New Horizons, New Tensions: Modern Languages in British Universities, 1900-1920

This post is contributed by Professor John Taylor, currently visiting professor at Lancaster University in the Department of Educational Research.  His most recent book is ‘The Impact of the First World War on British Universities: Emerging from the Shadows’.

In June 1901, the Council of the University College Sheffield (soon to become the University of Sheffield) approved the establishment of a new School of Modern Languages. This initiative ushered in, for Sheffield and for universities elsewhere, a period of significant change for the Modern Languages, including new courses, different teaching methods and new departments, culminating in a major Government inquiry in the field; all of this against the backdrop between 1914-18 of the First World War.  These developments provided the foundation for the Modern Languages for decades to come; they also offer an insight into the workings of British universities at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Like similar initiatives elsewhere, the stimulus for change at Sheffield came from the business community and from local authorities keen to support local business. Thus, the new School received funding from Sheffield City Council, the Chamber of Commerce, Sheffield Tramways Committee, West Riding County Council and Derbyshire County Council.  At this time, national Government took very little interest in the work of universities and certainly had no role in establishing the new School in Sheffield.

Reflecting the needs of local business, modern language teaching was broadly based, offering tuition at many different levels. A small number of students studied for honours.  Other students, typically from science and technology departments, took courses at ordinary level; it was common, for example, for science students to seek a basic understanding of German.  However, further programmes were offered as evening classes or as Saturday classes intended to meet the needs of teachers and those working in commerce.  In Sheffield, as elsewhere, at the beginning of the century, teaching was confined to French and German.

However, from the early days of the new century, increasing specialisation took place. In 1905-06, the University of Leeds reached an agreement with the Leeds City Education Authority intended to reduce duplication in teaching and to clarify routes into higher education.  Thus, responsibility for teaching part-time students through evening classes passed to the City authorities.  At the same time, language departments began to look to increasing student numbers working at Honours level.  At Leeds, the first honours degree in Modern Languages was awarded in 1902.  In 1907, it was reported that the Department of French Language and Literature at Leeds showed ‘signs of rapid development’; further, ‘the number of Honours students for the current session shows so marked an increase, and the outlook for the future in this respect seems so bright that … several additional classes would probably have to be established.’

Facilities and teaching methods were also changing. Teaching had traditionally been based around formal lectures.  However, early in the new century, attention was centred upon the German model based on the ‘seminar’. In 1905, the University Council at Leeds noted that: ‘The establishment of “seminars” is advocated by the Professors of English, French and German for the development of teaching in their respective Departments. In each case this would involve the setting apart of a special room provided with maps, charts, apparatus for phonetic reading and a special library for books for the use of advanced students.’  By 1909, the seminar room was in active use and further equipment was sought for both teaching and research.

At this time, periods of study abroad were not integral, required parts of degree teaching in modern languages. However, this also began to change.  In 1912, the University of Leeds reached an arrangement with the University of Caen in France whereby Leeds students would spend a term in Caen and that this period would be recognised for assessment purposes.

However, perhaps the most significant changes in the years to 1920 were concerned with the range of different languages taught in British universities. In 1907, for example, the first School of Russian Studies was established by the University of Liverpool.   In Leeds, as in other large cities, the outbreak of War in 1914 prompted new interest in international affairs.  Members of the Jewish community in Leeds and Bradford, many of them descended from Russian exiles who moved to the West Riding in the nineteenth century, began to lobby for the introduction of teaching in Russian.  For others, especially within the non-conformist business community of the region, the military alliance with Russia at the start of the War raised the prospect of lucrative trade when the conflict ended.


The Panama Canal, 1914

At the same time, interest was also growing in the Spanish language.  The Panama Canal opened in August 1914 and immediately prompted new interest in trade with Latin America.  The Vice-Chancellor in Leeds, Michael Sadler, faced growing pressure in 1914-15 to expand the range of language teaching.  His response was cautious, partly because of the difficult financial position and partly because he was keen to encourage a ‘rounded’ development embracing language, literature and regional studies as well as meeting the demands of business.  After protracted negotiations, the University secured two major donations, one from Sir James Roberts, a local textiles businessman and a member of the Baptist Communion, to establish a Chair and Department of Russian, and the other from Weetman Pearson, Lord Cowdray, a wealthy engineering contractor and pioneer in the emerging oil industry, with extensive interests in Mexico, to establish a Chair and Department of Spanish.  Sadler’s vision was important in another way.  He saw the new Departments working within a ‘hub and spoke’ system, actively involving local school teachers in the work of the University; indeed, his ideas went further, seeking a partnership in language teaching that would include the Universities of Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield as well.


Michael Sadler (1861-1943), Vice-Chancellor at the University of Leeds

The War brought an awareness that Britain had been disadvantaged in trade and in science before 1914 by weaknesses in language competence. As the War continued and attention turned to post-War reconstruction, the need to strengthen the teaching of Modern Languages grew.  In 1916, a Government Committee was set up to consider the question.  This Committee reported in 1918 and provided a strong endorsement of the role of universities in meeting the challenge.  The report urged an expansion of Modern Language teaching in schools and universities,  including the study of history, literature, economics and politics, with a reduced emphasis on philology and the classical languages. Recommendations were made for increased diversity in the languages available, with additional studentships and further staff appointments.

By 1920, university provision in the Modern Languages looked very different from the start of the century. In common with other subject areas, demand for places increased sharply at the end of the War, new subjects were in place and the subject had acquired a new status within universities.  However, these developments also illustrate some of the important characteristics of higher education at this time: the prominence of lobbying and associated philanthropy in fostering new developments; the importance of regional networks; an emphasis on the needs of business; and the key role of university leaders with vision and aspiration.

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