Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Knowledge of languages is the doorway to wisdom

  • 16 August 2023
  • By Professor Karen O’Brien
  • This blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Professor Karen O’Brien, Vice-Chancellor Durham University.
  • HEPI’s recent webinar with the CEO of UCAS is available to watch back here.

Knowledge of languages is the doorway to wisdom, as the medieval English philosopher Roger Bacon is reported to have said. Bacon’s achievements were such that he was known as ‘Doctor Mirabilis’, and he is widely credited as one of the earliest European advocates of the modern scientific method. 

Languages, scientific discovery and knowledge are closely intertwined and of mutual benefit and, I would argue, this is even more true now than it was then. In a globalised world, one that is turbulent and unpredictable, the ability to talk with others who may have different ideas and interests is critical. There is also evidence, most recently from the Creative Multilingualism project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, that language diversity and creativity are mutually reinforcing.  

As we approach A-Level results day, there are familiar stories in the press about the decline of language learning in the UK – most recently, this past week when new figures showed the number of pupils in England sitting German A-level has almost halved since 2013. French has also suffered. The British Council recently reported that two-thirds of state secondary schools in the UK teach just one language.    

Some may say this is simply not of concern: nearly a quarter of the world’s population speaks English, and English is the dominant language of scientific communication. Moreover, the languages ’lobby’ in the UK have been battling hard, since languages ceased to be compulsory at GCSE in 2004, with often diminishing returns. Has the time come to embrace increasingly sophisticated translation software, and concede defeat on the matter of language learning?

I, and my university, Durham, take a different view. Language learning benefits its students culturally, in opening their mind to a different world view; socially, allowing them to compete or collaborate with peers across the globe; and economically, in demonstrably enhanced earnings and career outcomes. In the future world of work, graduates who can live and operate across language areas will have the advantage. 

Our School of Modern Languages and Cultures is ranked among the best in the world partly because of the breadth we offer (Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Hispanic Studies, Italian, Japanese and Russian); our chronological and thematic range (we have a thriving community of medieval and early modern scholars, for example); and the integration of language and culture – a very deliberate approach, enabling our students to explore the world including and beyond its languages. 

We need to do everything possible to keep flying the flag for languages wherever we can. Earlier this year, 180 leading language scholars gathered here at Durham to explore the vibrancy of language study, its diversity, best practice and its future, at a conference we called ‘Where Are We Now?’ Two months later, we installed as our new Chancellor Fiona Hill, the leading foreign affairs specialist and US Presidential adviser, whose rise to a position of international prominence began with her studying German and French at a school in County Durham. 

Fiona has commented:

Having spent my career in universities, think tanks and government, I know that leading employers are looking for travel and a foreign language, as well as sporting prowess and interesting hobbies. These are the marks of a well-rounded, highly accomplished student, who they will want to hire as an intern or entry level employee.

It could well be argued that there has never been a more important time for language study than the present. Cultural diplomacy, the bedrock of which is the ability to range across languages, is crucial, forming a bridge between the pressured and fragile democracies of our world.  Moreoever, just as we are now acutely aware of biodiversity loss on our planet, we must also be mindful of the current cultural diversity loss that is not good for mutual human respect and human rights.  Linguistics specialists tell us that 40.4% of the world’s population are native speakers of only 0.1% of the world’s languages.  English is the ‘hypercentral’ language in a global language system that increasingly marginalises the fifth of the global community who speak over 80% of the world’s languages. Without a commitment to language diversity and language learning, we risk having monopolies of thought, broken connections to the richness of the past, and a depleted resource for innovation for the future.

HEPI has made important interventions in this area, notably the 2020 report A Languages Crisis?from which the 15 recommendations merit careful consideration. 

As the British Academy and others said in their 2020 call to action The Importance of Languages in a Global Context:

A renewed commitment to multilingualism within society, and to languages within education, is critical to preparing present and future generations of citizens who will be responsible for building international collaborations and fostering harmony at home.

We back their call for governments, policymakers, educators, business and industry leaders and others to protect and widen capacity for, and promote the opportunities of, widely accessible languages education, to ensure students from all socioeconomic backgrounds reach their full potential.


  1. Mr John Robinson says:

    Sorry have you got a tldr (summary) I have trouble understanding this thankyou

  2. Of course, it is of value that the VC of a great university should celebrate and emphasise the value of languages, but the problem lies some dozen years before students set forth to university. The teaching in primary schools is bound to have a deep impact on the attitude of pupils to learning languages and that is beset by three deep flaws. The first is that it is perceived as peripheral in relation to literacy and numeracy (and SATS and Ofsted). The second is that the teaching of languages at KS2 is so varied in content and competence that it all has to start all over again in secondary school. The third is that the teaching of languages gives no attention or regard to the fact that the boys and girls in lessons are increasingly multilingual. Only if all of this changes will the pipeline start to flow which leads to language study at university.
    There is an elsewhere.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *