Modern foreign languages are not in crisis. It’s worse than that

UK language skills have succumbed to a complex pattern of long-term decline. Only a national strategy can fix things

January 13, 2020
Photo: Sascha Steinach/DPA/PA Images
Photo: Sascha Steinach/DPA/PA Images

Only around one-in-three (32 per cent) young Brits can read and write in a second language, compared to 99 per cent of young Danes. The UK figure is streets behind the numbers for every other EU member. In fact, it is less than half the number for the second-worst country (Hungary on 71 per cent). The figures include people who speak a second language at home—so far fewer than 32 per cent have learnt another language successfully at school.

So a new report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI)sets out to explore whether the UK is facing a “language crisis.” The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is no. But that is only because “crisis” is a Greek word meaning a decisive, climactic moment of adversity. Sadly, when it comes to languages, the UK faces something even worse: a gradual and complex pattern of long-term decline.

If a single event had been to blame, it would have been the Blair government’s decision to scrap the requirement for pupils to take a compulsory language GCSE in 2004. Since 2002, GCSE entries for French have declined by 63 per cent and for German they have declined by 67 per cent. As a result, the pipeline for higher-level study has been drying up.

Yet, while the decision to make languages voluntary from age 14 was bad, our general inability to speak other languages has no single cause. After all, it is not as if we had the benefits of living in a lively multilingual society before 2004. A-Level entries were already falling at the time of the change.

One pressing challenge is that the supply of foreign language skills has been falling just when the demand for languages other than English is becoming greater, thanks to the rise of Asia and now the cultural and political implications of Brexit.

A post-Brexit UK should open itself up to deeper interaction with countries right across the world. We cannot achieve the latter if we simply expect everyone else to speak English, with the mindset of an imperial officer from another age.

And the benefits of learning a language are far from just economic. Our new report cites evidence showing language learning teaches people to engage sensitively with other cultures, and that preserving and using different languages facilitates the appreciation of unique heritages. These benefits are true for modern foreign languages but also ancient languages as well as non-verbal sign languages. Evidence from scientific studies even suggests language learning at any level has a positive impact on the long-term health of the brain.

So what should be done? Because the causes of the decline in language learning are complex, there is no magic cure. You cannot even flick the switch back and make GCSE languages compulsory again—at least not easily, because there is nothing like the number of experienced teachers available.

Instead, we need a multi-layered national strategy of the sort that the British Academy and Universities UK have been calling for. As part of this, school languages curricula need to become more enticing. While there does need to be a stronger expectation on younger teenagers to study a language, this need not mean forcing all them through a GCSE sausage machine, but instead offering a variety of optional qualifications. For older teenagers, there could be a broader sixth-form curriculum, with more room for languages alongside other subjects, as in other countries. We also need to improve the supply of skilled instructors by adding language teaching to the Home Office’s Shortage Occupation List.

In higher education, we need more direct financial support for foreign languages that are under threat. The nature of language courses—which necessitate high contact hours, small groups and specialist teaching—justifies this, as does the urgency of safeguarding minority languages. Such additional funding would also support higher education provision of additional language learning for students and staff from other subject areas, as already happens at more enlightened institutions.

There are some grounds for optimism. Michael Gove’s controversial English Baccalaureate, which judges schools on their success in getting pupils to take certain core subjects, may have damaged some disciplines but it has started to reverse the decline in GCSE language learning. Some languages, most notably Spanish, have been growing in popularity recently. In Scotland, from 2021, every child is to be given the opportunity to learn a language from age four/five and a second from eight/nine. Young people are enthused by culture from around the world, whether it is K-Pop or Swedish TV dramas, which can provide a gateway to a love of other languages.

Yet change will not happen organically; we need a clear lead from policymakers. And, if we don’t change course soon—when we are standing on the cusp of Brexit, when we have the first government with a clear majority for a decade and the first linguist prime minister for half a century—it seems hard to imagine when we will.

Megan Bowler is a third-year Classics student at the University of Oxford and author of A Languages Crisis? (HEPI, 2020)Nick Hillman is the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.