The World’s Best Modern Languages Courses

by Mansoor Iqbal

Modern languages have never been so important. The ever-accelerating spread of mobility and internationalization – both in the professional and academic worlds – shows little sign of abating any time soon. At the forefront of these cross-border exchanges of people and skills are a troupe of able and willing multilingual graduates, facilitating progress that would otherwise be rendered impossible by linguistic boundaries.

And the value of learning languages goes beyond being able to communicate with others. It also offers a unique insight into a country’s culture. The untranslatable Danish hygge, or the various forms of honorific address used in Japan for example. It allows literary works to be read in the original, perhaps unearthing subtleties and nuances that translation precludes. And learning a language allows a better understanding of language generally. Perhaps Goethe was exaggerating for effect when he commented, “Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner eigenen” (“Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.”), but there’s certainly an element of truth in his famous words.

The importance of modern languages, of course, hasn’t bypassed the world’s universities, and for those who wish to study the subject at a university there are a world of options. Universities from no less than 36 different countries, spread over 5 different continents, making it on to the top 200 universities for moderns languages according to the 2011 QS World University Rankings® by Subject. Wherever you are in the world, then, you won’t have to go too far to find world-class tuition in modern languages.

As with so many subjects, the world’s best school, according to the rankings, is Harvard, which finishes top in terms of both academic and employer ratings. More than anything, it is the sheer breadth of languages taught at the school that is truly astounding. Over 80 are listed in its prospectus, ranging from traditional European and Asian languages (French, Mandarin) to relatively obscure languages spoken only by small pockets of people (Welsh, Kikongo), to dead, ancient languages (Old Norse, Latin).

A collection of the university’s language teachers, known as the Foreign Language Advisory Group, meet on a monthly basis to explore professional development opportunities and new initiatives and innovations in the teaching of languages. One such initiative involves the teaching of art, culture or history of a particular region in its own language – learning about the Cultural Revolution in Mandarin for instance.

“When you can understand that culture in its language and its whole outlook, you are immediately receptive to areas where conflict could be averted,” commented Diana Sorenson, Harvard’s dean of arts and humanities. “I do think if we want to train global citizens and global leaders, having them equipped with this kind of transcultural literacy at a deep level is one of the goals of the University of the 21st century.”

Positions two and three in the table are occupied by the grand old institutions of Oxbridge, with Oxford leading its slightly younger sibling in both the academic and employer ratings. However both owe their rankings to the strong performances of their graduates in the professional world – academically, UC Berkeley is considered to be stronger than either.

Cambridge French and Italian graduate, Matt Bramble, a Media Sales Executive for Italian financial and business daily Il Sole 24 Ore, believes it is the tutorial system that gives Oxbridge graduates the edge. “The supervision system at Cambridge makes a big difference, in the sense that students get a lot of one-to-one tuition. For the MML (modern and medieval languages) course, the weekly one on one session with a native speaker is an invaluable opportunity to hone spoken language skills and develop colloquialisms. In classes, students are actively encouraged to speak only in the target language, and it’s this kind of ‘jumping in at the deep end’ which really helps to accelerate language learning.”

Matt believes the level of spoken and written languages he acquired from his course was ‘an absolute must’ for both his current roles and similar ones he has previously occupied. “I have clients in Belgium and Luxembourg, so I use both of my foreign languages on a daily basis. As an MML graduate, when applying for jobs your languages really are your ‘unique selling point’.”

UC Berkeley, which ranks just behind the two Oxbridge institutions in 4th is joined UCLA (9) in the top 10, hammering home the strength of California’s public universities in the humanities, in which they regularly match the performance of Ivy League and other illustrious private American universities. If you are thinking of applying to one of the latter, however, then Yale (5), Cornell (7) and MIT (9=) are the strongest schools.

The University of Toronto (9=), another school that is strong across the humanities, means that Canada has top ten representation in modern languages, and McGill (15) and the University of British Columbia (22) give it strength in depth. However, exceptional modern language teaching is not limited to North America and Oxbridge. Three Australian universities feature in the top 20: the University of Melbourne (16), the University of Sydney (13=), and most impressively ANU, which makes 6th place.

Kent Anderson, Director of the School of Culture, History and Language – which brings together over 100 academics with an interest in studying the people and languages of Asia and the Pacific region – at ANU commented, “Over the past 4 years Language enrolments at ANU have increased by 22% and nearly 50% over the past decade.  In an increasingly rationalized educational area, we have been able to increase the languages being taught at the ANU from 20 to 24.”

He praises the significant investment made in languages by ANU, which allowed the university to exchange its 1950s ‘language labs’ for the distinctly 21st century Ethel Tory Centre for Language Learning, opened in 2011 and costing A$1.7 million. The university has been responsible for a raft of innovations in language teaching – pioneering the use of iPod technology, and employing video linking across languages with lower enrolment.

More than anything, though, ANU’s strong performance here can be seen as a nod towards the increasing importance of Asian languages in the 21st century. Though European languages account for a fair proportion of languages taught at the university, it is work done in Professor Anderson’s unique School which really makes it stand out.

“The University recognizes the importance of Australia’s national university supporting languages that would not otherwise be offered elsewhere in Australia and that are critically important to the country’s preparedness for the ‘Asian Century’,” reflects the department’s director. “Colleagues have similarly committed to a mutually supportive model that allows languages of large enrolment such as Japanese and Chinese to support languages of smaller enrolment such as Hindi and Vietnamese.”

East Asia also offers several options for modern language students seeking to study in the best schools. In the top 50 of the subject rankings we find the two powerhouses of Japan, Kyoto University (47) and the University of Toyko (31), two of Hong Kong’s esteemed establishments, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (35) and the University of Hong Kong (31), and the titan of Chinese higher education that is Peking University (25).

Outperforming them all is the National University of Singapore, which at 18th has established itself as truly competitive in this subject area. Professor Chan Wai Meng, Director of the Centre for Language Studies at NUS, attributes the success to his department’s forward-thinking nature: “The Centre places much emphasis on research in foreign language education, and besides making a contribution to the international academic community in this field, our research also informs our teaching, leading to new and innovative teaching approaches.”

This attitude runs in tandem with the high standards that the university expects from its students. “Our Centre offers a range of 12 languages and in most of these programs, students can study the foreign language for six semesters or more, allowing them to achieve a very high level of proficiency. For instance, in our French and German courses, students achieve the equivalent of C1 on the scale of the Common European Framework of Reference after six semesters. In Japanese, after six semesters, students are expected to be able to pass Level 2 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.”

At present Japanese, French and German are the most popular courses at the university, but Professor Chan has observed an upward trend in enrolments on Chinese language courses. “We are certainly seeing a fast increasing interest in Chinese, mainly because of the growing importance of China as a political and economic power.

“While China and many East Asian countries are now keenly promoting the learning of English among their peoples, I do not believe that this will be at the expense of Chinese or other major Asian languages, such as Arabic, Hindi or Urdu. Those who wish to network with the people of China, for business or private purposes, and to know their culture more intimately will invariably have to learn Chinese, regardless of how many Chinese nationals will be capable of speaking English.”

Though the US and the UK dominate the rankings, it is not at the expense of continental Europe, which occupies 55 of the top 200 places. Three German universities – Freie Universität Berlin (27), Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (32) and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (37) make the top 50, and Italy and Austria have one representative apiece – Università di Bologna (42) and the University of Vienna (43=) respectively.

France also has a single representative in the top 50, and at 19th place, Université Paris Sorbonne, Paris IV is the best place in continental Europe to study modern languages. At the main inheritor of the legacy of the Sorbonne, languages offered are English, Polish, Arabic, Hebrew, German, Spanish, Portuguese (European and Latin American), Slavic languages, Italian and Romanian. Applied foreign language courses are also offered, as are degrees in Latin or Greek letters.

The universities listed in this piece are just a small proportion of the world-class institutions of modern languages across the globe – to detail them all would require more space then is available here. Suffice to say, the world’s top 200 schools for modern languages include institutions from as far afield as Russia, Chile, and the Philippines. The options for the internationally mobile student of modern languages who wants to study at a top university, then, are almost limitless.

To see the entire top 200, click here.

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