Reading Reacts: A Letter from the President of the Italian Chamber of Deputies

Dr Federico Faloppa, Assistant Professor of Italian at the University of Reading.

Dr Federico Faloppa, Assistant Professor of Italian at the University of Reading.

On  July 7th, Emmanuel Chidi Namdi, a Nigerian refugee living with his wife in the town of Fermo, in central Italy, died of injuries he sustained when a local man, Amedeo Mancini, who had reportedly been racially abusing Namdi’s wife, attacked him. Amedeo Mancini, 39, allegedly referred to the 24-year-old woman as a “monkey”, and attacked Namdi when he attempted to defend her. Namdi – who fled the terrorist group Boko Haram with his wife, suffering the death of his son while crossing Lybia – fell into a coma and was pronounced dead a few hours later. Despite the Italian media’s efforts to de-emphasise Mancini’s extremist opinions, this was a racist attack, and a racist assassination.

"Contro il razzismo" (Einaudi 2016), the anti-racist manifesto that Federico has recently authored together with anthropologist Marco Aime, geneticist Guido Barbujani, and sociologist Clelia Bartoli. The authors will be on tour for a long seires of public talks and presentations next Autumn in Italy.

“Contro il razzismo” (Einaudi 2016), the anti-racist manifesto that Federico has recently co-authored together with anthropologist Marco Aime, geneticist Guido Barbujani, and sociologist Clelia Bartoli. The authors will be on tour for a long seires of public talks and presentations next Autumn in Italy.

The next day, Dr Federico Faloppa, Assistant Professor of Italian in the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading, published an open letter to the President of the Italian Chamber of Deputies (Camera dei Deputati), MP Laura Boldrini, to call for a national campaign against racism and hate speech, drawing on the voluntarily work of scholars, teachers, journalists, activists. For more than fifteen years Dr Faloppa has worked to deconstruct and delegitimise racist discourse, organising anti-racist campaigns and activities in Italy. In a few hours his open letter went viral and become a petition which, thanks to Italian journalists Barbara Bonomi Romagnoli and Daniele Barbieri, collected the signatures of some of the most prominent Italian anti-racism campaigners, eventually reaching President Laura Boldrini’s staff.

A few days later, President Boldrini replied to Dr Faloppa, thanking him and the other supporters for their letter and their offer to contribute to a national campaign coordinated by her and her members of staff. In her reply, President Boldrini also mentioned the recently formed Parliamentary Commission against racism, xenophobia an hate speech that she chairs, and has named after the British MP Jo Cox, murdered by an extremist on  June 16th in Leeds. Expressing her hope that Dr Faloppa’s initiatives can join the activities coordinated by the Commission, President Boldrini expressed interest in future collaborations on these important matters.

At the University of Reading, Dr Faloppa teaches courses on subjects including "Language and Power" and "Intellectuals and Society in Modern Italy"

At the University of Reading, Dr Faloppa teaches courses on subjects including “Language and Power” and “Intellectuals and Society in Modern Italy

Dr Faloppa’s efforts make clear that collaborations between scholars, activists and policy makers is the best option available for a sound, long-term campaign to culturally and politically contrast racism and xenophobia in Italy and beyond.

To find out more about Dr Faloppa’s work and how you can get involved, and to learn about the engagement and outreach of other scholars in the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading, we invite you to check out the Reading Reacts section of our blog, to like us on Facebook, and to subscribe to our Twitter feed.

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Reading Reacts: Mobility and Migration

Dr Federico Faloppa of the University of Reading,  co-editor of the recent "Destination Italy: The representation of migration in Italian cinema, media and literature" (Italian Modernities, 2015)

Dr Federico Faloppa of the University of Reading, co-editor of the recent “Destination Italy: The representation of migration in Italian cinema, media and literature” (Italian Modernities, 2015)

When modern languages are in the news, Reading Reacts. In a regular feature, we’ll invite members of the Reading community to comment on current events, sharing their insights about what is happening in the world beyond the university. With European immigration once again in the news, we’ve asked Dr Federico Faloppa, Assistant Professor of Italian in the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading, to reflect on the ways in which we think and talk about international mobility in contemporary politics. For over twenty years Dr Faloppa has been investigating the representation of migrants in Italian political and media discourse, and the relation between language and power. Here are some of his reflections:

Mobility. Next year, one of the lectures of the module ML3LP “Language and power” will be devoted to the concept of mobility and its related semantic field. More generally, we’ll look at the verbs of movement in order to further investigate the use of these verbs (and concepts) in public discourse, to see who is moving from where (to where), how and why, when we read a newspaper article, watch a talk show, listen to a politician’s speech.

It is going to be relatively easy to introduce this topic. If you think about it, my students will be back from their Erasmus exchange, and will be able to say plenty of things about their own mobility across Europe. I will be back from a trip to East Asia, where borders for an Italian citizen are relatively easy to cross. Everybody will have something to say about her or his own mobility in the last few months: and how cool has it been what we have experienced during the summer.

Recent polls show that immigration is the main concern of Europeans, more than the economy or unemployment.

Recent polls show that immigration is the main concern of Europeans, more than the economy or unemployment.

On the other hand, by analysing public discourse, we might be surprised to see how the same kind of verbs (travelling, flying, driving, wandering, etc.) we use to refer to our experience could not be applicable (or not in the same way) to many other people over the same period of time, i.e. during the same bright summer. We might be surprised to find out how the same verbs have been either implied or – I assume – avoided or omitted when talking about the thousands of people who tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea, the borders of Eastern Greece, the walls of the Spanish enclaves in Morocco, and the Channel. We might be surprised to see how the same words can have different usage, connotations, and occurrences if referring to middle-class European citizens or to Syrian kids, Somali women, Nigerian adolescents. We might be surprised to see how a word like jungle may mean the exotic, fascinating space I have crossed in Cambodia to reach Angor Wat in August, or else to the campsite near Calais (called “the Jungle”) where thousands of people are amassed, waiting for a chance to leave France and to look for a better life in the UK.

If we do some corpus-driven research by using specific software or close discourse analysis of a few texts, for instance by looking at agency, we will find a lot of useful information: I am sure we will. Then, if we had more time, we could also look at some other lexical items to get a further idea about frequency, collocations, and connotations. Items such as swarm, for example: to see if this word has occurred more when referring to insects and animals – as the Oxford English Dictionary says – or to human beings, as David Cameron has argued when he talked of a “swarm of people” trying to reach Britain through the Channel.

Or words such as disruption. We have heard this word so many times, while traveling: when an underground train is delayed, when a train is cancelled, when a road is closed in our neighbourhood for maintenance works. But would we use it when talking about an unprecedented human crisis, as Harriet Harman, the interim Labour leader, has just done in a letter addressed to PM David Cameron, asking for compensation to British holidaymakers and British companies because of the disruption caused by the “migrant crisis”? “Your discussions with the French government – Harman wrote to PM Cameron – should… include a request for compensation backed up by any diplomatic pressure that may become necessary. Compensation should cover all losses.” And, by the way, what about “losses”? Has this word had a higher frequency when talking about the lives of non-European people lost trying to cross the Channel, or when referring to economic losses of British tourists?

I would maybe stop at this point, in that lecture of ML3LP. But – who knows – and I would maybe ask my colleagues teaching Italian, French, German and Spanish to test their students’ pronunciation – in their language classes – on some unusual words like Lampedùsa, Calais, Ceuta and Melilla or Freital: the village close to Dresden where several asylum seekers have become prisoners in the hotel in which they have been housed, while locals outside shout abuse and threaten to burn the building down. At least, other students will have the chance to ask themselves if they know more about what is going on in our fortress Europe: about who is (not) moving where and why.

Of course, it will then be up to them to decide which side they are on, to recall Florence Reeve’s song made famous by Pete Seeger. When I was a 19-year old student – more or less their age – together with a group of friends, I founded in my hometown of Cuneo an anti-racist association, hoping to reflect (and to make other people reflect) on human rights, discrimination, migration, and mobility. Some of my students are already volunteering for NGOs, some others will be travelling around the world and see with their own eyes how lucky they are to own a British passport and to move freely. Some others may simply say “this is none of my business.” My job is not to persuade them to take a particular political position, or to be committed to some humanitarian cause. I would consider myself lucky if I could inform them not only about the beauty of my discipline, linguistics, but also about the dramatic issues out there, and could give them some tools to face complexity and to multiply their points of view. Maybe they will not be able to grant, or will not be interested in granting, other people’s right to mobility. But they should be made aware of what the polysemy of moving may imply to different people, in 2015, in Europe.

Lo strage di Bologna (The Bologna Massacre), 2 August 1980.

Lo strage di Bologna (The Bologna Massacre), 2 August 1980.

PS: Today is the 2nd of August. 35 years ago a bomb went off at the train station in Bologna, killing 86 people. The massacre was attributed to a neo-fascist organisation, but we still do not know who was behind the explosion, and why. We still do not know why those 86 people – who were going back home for their summer holidays – were prevented from “moving” to join their families. I will make sure to mention this to my students who have been – and will go – to Bologna for their Erasmus exchange, when we talk about people’s freedom of movement, about people’s right to live their own lives.

For more news and commentary about modern languages in the news, we invite you to check out the Reading Reacts section of our blog.

For news about the students, staff, and alumni of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading, follow this blog, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to our Twitter feed.

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Reading Reacts: That Handshake

Dr Parvathi Kumaraswami, Associate Professor of Spanish Studies at the University of Reading

Dr Parvathi Kumaraswami, Associate Professor of Spanish Studies at the University of Reading

In April of this year, U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro met together in Panama City, Panama, for the first substantial discussions between the countries’ leaders in more than fifty years.

We’ve asked Dr Parvathi Kumaraswami, Associate Professor of Spanish Studies at the University of Reading and a specialist in Cuban cultural policy and practice, to explain the significance of this historic meeting:

You may have seen that Cuba is in the news once more – this time, because of a handshake full of symbolic meaning.

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raúl Castro

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raúl Castro

Let’s not forget the last time it happened, surprising the world’s press, at the commemoration ceremony for Nelson Mandela in December 2014.

Cuban President Raúl Castro.

Cuban President Raúl Castro.

What’s behind the image? Well, more metaphorical handshakes. Let’s just say that there have been hundreds more between Cuba and the US since Cuba’s current President, Raúl Castro, was elected in 2007. The past few months, in particular, have seen an increased frequency of meetings between leading figures in politics, commerce and culture on both sides of the Florida Straits, with agreements being signed on many fronts, including the reciprocal release of political prisoners and the establishment of a US Embassy, truly and properly, in Havana.

Currently, in lieu of an Embassy, there exists the ‘US Interests Section’ on the Malecón (sea front) in Havana.

The ‘US Interests Section’ in Havana, Cuba

The ‘US Interests Section’ in Havana, Cuba

Once again, rather like the Cuba-US relationship, the symbolism of the building and its immediate environment is complex and inherently symbiotic. When the US government installed an electronic billboard at the top of the building in 2006, transmitting LED messages aimed at encouraging Cubans to question the revolutionary system and choose US-style capitalist democracy, the Cuban government countered immediately by installing the Tribuna Abierta, a public space for mass rallies and concerts and, crucially, including 138 black flags which symbolised each of the Cubans killed since the end of Spanish colonialism through acts of US-sponsored violence.

The Tribuna Abierta

The Tribuna Abierta

The flags also served the purpose of acting as a cover, or curtain, for the LED display, or at least sending the message to Havana residents that any public pronouncements about democracy emitted by the US government should always be read through a filter which remembers recent history, and remembers it as violence, both real and symbolic. A few hundred yards from the US Interests Section stands a famous statue of the nineteenth-century Cuban patriot, philosopher and statesman, José Martí, acknowledged by Fidel Castro in 1956 as being the intellectual author of the blueprint for the revolutionary project: Martí holds a child in his arms and points across the 90 miles that separate Cuba and the US – whether accusingly or simply reminding the Cuban people of the inescapable presence of their powerful neighbour.

Statue of José Martí

Statue of José Martí

Most Cubans resident on the island, whatever their political beliefs, are aware of the impact of US policy on Cuba, not least because of the consequences of that policy: most significantly, the US embargo (the longest economic embargo in world history) which has marked Cuba’s development in infinite and indefinable ways, the Cuban Law of Adjustment which offers Cuban emigrants preferential legal and labour conditions not available to any other immigrant group in the US, and, of course, the continued presence of the US naval base at Guantanámo, now notorious for Camp X-Ray. And Fidel, through his Reflexiones published from retirement, continues to sound a voice of caution, suspicion and political defiance amidst the handshakes. A defiance that is summed up by the provocative billboard near (although not directly in front) of the US Interests Section that claims: ‘Dear imperialists, we are not the slightest bit afraid of you’!

A provocative billboard.

A provocative billboard.

Since Raúl Castro was elected to power, however, those moments of Cuban defiance have become less common. Not only because Raúl could never hope to share the single-minded passion and charisma (both loved and hated by Cubans) of his older brother Fidel, but also because his government’s approach is based less on discursive flourish, big ideas and grand gestures than on gradual and logical improvements in policies affecting Cubans on both micro and macro levels. In sum, Raúl’s approach to the process of Revolution is measured, developed through dialogue and collaboration, and inherently practical.

But in the handshake – and in Raúl’s speech – at the Panama Summit, we can still see the defiant insistence on national sovereignty and self-determination which has been the hallmark of the Cuban Revolution since 1959. Indeed, the speech is a masterclass in political discourse. It asserts Cuba’s right to have an equal voice in international organisations: Raúl jokes that had Cuba not been excluded by the US and its allies from 6 previous summits, he would have been allocated 48 minutes – instead of the 8 minutes awarded to each leader – and has decided to take his full allocation. It represents a clear gesture of rapprochement: Raúl on several occasions ‘forgives’ Obama for continuing US policy towards Cuba; but he also exonerates Obama by dint of having been too young – or not even born – when much of this policy was first designed and implemented. However, just like the Tribuna Abierta with its filter of flags, the speech also obliges the largely exonerated Obama to listen to a detailed and methodical lesson in the history of US actions towards Cuba since the end of Spanish colonialism in 1898, and obliges us as readers – wherever we are in the world – to learn for the first time, or to be reminded of, that history. In so doing, and despite the eagerness of US businesses and politicians (including the powerful anti-Castro Cuban-American lobby) for political change, and the impatience of Cubans hoping for further economic improvements, the speech is an important reminder that Cuba will proceed with caution in its dealings with the US. Whilst his elder brother revelled in inflammatory rhetoric, Raúl’s slogan, ‘Sin prisa pero sin pausa’ (‘slowly but ceaselessly’) is no less meaningful for the continued survival of the Cuban Revolution and for the preservation of such important ideals as free access to education and healthcare.

For more news and commentary about modern languages in the news, we invite you to check out the Reading Reacts section of our blog.

For news about the students, staff, and alumni of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading, follow this blog, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to our Twitter feed.

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Reading Reacts: Tragedy in the Mediterranean

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Dr. Federico Faloppa, Assistant Professor of Italian in the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading

More than 900 migrants were killed off the coast of Libya late Saturday night and early Sunday morning, 18-19 April. This brings the death toll in the Mediterranean in 2015 to over 1,500 victims. In the wake of this tragedy, we’ve asked Dr Federico Faloppa, Assistant Professor of Italian in the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading, to share his thoughts. For over twenty years Dr Faloppa has been investigating the representation of migrants in Italian political and media discourse, and the relation between language and power. He has recently coedited the collection Destination Italy: The representation of migration in Italian cinema, media and literature (2015), and continues to lecture on issues of migration throughout Europe. Here are Dr Faloppa’s reflections on this ongoing catastrophe:

Which side are we on?

“It’s not our fault if we were born on the wrong side of the world. You do not have the merit for being born on the right side of the world” (Awas Ahmed, Somali refugee).

cislscuola_immagini-articoli_2012_20496_naufragioYesterday almost 950 people died in the Mediterranean Sea, trying to reach the Italian coast and to migrate to Europe. This is not a tragedy due to misfortune. It is a real massacre: this is only the latest episode of a genocide, one that has gone on for several years in that Sea, and one that we – both Italian and European citizens – knew how to avoid.

This new massacre has provoked a strong reaction throughout Europe, as many people think that this carnage must be stopped, that this is a time actively to start saving lives, instead of passively accepting their death with indifference.

Since 1997 I have taken part in many public debates and discussions, in Italy and throughout Europe, on the linguistic representation of otherness and migrants. My aim has always been to raise awareness on how migrants and ethnic minorities have been portrayed in Italian and other European languages, by the media, within our societies. And as a researcher I have written several publications (among which 4 monographs in 15 years) on this topic. My work has gained national and international esteem, and I have been often invited to public events and talks, radio and TV shows, roundtables and workshops. Four years ago, when I published my monograph Razzisti a parole (“Racists by words”), I toured universities, schools, communities, and for this public engagement I was included in a couple of black-lists by Fascist and Neo-nazi movements. But instead of withdrawing, I keep being more and more engaged, publicly.

Up-to-700-feared-dead-after-migrant-boat-sinks-off-LibyaYesterday, I was asked to join an Italian campaign called “Basta Naufragi” (“No more shipwrecks”), and of course said yes. When I join these kinds of campaigns – and I have done so many times, ever since I was 19, when I co-founded an anti-racist association in my home town Cuneo – I do it as an individual. As a citizen, first of all. And then as student, a scholar, an intellectual. But yesterday, when I said yes, I imagined to join the campaign first as a member of Reading’s Department of Modern Languages and European Studies: “my” department. I did not say yes as an individual. I said yes as a member of an intellectual community: my community.

I had this strong feeling for two main reasons. First, I think that is part of our duty, as teachers and intellectuals, to take a stand: to make our voice heard inside and outside the university on up-to-700-feared-dead-soon-after-migrant-boat-sinks-off-libya_m13matters like this. As teachers we try to pose questions to our students every time we get into a classroom: questions about the world, its representation, and the need to challenge received wisdom. As scholars, we try to have an impact not only on our own “closed” community, but also on our society, to repay what our society invests in us. As a teaching and research unit in Reading’s Department of Modern Languages and European Studies we are – by definition – one of the main cultural bridges between our institution (the University of Reading) and the complex world out there.

We are not just entitled, then, to have an opinion, but we should actively participate in social and political debates. Second, as a member of our distinguished Department of Modern Languages and European Studies, I am fully aware of the fact that this commitment, this role is a core issue for us at Reading. At MLES we teach our students how our European cultures have been always multilingual and multicultural. What the connections between Dante and Islam are. What foreign words we have taken from Asia, Africa, the Americas. What influence our literature(s) have had worldwide (and how the richness of the world has been distilled by our authors across centuries). How postcolonial approaches and studies could be fruitful to better understand the relations between the colonizers and the colonized. What Europe is and should be. Why migration is such a relevant phenomenon in our countries. How identities are shaped within the contexts of naufragio-lampedusa-3-ottobre-anniversario-600x300language and power. What being an intellectual should mean, and why critical thinking can change the representation of the world, if not the world itself. We do all this at MLES, and we are proud of it. For us, the word “overseas” means the countries with which we engage for pedagogical and cultural exchanges: places and persons from which we can learn on an everyday basis. We say to ourselves, and to our students, that Modern Languages are the passport to the world. But we are much more than that: we are one of the (metaphorical) gates to diversity, multiplicity, mutual understanding.

This is why, when I said yes to that campaign, I was not alone: I had an entire community standing behind me, backing me up, sharing my awareness, concern, commitment. And this feeling of giving voice to my Department through that signature meant that our voice will be heard: and it’s a collective voice of students, teachers, researchers, who are still dreaming of a fairer world. I do not know if this can really change something, challenge our leaders’ indifference and cynicism, or save some lives from that bloody Sea. But at least we can proudly say which side are we on. And we will not regret it.

Reading Reacts: Ab initio language degrees

min-c-legluWhen modern languages are in the news, Reading Reacts. In a regular feature, we’ll invite members of the Reading community to comment on current events, sharing their insights about what is happening in the world beyond the university. This week, we’ve asked Professor Catherine Leglu to respond to an article in the Sunday Times of 27 July 2014, ‘GCSE enough to take degree in languages’. Here are Professor Leglu’s reflections on the important subject of who can and should study languages at university.

We are delighted that the University of Reading was approached to give its views about the well-publicised fall in applications to post-A Level degree courses in Modern Languages in the UK. However, a number of substantive points were made in this article that do not correlate with the situation here in Reading, or indeed, we believe, in the rest of the HE institutions that offer ab initio languages to degree level. An ab initio language degree involves learning the language from scratch, at beginners’ level, but going on to complete the degree at the same level of knowledge and fluency as students who might have a GCSE or A-Level in that language when they began their degree programme.

First and most important is the fact that introducing ab initio degree programmes is not new. Many languages are taught from beginners’ level in many UK universities. Arabic, Russian and Chinese are normally acquired without a requisite prior qualification in the language, and these graduates remember spending their first term learning a new script. It is equally normal to study Latin and Ancient Greek from scratch after the age of 18, or in the case of postgraduate students, from any age beyond 21. What is new is the expansion of degree programmes in the major European languages (Spanish, German, French) to include ab initio degree programmes.

Many undergraduates in these languages have learned others from scratch during their studies, such as Portuguese, Catalan or Dutch. Reading has long had an ab initio degree in Italian, because Italian is very rarely taught in state sector secondary schools, as indeed is Russian. Also, there is nothing inherently strange about acquiring a new language at university, as many undergraduates enrich their studies by learning a language as a minor part of their BA degree. It is therefore difficult to accept that there could be a risk in taking a language without having an A level in it.

Our departmental language co-ordinator, Enza Siciliano Verruccio, was approached by the authors of the Sunday Times article, but the Enza Siciliano Verruccioinformation she gave did not appear in the published version. She carried out a survey of ab initio language teaching in UK universitiesin 2010-11, and it is available online. Its main conclusions for 2010-11, in England alone, are that ALL 46 languages available to study at degree level were offered ab initio (this is based on the 53 languages departments that then existed). 86% of the institutions that offered Spanish, offered it ab initio; of all the institutions that offered German, 55% of them did so at ab initio level; whereas French was offered ab initio only in 36% of all the Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) that offered it.

An ‘upsurge in ab initio [teaching] offer’ was already documented in 2003, before the major changes to the National Curriculum took effect (M. Kelly and D. Jones, A New Landscape for Languages, London, Nuffield Foundation (2003: 24)). Analysing the data regarding the entry requirements for the top nine languages taught ab initio at degree level in HEIs in England – that is, Spanish, Italian, German, Mandarin, French, Russian, Arabic, Japanese, and Portuguese – it emerges that:

“An A level in another foreign language remains the most sought after qualification, followed more or less closely by a GCSE in another language. For the majority of the ab initio languages above, around a quarter of the institutions that offer them have degree programmes open to students who have never studied a foreign language before entering university. For Spanish this figure rises to almost a third of the institutions where it is offered ab initio, and it is close to half of the institutions for Chinese and Japanese.”

In conclusion, ab initio language degree programmes are not at all new, and not at all limited. And as for the entry requirements, offering a language degree to students who may have never have studied languages before is not such an isolated ‘deviation’.

One of the most intriguing claims made in this article is that universities are reduced to accepting students who happen to speak a given foreign language at home. Heritage and a love of a culture are well-established as a pathway into language study. In fact, Reading’s French degree programme has a first-year ‘intermediate language’ course that caters specifically for, respectively, students with GCSE French, and students who have grown up speaking French at home but have no advanced formal teaching provided by their secondary school.

We know that the market is there. It is not an admission of defeat, far from it, to make sure that we can respond to that market.

What is the market context in 2014, exactly? The recent weak provision of languages beyond the age of 14 in English secondary Reading German and Frenchschools, largely the product of changes to the National Curriculum, should not be a barrier to students feeling able to rekindle their interest in a language and culture once they start the UCAS application process. One of us spent a happy hour at a recent open day with two enthusiastic applicants who had no formal training in French, but an immense interest in learning it. There is a real thirst for language acquisition and too many schools cannot provide for it for the moment. Universities can, and in fact have long done so. The fact that fewer students are taking A Levels in MFL means that universities need to respond in an imaginative and creative way to the profile of our future undergraduates. The most obvious approach is to open more of our courses to students with GCSEs in a language.

A GCSE in a language, any language, is the equivalent of that C or above in GCSE Maths. It is valuable, technical training, and it demonstrates the ability to learn and to exploit complex codes in writing, speech and gesture (yes, gesture, as well as facial expression and posture). It is a very solid foundation for a degree programme as long as the first year at university is appropriately designed to bring the student up to post-A Level standard – This is feasible. One of us took Spanish GCSE and A Level over two years.

There has been talk for the past six years of a ‘lost generation’ of language graduates in the UK. Employers are keen to recruit graduates who possess the skills to acquire linguistic and cultural knowledge quickly, to respond with sensitivity and knowledge in a culture that is not their own, and to meet the rest of the world with minds that are both open and informed. Furthermore, in this globalized world of business, many professional adults are expected to learn languages quickly when they are sent overseas on placements. Inter-cultural experience boils down to having both linguistic and cultural knowledge; graduates in Modern Languages have that as one of their key skills, and it seems essential to extend the opportunity to post-GCSE applicants.

A final thought: if an A Level in the subject is an essential qualification for a degree programme, then departments of Archaeology, Cybernetics and Anthropology would have to close down. More MLES Studentsseriously, there is nothing inherently magical about learning a new language; if there were, then computer coding would be beyond most of us, yet we are told that all children should learn it. The myths circulating concerning language acquisition are often based on limited empirical evidence, such as the impossibility of learning a language if one is dyslexic (we have known dyslexic students achieve 2.1 degrees in ab initio Russian), or the impossibility of learning more than one language at high level (many countries in the world have bilingual and  trilingual communities). Ab initio degree programmes in languages are long-established and offer a creative solution to the current problem in recruiting students to Languages degrees, a problem that is not of the universities’ own making.

If you would like to learn more about studying languages at the University of Reading, including studying a language you may not have studied in school, we invite you to visit our website. For up-to-date information about the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies, we also encourage you to follow our blog. And watch this space for reflections from some of our students, past and present, who have pursued ab initio degrees.

Reading Reacts: The Manifesto for Languages

When modern languages are in the news, Reading Reacts. In a regular feature, we’ll invite members of the Reading community to comment DLP_photoon news and current events, sharing their insights about what is happening in the world beyond the university. To inaugurate the Reading Reacts series, we’ve invited Dr Daniela La Penna, an Associate Professor of Italian Studies and UCML National Representative, to comment on the challenges facing modern languages in the UK.

On the 14 July 2014, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages (APPG), led by Baroness Coussins, issued a Manifesto for Languages, making the case for improving the linguistic skills base of the UK. In the last few days, this manifesto has attracted the support of hundreds of individuals, several leading businesses, and educational organisations including the Association for Language Learning, Speak to the Future, UCML, the British Academy and the British Council.

The APPG is calling for all political parties to support a new Framework for National Recovery in Language Learning in their 2015 General Election manifestos, which commits them to:

  • Providing high quality language learning for all children throughout the UK from age 7 onwards,
  • Aiming for every child to have a language qualification by the end of secondary school,
  • Maintaining and developing UK expertise at Higher Education level.

The reasons why the UK has accrued such language disadvantage are complex and diverse, but a steep decline was noticed after the Labour MLES Students 4government’s decision to make languages optional after 14, a change that was introduced in September 2004. The numbers speak for themselves. In 2011, there were 154,000 entries for GCSE French, just over half the number there were in 2004, when 300,000 sat the examinations. The impact of that Government decision is still felt today despite the work done by Routes into Languages and the slight increase in GCSE students taking languages as they exam options with the introduction of the EBacc.

It is not surprising that both businesses and educational institutions at all levels are backing the APPG initiative. A 2007 report has shown that failure in language skills affects the UK disproportionately: allowing for other factors, the UK is more likely than other countries to gravitate towards trading partners which speak English. The CBI regularly commissions reports on the value of language skills in business and on the availability of those amongst the UK workforce (you can read the latest report here). The British Chamber of Commerce has also sponsored reports surveying the ways in which lack of MFL skills affect exports. Of particular note is the Foreign Office’s expression of alarm at the low numbers of Britons who apply to EU positions, where the knowledge of two or three languages is a pre-requisite.

For those of us who are engaged in research and work in academia, it is equally concerning that the lack of emphasis on foreign language learning is affecting the quality of research being carried out in UK LanguagesUniversities. To this end, and in response to the 2009 report Language Matters, in 2011 the British Academy launched a four-year programme to deepen awareness and demonstrate the importance of languages in the humanities and social sciences. A number of reports were published aimed at highlighting the state of nation and at formulating practical solutions to foster a research culture which demonstrates not only awareness of and engagement with language diversity but that is able to entertain a meaningful dialogue with researchers working across the globe and in different language zones.

The launch has coincided with the publication of an open letter addressed by University Council of Modern Languages (UCML) to a wide group of HE providers such as the Russell Group Universities, and other HE organizations such as the UUK, UCAS, HEFCE. In this letter, the chair of UCML Jocelyn Wyburd asks Universities to act now to counter the trend of low recruitment in Languages:

“Universities have it in their power to signal that the current educational profile of their students is not a good enough base from which to equip them to be global graduates and to take up outward mobility options, unless language skills are included.”

What does UCML ask Universities to do? The answer is simple and yet, if implemented, it could reverse the negative trend of foreign language literacy across the country and foster a much-needed transition from a sketchy literacy to consolidated and sustainable competence:

“We believe that a language GCSE should rank alongside English and Maths as key academic subjects as the foundation for all future study and employment and indeed that these should be accompanied by at least one science and one humanities subject, regardless of future career and study choices. We are calling on you to use your influence to help us to achieve this fundamental change in university admissions policies as soon as possible.”

In essence, both the UCML open letter and the APPG manifesto ask the main stakeholders in the Higher Education sector and the policy-Reading Studentsmakers alike to acknowledge their responsibility and to become engaged game-changers. To put it simply, this means realising the strategic advantage afforded by Britain’s multicultural make-up and transforming it into a cultural and economic resource for the nation. For too long the export of Global English has obscured the fact that Britain is in fact a multilingual nation.

There is no dearth of studies demonstrating why graduate mobility and foreign language acquisition turns Global Graduates into Global leaders. And yet, the UK is lagging behind Germany, France, and Italy in the number of students taking advantage of the great, life-changing opportunity of study abroad.

In October 2009, HEFCE published the Review of Modern Foreign Languages provision in higher education in England, by Professor Michael Worton, at the time Vice-Provost of University College London. The review drew on a range of data to make recommendations that aimed to assure the long-term sustainability and vitality of modern foreign languages (MFL) provision in HE. The first set of recommendations encourages University Modern Languages Departments amongst other bodies to “work together to promote a clear and compelling identity for Modern Foreign Languages as a humanities discipline”.

In the wake of campaigns such as Speak to the Future, the APPG Manifesto and the UCML letter, one can feel that the level of engagement is high and shared across the nation with a sense of urgency and commitment. But more must be done.

At Reading, we are doing sterling work in promoting the value of languages both in the classroom and beyond with targeted outreach activities. Increasingly, we ask our own Reading students to act as the Julia Watersmost vocal ambassadors in demonstrating the value of language study. Our Vice-Chancellor is the Chair of the HEFCE steering group of Routes into Languages and I hope he will be sensitive to the APPG and UCML campaign. We look forward to collaborating with Routes and other agencies in strengthening our presence in the region and beyond. With representatives of both Opposition and Government acknowledging that curriculum reform is the only way forward to redress the negative trend of language learning and skills availability in the UK, it is time for the Universities to pressure for such reform to take place now. It is time for the Universities to lead reform, to rise to the occasion, and show the world of politics that their lofty mission statements mean business, and to say so in as many languages as possible.