A pioneering new languages outreach programme, harnessing the knowledge of expert educators at two of the world’s leading universities, aims to change how students think about language learning. 

This project – run by the Translation Exchange at the University of Oxford in partnership with the languages departments at the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge, literary charity the Stephen Spender Trust, and secondary school Hollingworth Academy in Rochdale – takes a fresh collaborative approach to reversing the severe decline in the number of students studying a language since 2004.  

Think Like a Linguist helps students aged 12-13 to make informed choices about languages at GCSE, through a course of five interactive sessions with their peers, language professionals, university students and recent languages graduates. Each session focuses on a different aspect of language learning, and enables students to consider the question, What does it mean to think like a linguist? from a unique perspective.  

Throughout the programme, the young participants are treated as active linguists. Each session focuses on what the students can already do, and where this could take them. “Thinking like a linguist” involves recognising that we are all, in some way, multilingual and understanding that languages are a gateway to other cultures. The project partners take turns to deliver sessions on topics including linguistics, creative translation, careers with languages, and the personal and social benefits of speaking other languages. 

The pilot programme ran for a first time in 2022-2023 for six schools in the North West of England. It began with a launch event for pupils, parents and carers at Hollingworth Academy, Rochdale in January 2023 and will close with a graduation event at the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge in autumn 2023. After the first session, students commented: 

It has made me realise that there is more to languages than I thought.” 

I learnt how through learning languages, you can learn about other people and cultures. I was considering a languages GCSE, but didn’t know how it would help me in life, however now I know how useful it is and what skills it will build.” 

I have found this session useful as it has made me look at languages in a different perspective and how to use them to my advantage.” 

The project engages 30 students in Year 8 who are studying French and Spanish, but it aims to have a wider reach by inviting parents/carers to join the launch and final graduation events and encouraging participating students to report back to their peers via school assemblies.  

Jon Datta, Deputy Head of Widening Participation at the University of Cambridge, said:  

Through Think Like a Linguist, we want to show students that language learning enhances a mindset of cultural agility; to be inquisitive and respectful when encountering other cultures and communities. We also want to inspire them to continue with their languages at and beyond GCSE and to make language learning interesting and stimulating. Ultimately, we hope participants will complete the programme with the belief that studying languages is likely to develop interpersonal and communication skills that will be of immense benefit, professionally and personally, for the rest of their lives.” 

Charlotte Ryland, Director of the Queen’s College Translation Exchange and the Stephen Spender Trust, commented on the significance of this collaborative effort:  

Collaboration is key to reversing the decline in language-learning across the UK, so we are thrilled to have brought such pro-active and experienced partners together for this project. Together we need to show young people what it means to be a linguist, and how much it will enrich their lives, rather than simply telling them. This interactive project has been designed to make those benefits palpable, and we are already seeing its impact in the enthusiastic and perceptive responses from the thirty young participants. We look forward to examining the impact of this pilot on the pupils and their wider cohort, and developing this into a major project that can begin to make a real difference to the future of languages in the UK.” 

Nicola Brown, Schools Liaison Officer for Modern and Medieval Languages at the University of Oxford, added:  

We are thrilled to be partnering with the Queen’s College Translation Exchange, Stephen Spender Trust and colleagues at the University of Cambridge, as well as dedicated teaching staff at Hollingworth Academy, on this exciting new outreach project! Through its series of thought-provoking and engaging interventions which aim to highlight the diverse nature of language learning, we very much hope that the programme not only inspires the young people currently taking part, but also acts as a catalyst for provoking wider positive change to the UK’s language learning landscape in years to come.” 

Chris Dobbs, Head of Academic Enrichment at Hollingworth Academy and Director of OxNet Youth Scholars at Pembroke College, University of Oxford, commented: 

We are delighted to host the project Think like a Linguist. Engaging pupils in language learning from a variety of perspectives will we believe promote greater cultural awareness, develop a love for language study and help to develop resilience and self-confidence. The contributions made by visiting academics and their former students help to demystify the experience and enhance the value of studying languages at university level.” 

Careful evaluation of the programme, now in its second year, will produce recommendations on how universities can best support language learners and teachers at schools, and on best practice for increasing the uptake of modern foreign languages at GCSE.  

The partners believe that this new collaborative approach, which puts the schools and local area at the heart of the programme, can make a powerful difference to the national problem of the decline in the numbers studying languages. Following the success of the first two years, they are planning to expand Think Like a Linguist to other areas of the UK.   

Press enquiries: charlotte.ryland@queens.ox.ac.uk