More students are studying non-European languages – but why?

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At the start of this month, the University Council of Modern Languages (UCML) and The British Academy released their report on language study in higher education, analysing application trends through UCAS to see how language study is evolving in the UK. Whilst the general decline of language learning at university isn’t particularly surprising, the languages which are proving to be most popular suggest change is underfoot for the sector and for student attitudes more widely.

Between 2012 and 2018, university places declined dramatically for European languages, with applications for German, French and Russian falling by approximately 30%. Non-European languages, however, have been experiencing a boom in popularity. Arabic has bucked the trend and maintained its popularity, whilst Chinese rose by 5%, Japanese grew by a huge 71% and students accepted to Korean courses trebled. So what is causing this shift? As a Korean language student myself, I have a few theories. 

Firstly, particularly in the post-2008 (and soon to be post-Covid) world and with more and more people going to university, I think a lot of us are looking for value for money in our degrees. For those of us not so gifted in the areas of science or technology which would traditionally set you up for a career, us humanities and languages students seem to be looking for something to set us apart from the other almost 2.5 million students in the UK. Whether that be specialist modules or niche languages, having something unique on your CV is what is now pushed from secondary school age, and perhaps a degree in French or German feels a little too predictable.

Beyond that, relevancy to the modern world is essential for going out into the workforce and putting our degrees to use. On a very basic level, it makes sense to learn non-European languages, because generally non-European countries who don’t have English as an official language tend to have fewer fluent English speakers.

The English Proficiency Index report published last year ranked South Korea at 32nd and China at 45th in the ‘moderate’ band of the top 100, Japan at 55th in the ‘low’ band, and several Arabic-speaking countries in the ‘low’ or ‘very low’ proficiency band, such as Bahrain at 74th, Egypt at 83rd and Saudi Arabia at 97th. This compares to Portugal and Germany in the ‘very high’ band at 7th and 8th respectively, and France in the ‘high’ proficiency band at 28th. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to learn non-European languages; with fewer natives fluent in English, there is more demand for speakers fluent in both English and non-European languages, whereas in countries with high English proficiency, that demand is already fulfilled by the locals.

I believe the most compelling reason, however, is cultural relevance. In the cases of Japan and Korea, the ‘cool Japan’ trend and ‘hallyu’ have made Japan and Korea much more culturally significant to the Western world, and have introduced young people to the languages and cultures in huge numbers. Japanese art and history prove to be big draws for students, and Korean cinema and the fascination around the North-South divide are major points of interest for those wanting to study South Korea. China, being the second most spoken language in the world, has often been a popular choice for a variety of reasons, and the politics of the Arabic-speaking world seems to be what motivates a good proportion of students to study it.

Students at UK universities are increasingly option for non-European language degrees.

The desire to broaden our horizons and learn about the wider world suggests a correlation with the globalisation we have seen take place over our lifetimes, and the changes in the way we interact with the world. As the internet has allowed us to see the struggles and triumphs of people from all corners of the globe, and sometimes collectively striving for the same things despite very different circumstances, it is inevitable that we want to understand our neighbours near and far in all ways possible. 

These changes prove an interesting challenge for UK universities. Over the next six years or so, the usually packed-out European languages lectures might be a little quieter, particularly as Brexit makes the prospect of living and working in Europe more daunting. And universities will quickly have to find a way to accommodate the waves of students wanting to learn about places further afield, either by expanding capacity in existing courses or creating whole new degree programmes.

SOAS is in an especially good position to face this challenge, already having well-established programmes for non-European languages and being one of only four universities nationwide to offer Korean as a degree. As the world continues to be more connected and non-European perspectives take a more central position in global discourse, the future of non-European languages in UK universities is looking bright.

SOAS offers language degrees and modules in everything from Arabic to Swahili, Yoruba to Japanese, and Mandarin to Korean. Take a look at the undergraduate degree programmes on offer at SOAS. Not looking for a full degree? The SOAS Language Centre also offers short courses in languages such as Hindi, Arabic, Japanese, Tibetan, Persian and Swahili. 

Ella Neve Wilton is a SOAS Junior Digital Ambassador, currently studying BA International Relations and Korean.

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