UK: Film boosts language learning

A consortium of British universities is forging a cinematic path to encourage the take-up of foreign language study. Routes into Languages is a three-year project jointly funded by Britain's Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Higher Education Funding Council for England. It works with regional groups of universities committed to boosting the number of young people studying foreign languages.

The south-western consortium - a University of the West of England, Bristol-led initiative that brings together nine higher education institutions in its region - is using film to attract students to continue to study foreign languages.

Part of a wider scheme to address Britain's chronic failure to improve foreign language skills among younger people, the UWE-led project moves beyond the familiar territory of school outreach programmes based around information and discussion days.

Irene Wilkie, south-west consortium director, said: "The government took the controversial step a few years ago of making languages optional after the age of 14 and the result was predictably catastrophic - only around half of young people are currently opting to study a language post 14.

"The Confederation of British Industry acknowledges that businesses in the UK are losing contracts simply because of the lack of foreign language skills amongst their employees. The mantra of 'everybody speaks English' is simply not good enough in the globalised economy; a more realistic slogan would be 'buy in your own language but sell in your client's language'. This is finally being recognised."

Each of the regional consortia involved in RiL had a slightly different focus, depending on the needs of their region and the expertise within the HE institutions involved, Wilkie added.

Although the South West of England is one of Britain's top tourist destinations, the region lags behind others in its share of UK exports. Demonstrating the value of languages for businesses was a key priority for the regional RiL project. Putting that message on film promised to increase its effectiveness.

"A number of businesses from across the region, both large and small, have provided key people from within the company to go on camera and explain why foreign language skills are important to them," Wilkie said.

"Companies range from well-known names such as Flybe, the low-cost airline based in Exeter, and financial services giant KPMG, to Fish and Fritz, a fish restaurant in Weymouth where the owner is passionate about the importance of making foreign guests feel welcome by at least being able to greet them in their own language."

The UWE-led consortium - which includes the universities of Exeter, Bath, Bristol, Plymouth, Bath Spa, Gloucestershire, the Combined University of Cornwall and the University College Plymouth - St Mark and St John - hopes that by choosing such a wide range of different companies and businesses which rely upon different levels of language competence, young people in the region will understand that "even a conversational knowledge of a foreign language could give them the competitive edge in the job market of the future".

Although the RiL project relies mostly on part-time management, the UWE office found the skills necessary to make the film in-house: Mark Haley - a project coordinator at UWE for a Comenius scheme and a keen underwater photographer - lent his technical skills for the filming. The result is a 45-minute DVD - Languages at Work in the South West - that, accompanied by a booklet of case studies giving more detail about the companies filmed, will be given free of charge to secondary schools in the region.

Other consortia involved in RiL around Britain will also be given a chance to adopt the film in their local projects.