Language Learning

The case for ab initio

Recently I was reading an article on The Guardian about the up take of languages in university – particularly those who are taking a language ab initio. Ab initio is really just a fancy Latin way to say ‘beginner’.

Since I studied ab initio Spanish for two years myself at university, I found this an interesting taking point.

To go back a little bit, as I’ve written about may times before, languge learning in the UK is suffering from a bit of a crisis. Foreign language learning is currently compulsory in the UK from the ages of 11 to 14 (as standard). I understand that now languages are also commonly taught in primary schools as well. Since languages were made non-compulsory, the uptake has been on the decline. In the last few years, the UK governemtn has introduced the concept of an English Baccalaureate – whereby a language, geography, history or computer science are compulsory. Although this makes languges more of a priority, it still gives students a choice to avoid a language all together.

This article on The Guardian discusses the uptake of languages in university for beginners. As I studied both as an advanced and beginners student at university, I found this article quite interesting.

Firstly, the article initially gives the impression that European language learning ab initio is a fairly new concept – whilst this may be true that it is a growing concept, it is nothing new.

When I applied for university in 2010, for each of the five universities I applied for, I wanted to study advanced German and beginners Spanish. Although each university had their own system as tow whether the degree with an ‘and’ (50/50 split) or a ‘with’ (60/40 split0, each course was essentially pretty similar.

At that time, French was only offered at advanced level at Cardiff University, whilst German, Spanish and Italian were offered ab initio at the School of European Languages, Politics and Law, whilst Japanese was on offer at the School of Business. Since I wanted t go into teaching, I knew I needed another language. As French as unavailable, I opted for the more commonly taught language, Spanish.

The School of Modern Languages was primarily centred around European language, and was a fairly small department – none of your Russian, Arabic, Chinese or Dutch which larger university faculties were able to offer.

This situation has changed in recent years – Japanese has now moved to Modern Languages, and has been joined by a Chinese degree split between Beijing Normal University and Cardiff  over four years, as well as varying levels of Portugese. French is now also available at beginners level.

Whilst the uptake of languages at university is positive – it is important to note that this article primarily gives examples of students who are already studying languages at university already, as I did.

In my university we had to take 180 credits – these had to be split over three subjects in first year, meaning that even as a join honours student, I had to study a third subject. Because I already studied Spanish ab initio, I could not take up beginner Italian or Japanese as well. Those, however, who had studied two full language A Levels, often did chose to take a third language – and some even decided to change to study their new language full time after third year, dropping an advanced one in the process.

Considering that language students are mainly increasing the uptake of languages from scratch, is this really helping anything? Not, if you wanted to increase the amount of linguists in your work force. However, if universities started to offer increased options for degree combinations – say even Geography and a Language (available in Aberystwyth in 2010 I believe!) then perhaps this will help to offset the decline further down the chain.

Similarly, lots of universities are funning successful optional language programmes for students from other degree disciplines. Whilst they do not count towards their degree, the Languages for All programme at Cardiff has enabled students from other disciplines to access opportunities that they might ordinarily have missed out on..

This is not about becoming the best or most fluent language speaker ever. This is about increasing the general interest in languages at all levels – even the most basic level of competency can set you apart from other prospective job applicants.

Can you really afford to turn that opportunity down?

Please comment below or tweet me at @amjscorr to let me know your opinion of ab intio languages. Are they a good way to learn langugaes or should we start right back in primary school? Does it matter when we start learning a language?

Bis Bald,




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