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A pioneering new languages outreach programme, Think Like a Linguist, has been launched by linguists from Oxford and Cambridge universities.

The project is 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, the literary charity Stephen Spender Trust, and secondary school Hollingworth Academy in Rochdale. It aims to change how students think about language learning amid a 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 is running 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.

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.  

Careful evaluation of the pilot 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 successful launch of this pilot in Rochdale, they are planning to expand Think Like a Linguist to other areas of the UK.