some points from the Nottingham session

  1. Oxbridge and Beyond
  2. Testing and Screening for Ability
  3. Tradeoffs
  4. Degree Structures

Oxbridge and Beyond

There was much discussion of the differences between the Oxbridge experiments discussed by the panellists and the somewhat different set of problems and pressures faced in provincial universities, where it is often necessary to scale down the ambitions of what can and should be achieved in a first-year beginners' language course. The Cambridge model has many parallels, for example, with the Edinburgh system originally instituted by Prof. Beattie; but this has now had to be modified as too demanding, and in any case most institutions simply don't have the resources to support the kind of intensive pre-course activity on which the Cambridge pattern relies. Thus in Bristol students are required simply to do three years of one language; while a widespread pattern reported from Liverpool is for students to Latin in the first year (the minimum requirement), and then move on to a range of other subjects - including things like Japanese - at which they may well do better, since the skills learned with a classical language are highly transferable.

Testing and Screening for Ability

What kind of role might LATs, and other means of screening for language ability, play in practice? David Langslow's own view was that LATs may have only limited predictive value, and would perhaps be best used between teacher and student as a way of determining course strategy in relation to student potential. Certainly there are all kinds of problems in any attempt to screen for language ability at admissions. GCSE is no longer the indicator GCE once was, yet in a course where the language requirement is a full third of the assessment for the year, letting the wrong person on to the course can cripple their year's results. On the other hand, simply offering an escape route carries its own dangers: if a non-linguistic option is available, most will take it in preferences, because 95% of students believe that they are hopeless at language. Here LATs might have a role simply as a confidence-booster.


Increasingly, we face a stark tradeoff: it is becoming difficult to add much value to a student who arrives without much grasp of the language, short of a proportionately high investment of courseload. Meanwhile, increasing scrutiny of the economics of teaching will in any case make it harder to teach in the small-group environments assumed by the Cambridge model. The suggestion has been aired that there might be a linguistic equivalent to the class-civ approach, and there was some discussion of "smattering"-based approaches at both school and University levels. Given that only a minority of students will ever read a real text, and probably not much of that, the enduring value of a language course may be an understanding of how the language works, how it expresses ideas, and the light it can shed on English. But a GCSE based on such principles would merely risk making the GCSE/A-level jump still higher. Nevertheless, the Leicester experiment has shown that modest-ambition courses on limited resources can have considerable value, especially (for example) for historians - a view echoed from other English departments, though the much more "all-or-nothing" Scottish system would make such courses difficult to institute there.

Degree Structures

Modularisation, here as in other areas, has impacts for worse and for better. On the one hand, it makes it easier to design degree programmes with escape routes for the linguistically weak; on the other it makes intensive courses virtually impossible. A low-intensity course is now the model to which everyone inevitably tends - unless ways can be found of running short courses cheaply, and making the package attractive to both Universities and students.

Special thanks for a vigorous discussion to John Betts, Michael Bulley, Gillian Clark, Geoffrey Eatough, Lynn Fotheringham, John Godwin, John Richardson, Christopher Rowe, Jim Roy, Alison Sharrock, Graham Shipley, and the panellists - and apologies to all whose contributions escaped reporting.

CUCD Bulletin 25 (1996)
© Council of University Classical Departments 1996

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