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Choosing to study modern foreign languages: Discourses of value as forms of cultural capital

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)462-480
Issue number4
Early online date27 Jun 2016
Accepted/In press16 Apr 2016
E-pub ahead of print27 Jun 2016
Published1 Aug 2018


King's Authors


In this paper I present the widely reported crisis of modern foreign languages study through a discourse perspective. I review the ‘problem’ of languages uptake in English schools and then present a qualitative study for which groups of 14 year-olds from different schools were asked to discuss their choices either to continue studying or to drop modern languages. To interpret findings I drew on Bourdieusian social practice theory and Foucault’s notion of the discursive field, which seeks to identify the power dynamic inherent in naturalized discourses, such as, in this case, language learning is a worthy enterprise. Findings suggest that we need to rethink the way languages are perceived as opportunity by different stakeholders: students most favourably disposed to language study perceive languages in more holistic ways, embedded across actual and projected networks and educational and career pathways. Most significantly, the value of language study as an asset is articulated as a form of cultural capital in an educational discourse of liberal, humanistic tradition of education rather than purely as an instrumental goal.

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