For a number of years now, the provision of languages in British schools and universities has been in decline. Yet, as Brexit looms largely on the horizon, there has been much talk in the media and from politicians about the need for a “global Britain”.
Arguably, a country can only really be global and outward looking if language skills are considered essential for its citizens. The government seems to share this view – at least to some extent. This is reflected in the fact that the Department of Education has provided funding to open a National Centre for Excellence for Language Pedagogy and to roll out a cross-sector mentoring project, which was piloted very successfully in Wales.
The Welsh Language Act dates back to 1993, and a language strategy document for Northern Ireland was published in 2012. Scotland’s National Centre for Languages was established in 1991, but there is still no national policy on languages in England or the UK as a whole.
This is despite the fact that a survey by the European Commission shows that 62% of the UK population only speak English, and that children in the UK are the worst in Europe for learning foreign languages.
A precarious situation
A number of surveys, such as the annual British Council survey of English primary and secondary schools, reports on the falling numbers of pupils participating in language learning. This is a decline that started in 2004, when languages were taken out of the compulsory curriculum in secondary schools.
There was a rise in the number of pupils taking languages in 2011 as a result of the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBACC) – which has a language as a core subject. However, this increase proved to be shortlived, despite the government’s ambition for 90% of pupils to gain the EBACC by 2025.
Unsurprisingly, this challenging situation for languages in secondary education is having a knock-on effect on the higher education sector – many languages departments are facing declining numbers, and around 40% of university departments offering degrees in languages were closed in the past two decades.
In 2014, the Guardian commissioned a survey which questioned young people about learning languages. The survey identified some of the main benefits people perceive to be linked to learning languages. This includes: better job prospects abroad, talking to other people, learning about another culture, learning another skill, and incentive to travel.
On the other hand, perceived downsides were seen as languages being difficult, the predominance of English, and that the way languages are taught in schools is “not useful in real life”.
To find out more about why young people choose (not) to study a language, we surveyed 107 students that were studying a language at Lancaster University or the University of Nottingham. This includes students who studied a language as an optional module to complement their main degree course, as well as those who studied a language as part of their degree.
Our survey showed that for the vast majority of these degree students (over 90%) and students taking optional modules (over 75%) their main motivation was enjoyment as well as a genuine interest in the language and the countries where it is spoken. This aspect ranks much higher than “employability skills” – despite this often being the main angle under which languages are promoted.
Students do, however, realise and appreciate the broad range of transferable skills gained from studying languages. This includes analytical and problem solving skills, the ability to communicate well (also in your first language), and committing yourself to a long-term project.
When asked what might put young people off studying a language and why they think there are not more language learners in the UK, many referred to the lack of engagement with cultural aspects – such as history, politics, society or literature – in language classes. They also spoke of the myth of English being the only language you need, poor handling of languages in the British education system, and the lack of governmental initiatives to promote the study of languages.
To get more people excited about languages then, there needs to be a rethink of the way in which they are promoted and embedded into the curriculum. And there must be more focus on enjoyment and intercultural competence and more cultural engagement and “real-life” tasks.
This is important, because studying a language is not just about enhancing your CV and adding something useful to your skills set. It is also about embracing other cultures, developing intercultural competence, enjoying languages as an exciting object of study, and reflecting on your own national and cultural identity.
The government should also recognise the importance of languages and rethink the value placed on foreign language competency in the British education system. A national policy on languages could help to address attitudes towards languages and further promote joined up thinking across the different education sectors.