Rebranding MFL

Paul Bishop argues that commercialising and re-visioning university languages is both essential and unavoidable

One of BBC Radio 4’s most successful programmes is The Long View, a history series in which stories from the past are told in a way that sheds light on current events. Using this principle, let’s consider a figure who, in 1869, was offered the best job in (ancient) languages going at the time; whose teaching duties included lectures at university and grammar school; who got excellent student feedback; and who, in a notable act of public engagement, presented a series of lectures at a local museum on the future of educational institutions. For this figure, the crucial question was this: how does Bildung (the neo-humanist ideal of self-development) relate to scholarship (Wissenschaft) and research (Forschung)? Or, to put it another way, what was the point of learning (ancient) languages?

The figure in question is, of course, Friedrich Nietzsche. The historical context in which Nietzsche was operating was one of immense change in higher education (HE) in Germany. Between 1841 and 1881, enrolment in philology (ancient languages), philosophy and history declined from 86% of all university courses to 63%. In the same period, enrolment in mathematics and the natural sciences (what we now call STEM subjects) increased from 14% to 37%. The picture was similar within Nietzsche’s homeland of Prussia.1

Fast forward a century and a half, and one comes across headlines such as ‘The War Against Humanities at Britain’s Universities’.2 In this piece, Alex Preston argues that “higher education is stuffed with overpaid administrators squeezing every ounce of efficiency out of lecturers and focusing on the ‘profitable’ areas of science, technology, engineering and maths,” and poses the dramatic question: “Are the humanities at risk of being wiped out?”

Languages, in particular, are under fire. At the time of writing, modern languages and philosophy at the University of Hull are facing possible closure. More generally, languages have been getting a bad press. In The Sunday Telegraph, Daniel Hannan argued that by rejecting modern languages “young people are making a perfectly rational choice”.3 And Simon Jenkins, writing in The Guardian, agreed: “[Pupils] take subjects they find relevant to their future lives. European languages are not that.”4 Yet his point was rather more nuanced: “Germany is Europe’s most important country of our day. Teach its history, revel in its culture, analyse the strength of its economy. Visit its cities and countryside – and see how much better they are planned and protected than ours. In comparison, learning Germany’s language is not that important.” In other words, there’s more to German than learning der, die, das.

My point is that modern languages, as a brand, is in trouble. No business could expect to survive headlines like that. While universities are, indeed, run as businesses, the academics within them are still sometimes reluctant to accept this and to work within this new framework.

The ‘market value’ of languages

The ‘market value’ of languages is something which should concern us greatly as professional linguists. Figures released in 2017 by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that “language graduates are now the least employable in Britain,”5 with the employment rate falling from 87% in 2013 to 84%. The average annual salary for language graduates had fallen by more than £5,000 in four years, from £30,420 in 2013 to £25,012. The question of how much linguists earn matters not just to the graduates themselves but also for recruitment to the subject. 

The picture can sometimes seem confusing, it’s true. Data published in 2018 by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed language graduates from England in the top 10 for average earnings five years after graduation: £32,303 for men and £28,733 for women. That gender gap deserves discussion too, of course. Interestingly, the gap is much smaller for graduates from top-earning subjects: £44,923 for male and £42,315 for female medicine graduates.

The picture is similar in Scotland according to Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data.6 For language graduates at the University of Glasgow, which ranks well in comparison with other Scottish institutions, the median salary is £15,300 one year after graduation and £23,000 after five years. While the LEO data might not be the most accurate, it confirms the picture gained from the ONS figures that medics are the most employable graduates (95%), followed by engineers (92%).

It is important to note that the ONS and LEO use average and median figures respectively, meaning that while some language graduates will be earning more than the stated amount, others will be earning less. One might speculate that if someone decides to work part-time translating for £10,000 a year, possibly while furthering their studies, they might be perfectly content; then again, they might not be.

Rising to the challenges

Within the context of HE becoming more commercialised, where does this leave modern foreign languages (MFL)? As a professional linguist who is passionate about the subject, I believe MFL can rise to these challenges – not least in a post-Brexit economic environment. More than 20 years’ experience within the field has enabled me to gain something of a long view – if not quite as long a view as the one envisaged by the Radio 4 programme of that name. However, I am the first to admit that I might be wrong, so my views are intended as a Denkanstoß: a stimulus to further discussion and debate. 

Practitioners of MFL at HE institutions have been slow to grasp that education, nowadays, is a business. Participating in a recent quality review at a major university in the UK, I met with senior management staff and the position could not have been made plainer: whether MFL is seen as strategically significant or not, decisions about whether languages should be stopped, and how they should be shaped, are entirely market-driven. Far from being unusual, this is true across the entire UK HE sector.

This fact has implications for how we offer MFL to potential students – or, seen in this light, ‘customers’. Nowadays they are, indeed, paying customers: paying fees in England, and paying no less in terms of time in Scotland (five years for an MFL degree). So lecturers and tutors now have to respond to student needs and demands (and is this such a bad thing?). For many years, tutors of German have relied on Martin Durrell’s revision of Hammer’s German Grammar, but not all students appreciate a grammar-based approach (hence the moniker ‘grammar Nazi’, applied to anyone invested in more traditional approaches to MFL acquisition).

Student (or customer) feedback can be highly revealing about the expectations of MFL learners in HE institutions today. In a recent survey with my first-year students of German, they asked the instructor to stop “giving ‘useless’ information that can’t be used for the exam”; “avoid bringing in other languages in case students have no knowledge of them”; and stop “giving us difficult german [sic] texts to read, for example, Nietzsche”. (As an aside, the depth of response a text by Nietzsche can provoke is surprising – sometimes overwhelmingly positive, sometimes blisteringly negative.)

A new approach: the three ‘c’s

So maybe the traditional ‘lang & lit’ approach to MFL is no longer the most appropriate one, even if it is the approach with which most practitioners at HE level are familiar (especially older ones). Perhaps it is time to consider a different approach to MFL, one that recognises the economic realities of the HE sector and the economic needs of graduates when they enter the workforce. In short, I propose that MFL articulates clearly the three ‘c’s: commerce, culture and content.

First, languages are about commerce, that is to say, about exchange in the widest possible sense. To use language, there needs to be a point or purpose to using it. Getting our students interested in how languages give access to areas that would otherwise be inaccessible to them is key. Languages can help students with their other subjects, too, especially regarding the economic and political complexities in which they are growing up. Part of that knowledge involves  an understanding of how the economy works – or doesn’t work – in other countries and cultures (including how it works or doesn’t work in our own, especially post-Brexit).

Second, we cannot teach language without also teaching culture. In order to teach someone how to construct a grammatically correct sentence, we have to teach them how to construct a culturally correct sentence. (For instance, when does one use the formal or informal terms of address; not easy even for mother-tongue speakers to negotiate.) Any vital, living use of a language requires consideration of the complex social codes that govern its use; in fact, in some respects mastering these social codes is even more important than mastering the language.

Finally, it is important to consider content. If we lose sight of what makes languages interesting – of the fact that they give us access to insights and experiences otherwise unavailable to us – then the game really is over. Having a discussion about what kinds of subjects (including science and engineering) are taught through the medium of languages would be a way not just to arrest the decline, but to reverse it and revitalise the discipline.

A mixed reception

When presenting this case as part of a workshop on ‘Languages in Action’ at the 2018 Plenary Meeting of the UCML (University Council of Modern Languages), I was intrigued by the responses – some negative, some positive. For some colleagues, acknowledging that HE runs on business principles was an act of betrayal, even of ‘collaboration’. Now one might disagree with introducing business principles into education, but that doesn’t help colleagues whose departments have been shrunk, closed down or are facing closure.

For others, the elitism that has shaped MFL in the past seems hard to shake off. When pointing out that, however much one admires Proust (as I do), one cannot teach À la recherche du temps perdu to an empty room with no students, one colleague responded: “Why not?” But for others in HE languages, the world has moved on, and the kinds of curriculum changes introduced into MFL departments in such universities as Cardiff and Southampton show how, even (or especially) in the face of adversity, a new vision for MFL can be achieved.

A recent report on language provision in UK MFL departments strikes a notably confident tone. The authors suggest that “in an increasingly multilingual landscape, the survey responses present us with an invitation to reconceptualise our discipline, possibly under a unitary ‘languages’ label, dropping ‘modern’ and ‘foreign’ from its title to strengthen an agenda of inclusion and diversity, integrating all languages, ancient and modern, foreign and local, for those with and without disabilities, as well as a single voice for MFL and IWLP [Institution Wide Language Programmes]”.

To me, this proposal makes good sense: the word ‘foreign’ is exclusive almost to the point of stigmatising, and the one thing that can be said about the word ‘modern’ is that it isn’t modern. Might we, as linguists, go even further and rebrand MFL as global communication? Thus re-visioned and rebranded, MFL would be able to show that, within the world of financial constraint and commercial opportunity, modern languages really do mean business.


This article is based on a presentation given at the UCML Summer Plenary held in Europe House, London on 28 June 2018.



1 Reitter, P and Wellmon, C (2015) ‘How the Philologist Became a Physician of Modernity: Nietzsche’s lectures on German education’. In Representations, 131, 68-104
2 Preston, A (2015) ‘The War Against the Humanities in Britain’s Universities’. In The Observer, 29/3/15
3 Hannan, D (2017) ‘Linguists are Following the Centre of Gravity’. In The Sunday Telegraph, 6/8/17
4 Jenkins, S (2017) ‘Ignore the Panic. There’s little point learning languages at school’. In The Guardian, 25/8/17
5 Rudgard, O (2017) ‘Languages Graduates are Now the Least Employable in Britain, New Figures Show’. In The Daily Telegraph, 24/11/17
6 Department for Education (2017) ‘Employment and Earnings Outcomes of Higher Education Graduates by Subject and Institution: Experimental statistics using the Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data’


Professor Paul Bishop FCIL is William Jacks Chair of Modern Languages at the University of Glasgow, where he teaches German. He is interested in strategically reframing languages as a means of global communication.