UK language skills have succumbed to a complex pattern of long-term decline. Only a national strategy can fix thingsby Megan Bowler, Nick Hillman / January 13, 2020 / Leave a comment
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…