Report on ab initio language teaching in UK language degree programmes


In June 2006 the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies (LLAS) set out to identify the extent and nature of ab initio language teaching in modern language degree programmes across the HE sector. A short questionnaire was included in the LLAS e-bulletin, which was emailed to everyone on the LLAS mailing list, and a paper version was circulated at the LLAS/CILT Conference in Cardiff.

Questionnaire responses were received from 31 people in 26 different institutions representing a good range of providers across the UK. The data presented below is per institution, i.e. duplicate responses from the same institution have been ignored but additional comments have been included.

Questionnaire analysis

Question 1: In your institution, which language degree programmes (and which languages) allow ab initio or sub A-level entry (please name all relevant programmes)?

Respondents reported a variety of programmes and languages:


  • The level of detail given by respondents varied so responses were difficult to analyse: some institutions gave a very full answer, listing all degree programmes where languages are available ab initio, while others only mentioned the languages involved
  • There are a variety of programmes on offer: major, minor, joint/combined (honours). Ab initio languages are often combined with subjects such as business, leisure and tourism, etc.
  • A variety of programme levels are on offer, e.g. 1st year only, post A-level standard, all years but not to degree level, and degree level
  • Of note is an intensive ab initio language course reported by one respondent, which brings the ab initio student wishing to major in German, Italian or Spanish up to level 4 (A-level standard) in one year and includes a 4-week vacation course abroad


Spanish was by far the most popular ab initio language reported (offered in 20 out of 26 institutions) followed by French (12), German (11) and Italian (10). 8 other languages were specified.

Languages No of institutions
Spanish 20
French 12
German 11
Italian 10
Portuguese 3
Catalan 2
Dutch 2
Arabic 1
Hebrew 1
Luxembourgish 1
Russian 1
Swedish 1
Central and East European languages (not specified) 1
Scandinavian languages (not specified) 1
Slavonic languages (not specified) 1
Languages not specified 3
None 1

16 institutions taking part in our survey offer 3 or more ab initio languages, with 3 institutions offering 5 languages. One respondent reported that they currently not offering any ab initio languages citing poor take-up when they tried offering minors in Spanish and Japanese, although this may be reviewed shortly.

No of ab initio languages on offer No of institutions
0 1
1 2
2 4
3 9
4 4
5 3
Not specified 3

Question 2: Do you also take A-level entry students on the programmes named above? Yes/No

A-level entry students are accepted onto the same programmes as ab initio students at nearly all of the institutions surveyed (22 out of the 26). At some institutions, A-level entry students are accepted onto some programmes but not others, e.g. at one institution they are admitted to the Dutch programme but not Swedish or Luxembourgish, while at another they are admitted to French, German, Italian and Spanish but not Catalan, and at another they are accepted onto Russian and Spanish but not Arabic or Italian. One respondent commented that A-level students are accepted onto all the programmes listed but that they follow a different pathway from the intensive route taken by the ab initio students.

A-level entry students accepted No of institutions
Yes 22
No 2
Question not answered 2

Question 3: What prior language learning experience do you require of ab initio entry students (e.g. good A-level in another language)?

There was a diverse range of responses to this question, ranging from no requirements at all (5 respondents) to good A-levels in 2 other languages (1 respondent). Several institutions were flexible in their entry requirements, accepting evidence of language learning ability, which could take the form of a good GCSE or AS/A-level in another language or a period of residence abroad. One institution surveyed assesses prior experiential learning through Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL). Motivation was mentioned by two institutions in relation to entry requirements. Data from two institutions has not been included in the table below as the two respondents from each institution provided contradictory information (possibly because they worked in different departments).

Prior language learning experience No of institutions
Evidence of language learning ability 5
No requirements / nothing 5
(Good) A-level in another/European language 4
(Good) GCSE in another/European language 4
Don’t know / question not answered 3
Depends on the programme -none for BA, leaving certificate higher pass (equivalent to A level) in a European language 1
Good A-levels in 2 other languages 1
Higher (in Scotland) 1

Question 4: What resources do you make available to support ab initio classes in Year 1 and beyond (e.g. additional contact hours)?

Additional contact hours was the most popular response with 18 out of 26 institutions surveyed making these available. Where respondents gave further details about additional contact hours, they ranged from between 1 additional hour to doubling the number of hours, and the additional hours were generally available during the first 2 years of the programme. Making additional resources available was also popular with 16 institutions reporting the use of language labs/self-access materials, virtual learning environments (e.g. Blackboard), online resources, Web CT and a wide range of teaching materials. Additional support from teaching staff came in the form of tutorials, drop-in sessions and face-to-face and/or email advice. The support of foreign language assistants was mentioned by 2 respondents. Additional support for grammar was highlighted by 4 respondents. Conversation classes are available to ab initio learners at one institution, another operates a tandem learning scheme, while another recommends that ab initio French language learners attend a residential school in the target language country but this is not compulsory.

Resources No of institutions
Additional contact hours 18
Additional materials/online resources: 16
Self access materials/language lab (7)
Blackboard/VLE (5)
Electronic self-study pack (1)
Online resources (1)
Web CT platform (1)
Wide range of teaching materials (1)
Grammar support: exercises/explanations/online grammar reference/drop-in sessions 4
Face-to-face/email advice/support 3
Tutorials (online/face-to-face) 3
FLA support 2
Question not answered 2
Blended learning 1
Conversation classes 1
Independent learning guided tasks 1
Language workshops and advisory sessions 1
Residential school 1
Tandem learning scheme 1

Question 5: If you have ab initio and A-level entry onto language programmes, when are the beginners deemed to have caught up with the rest of the cohort? Year 1, Year 2, Year 3, Year 4

Again, there was a range of responses to this question. 11 respondents felt that ab initio learners have caught up during year 4 or by the end of year 3, and several people mentioned the determining factor of the year abroad. Interestingly, one respondent commented that ab initio students are deemed to have caught up by year 2 at the moment, but from 2006/7 it will be year 3. Data from two institutions has not been included in the table below as the two respondents from each institution provided contradictory information (possibly because they worked in different departments).

When are ab initio students deemed to have caught up? No of institutions
Year 4 6
Year 3 5
Year 2 5
N/A / never 4
Year 1 2
Question not answered 2

Conclusions and next steps

Our survey indicates that there is no standard ab initio language provision in the UK higher education sector. The questionnaire responses have raised a number of further questions, which we aim to investigate further, e.g.

  • What are the main issues/concerns?
  • How would you teach ab initio languages under ideal circumstances?
  • How do institutions cope where A-level entry is not a requirement?
  • Why is Spanish so popular - student demand or institution-led?