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Graham Davies

Languages and literature

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I have posted the following contribution as a reaction to Andrew Moore's contribution to a discussion on English Varieties of the British Isles. Andrew writes:

Graham's last comment is more in tune with a descriptive approach - and that allows for more sophisticated (and truthful) models of language, that can accommodate the varieties in the systems of different localities, or of other kinds of social grouping.

Much of the discussion that has been going on in the English section is relevant to Modern Foreign Languages too. Here is what I wrote:

I always adopted a descriptive approach when teaching German. German, like English, has a wide range of dialects. The dialects that diverge most from the accepted standard form - and which non-locals find most difficult to understand - are spoken in the areas most likely to be visited by tourists: Bavaria, the Black Forest, Austria, Switzerland. Many learners of German who visit these areas are therefore disappointed when attempting to use the language that they have learned at school, because it has not prepared them for the strange sounds and words that they hear.

I introduced a module entitled "Varieties of German" on a humanities degree course on which I taught at an HE college in the 1980s. It included historical varieties, different text types (literary, propaganda, advertising, etc) and regional dialects. The module was one of several that offered an alternative to the traditional literature-based modules that were on offer. It was very popular.

Not all students of language - including their mother tongue - are interested in literature. But in in the 1960s, when I entered university, there were very few courses that were not based on literature. A friend of mine entered university round about the same time as I did in order to study Russian. He is probably the most gifted linguist that I have ever met – an amazing polyglot - but he failed his first-year Russian literature exams miserably and was advised to leave the course. Later on in life he studied at a college that offered language courses that were skills-oriented and included options such as politics, economics and ICT. He passed his finals with flying colours. The native Russian external examiner who attended his oral examination wanted to give him a mark of 100% on the grounds that he could not fault my friend's Russian. "This man would make a good spy", he said. In fact, he did make a good spy, but it was a rather boring job with GCHQ. It was only later, after the Cold War came to an end, that my friend was able to use his Russian in a way that he enjoyed, working for a firm of export consultants, travelling to Russia and meeting people.

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It's true that students find it difficult to communicate in areas where dialect is spoken. In fact, I have to confess to understanding little if anything when I visited friends in Bavaria a few years ago, and have sometimes advised A-Level students to travel elsewhere if they want to really improve their (exam-orientated) language skills.

I was actually lucky enough to find a course that was not literature based (Aston) - the only university in the country which is allowed to award BSc in MFL because of the modern, technological approach. We worked mostly with journalistic texts, interpreting, business language and also history and cultural affairs. I loved it - although I love reading, including in the target language, I hated studying literature at A-Level as it involved completely different skills to those I was interested in.

With A-Level students, I do a literary topic for the A2 essay paper - but not a set text. The questions are much more issue-based and involve no in-depth literary analysis. That way I can introduce students to the joy of extended reading without putting them off by expecting them to do what they see as English Literature in the target language.

(Sorry - gone off on several tangents....)

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Kerry wries:

I was actually lucky enough to find a course that was not literature based (Aston) - the only university in the country which is allowed to award BSc in MFL because of the modern, technological approach. We worked mostly with journalistic texts, interpreting, business language and also history and cultural affairs.

I know the Aston degree course - and some of the staff - very well. I have visited Aston several times.

I taught German on the BA in Applied Language Studies course at Ealing College from the 1970s to the 1990s. After Ealing College merged with other institutions in the early 1990s and finally became a university (Thames Valley) languages went downhill and the languages degree courses folded. It was a great shame, as the practical orientation of the Applied Language Studies course prepared the students well for a career and we could chalk up several success stories of graduates getting good jobs as translators and interpreters in Brussels.

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Guest Andrew Moore

I think it's fair enough to remove the requirement to study literature from language courses, the object of which is to achieve communicative competence, leading to fluency.

But something is lost, which may never come back. When I studied GCE* German and French, the reading requirements were substantial, as will be familiar to the chronologically-gifted people in the forum. For each subject, there were four substantial classic texts - you will get the idea if I say that for German we had a play by Schiller, a collection of pieces by Brecht, a novel by Kafka, and a novella by Mann. Our high-minded teachers gave us more texts by all of these authors to give depth and context. The teachers of both languages got together and provided, for the good of our souls and out of the kindness of their hearts (or hardness of their heads) a wide-ranging course in historical European literature, using French and German works from the Middle Ages to modern times, and stuff in Provençal and Italian (which we had not learnt...) So even if I don't know most of the work in detail, I carry in my head an outline of western European literature, and know my Villon from my Verlaine, and my Grass from my Goethe.

I cannot see how any student in a UK school today could possibly acquire this, save in the unlikely event of falling among an even more zealous bunch of teachers, who disregard the system - or being sent to prison for a very long time. It means that among friends from other countries, I need not appear too much of a Philistine (or can name-drop convincingly).

Perhaps it's all right for this kind of thing to have been moved out of school and into universities - if there are any that do it on first degree courses. But if that had been the case in my day, I would have missed it (since I took a degree in English). And in missing it, would have missed a chance to enjoy a large part of our common European heritage.

I think that's not a typical view. When the requirement to study literature went from GCE, few students shed any tears. Does literature have any other apologists? Or are we well off without it?

*For colleagues who don't know the English, Welsh and Irish (but not Scottish) exam systems, GCE (General Certificate of Education) now is a mode of examination taken in the last years of (non-compulsory) education prior to entering university or employment; there are two levels - Advanced Supplementary (AS) and Advanced (A2), still popularly known as "A" level. Compulsory education ends earlier at age 16, usually with the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) exams in a wide range of subjects.

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I agree that something important is lost when you remove literature from the languages curriculum. I enjoyed reading some of the prescribed A-Level texts, but some were dreadful, e.g. Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas, and even now, with years of experience of reading German behind me, I would never read such a text for pleasure.

Literature was an option on the Applied Language Studies degree course at Ealing, and it held its own against the other options, e.g. Politics, Economics, Law, ICT. Those who took the literature option still had to attend the same practical classes as the other students, e.g. in translation, interpreting, summarising, etc. One of the differences was that they were presented with literary texts in the specialist translation classes rather than texts centring on politics, economics, etc. I enjoyed teaching translation with the literature students. Literary texts present much more of a translation challenge than journalistic or factual texts.

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