Josh Brown: Remove barriers and languages will flourish

In Australia, new degree structures and improved accessibility in higher education have had a favourable impact on the number of students turning to language studies. Josh Brown highlights a positive trend in this guest contribution for Humtank.      

Discussion about how to monitor and increase participation in languages study is gaining relevance in the UK, the US and Australia across various sectors, and particularly in higher education. In recent times, levels of enrolment in modern languages at universities around the world have been described in terms of ‘crisis’ or even ‘permanent crisis’.

In Australia, the new degree structures implemented by the University of Melbourne in 2008 and the University of Western Australia in 2012 have gone against this trend. The reforms taken by these two universities have led to unprecedented levels of enrolment in languages, and are the focus of current research being undertaken by Marinella Caruso at UWA and me. The question of how to increase access to language study was explored in our article published in the journal Language Learning in Higher Education last year.

Previous attempts to open up language study to new students have had some success in Australia. These initiatives include combining language study with another study area, introducing a ‘Diploma of Languages’, offering a language bonus for final-year highschool students to their university score, and the introduction of a specific Bachelor of Languages at certain universities around the country.

Although the new structures at the University of Melbourne and at UWA have been the most successful in opening up access to languages, structural restrictions continue to limit access to language study.

According to the Mapping the Humanities report released in 2014 by the Australian Academy of the Humanities, “the biggest increases in language enrolments in individual universities have occurred where many of these restrictions have been tempered or removed”.

Making degree structures more flexible has led to new cohorts of students accessing language study for the first time. The introduction of ‘breadth subjects’ or ‘broadening’ units’ in degrees has seen students selecting languages for these subjects – and recent research shows that they are doing so in massive numbers.

Identifying who these new students are, which subjects they are taking and how much progress they make with language learning is part of our ongoing work. So far, the key finding from this research has been that the study of a language at university is directly related to issues of access and degree structure. Remove the barrier and languages will flourish.

Josh Brown is Postdoctoral Fellow in Romance Studies and Classics (Italian) at Stockholm University and Honorary Research Fellow in Italian Studies at The University of Western Australia. His PhD is in Italian Studies, with a focus on historical sociolinguistics. His postdoctoral project deals with issues of koineization in religious writing from late medieval Milan. Recently his attention has turned to issues of language policy, including the thorny question of making language study an accessible pathway at university level. He is working on several projects around this theme with colleagues in both Sweden and Australia.