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The language laboratory, once a familiar venue to every language student, in 1990. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, University of Otago Photographic Unit records, MS-4185/030, S15-500c.

The language laboratory, once a familiar venue to every language student, in 1990. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, University of Otago Photographic Unit records, MS-4185/030, S15-500c.

Various modern languages have come and gone from the Otago curriculum over the years and their fortunes show a fascinating link with world geopolitics. While Latin and Greek were there from the beginning, modern languages started in 1875, with classes in German, French and Italian. Italian didn’t make it far – there was just one student in that first class and it was never repeated! French and German had the advantage through the years of being taught widely at high schools, always an important factor in recruiting students at university level. They were also useful for anybody with scholarly interests, since much scholarly publishing, from sciences to theology, was in German or French until English became more dominant in the mid-twentieth century. This was one of the rationales for compulsory languages in all university degrees.

Apart from a two-year suspension in the 1870s while the university sought a replacement lecturer, French has remained on the Otago syllabus throughout, but the German programme became a victim of World War I. Early in 1915 Frank Campbell, the German lecturer, had no choice but to resign, for he had no students; Otago students in the grip of patriotic fervour were not prepared to learn the language of their enemy. The university council regretted ‘the removal, even for a time, of so important a study as that of German from the subjects of instruction within the University.’ German classes commenced again in 1918, catering for science students who now had to demonstrate a reading knowledge of foreign languages to complete their degree.

The German programme slowly rebuilt and was boosted by the arrival of new lecturer Felix Grayeff in 1939. By contrast with World War I, German classes actually expanded during World War II. New Zealand society had obviously matured a little, and it presumably helped, also, that Grayeff was a Prussian Jew who might earn some sympathy from the most patriotic supporter of the allied cause. He was a classicist who had difficulty obtaining teaching work in Germany due to his religion.

Geopolitics also played a role in the next major development in languages at Otago, as the prolonged Cold War heightened local interest in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union; this coincided with an increase in scientific publications in Russian. In 1960 the Department of Modern Languages began offering Russian tutorials as an option for those who had to pass a compulsory foreign language reading test, and a year later a degree programme in Russian commenced. In 1969 the expanding Department of Modern Languages divided into three: the German, French and Russian departments.

New Zealand’s growing economic, diplomatic and cultural ties with Asia prompted the next additions to the language programme. A 1991 working party set up by vice-chancellor Robin Irvine reported that Asian studies were critical to the future of both university and nation. Though Otago offered papers relating to Asia in various departments, there were no Asian languages taught. Other than Lincoln, all other New Zealand universities had Asian language programmes, and Otago ‘would find itself at a steadily worsening competitive disadvantage if corrective measures are not taken urgently.’ Undergraduate language courses in Mandarin Chinese and Japanese commenced in 1993, with classes of 26 and 132 respectively. The greater popularity of Japanese reflected New Zealand’s closer trade and tourism ties with that country than with Chinese-speaking nations in that period, together with the widespread teaching of Japanese in secondary schools.

Despite the encouraging introduction of Japanese and Chinese, the 1990s was a troubled decade for Otago’s language programmes. Tighter funding, closely linked to student enrolments, placed small departments like those of the languages in jeopardy. Russian, which had evolved from the Department of Russian and Soviet Studies into the the Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies following the collapse of the Soviet Union, was the smallest department in the humanities with very few students and large budget blowouts; it closed at the end of 1997. This prompted wide protests, for the department, renowned for its eccentricity, was held in much affection around the university. The closure reflected a declining local interest in things Russian as world politics evolved – as one-time lecturer Peter Stupples comments, Russian ‘came in because of politics and went out because of politics’.

Meanwhile, a 1997 report noted that Spanish was ‘important as a Pacific Rim language. South and Central America are likely to become of greater significance to the future of New Zealand, both commercially and culturally, in the coming decade.’ Otago was developing exchange agreements with universities in Chile and Peru, short courses in Spanish were proving popular at Otago Polytechnic, and Auckland and several Australian universities had introduced very successful Spanish programmes. Otago commenced Spanish courses in 2001 and they proved popular from the very start, attracting 340 students to the first paper offered. By 2003 there were 394 students enrolled in undergraduate Spanish papers, making it the most popular language on offer (te reo Maori excluded – for the history of Maori language teaching at Otago, see this earlier post).

The success of the Spanish programme prompted Otago into a new language venture: in 2003 it became the only New Zealand university to offer teaching in Portuguese. This was a strategic decision to strengthen the university’s Latin American and European offerings and aid its exchange programmes with two Brazilian universities. Classes carried on for a few years, but did not attract sufficient interest to survive.

The most recent language added to the schedule reflects New Zealand’s growing involvement with the Middle East. Introductory Arabic language was first taught as a Summer School paper in 2005, following requests from students. This was a convenient way for the university to introduce a new language, since it could be taught, like many Summer School papers, by a visiting lecturer. Arabic has since appeared several times on the Summer School programme, attracting both local and international students. It has not, however, progressed beyond first-year level.

Otago’s Department of Languages and Cultures, created in 2003 by combining the departments of French and German and the other language programmes, now teaches five core languages at both undergraduate and postgraduate level – Chinese, French, German, Japanese and Spanish. I wonder where our ever-changing world will lead us next!

The German play, a popular annual event since 1954. This production was in 2002. Image courtesy of Alyth Grant.

The German play, a popular annual event since 1954. This production was in 2002. Image courtesy of Alyth Grant.