Skip to Content

Spectator Schools - Features

Language learning: we’re more tongue-tied than ever

Since it became optional for over-14s in 2002, studying another lingo has been slowly dying out in schools

10 September 2016

9:00 AM

10 September 2016

9:00 AM

Picture the scene: an Englishman loudly-ordering food in a Parisian restaurant. The waiter rolls his eyes at the customer’s stubborn commitment to soldiering on in English, and everyone in the-vicinity has the good grace to look suitably embarrassed. This may sound like a tired 1970s stereotype. Except, tragically, it’s just as likely to serve as a prophecy for our future.

Three quarters of the UK’s residents are unable to hold a conversation in any language other than English. This reluctance — or lack of interest — is echoed in this summer’s academic results. This year the number of entries to French GCSE exams fell by 8.1 per cent compared to 2015, while German entries dropped by 7 per cent. A-level French entries also fell by over 6 per cent, alongside a 4.2 per cent decrease in German. Spanish, happily, enjoyed a boost, but the overall picture is one of woe.

The UK has carried a mantle of infamous linguistic laziness for decades, instead relying on diligent foreigners to learn English in order to make conversation. But in this age of Brexit, are we reaching the point where English alone will no longer cut it? Back in 2002, around 76% of GCSE students studied a language. Two years later, Labour made teaching-languages to-children aged over 14 optional, rather than compulsory. The decision sparked a rapid decline in the number of pupils opting to take languages, with the percentage of students sitting a language GCSE sinking to 40 per cent in 2011. This year, out of a total of 4,556,099 GCSE exam entries, only 334,355 were in a modern foreign language — just 7.35 per cent.

An attempt at backpedalling by the Tories saw the announcement of the English Baccalaureate in 2010. This required children to study English, maths, a-science, a foreign language and a humanity to reverse the perceived ‘dumbing down’ of GCSEs. Amid vigorous opposition from the Lib Dems and teachers, the plan was at first watered down to become simply a school perform-ance indicator. It was finally implemented last year, starting with September’s Year 7 intake, who are expected to study EBacc subjects to the age of 16.

However, language studies have been suffering thanks to another official initiative, says Vicky Gough, schools adviser at the British Council. She explains: ‘The government really got behind the promotion of Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, often to the detriment of-languages.’ It is now, she reveals, very hard to find teachers with a GCSE or higher in a foreign language and the proficiency to teach it — a difficult job-within the age-old time constraints of having as little as an hour a week to cover a range of topics. It’s also widely accepted that it’s harder to get a high grade in a language. A-level students hoping to get into top universities are less likely to take a-gamble on French or German, and choose instead subjects with more transparent grading-structures. The examination system is perpetuating these negative-attitudes towards language learning, for both students and teachers, Gough believes.


The declining numbers are already having an effect. In May this year the exam board OCR announced it would no longer offer any modern foreign languages. Three years ago Professor Mike Kelly, a former government adviser, warned that around 40 per cent of the UK’s university language departments faced closure within a decade, and so few-students choose languages at A-level that some state schools have suggested they’re no longer financially viable to teach.

It’s difficult to forecast the fallout from Brexit, but UK membership of Erasmus, an EU-funded scheme helping the young to study, travel and work abroad may also be under threat, as Ross Clark highlights on page 25.

Do these bleak statistics matter? Given that English is the most widely-spoken-language in the world, you could argue that we don’t need to bother learning others. Anyway, surely modern technology and its innumerable translation services will come to our rescue?

Well, perhaps our lazy attitude is what got us into this mess in the first place. That’s what Rosie Parsons, a 27-year-old teacher believes. Rosie, who studied French at GCSE, A-level and to degree level, says: ‘Learning a language is a long, slow slog. People in this day and age tend to want instant results and gratification — they can’t be bothered to work for something. It took me around 11 years to become properly fluent.’

She warns that as the generation of children who opted out of languages start working as teachers, the cycle is likely to worsen. ‘It takes around a decade for the implications of that kind of decision to be felt, which won’t aid the recruitment crisis in teaching in general, or the teaching of languages.’

She’s not wrong. An estimated 3,500 language teachers are required to help fulfil the promises of the EBacc, according to research body Education Datalab.

The buck does not stop with academia. The UK’s lack of language skills is thwarting our international trade performance at a cost of £50 billion annually, according to the British Council. As second, third and even fourth languages become increasingly commonplace in the global workforce, we are rapidly being left behind. ‘Abroad, speaking English is regarded as a basic skill, just like IT skills,’ says Gough. ‘We need to address how we present learning languages and the opportunities that will open up.’

When it comes to pointing a finger at the reasons for the death of language learning in Britain, perhaps we have no one to blame but our own lazy selves.

Modern Foreign Language GCSEs and A-levels: How things stand now

  • In May the OCR examination board shocked the education world by announcing that from this academic year, it will no longer be offering GCSEs or A-levels in modern foreign languages, including the ‘big three’: French, German and Spanish.
  • The board said it had taken the decision to pull out of modern foreign languages ‘reluctantly’. The good news is that fewer than 10 per cent of modern foreign language students currently take the OCR exams and the other two boards, AQA and Pearson (formerly Edexcel), will continue to offer these languages.
  • Meanwhile, new specifications at both GCSE and A-level will be developed by Pearson in the following ‘less commonly taught languages’, which they already offer: Arabic, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Modern Greek, Russian and Urdu. Teaching in the reformed versions will start either next year or in 2018.
  • AQA will continue to offer GCSE and A-level Bengali, Modern Hebrew, Panjabi and Polish, with a start for the new-style specifications in September 2018. They will offer Chinese, Italian and Urdu at GCSE only.
  • The OCR’s withdrawal from language exams has resulted in the other two awarding bodies agreeing ‘in principle’ to offer in future the majority of the less commonly taught languages which OCR offered. However, no arrangements have been made to secure the future of Dutch, which will therefore be examined for the last time in the UK in 2018.
  • OCR has a sister board, the Cambridge International Examinations board (CIE), which will continue to offer a wide range of lesser-taught languages at GCSE and A-level, such as Afrikaans, Hindi, Khazakh and Malay.
  • Despite the general decline of modern foreign languages taught in schools, Spanish is increasing in popularity. GCSE Spanish exam entries have risen from 29,000 in 1995 to 85,000 last year. Spanish could soon overtake French as the most popular foreign language A-level, with only 1,400 fewer entries last year. Spanish comes top of the British Council’s list of the ten most important languages for Britain’s future, with Arabic second and French third.
  • Polish, the UK’s second most spoken language, also has increasing numbers of A-level entries, and the number of entrants over the last five years for GCSE Polish has gone up by half.

    Compiled by the Council for Independent Education (www.cife.org.uk)

Show comments
Close