In the build up to this year’s highly anticipated Modern Foreign Language Conference we look back at a conversation with Vicky Gough from the British Council, exploring the future of language learning in the UK ahead of last year's Conference.
What are the major trends being seen in language teaching in England?
The British Council’s Language Trends Survey 2018 reveals a widening gap in pupils’ access to study foreign languages with uptake being disproportionately lower at state schools in more disadvantaged areas. The survey found that schools in the most disadvantaged circumstances – with the highest proportion of pupil eligibility for free school meals – are over three times more likely to have low participation at GCSE level and no plans for this to improve, when compared with schools with a pupil cohort in the most affluent circumstances.
This means that there is a widening gap between those schools that are prioritising languages and those where uptake is low and showing little sign of change. The survey also found that schools in the most disadvantaged circumstances are more than twice as likely to dedicate less teaching time to languages at Key Stage 3. Boys are far less likely to take a language than girls. At A Level, 63% of candidates are female and 37% male, while the split at GCSE is 56% and 44%.
In terms of which languages are being taught, while uptake of French and German at GCSE and A Level has dramatically fallen over the last two decades, there has been a significant rise for Spanish. These trends have continued this year, with French and German both falling to a new low of 8,300 and 3,300 entries respectively at A Level, while Spanish has risen to 7,600 entries. Based on current trends, Spanish will overtake French as England’s most widely taught modern language at A Level by 2020 and at GCSE by 2025.
A perception that languages are less important than other subjects persists, with just over a third (34%) of state secondary schools reporting that there has been a negative impact on student motivation or parental attitudes towards learning languages as a consequence of the decision to leave the European Union.
In primary schools the national picture is relatively consistent with findings from last year. Around 80% of schools allocate on average 30 minutes to an hour per week for language learning, although teachers report that this is often irregular or eroded by other priorities.
Why is language learning so important for skill development and meeting employer’s needs?
We know that learning a foreign language can open doors, not only by helping us understand what people are saying but also through developing understanding of other cultures. These vital skills are much sought after by employers. UK business groups have suggested poor language skills are holding back the country’s international trade performance at a cost of almost £50 billion a year. According to a Confederation of British Industry report, employer satisfaction with UK school and college leavers’ language skills stands at a low of 34%.
At the British Council we believe that at a time when it is more important than ever that the UK forges new relationships around the world, languages need to be championed and treated as a national priority so that young people are equipped with the knowledge and skills to live and work in a global economy.
What are the solutions to support improvements in uptake and engagement in MFL learning in the future?
The Government has developed policies to encourage the uptake of languages and measures like the introduction of compulsory languages in primary schools and the English Baccalaureate in secondary schools have signalled the importance of languages.
We need to look at ways in which we can encourage our young people to be enthused to study languages at school – and get the adequate funding for those opportunities. Protecting opportunities to engage with native speakers through school exchanges and visits, through hosting a Language Assistant and schemes like Erasmus+ is vital.
We know there is a perception among some students and parents that foreign languages are more difficult to learn and harder to achieve high grades in compared with other subjects. There is also a perception that they are not as useful or important as STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), which may also be causing a drop in participation.
The situation may also be exacerbated by tight school budgets which require minimum numbers of students for a course to run. Small pupil groups can make it unviable for a school to provide foreign languages on the curriculum, so it’s important that more is done to demonstrate their value as important subjects to study.
What languages should we be teaching?
The British Council’s recent ‘Language for the Future’ report identified Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, French, Arabic and German as the foreign languages the UK will need most following Brexit. These top five languages for the UK’s prosperity were identified based on extensive analysis of economic, geopolitical, cultural and educational factors. The top five are significantly ahead of the next five languages in the ranking (which were Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Japanese and Russian).
However, the UK is currently facing a languages deficit. Recent research has shown that the percentage of 18-34 year olds who can hold a basic conversation in the top five languages is as follows: French (14%); German (8%); Spanish (7%); Mandarin (2%) and Arabic (2%). Only a third of Britons can hold a conversation in another language besides their mother tongue.
International awareness and skills – such as the ability to connect with people globally beyond English – will become more vital than ever when the UK leaves the European Union. Languages are invaluable for a generation growing up in an increasingly connected world. If the UK is to be truly global post-Brexit, languages must become a national priority.