Economic Worries Loom as UK Foreign Language Skills Lag

Studying French, German, or any foreign language has dropped to a record low in the UK, writes Graeme Paton of The Daily Telegraph. Paton says the number of A-levels in traditionally popular foreign languages has halved in the past 10 years, among other troubling statistics: 

• French A-levels have dropped more than 7% this year and 43% since 2000.

• Only 10,400 students took a foreign language exam, the lowest number ever, as compared to 18,200 in the late 1990s.

• German entries for A-levels have plummeted from 9,000 a decade ago to 4,200 this summer.

• More students are studying Latin and Ancient Greek than Germany, Europe’s strongest economy.

• There have been increases in recent years in the number of students taking exams for Spanish, but the numbers decreased this year.

Some say that the decline is related to the Labour government’s decision to change language courses to an elective in 2004.  Another theory is that some students feel it is too difficult to obtain a high grade in language studies.  A qualifications regulator Ofqual told exam officials that the method by which languages were tested needed to be changed since top grades were becoming less attainable.

Ministers are making languages compulsory in primary schools and have included them in a new General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) league table measure, the English Baccalaureate, which “ranks schools’ performance in a series of five core subjects”.  This has led to an increase in demand for languages at GCSE and AS-level, along with creating an impact on A-level entries in 2015.

Vicky Gough, schools adviser for the British Council, said: “The UK needs far more young people to learn languages to a high standard in order to stay competitive on the world stage, and to become the language teachers of the future.

“Understanding another language is key to understanding another culture – and that’s increasingly crucial for life and work.”

The 2014 CBI/Pearson education and skills survey found that many businesses consider knowledge of a foreign language a benefit (41%), and they find that knowing a foreign language can help build relations with overseas businesses (28%), says The Yorkshire Post.

The A-Level Content Advisory Board (ALCB), set up by the Russell Group, wants more than just more language students.  It wants students to realize that learning a new language can have a life-enhancing and passionate effect on the learner.  According to Dawn Marley of The Guardian, the Board wants students to have not just an understanding of the language, but a deeper understanding of the society, culture, and history of the country where the language is spoken.

Academia is not the only sector of the British population interested in seeing more foreign language learning take hold.  The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) want the government to make language lessons compulsory for students aged 7-16.   On the list of important factors for improving exporting in the UK, in the opinion of the BCC, is acquiring working capital from banks and the availability of employees with stronger language skills.

“There is no reason why we shouldn’t be matching the level of export support provided by our major international competitors, like Germany, which spends 10 times more on its bilateral Chamber Network than the UK,” he said.

In the latest BCC international trade survey, writes Helen Massy-Beresford reporting for The Daily Express, more than one-quarter of respondents said that language and cultural differences create a significant barrier to trading internationally.