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Action needed to avert the crisis in UK language learning, report warns

A new Higher Education Policy Institute report has lambasted the UK’s current approach to learning foreign languages, revealing that just 32% of 16-to-30-year olds in the UK feel confident reading and writing in another language, compared to the rest of the EU’s 89% average.

Image: HEPI

Fewer than half of GCSE pupils now take a foreign language, compared to 76% in 2002

According to the report, ‘A Languages Crisis?’  the UK total is less than half the level in the second-placed EU country Hungary (71%), and far behind France (79%), Germany (91%) and Denmark (99%).

However, the country is no stranger to being criticised for its lack of foreign language skills as studying a language at GCSE level has not been compulsory in England, Wales and Northern Ireland since 2004.

“Brexit means it is more urgent than ever that we re-evaluate our attitudes towards languages”

Author of the report and third-year classics undergraduate at the University of Oxford, Megan Bowler, described it as a big mistake to scrap compulsory foreign languages at GCSE.

“Rather than continuing to present languages as not suitable for everyone, we need to include a broader range of pupils learning through a variety of qualifications geared to different needs,” said Bowler.

“Given the shortage of language skills in the workforce, we should safeguard higher education language courses, particularly those involving less widely-taught languages, and prioritise extra-curricular language learning opportunities for students from all disciplines.”

The report also calls for more flexible study options, varied course content and an increase in teachers including listing all language teachers on the Home Office’s Shortage Occupation List, where currently only Mandarin Chinese tutors make the cut.

“The cultural and political implications of Brexit mean it is more urgent than ever that we re-evaluate our attitudes towards languages,” continued Bowler.

Commenting on the findings of the report, HEPI director Nick Hillman described the decision to make GCSE languages voluntary as probably the single most damaging education policy implemented in England so far this century”.

“The problems this has caused are now hitting university Languages Departments hard.

“Student numbers for French and German have almost halved since 2010 and, for Italian, they have fallen by around two-thirds,” he said.

Fewer than half of GCSE pupils now take a foreign language, compared to 76% in 2002, with notable socio-economic and regional divides that led the British Council to warn last year against a “growing socio-economic division in language teaching”.

Most state schools offer language courses in either one or a mix of French, German and Spanish. However, the variation between schools means that in some areas there is no guarantee that the language can be continued at A-Level when a student transfers from secondary school to sixth form.

By contrast, more and more private and independent schools are offering courses in Mandarin Chinese, Arabic and Russian.

The report was released the day after an announcement that British MPs had voted against a motion requiring officials to negotiate continuing full membership of the Erasmus+ program, which offers exchange opportunities abroad for students.

“The assumption that ‘the rest of the world speaks English’ hinders new international collaborations”

Those that voted against it include former education secretary Michael Gove, current education secretary Gavin Williamson and minister of state for universities Chris Skidmore.

Despite the failings of the education system, there remains a demand and desire among British citizens to learn foreign languages.

According to an article in 2019, more than half of UK adults wish they had kept up the foreign languages they learned in school and regret not making the most of studying languages when they had the chance, while 77% believe language skills increase employability.

The report concludes that if the UK is to thrive outside the EU, language skills cannot be ignored.

“The assumption that ‘the rest of the world speaks English’ hinders new international collaborations and overlooks cultural and cognitive enhancement developed by learning. Political developments mean change is more pressing… the UK must address educational declines.”

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