British students enjoy the advantage of speaking one of the most popular languages in the world, but as Anne Marie Graham of The Guardian explains, that doesn’t mean that the country can get complacent about the declining number of students learning foreign languages in school. A-levels in foreign languages have been declining for more than ten years, and if this trend continues, Brits could risk finding themselves increasingly isolated from the rest of the world.
Only 44% of those taking GCSEs this year took exams in foreign languages. Even though this represents an increase from the year before – thanks, in part, to the adoption of the English Baccalaureate as a measure of school performance – how many of those will continue those studies at A-Levels is hard to predict.
Also hard to predict will be how many students will be discouraged from pursuing foreign language A-Levels because they will not get the highest possible grade.
Ofqual is now investigating concerns that language A-levels are marked harder than other subjects, much to the relief of language teachers who have been pointing this out for years. The drive towards studying a subject where you will achieve the highest possible grade is a challenge for languages, where subjectivity will always be an issue.
In the short term, fewer A-level students means fewer university students with a language skill. This won’t just affect language undergraduate courses, although they are closing at an alarming rate. Students with a language A-level go on to study other subjects too. The skills they develop, including research and analytical writing, prepare them for a range of academic disciplines. Most importantly, that linguistic competence can give them the confidence to access internationalopportunities during their degree.
Although experts in higher education have long put the decline in the number of students taking advantage of overseas academic opportunities down to excessive costs, Graham believes that language presents just as much of a barrier. She points to the fact that even in Europe, where Erasmus funding is available to students who need financial assistance, Britain lags far behind other counties in sending pupils abroad.
In 2010/11, the UK sent 12,833 students on an Erasmus study or work placement, whereas Spain sent 36,183, France 31,747 and Germany 30,274. Of those 12,833, nearly half were from language programmes. Beyond the EU, we exchange relatively few students with countries such as Brazil, India, Turkey or China (all speakers of less widely taught languages).
David Willets, the universities minister, appears to have the right idea. As part of his outward student mobility strategy, he is looking to encourage those who don’t speak foreign languages to apply for oversees placements so that they can pick up rudiments of foreign languages there.
The priority must be to continue working with schools and colleges to inspire people to pursue these important subjects at university. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) project to boost demand for modern foreign language courses is a good example of work already underway, Meanwhile the Department for Education is gambling the nation’s linguistic future on compulsory language learning at primary level. While a commendable initiative, there’s no guarantee that the seven year-olds learning French or Chinese from this September will go on to an A-level in the subject, or indeed that there will even be university language departments to teach their future teachers.