Can the UK rejuvenate language learning?

Not many commentators would call the UK a world-renowned hub of modern language learning. In fact, the British school system has been accused of allowing the study of subjects like French, German and Spanish to decline almost to the point of extinction, with pupil numbers at GCSE and A-level having fallen dramatically in the past decade alone.

Now, a group of MPs and peers has come to the conclusion that the outlook is so grim it warrants a “national recovery programme” to rejuvenate the study of modern languages in the UK, putting the country back on track to reap the economic and cultural benefits of linguistic ability.

To this end, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Modern Languages launched a new manifesto on Monday (July 14th) that calls on the next UK government to outline a concrete commitment to such a programme. The document has won the support of a wide range of stakeholders, among them the British Council, the British Chambers of Commerce, the British Academy, the Association of School and College Leaders, and even HSBC and UBS.

Will their voices be heard? The manifesto makes a compelling case for improving language learning in UK schools, but likewise, the challenges of promoting the uptake of languages at GCSE and A-level are well-documented.

Why does the UK need modern languages?

According to the APPG, the UK’s blase attitude towards language learning is more than just a matter of embarrassment for the country on the international stage. The group claims it’s also costing us deep in the purse, because without language skills, British businesses often end up losing contracts to companies from countries with multilingual labour forces.

When she announced the launch of the manifesto this week, Baroness Coussins – chair of the APPG – pegged the price of our national language-learning sloth at £50 billion per year. She added that it isn’t export-driven businesses alone that suffer, but also those that might otherwise make the most of the diverse immigrant communities here at home. Apparently, more than a quarter (27 per cent) of admin and clerical positions advertised in 2011 went unfilled because of the languages deficit.

“The next government will need to take clear, urgent and coherent action to upgrade the UK’s foreign language skills,” she argued. “Otherwise our young people will continue to fall behind their European and global peers in education and employability; our export growth will be stunted; our international reputation will suffer and our security, defence and diplomacy needs will be compromised.”

What can be done?

The government has been quick to respond to the manifesto. Speaking to the BBC, one Department for Education spokesperson insisted work is underway to address the imbalance, with £350,000 earmarked to help primary and secondary schools improve their teaching of languages.

It will also become compulsory for children to learn a foreign language between the ages of seven and 14 – a move the spokesperson said was “supported by 91% of respondents to our consultation on languages in primary schools”.

There’s no doubt, however, that the country has a lot of work to do in this regard. According to European Commission figures, fewer than one in ten UK 15-year-olds (9%) are competent in a foreign language, compared with an average of 42% across 14 other EU countries. For further education, the figures are equally discouraging – the number of A-level students who take modern languages subjects has fallen by 18 per cent since 2008, a recent report from the Joint Council for Qualifications shows.

Perhaps one of the most important things the government needs to achieve is to demonstrate to youngsters that even while English remains a de facto global language for business, learning a second language can provide substantial benefits in all walks of life.

To quote the British Council’s John Worne, who spoke out in support of the manifesto: “Even a few words can make all the difference for travel, work and leisure – and that’s really important for the UK’s economy, trade and international standing.”

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