Our History

Forty Years On: Celebrating 40 years of Languages and Linguistics at York St John University

Here in the School of Languages and Linguistics we’re not only proud to be celebrating becoming a School in our own right from September 2016, but also that this is happening in our 40th year of existence.

Language & Linguistics teachers, circa 1986The establishment of the new School marks the latest stage in the development from small, but innovative, beginnings that can be traced back to the work of Dennis Freeborn. Dennis was originally a member of the English Literature department at the then College of Ripon and York St John. Having undertaking a sabbatical Master’s degree in Linguistics in the early 70s at York University, he returned to the College, determined to disseminate the insights of the systematic study of language to its students.  Initially offering inputs into already existing Teacher Education and French Language Programmes, Dennis began to lobby for a brand new subject area. The new Language Studies programme, as it was first known, was established in 1976, initially as a minor subject within a combined honours degree course. Such was its immediate popularity with students that it rapidly became a major area of study in 1979, offered on both the Ripon and the York campuses.

The new subject area was initially part of the Department of English, French and Language Studies. The archives show that the first modules included: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), First Language Acquisition, Language and Thought, Sociolinguistics, The History of the English Language and the Structure of Contemporary English as well as Principles, Methods and Theory of Linguistics. Conversation Analysis and Discourse Analysis were added in 1979. Language Studies eventually became a single honours subject in 2002.

At the same time as Language Studies was being born, French language teaching was also undergoing somewhat of a change on the Ripon campus. Until 1976, French had been taught only as a subject specialist area within a B. Ed (teacher education) degree.  The new academic year saw French becoming a subject within the BA combined honours programmes. Under the leadership of its new head of department, Robert Griffiths, the department also took a radically new approach to language teaching, abandoning the more traditional grammar translation and literature-based methods in favour of a far more usage-based model of foreign language teaching with a stronger emphasis on genuine spoken language in use. This philosophy of studying ‘real’ language –  one shared by Language Studies/Linguistics at York St John - is  one which has endured to the present day and has, no doubt, been at least partly responsible for foreign languages having consistently healthy recruitment figures against a backdrop of  general decline in foreign language numbers in Higher Education, nationally.

From the start, the study of languages and linguistics at York St John has punched well above its weight on the national and international stage. When English Language ’A’ level was first introduced in the UK, Dennis Freeborn was appointed as Chief Examiner of one of the earliest exam boards in preference to candidates from long-established university linguistics departments. Similarly, in the first Research Assessment Exercise in which the then college participated, Language Studies/Linguistics gained the prestigious rating (at the time) of a three, against that of a two achieved by some other linguistics departments that were considered to be considerably more prominent. Similarly, the French department was a pioneer in the development of international exchange programmes, with Robert Griffiths serving on the European committee that established the Erasmus exchange programmes. The Grenoble exchange, which was set up between the Ripon Campus and the University of Grenoble, was one of the very first pilot Joint Study Programmes to be funded by the EU. This exchange continues to the present day.  Once the Erasmus programme was fully inaugurated across Europe in 1987, more exchanges for both staff and students were added, including Malmö  (Sweden),  Brescia ( Italy), Ludwigsberg  (Germany) and the Vrije University in Amsterdam. By the early 1990s Languages and European Dimension modules were being offered on both campuses, heralding the arrival of the teaching of Italian, German and Spanish. The French department had thus become the department of Modern Foreign Languages (MFL).

Besides the shared philosophy of viewing authentic language in actual use as a subject for study, the two growing subject areas that were eventually destined to become the new School of 2016 have also shared a commitment to apply the insights of their own work to the real world, beyond the bounds of the institution. This has manifested itself largely in a particular focus on teaching, of first and of additional languages.   The first Masters programme to be taught in linguistics was aimed at supporting school teachers grappling with the English language demands of the new National Curriculum in the late 80s; while both subject areas have included staff involved in not only providing in-service courses hosted by the institution itself, but also in primary and secondary education consultancy work at local, regional and national level.  Equally, the International Languages and Short Courses Unit (ILASCU), which originally began as a very small offshoot from the linguistics department’s work in TESOL, has grown tremendously during the period of its existence, taking on a range of language support roles for students within York St John, as well as developing a thriving international section which, in its time, has taught English as a second language to clients of all ages and professions from around the world.  Despite having been an independent area for a number of years, International Programmes, as it is now called, returned to its academic home within Languages and Linguistics in 2015, thus completing the cycle and setting the scene for the creation of the new School of Languages and Linguistics in 2016

As this brief history shows, those early beginnings have seen our subject area go from strength to strength, supported and motivated by its philosophy of forward thinking and its collaborative outlook.  At the time of writing, the School provides a diverse range of undergraduate programmes, as well as five Masters programmes and supervision for doctoral research. Its second language offering has also developed from the original French to include Spanish, Japanese, British Sign Language and German at degree level, as well as offerings in Italian, Mandarin Chinese and, for the first time this year, Korean.  International Programmes, as well as teaching English for CPD and general and academic purposes, is now responsible for the running of the prestigious and internationally recognised CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English language to Adults), available to many of our undergraduate students, free of charge, as part of their degree programme.

Our 40th anniversary gives us the chance to reflect on the achievements of our students and staff, and on the values that underpin the work we do together. We are committed to continuing to engage in intellectually demanding research and teaching that enables global conversations about the essential role of language in all our lives and successfully challenges language-based prejudice wherever we may find it.

There are a number of 40th anniversary-themed events planned for 2016-7 for current students, alumni, and past and present staff. We hope that you will join us in our celebration of languages and linguistics at York St John!

Shirley Reay, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics (1996 - 2016)
September 5 2016

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E: school.ll@yorksj.ac.uk

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