Paul Lay

A Plea for Polyglots

‘Unless they want to study the sewerage system in 19th-century Manchester, historians need languages.’ That is the advice offered to aspiring historians by the distinguished early modernist Geoffrey Parker, an insight obvious enough to border on the banal. Yet the serious study of history in the UK is threatened by the collapse in foreign-language learning in state schools. In 2013, the last year for which figures are available, just over four thousand students studied German at A level, around half of 1 per cent of those eligible; around six hundred will read the subject in some form at university. The figures are little better for other European languages. It is, according to the historians Emile Chabal and Stephan Malinowski, ‘virtually impossible to find any British students at top universities who can at least read some German, Spanish, Italian or Portuguese’. The languages of the rest of the world barely exist at all. It is estimated that up to 40 per cent of the UK’s university language departments are likely to close over the next decade.

There are deep and fundamental reasons for this collapse. It is not just a shortage of

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