Lost for words

In an in­creas­ingly glob­alised world, why are fewer stu­dents tak­ing up lan­guages than ever be­fore?

EDP Norfolk - - EDUCATION - WORDS: Fay Wat­son

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.’

ABOVE: Trav­el­ling over­seas is a great way to learn a lan­guage

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