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UK: Gap widening in foreign language learning

Access to foreign language learning is restricting for pupils in disadvantaged areas in England, a new British Council survey has revealed. And while French and German are decreasing in popularity, Spanish could become England’s main modern language in secondary schools in the next decade.

Spanish is set to become England's most studied foreign language. Photo: sgrunden/Pixabay

The findings reveal that foreign language uptake is “disproportionately lower” at state schools in more disadvantaged areas

The findings of the Language Trends Survey 2018 show that foreign language uptake is “disproportionately lower” at state schools in more disadvantaged areas.

“There is a commercial value to modern foreign language expertise as well as an intrinsic value”

Taking the pulse of the language learning culture in England since 2002, the survey this year included responses from teachers at over 650 state secondary schools, 690 state primary schools and 130 independent secondary schools.

While the overall proportion of students taking a foreign language to GCSE (year 11 exam) has fallen two percentage points to 47%, schools with a higher proportion of students eligible for free school meals are over three times more likely to have low language uptake.

They are also twice as likely to dedicate less teaching time to foreign languages in earlier years when foreign language study is still compulsory.

In primary schools, teachers report dedicating about 30 minutes a week to language learning, although that time can get eroded by “other priorities”.

The government has set a target for 75% of pupils to study a language at GCSE level by 2022.

While about 80% of independent schools have reached that target, only 29% of state institutions have, although the percentage has risen by four points since last year, evidencing a wide gap between the two sectors.

In addition, the percentage of state schools where only a quarter of students take a foreign language to GCSE level has risen to 23% from 19% last year.

The report flags up a rising “perception” that languages are less important than other subjects: over a third of state secondary schools reported that student motivation and parental attitudes have worsened as a consequence of the decision to leave the EU.

Maria Norton, freelance language consultant and author of “A Language-Rich Future for the UK” in Languages After Brexit: How the UK speaks to the world, told The PIE News that there are some unhelpful assumptions surrounding language learning – and that the benefits of foreign language learning should be available for all.

“Language learning is of benefit to all:  it enhances functions such as attention, memory, critical thinking and problem-solving, as demonstrated by cognitive science research,” she said.

“There is a commercial value to modern foreign language expertise as well as an intrinsic value.

“While Switzerland can claim a 9% boost to its economy due to its multilingual workforce, the UK experiences a £50m or 3.5% GDP loss due to a lack of language skills.”

Other findings reveal that while uptake of French and German has fallen dramatically, Spanish is increasing in popularity – so much so that the Council predicts it will overtake French as the most widely taught modern language at A Level by 2020 and at GCSE by 2025.

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One Response to UK: Gap widening in foreign language learning

  1. Let’s blame Brexit shall we? No. The arguments for and against language learning in the UK have been raging for decades.
    It’s good to see demand for Spanish is on the rise but in terms of catching up with the modern world it’s languages such as Mandarin, Arabic and indeed Spanish which should be promoted more.
    French and German are, indeed, worthy languages to learn but in reality knowledge of the above three languages would nowadays probably open up more employment opportunities for UK graduates and others.
    Furthermore, until companies see knowledge of a language as an essential rather than preferable requirement and actually be willing to pay well for people with such skills, then I can’t see the situation changing.
    To suggest a decline in demand for language learning in view of Brexit is frankly rubbish!

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