The shortage of foreign language skills in the UK is now a permanent preoccupation, with some sources placing the estimated cost of the deficit as high as £48 billion a year. Britons are now seen as a “nation of monoglots” and ridiculed when attempting to communicate in international contexts.
But part of the problem is that although teenagers recognise the need to learn languages, few are doing so – and even fewer are studying non-traditional languages such as Mandarin, Arabic, Russian and Turkish, which are only available in a handful of schools.
The UK’s poor reputation for languages is not surprising. A 2012 European survey found that only 39% of UK respondents felt able to hold a basic conversation in a language other than English. For those who could, this was most likely to be French (19%) or German (6%).
In England, less than half of 16-year-olds now take a language at GCSE and only 8% continue to A Level. University entries for languages continue to drop, as does the number of university language courses on offer.
This may in time be tempered by the move to make languages compulsory for seven to 11-year-olds at Key Stage 2 from this September, plus £1.8m of funding offered by the government for school-centred training and support.
The introduction of the English Baccalaureate – a league table measure in which schools are rewarded for pupils who get a C grade or above in five key subjects, including a language – appears to have boosted language take-up at GCSE. Beyond that, there are early signs that the “Ebacc effect” has begun to increased the numbers studying French, Spanish and German at AS Level.
Proposed A Level reforms also promise to reinvigorate students’ passion for languages – particularly for French, German and Spanish – by promoting a higher level of intellectual challenge and cultural understanding.
Beyond the big three
It is encouraging to see the recognition of a need for foreign language skills moving beyond media rhetoric towards actual policy changes. But while the nation is trapped in a “vicious cycle of monolingualism”, language education itself appears unable to move beyond the three modern foreign languages mainly taught in British schools and universities.
Of the ten languages listed as “most important for the UK’s future” according to a 2013 British Council report, French, German and Spanish represent 92% of languages GCSE entries, the other seven accounting for only 6%.
So how do schools decide what languages to offer? Our preliminary research points mainly towards tradition. French, for instance, appears to be the dominant language taught because it has always been so – for historical, economic or geographical reasons. Similar reasons explain the relative prevalence of German and, more recently, Spanish.
The decision to start providing a new foreign language is, of course, extremely difficult for a school that has gathered significant teaching resources for one of the “traditional” languages over the years. This difficulty is compounded by the limited number of graduates with skills in less common languages and the language teacher supply shortage. So it is understandable that many schools have been reluctant to make changes.
Employers report that they cannot find the necessary linguistic abilities among UK school leavers. The most critical shortage is recorded in languages of the fastest-growing markets: Russian and Mandarin. This is thought to be one of the reasons why many UK employers recruit non-UK graduates.
What attracts children to languages?
Yet at the age when most students decide whether or not to study a language, employment prospects may not feel particularly relevant. Research shows that 14-year-olds in English schools can be very aware of the importance of languages in society and still decide not to study them.
The 600 pupils who took part in our recent study mentioned more than 20 languages they would have liked to study, had they had the opportunity. They also showed a remarkable level of insight regarding the usefulness and personal satisfaction of knowing a foreign language.
In the schools we worked with, which offered French, German or Spanish, half the pupils chose to study a language the following year based on their perceptions of previous lessons and whether they considered languages to be important in their own lives.
For example, they were interested in multilingual social media, online gaming, and understanding the culture of children from other countries. Many also mentioned travelling abroad as another reason influencing their decision, which echoes the stereotypical perception that language skills are mostly needed for business and travel.
Languages at our fingertips
But we do not need to travel far to be able to learn a language. Smartphone apps, for example, have opened up a range of new possibilities for language learning. While in Britain the focus is still very much on the “traditional” foreign languages, modern technology is attracting a new demographic to what was traditionally considered an elite skill.
An invaluable, though often overlooked, resource that many British schools have are bilingual children themselves, or students with English as an additional language. Without valuing and nurturing the multilingual skills that these young people bring into our classrooms and society, we will struggle to convert our language advocacy into meaningful change.
It is also difficult to succeed without real support for the most accessible role models our children have: language teachers. Schools with a multilingual ethos, which keep alive the passion that brought linguists into the classroom, are schools that buck the downward language trend. With adequate support and encouragement, teachers will be the first to question the sustainability of self-perpetuating practices and propose ways to expand and develop provision.