, Edgbaston

Will the Minister take another close look at the curriculum in our secondary schools? We need to ensure that foreign language teaching not only helps comprehension and enables students to converse when they go abroad, but equips them with the building blocks and grammatical structures that they can use when they go to university to study foreign languages as an academic subject.

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Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Minister of State (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education), Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

I think it is a question of balance. I think that the development of language-based courses that focus on communication produces exactly the skills that employers and others want and is also more likely to entice young people to take up the study of foreign languages. Nevertheless, we should not ignore the reality that those wishing to study a language in the longer term, at degree level, will need that grammatical base.

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Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

In view of the transformation of language teaching that the Minister has described, will he consider going beyond education to the world of work, and take account of the languages that are more important for the future in a globalised world—Mandarin, Cantonese and Arabic languages? I realise that he may not have the information to hand and may have to write to me, but will he give some idea of the number of British students learning such languages—as opposed to overseas students studying their home tongue—and also the proportionate increase in that number over the past five and 10 years?

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Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Minister of State (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education), Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

I share the assumption behind the hon. Gentleman's question. We need to promote the uptake of a wide range of languages. A welcome development in recent years is the significant increase, albeit from a low base, in the number of students studying Mandarin. The Higher Education Funding Council and the Research Councils are working together on a well-funded initiative to create a world-class cadre of researchers who will enhance this country's understanding of the Arab world, China and Japan, eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. However, although we need to encourage more study of languages, the fact remains that someone who has studied one language is much more likely to study a second.

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