Lost for words
In an increasingly globalised world, why are fewer students taking up languages than ever before?
Digital advancements, international development and availability of travel have seen the UK become one of the most globalised countries in the world – and right at the heart of this growth is the country’s young people. This is especially the case given that 57% of state secondary schools in England report that they have more than six languages spoken in the playgrounds, according to the British Council.
Yet, as research from the BBC revealed in February of this year, there have been large drops of between 30% and 50% of those taking GCSE language courses in the worst affected areas in England. Research by the British Academy in August 2018 backs up the effect this is having on higher education with A-level take up and university take up also on the decline. For example, in 2018 students studying German A-level fell by 16% compared to 2017, with French also falling by 8% in the same time frame.
It’s an issue that is felt more acutely by poorer areas of England, according to the British Council’s Language Trends Survey 2018, which also revealed a widening gap in pupils’ access to study as those in poorer areas are more likely to miss out on language-learning opportunities.
There is much finger pointing about the reasons behind the drop, with some schools blaming lack of budgets to support small numbers of students taking up languages and others citing that the subject is deemed too difficult by pupils. But according to Vicky Gough, who is the Schools Advisor at the British Council, a big turning point was when the study of languages became optional in 2004, with the other factors tied into this. ‘More widely,’ she adds, ‘there’s a view that languages may not be as useful for students. Plus, there’s the assumption that “everyone speaks English anyway”.’
However, the problem remains that language skills are still highly sought after by employers and this trend seems to be putting applicants at a disadvantage. ‘Students with experience abroad on Erasmus + [a European Union
student exchange programme established in 1987] already have an unemployment rate 23% lower than that of non-mobile students,’ Vicky tells me. ‘Our young people need languages to get ready for the mobile and inter-connected jobs of the future. Learning a foreign language open doors by providing vital skills much sought after by employers.’
It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as provisional BBC data also shows a surge in other languages like Spanish and Mandarin in the curriculum. The latter is the subject of a big push at the moment with the launch of the new Mandarin Excellence Programme, designed by UCL, the Department for Education and the British Council. The programme aims to support schools in England to teach students four hours of teachertaught Mandarin lessons a week with the aim of getting 5,000 pupils on track for fluency by 2020.
This is all promising, but Vicky points out that it is French and German which are still currently the UK’s biggest non-English-speaking trading partners and are much sought after by employers. ‘We urgently need to look at ways in which we can encourage our young people to want to study languages at school and find funding for those opportunities.’ Ideas for supporting this include increasing school exchange schemes, supporting bilingual children in our classrooms and reducing the stigma around the difficulty of the subject.
It seems certain however that this is a subject that will only become more relevant as we globalise further. ‘The world is increasingly mobile, connected and multilingual,’ Vicky agrees. ‘Young people need to have the right skills for the future. The UK has to forge new relationships around the world and languages need to be championed.’
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