The continuing decline of languages in education

Figures released last week on GCSE examination results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland show a continuing decline in the popularity of languages in schools. For the past few years the number of students taking French and German has been in steep decline, and this trend has now also affected Spanish. Perhaps unexpectedly, religious studies is now the most popular of the traditional humanities subjects, followed by history.

What should one make of this? Despite regular warnings that fluency in languages supports international trade and gives a better understanding of global cultures, students are continuing to move away from language learning. This is a trend replicated across much of the English speaking world, while in other countries the learning of English and, to a lesser but growing extent, Asian languages such as Mandarin Chinese is becoming more popular.

In a world where English is becoming more entrenched as the language of business this may not seem to matter very much, but considering the complexities of multiculturalism and the importance of understanding and cultural awareness the decline of language learning should be a cause for concern. There is also a need to develop the menu of available languages, notwithstanding the cost.

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30 Comments on “The continuing decline of languages in education”

  1. no-name Says:

    Is it possible that the change in demographics of travellers accompanying the rise of low-fare airlines has increased the possibilities for monoglots to travel in the company of other monoglots and to be entertained abroad without needing other languages? Perhaps such travel has decreased the visible advantages of having fluency in other languages.

  2. Helen Finch Says:

    There is a perception on the part of Anglophone governments and students alike that languages are a) irrelevant, because ‘everyone speaks English anyway’ if you shout loud enough, and b) too much like hard work. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the fewer people speak modern foreign languages, the less Anglophones engage deeply with the non-Anglophone world around them, so the less need and opportunity they see for foreign languages.

  3. Vincent Says:

    It may well be that the kids are picking up on that economic jingoism that has been so much a part of the last few years. What Irish or UK kid is going to think they will get a welcome in Germany or France.

  4. When I was a kid I used to think that Esperanto was a great idea. Now I know it will never work because most people around the world would prefer to speak English rather than Esperanto.

    I did very well in German at school but have never used it. Not even in Germany where everyone wanted to speak English to me.

    In school it was compulsory for me to study 3 languages but no science subjects. Perhaps the idea was that it was more important to speak well that to be able to think well.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      Brian, I appreciate that your background is in engeneering but to imply that learning a language has nothing to do with ‘thinking well’ as you put it, is preposterous!

    • Aidan Says:

      “I did very well in German at school but have never used it.”

      I didn’t take German at school but I learned it as an adult through the Goethe Institut and then while working in Germany for a time.
      Even when my German was poor I always found that German people allowed me to speak their language and only spoke English when I asked for translations.
      Nowadays I read German regularly as I have a subscription to Deutsch Perfekt and I read one or two German novels per year. I speak it every now and again to German colleagues and when I visit Germany.
      To be honest there are countless opportunities to use German actively or passively. It’s a pity if you chose not to use it after school but with the internet and the diffusion of German speakers worldwide there really is no lack of opportunities.

      • Sure there are lots of opportunities to use German and I have no objection to using it. But I have no interest in using it for its own sake. I need a reason.

        • Aidan Says:

          Sure, if you weren’t interested in taking it further then I can understand that. My main point is that language education doesn’t have to stop when you leave school. Indeed it is a lifetime’s work to achieve and maintain fluency in other tongues. You either use it or you lose it.

          • But Aidan, I’m concerned about the sheer number of hours I spent in secondary school learning languages when I could have been studying philosophy and psychology. (I use The Simpsons as a vehicle for this with my own kids)

          • Aidan Says:

            I can see your point about the hours spent learning languages. In particular Irish children spend too many hours learning Irish rather than just using it. I regret all the hours I had to spend learning through English instead of Irish. In my ideal world I would have gone to a Gaelscoil and learned English in same way as I learned Irish. My French teacher only ever spoke French and was good so that would stay the same.
            We can all go back to our past with a wish list but we are where we are. The school syllabus at any given time reflects what the contemporary society thinks is important. In retrospect much of what I learned has not been used but I did leave school with the skills to learn more so that it was possible to get engineering and business degrees and acquire other languages. Indeed I am doing an OU degree in English now.
            I was lucky enough to have an education that laid the foundations to enable me learn how to learn. In terms of language acquisition abilities those skills are sorely lacking amongst many English speakers leaving school these days.

  5. Dave Says:

    ‘Why are we so surprised?

    This is as much about how we are squeezing the school curriculum so tightly there’s no room for discretionary study. And how many of us on our travels to Greece have actually heard UK tourists seriously try to converse in Greek anyway? “Others speak English so why bother” misses the point of a rich learning opportunity that goes beyond language

    For me at least, it is self evident that in learning a language to any serious extent you also must engage in/or take from it an understanding of the history, culture and values of the society in which that language developed and exists. For this reason, only deep study of a language has lasting value, which is why so many fail to use the learnt language after leaving School.

    Deep learning requires it to be seen as a priority not solely discretionary and to be seen as more than just learning a language. And neither of these conditions have much chance of co-existing for the moment.

    Perhaps, if it is to be truly seen as a producer of global students in a global world, your RGU might take the bold step of at least making available a wide range of ‘language and its culture’ tuition – perhaps in partnership with Aberdeen College who have recently been cutting back on their lanaguage offerings – as your contribution to putting language back on the map again!

  6. Even when studying English, which was just bearable, I found very little encouragement for clear thinking. In Irish and german it was non-existent. As teenagers a few of us nerds use to talk philosophy but it was mostly inspired from science (and possibly science fiction) which more directly addressed the nature of our existence.

    To be fair, it could have been the quality of the teaching (Although I was at a fee paying school). I have read a lot of fiction, philosophy and psychology since and learned a lot about the human condition, but other than teaching me to read, the contribution of languages at school was minimal.

    Studying language probably should encourage us to think well, but does it.

  7. brian t Says:

    A couple of years ago, all the concerns were about declining numbers of students taking Maths and Science subjects, and now we have Schools Minister Nick Gibb saying “While it is encouraging to see the rising uptake in maths and single sciences, it is worrying that once again there are falling numbers studying languages.”

    Well, what does he expect? You push down on one side of the see-saw, the other side rises. Next year he’ll be complaining about a decline in the numbers studying History.

    When you encourage people to learn a foreign language, the next question is: which language? Pick one – that’s all you get at that level. What if it’s the “wrong” language for the future global economy? Then all the time spent on it was wasted – and don’t give me that woolly nonsense about “critical thinking”: you can develop those with any subject if it’s taught in an appropriate manner.

  8. Niall Says:

    I learnt French, German, Irish & Latin in school and enjoyed it – particularly French & German. Languages and their cultures help us to understand that not everyone thinks or sees the world in the same way. I lived in a Francophone country for 2 years. It was a struggle at first with Leaving Cert French… but I managed. Schooling needs to be accompanied by or followed by immersion, otherwise all is forgotten. Understanding French helps me understand Spanish, Italian & Portuguese which I never learnt – countries incidentally where many people do not speak any English.

    I’ve heard ‘everyone wanted to speak English to me’ before but maybe they just perceive that you can’t or don’t want to speak their language. Try telling them you want to speak German and answer their English with your German. This should work socially if not in a professional context.

  9. Al Says:

    Surely common day usage should be the priority.
    But no, everyone has to read poetry and prose etc
    As opposed to speaking a language semi competently.

  10. Aidan Says:

    Speaking from a Dutch vantage point the trend here is for English to become ever more dominant but Spanish has gained massively in popularity too. Unfortunately the level of German in NL has suffered which is bad news as Germany is the country’s main trading partner.
    Having said that though the attitude of Dutch people is totally different to the normal Irish attitude. When a Dutch person has learned a language they are normally keen on using it. If you think any Dutch footballer playing internationally he will generally speak the language of the country he is playing in. It’s the same with Dutch models. They all hear the same message from a young age ‘je moet je talen hebben’ (‘you have to have your languages’). Dutch people know how to learn and use other languages.
    Unfortunately Irish people don’t seem to grasp this too often. They think in terms of having to learn a ‘useful’ language. The thing is that learning Irish and French was useful even though I don’t use those languages daily. Having two languages to an okay level helped me understand what languages are and made it much easier to learn subsequent languages.
    The fact is that Dutch and Polish are the languages I need the most for my own life along with my mother tongue English. I could never have predicted this at school. At the time I went to school Japanese and German were deemed ‘useful’ but now Chinese and Spanish have stolen that crown.
    Nobody speaks a language fluently when they leave school unless they spent extended periods in immersion environments. If children leave school knowing how to learn other languages with some practical experience and understanding something about linguistics that would be enough.
    Unfortunately too many English speaking children leave school with no skills in this area. In Holland I know countless English speakers who have lived here for years but cannot speak Dutch even though it is perhaps the easiest language for an English speaker to acquire. They don’t see any issue but I can’t understand how anybody can live in a country and not have a clue what is going on around them.

  11. Maybe we should drop foreign languages from secondary and then learn them as we need them as many of the contributors here have said that they have done. To be honest, this could be said for much of the training that is posing as education. Let’s learn to learn.

    • Treasa Says:

      Maybe you’re being facetious here – it’s often hard to tell through text only but frankly, suggestions like this are counterproductive as they are very clearly kneejerk reaction. Before taking decisions of this nature, or even making decisions of this nature, a wider debate on the future requirements of an education system in terms of output should be had.

      However, it doesn’t look to me – sorry Ferdinand – that the UK is even close to understanding this given Michael Gove’s Free schools policy.

  12. Anna Notaro Says:

    An interesting article on THE of 21 October 2010 on this topic which rehearses some of the arguments so far adding new, Article in full:

    During my research for the Review of Modern Foreign Languages Provision in Higher Education in England, I discovered a community that feels itself vulnerable and beleaguered to the point of being in a crisis of confidence.

    Now, a year on, things seem to be, if anything, even worse for modern languages in universities. More universities are restructuring their language departments, often cutting posts and reducing the number of degrees in languages that they offer.

    Reasons given for this are that numbers are insufficient to sustain the departments as they are and/or the fall in research funding to language departments after the last research assessment exercise has rendered them non-viable in their current state.

    The recent GCSE results reveal that French has dropped out of the top 10 of GCSE subjects for the first time that anyone can remember, with German down as well.

    Some languages have seen increases, such as Mandarin and Portuguese, but the numbers taking these subjects remain small.

    At A level, there has been another drop for French, German and other languages. Although there was a small increase of 4 per cent for Spanish, the number of candidates taking language A levels overall is down for yet another year.

    Pre-1992 universities, mainly members of the Russell Group, continue to attract significant numbers of applications to study languages, but they are not seeing the increase in applications that many other subjects are seeing and they, too, are engaging in various forms of restructuring and downsizing.

    Also, and worryingly, it would seem that a class divide is opening up; the National Centre for Languages’ CILT Language Trends figures for 2009 note that last year 41 per cent of comprehensive school pupils at Key Stage 4 were entered for a modern language, compared with 91 per cent of selective school pupils and 81 per cent of independent school pupils.

    Furthermore, there is now increasing talk of market failure and how to address it – and talk of who should address it, whether it is the government, employers or the educational sector itself.

    One of the problems with languages is that for the past decade there has been a distinct lack of joined-up thinking about the value and place of modern languages in the UK today, with employers making different arguments from those of government, which are themselves often different from those of educators and researchers.

    One of the recommendations of my report was that there should be a national forum of all stakeholders that would work together to provide a clear and compelling identity for the study of and research into languages in the highly competitive world of the globalised 21st century. This forum was set up and was co-chaired by David Lammy, then minister for higher education, and Diana Johnson, then parliamentary undersecretary of state for schools. The forum did good work, but its future under the coalition government looks very uncertain.

    We need to continue to engage in advocacy for languages, and, crucially, we need to move beyond the defensive arguments about languages that tend to dominate debate at present, and move into proactive positive arguments about their value.

    At the heart of this must unashamedly be the argument that intercultural competence is not only one of the essential skills for modern life and work, but is in itself exciting, pleasurable and rewarding.

    Much is rightly made today of the importance of helping all of our young people to become global citizens, by which we mean that they will learn to think in new, critical and creative ways; that they will be committed to ethical and socially responsible behaviour; that they will be ready to embrace professional mobility; that they will assume leadership roles, sometimes very locally within the family or a group of friends and sometimes nationally or even internationally; that they will embrace entrepreneurship and embrace and develop their own ability to innovate; and, crucially, that they will be not only sensitive to cultural difference, but also able to appreciate and mobilise its value in intellectual and social contexts.

    This is a new form of citizenship that has no global governing body, but whose importance is recognised by many national and regional governments. Global citizenship is marked by a sense of responsibility, both individual and collective, and by a commitment to living in and with difference, in all of its complexity, ambiguity and challenge. This is the fundamental reason why we should encourage as many people as possible, both young and old, to learn a language, since this involves encounters and learning about a different culture as well as a different linguistic system, and thereby enables an understanding of just how much sameness and difference are bound up together and define each other. Without some knowledge of another language, we remain locked into a single system.

    All too often, people talk about how difficult it is to learn a language, projecting on to children and young people an assumption that has no basis in reality. Almost every living human acquires his or her own native language – and we acquire this essential skill of communicating linguistically in many different ways. We also all learn rapidly to enjoy and play with languages, be it through jokes, puns, euphemisms or exaggerations, borrowing foreign words that seem to us appropriate (even if we use them wrongly), and creating new forms of our own native language when texting or using social networking tools. This pleasure in learning to use and creatively manipulate language is always latently with us – and is one reason why the study of literature and other cultural expressions is so vital, since it reveals to us a different culture in its fullest creative complexity as well as often in its most playful and joyful form.

    To learn another language is, quite simply and profoundly, one of the best ways of learning to recognise the world and to see how others and otherness inhabit it. It is an education in difference as a pathway to understanding how to contribute to integration and fellowship (or global citizenship). This is why universities have a vital role to play and should act urgently and boldly, taking on the responsibility of leadership that other bodies seem unable to do. Of course, we need to accept that not all universities will be able to offer the traditional languages in the future. However, this need not sound a death knell for language teaching and research in universities, as long as we take a strategic view of the way forward.

    All universities should recognise and promote the importance of foreign language study for undergraduate education, but this will not be achieved by expecting universities to continue to teach the languages that they have done in the past or indeed to teach languages in the ways they have done in the past, nor by focusing exclusively on the creation of specialist linguists and cultural experts. Across the sector, although not necessarily in every single university, we need to continue to provide for specialist training in foreign languages in ways that are sustainable and that also ensure that all students can continue with (or start) a language programme, regardless of their discipline. There is clear evidence that students will want to study languages in joint degrees or in degrees that come “with languages”. Diversity of provision across the sector is both necessary and inevitable, but it needs to be underpinned by a shared commitment to the importance of languages for all.

    The insightful cultural commentator Timothy Radcliffe has described universities as “places of resistance to the imperialism of the single vision”, memorably stating that “universities should be places where we learn to speak with strangers”. This is surely one of the noblest (and most urgent) missions of universities today: to facilitate intellectual and scientific debate and to promote active tolerance, which is an ongoing and often difficult process, rather than a simple passive state of well-intentioned liberalism. In this mission the role of other languages, other cultures and other times has a key role. It is up to universities to give a lead.

    My own institution, University College London, has recognised the centrality of languages and intercultural competence in 21st-century education and is therefore introducing from 2012 a requirement that every applicant should have a qualification of at least GCSE level in a foreign language, whatever degree programme they follow.

    Gradually, other universities are recognising this centrality, often by introducing for their students an entitlement to study a foreign language, whatever the degree programme.

    There are many ways forward, and each university must choose one that is consonant with its own particular mission.

    However, even in the difficult financial days that lie ahead, it is important that universities have the wisdom, the insight and above all the courage to invest in modern language education.

    The case for modern languages in universities has never been more compelling, but it must be adapted and articulated differently for the 21st-century context. Our universities have the scholarly capital, the intellectual capacity and the moral responsibility to ensure that the 21st century is indeed a century of global citizenship where differences are not only celebrated but understood. Do we have the courage to do so? I hope with all my heart that we do.

    • Aidan Says:

      Unfortunately it is very hard to convey the cultural benefits of having other languages to monoglots. It’s like trying to describe colour to somebody who can only see in black and white.
      “The more languages you speak the more people you can become.” (“Paris Trance” by Geoff Dyer)
      The focus is always put on the economic value of speaking another language and leads to the simple conclusion that English is the only language that you need to know.

  13. Treasa Says:

    If you commoditise education, then it is hardly surprising a consumer aspect starts to impact on the decisions that people make in education.

    A key contributor to the decline in language learning in the UK – specifically England and Wales system (I believe the system in Scotland is still a little different) was a government decision to make language study optional. Languages are not necessarily that easy (I’d venture to guess that the effort required for religious studies is somewhat less than the effort required for language studies) and the return on effort is not always deemed by the average teenager to be worth it. The same has happened with higher level maths in Ireland which is why changes were made to the points system to make it more attractive to get lower grades in HL maths rather than slipping back to ordinary level.

    An additional problem is that economically, language skills are massively undervalued in Anglo-Saxon countries. I have had any number of people tell me that language skills are attractive but even now, when I see recruitment agencies tell me how attractive they are, they are rarely, if ever, backed up by any salary benefits. I’d have to say I’ve never seen any economic benefit in being able to speak a couple of foreign languages as long as I have been living in either Ireland or the UK. Put simply, the market decides that it is of no benefit, probably because the market in other countries has decided that a decent command of English is of major benefit.

    In that respect, given the tendency to try and maximise return and minimise effort, it doesn’t surprise me that languages aren’t scoring highly in the desirability front at an individual level. You could call it laziness – I mean as far as Ireland is concerned, it’s not like they’re putting the effort into higher level mathematics either.

    I speak fluent French and German by way of a declaration of interest by the way.

    • Aidan Says:

      Great point. I have never had any economic benefit from speaking other languages. In fact I think that it could even be disadvantageous to include too many languages on your CV in the same way as having too many degrees leads to suspicion. I don’t normally put Irish on my CV because it led to an awkward discussion one time when the interviewer questioned if it was a ‘real’ language 😉

  14. don Says:

    Hey, I think the main point of learning a language (any language) is that one wants to better understand and interact with the culture that supports that language. If people like Brian, above, think that languages are a waste of (his) time that’s fine, but to discount languages as being for those who, as he puts it, want ‘to speak well that to be able to think well’ (sic) shows a basic misconception of what using a language is all about. Let’s get children really interested in the cultures of other countries and they will want to discover more about that culture, and language is the principal tool for such meaningful discovery.

    • So I can spend 5 years learning German, go and learn about one other culture and then go to Asia and realise that the remarkable thing about German culture is that it is so similar to our own and the more distant ones are far more more interesting for that reason. I’m interested in more than one or two cultures in the world, so I’m going to have to find a more efficient way of satisfying that interest.

  15. no-name Says:

    “Customer Service, Call Centres and Languages”.

    That is the category in which one must search for a job in the Irish Times if, for example, one has spent several years in university becoming a polyglot. And one wonders why young people are reluctant to spend time and money on such courses? Many would evidently prefer to have Dilbert’s job, this year.

  16. John Carter Says:

    Is there also a decline in language?

    • anna notaro Says:

      there is a very interesting implication in your question John, which connects the decline of modern languages in education with a decline in language education per se, meaning by that not only questions of grammar – recently discussed in a previous post – but i would say a general disregard for the complexities of language, and this at a time when language is at its most transformative, given the impact that digital technologies are having on its everyday would be a big mistake to take ‘language’ for granted…

      • John Carter Says:

        I do take language for granted. It’s its good, clear use that I’m worried about, particularly among academics and journalists, who so often substitute the sound bite (or the quote) for reasoned argument.

        As for ‘foreign’ languages, I try to keep them up as a way of improving my English.

        I think it’s also possible to contribute to the development of the language – you might have noticed my frequent use of the dash – it does a little bit more than the semi-colon I think. I also invent new words for fun and profit.

      • John Carter Says:

        Regarding the complexities of language, I’m a great admirer of those who understand enough of it to be able to simplify it.

        Of course in the realm of the modern novel, poetry, street language etc., one is happy to let all that slip.

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